San Francisco and Berkeley voters may oppose the Iraq war, but the
oak-studded hillside suburb of Lafayette has taken center stage among Bay Area
war protests thanks to an emotional debate over a highly visible memorial to
U.S. soldiers killed in the conflict.
The sign on Louise Clark's Lafayette property calling attention to the U.S. troops killed in Iraq has provoked heated reactions. Chronicle photo by David Paul Morris
Lafayette is known more for pricey homes and good schools than
left-leaning politics, but its civic temperature suddenly rose several degrees
after 300 crosses were erected a week ago on a privately owned hillside near
the Lafayette BART Station. The crosses are accompanied by a large sign
reading, "In Memory of 2,839 U.S. Troops Killed In Iraq."
"Some are very strongly opposed, others favor it," City Councilman Don
Tatzin said Friday. "It has put some people on edge, particularly those who
have sons or other loved ones in the military. They view these crosses as a
sign of disrespect and not as a sign of respect, and it's also a reminder of
what might happen to their loved ones."
After one angry motorist got out of her car and knocked the sign down,
city officials told the memorial's builders to remove the sign because it
violated local zoning laws. But the group has kept the sign in place -- and
on Sunday added 120 crosses.
"It's certainly a topic of conversation," Tatzin added with a wry smile in
an interview at his home near the memorial.
"We've been accused of being political, but the sign isn't political,"
said memorial leader Jeff Heaton, 53, a general contractor and a lifelong
resident of Lafayette. "It's a statement of fact."
The memorial is seen by thousands of commuters and others who drive along
Highway 24 and take BART through Lafayette, a largely bedroom community nestled
between Berkeley and Walnut Creek. The City Council plans to discuss the sign
and allow residents to voice their opinions about the issue at its Nov. 27
"What we're trying to do is remind people there are lives being lost,
families being devastated," Heaton said, referring to the Bush administration's
restrictions on images of dead U.S. soldiers and their coffins. "Because it's
against the president's edict to show a funeral on television and show bodies
coming off an airplane."
Drivers on Highway 24 and BART riders can easily see the memorial, which is on private property near the Lafayette Station. Chronicle photo by Paul Chinn
Heaton acknowledged that everyone who planted the simple white crosses --
along with a handful of Islamic crescents and Jewish Stars of David --
opposes the war. But he said it's primarily a solemn salute to U.S. servicemen
He noted that the memorial contains no verbal or visual attack on the Bush
administration, and he said he hopes passers-by see it as honoring those who
have died, regardless of their view on the war.
City officials initially told the group that normal signage rules would
not apply to the memorial, but later decided the rules did apply and asked the
memorial sponsors to remove the sign or install a smaller one by today.
If the owners of the land fail to remove the sign, they will be issued a
citation, which they could appeal to the city's code enforcement appeals board
and ultimately to the City Council. Lafayette Mayor Ivor Samson said he
supports the First Amendment right to express political views, but officials
have determined that the sign violates the city sign ordinance.
"We just want to make sure that everyone's legal rights are protected,"
Property owner Louise Clark said the sign is an important part of the
memorial and believes it should be allowed to remain, but will take it down if
the city ultimately rules against her group.
Clark said she and Heaton tried to build a smaller memorial about three
years ago when U.S. soldiers began dying in the Iraq conflict.
"We tried to put up 15 crosses, and someone took them down that night,"
said Clark. "They gave their lives for us. I feel they need a memorial."
Several U.S. cities have debated and passed resolutions denouncing the
war, and on Nov. 7 Berkeley and San Francisco voters approved measures calling
for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Lafayette's City Council held a hearing on the war shortly before the
U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to allow citizens to voice their opinions but did not
take a position. Transcripts of the hearing were sent to members of Congress
and the White House.
The makeshift wooden markers have given a hard edge to Lafayette's debate
over the war. Handyman Mike Kerr of Bay Point, who restored the sign a few
hours after it was torn down, said it should stay.
"The sign's important because otherwise it's just a bunch of crosses, and
that could mean anything to anybody," said Kerr, 57, a member of the memorial
group. "A lot of people have been brainwashed into thinking that supporting the
troops and supporting the military means supporting the war, and that's not
true at all."
In addition to the woman who knocked down the sign, others have sent angry
e-mails and phone calls to local politicians and held animated discussions with
taxicab drivers on their way to the BART station.
"I hear people talk about it from the taxi to the train," said Connie
Abram, 46, who works at a Lafayette beauty salon and lives in Benicia. "I don't
think putting it up there hurts people. You need a constant reminder of what is
Jane Walter of Walnut Creek said such protests should be happening all
over the country.
"I think that the people that died over there deserve more than just a
cross on a hill," said San Francisco resident Hugo Jerez, 58, who had just
gotten off BART Friday to play pool at his brother's house.
Carolyn McCormack, visiting from Oregon with her fiance and his family,
said the memorial debate "definitely got the family talking."
"Have we been there too long? Have we lost too many lives?" McCormack, 42,
said of the discussions at the home of her future in-laws. "It's very
interesting to see this kind of display. Where I live, it's a small town.
People talk about it, but don't put on these kinds of displays."
Chronicle staff writer Delfin Vigil contributed to this report.
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle