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WAR WITH IRAQ

Red Faces Over Yellow Ribbons

March 29, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

All Brenda Freeman wanted was to follow the 1973 injunction of singer Tony Orlando and tie a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree.

All she got after decking out a few hundred trees in Thousand Oaks was a few hundred feet of cut-up yellow ribbon returned to her by regretful employees of the city's Public Works Department.

That her 18-year-old son Eric is a Marine in Iraq made no difference; Freeman and the five friends who helped her with the ribbon had run afoul of city rules forbidding garage sale signs, weight-loss advisories and just about everything else on trees in what is called a public right of way.

After angry residents jammed City Hall telephone lines and harangued their council members Friday, the city backed off.

Freeman received an apology from Mayor Andy Fox, who blamed the de-ribboning on bad judgment by an overzealous city employee.

This morning, Freeman plans to again tie ribbons 'round the trees along a three-mile stretch of leafy Lynn Road, confident that liberty will prevail over code enforcement.

"I feel great about the city," she said after her call from the mayor and cries of, "You go, girl!" from scads of friends and neighbors.

"I feel they're definitely in support of our troops," she said.

It was about dawn Thursday that Freeman and her friends, including Ventura County Republican Assembly President Mike Robinson, descended on the landscaped median of Lynn Road, a busy link to the Ventura Freeway.

The previous day, Freeman said, she had called City Hall, described her plan, and asked if she needed a permit. Not at all, it sounds like a wonderful idea, said a woman whose name Freeman didn't get.

That was also the reaction of joggers, dog walkers and motorists early Thursday, said Freeman, the mother of five children ranging in age from 9 to 22 years.

"One woman came up, said her brother was over there and asked if she could tie a ribbon on one of the trees," Freeman said.

"Another with a nephew in the Marines was in tears and told us how glad she was that we were doing this."

Commuters honked in approval on their way to work. But later as they headed home, city crews were undoing the golden bows and removing the ribbons from the trees.

A few residents had complained, said Deputy City Manager Scott Mitnick, who explained that a city ordinance prohibits "the placement of signs, billboards, placards, ribbons, you name it, in a public right of way."

With Thursday's stiff winds, officials decided that blowing ribbons could also be a safety hazard, Mitnick said.

While making dinner at home, Freeman got a call from someone who saw the ribbons being removed and rushed over to Lynn Road.

"The crew felt really bad," Freeman said Friday.

"Their supervisor was a Vietnam veteran, and the last thing he wanted to do was take the ribbons down. But they did it really nicely and today returned them to me," she said.

In the meantime, however, word of the removal spread and residents of largely conservative Thousand Oaks hit the boiling point.

Some accused city officials of pigheaded devotion to arcane ordinances; others perceived a thinly veiled opposition to the war.

Robinson, the local Republican Party official who helped put up the ribbons, issued a press release criticizing the city's "reprehensible act of cowardice" and "shameful display of disregard for American troops serving in Iraq."

Even in a city where political rhetoric runs to the extreme, things were getting out of hand. A City Council member for five years, Dennis Gillette said he hadn't seen such a local public eruption "in recent history."

Officials even felt compelled to issue a statement under the headline: "City of Thousand Oaks Supports United States Troops."

On Friday, the mayor said city employees "didn't give enough thought to the symbolic nature of the ribbons and the unique times we're in as a country."

The city itself displays yellow ribbons around oak trees outside its library and the Civic Arts Plaza. Officials also have them arranged prominently in City Hall.

Fox also said he assured Freeman that "public works folks will have many important things to do over the next few weeks and likely won't be addressing ribbons on trees."

If that suggests selective enforcement of city codes, the mayor didn't appear bothered by it.

"We don't find ourselves at war very often," Fox said.

"Virtually everyone I've talked to understands that the ribbons aren't a statement for or against military conflict. They're just designed to say that we want men and women in the military to come home safely."

Folklore experts have a difficult time pinning down the origins of the practice.

Americans broke out yellow ribbons for the hostages in Iran after one of their wives suggested it during a TV broadcast outside her home in Bethesda, Md.

"It just came to me," said Penelope Laingen in a later interview, "to give people something to do."

In Thousand Oaks, Brenda Freeman was moved by much the same impulse.

"I was just sitting around worrying," Freeman said. "I wanted to do something to make myself feel less stressed."

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