Iraq memorial causes a talk in quiet Calif. suburb

December 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

LAFAYETTE, Calif. --The tranquil suburb of Lafayette hardly seems the most likely place in the Bay Area for a battle over the war in Iraq. Liberal Berkeley is just over the hill, and nearby San Francisco is always spoiling for a fight.

But over the last few weeks, it is Lafayette - an affluent bedroom community 20 miles east of downtown San Francisco - that has become the scene of a passionate debate over the place of political speech in suburbia.

At issue is a hillside memorial made up of some 450 small white crosses and a 5-by-16-foot sign that reads: "In Memory of 2,867 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq."

The memorial was created by Jeff Heaton, a building contractor and anti-war activist, who said it was meant "to get people involved on a local level" and talking about Iraq.

Sure enough, people have become involved. More than 200 people and a half-dozen television news crews and reporters crammed into the usually sparsely attended City Council meeting last week to voice their opinions. While many said they found the memorial deeply moving, others called it unpatriotic, disrespectful or just plain ugly.

That camp included Jean Bonadio, a former Marine sergeant who said she was so offended she climbed the hill to dismantle the memorial, which sits on private property. "My first reaction was, `What a disgrace to those who have sacrificed,'" said Bonadio, 53, a dog trainer. "I had no tools with me, so I removed it with my bare hands and feet."

The sign was repaired, but Bonadio is not the only one trying to take it down.

Shortly after the memorial was erected, the city government told Heaton to remove the sign, citing a municipal code forbidding anything larger than 4 square feet to be posted on private property.

Mayor Ivor Samson denies suggestions by some supporters of the memorial that the city was engaging in censorship. "The content of the sign is not an issue," Samson said. "If the sign was that size and said `I love my mom,' it would still be in violation."

Heaton, 53, said, "There's been a real change in the tide of feeling about the war. It is much more acceptable now to question the reasons for the war."

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