Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lafayette Crosses: The Crosses Speak for Themselves

The AP has picked up the story of the crosses in memorial to our dead heroes in Iraq. This version is from the Fresno Bee:
Crosses memorializing Iraq dead spark free speech battle
11/29/06 12:47:29

Hundreds of white wooden crosses planted on a quiet suburban hillside have prompted a spirited debate over whether they honor or exploit the memory of troops killed in Iraq.

Jeff Heaton, who along with local peace group members started putting up the crosses in early November, sees the effort as a simple tribute.

"It seemed like it would be a touching way to make people aware of the true costs of the war," he said.

But to others, the display, on private property opposite a commuter train station and visible from the heavily traveled highway to San Francisco, is an affront that hijacks personal grief for political ends.

"I do not consider this a memorial," Lisa Disbrow, a resident of nearby Moraga who has a son preparing to serve in Iraq, said at a public hearing Monday night.

The hearing, which drew a crowd of more than 200, many of them in favor of the display, was technically not about the memorial itself, but about an accompanying sign: "In Memory of 2,867 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq."

City law limits the size of signs to 4 square feet, much smaller than the current sign which Heaton estimated at 80 square feet. The crosses aren't a problem, officials say, because city law excepts memorials and historic markers.

The council is asking city attorneys for advice on whether the sign ordinance conflicts with freedom of expression and expects to take the matter up in about a month, said Mayor Ivor Samson.

The hubbub has brought national attention to normally placid Lafayette, a city of about 24,000 that is more conservative than its liberal neighbors to the west.

"Clearly, if this had happened in San Francisco or Berkeley or Oakland this would be a dog bites man story," said Samson, a three-term mayor who is retiring from office in mid-December. "When it happens in a quiet suburban community that is generally more conservative, then it's more like man bites dog."

Samson said he does not know of any Lafayette residents killed in Iraq, although a number are serving there.

Heaton, 53, a contractor who was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, is surprised by the amount of attention, and support, the memorial has received.

He got the idea after visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington some years ago but his first attempt, in 2003, was vandalized.

The second attempt has proved more successful so far, although one passing motorist did get out of her car and take down the sign to register her opposition.

There are more than 400 crosses so far, along with other religious symbols, with plans to add more.

Heaton's not sure what he and other organizers will do if city officials enforce sign limits. It's an important part of the display, but is not necessary, he said.

"The crosses speak for themselves."

Update: The AP article has now been picked up by CNN. Michelle Locke specializes in free speech issues. Now Forbes Magazine and news outlets across the country have picked up the story. And The Guardian in England.

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