Litchfield County Times,
On the Ribbons in Litchfield, Stay Tuned
Thursday, February 11, 2010
By Daniela Forte
ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH, ASSEMBLY
LITCHFIELD—Angered residents gathered at the Litchfield Center School last week to learn how the Litchfield Borough’s Board of Warden and Burgesses would resolve the controversy over its move to ban, or limit, yellow ribbons being tied to trees on the green as a show of support for American troops. They came, they listened, and most of them left shaking their heads over another disappointment.
One Flag, Three Ribbons
In the end, the board, which oversees the green and other infrastructure in the square-mile borough, opted to embrace the display of a light blue flag that says “Support Our Troops” and lists the five branches of the military at the bottom. Also approved was the display of three ribbons on the green to signify the borough’s support of troops. The flag was given to the borough board by resident Rod McAlpin.
A PRIVATE CLUB
TO ALL PEOPLE
THE [SELF] CHOSEN FEW
“We felt what we did Wednesday night offered a nice compromise. Obviously people don’t feel comfortable with it, and we want to go back and refine it to meet the needs of the residents,” said Burgess Victoria Sansing. “We really feel at this time we need to clarify last Wednesday’s vote and get control of this issue to accommodate the needs of the community.”
Mrs. Sansing said the borough board is working to schedule a special meeting to clarify and modify last Wednesday’s vote. A date had not been set as of Wednesday.
“The reaction to the flag has been very positive; the flag itself will fly five ribbons for each branch of the service,” said Mrs. Sansing.
Residents in Litchfield have rallied against the decision by the borough board late last year ordering the removal of the yellow ribbons tied around trees. In December, the board said the ribbons had become unsightly and also had the potential to damage trees.
The borough is a square-mile district in the center of town with its own layer of government that is responsible for overseeing the green, along with sidewalks and streetlights in the center of town.
Mrs. Sansing said that one of the issues is that the green is not private property, and, unfortunately, any person can affix what they want to the trees and monuments.
ENTRUSTED TO SERVE
HELLO, IT'S TIME TO READ THE CONSTITUTION
ARE THERE BRANCHES
OF THE BURGESSES
“It’s public property entrusted to the Board of Warden and Burgesses to maintain in a fashion that is acceptable in a fair and balanced way to all the public, and therefore any individual displays should come through the borough board,” said Mrs. Sansing.
In the spring of 2003, after the war in Iraq began, resident Leslie Caron, Probate Judge Diane Blick and resident Betty Eisenhaure came up with the idea of putting ribbons on trees, accompanied by a ceremony.
Mrs. Caron, whose son Mark and his wife Dulce are serving in the Air Force, said the ribbons have been changed and maintained a couple times a year, and that she changed her own two every couple of months.
In early October of last year, the borough board said the ribbons looked shabby and took them down without notifying and of the families, Mrs. Caron has said. At a borough meeting Nov. 10, the board said the group could put up one ribbon and a controversy began that eventually drew national press attention.
“I’m not happy with the vote at all. We are still pushing to keep our five ribbons up,” Mrs. Caron said about last week’s vote.
She added that one of the burgesses agreed with resident Doug Parker’s suggestion of putting a ribbon up for each person who is stationed or deployed out of the country and then taking it down when they returned.
“I’d be more than willing to head it up and work with it,” said Mrs. Caron. “I think that the five ribbons on the trees are very important. With what our kids are sacrificing, five ribbons are nothing.”
“It’s insane,” she added of the borough’s reluctance to do the right thing and to let the controversy continue. “It’s giving the town of Litchfield a bad name.”
“I just really hope that this is resolved and resolved positively because everyone is getting tired. All we are trying to do is give special visual recognition to our service people and rightfully so,” said Mrs. Caron.
WE CAN'T HAVE THAT
THAT WOULD BE
EVEN MORE FREE EXPRESSION
One published report about last week’s meeting said borough officials were concerned that allowing many ribbons to be displayed on the green would mean that anti-war protests would also have to be allowed.
Mrs. Sansing clarified the concern by saying that if the borough board were to allow one person or one organization to have a private display that expressed a personal statement, they would have to allow everyone to do so.
“We are reminded of the Vietnam War and the negative statements that were made to soldiers coming at that time, and we just really want Litchfield’s statement to be a positive one,” said Mrs. Sansing.
She said the board has received requests for displaying 3,000 black ribbons for the victims of 9/11, or pink ribbons for breast cancer, among others.
“I don’t think people understand the pressure the burgesses are under to keep the green dignified,” said Mrs. Sansing.
Ms. Sansing said it’s very important for the center of Litchfield to handle this issue appropriately and comprehensively because of its patriotic past.
DID YOU EVER
THE BILL OF RIGHTS?
“Maybe it’s right that we are leaders in this ‘show your support’ movement as we have been in the last seven years, because we are a cradle of patriotism,” said Mrs. Sansing. “We have been remiss not to take the lead more aggressively; we should thank Mrs. Caron and her group for pointing out that we should take the lead because Litchfield is an historic town.”
Resident Laurie Parmentier said the new flag is nice, but added that people may not realize that the troops being honored are all volunteers. “Back in Vietnam you got drafted; if you didn’t want to go, you went to Canada, then you came home and got spat on,” said Ms. Parmentier, whose son, Liam Dwyer, is in the Marines.
Those joining the military now know that chances are they are either going to Iraq or Afghanistan.
MANY SOLDIERS BELIEVE
THEY HAVE FOUGHT
THE BILL OF RIGHTS
“Why can’t our community say we support the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for us,” said Ms. Parmentier. “What’s the problem with ribbons that mean so much to us.”
Ms. Parmentier added, “I just think the flag—although their intentions are good—[lacks the visual effect]. For those of us who have been through the holidays without our kid’s home, especially when you know they’re in harm’s way, you don’t get the same feeling from it.”
The population of Litchfield is 8,316 people. About 100 of them attended the recent yellow ribbon meeting. Seven of them signed up to speak; I was one of the seven.
None of the speakers were rude or unruly. All were emotionally powerful, but polite, civil and respectful. When the meeting was declared over, four audience people shouted various objections that were resonded to in a calm and respectful manner by the elected borough folks. (By the way, the borough board has a veteran and spouses of veterans on it.)
How then does the local newspaper justify a headline that says “Tempers Flare over Yellow Ribbons in Litchfield” and where did its reporter, and other reporters, hear a “shouting match” when only one side of four shouters was heard?
I guess we are in the new age of neo-journalism where the inflammatory trumps the factual. Let me set the record straight. First, Litchfield has four boroughs. (Two are unincorporated.) The Litchfield borough contains the first historic district in America. Residents pay an extra tax to the borough which is run by an elected board of burgesses charged with, among other things, the management of the Town Green.
It is notable who was not present or speaking at the borough hearing on the yellow ribbon subject. None of the town’s selectmen, Republican or Democrats, were participants. No official from the American Legion or V.F.W. participated, nor did anyone from our active armed forces.
This meeting was not about whether we should support our troops or not. Every one of the 100 present, and hopefully all 8,316 of us support our troops, including me.
Rather, the issue was how to show our support. One vocal view was that five ribbons was the only way to show our support for our troops. Frankly, the rest of us who wholeheartedly support our troops were faced with folks who pretty much were saying it was their way or the highway. That is unquestionably their right as Americans. Other Americans also have rights to their opinions. “Our way only” posturing does not bode well for effective democratic decision making, not for our community or, in the long run, for our troops.
There were many other avenues to explore in finding a resolution of this matter so that we could leave the fighting to our troops and not to their supportive community.
I had several ideas that were discussed by me with high-level military leadership. Unfortunately, both the Litchfield Borough Board and others rejected my offer of free mediation and the loud reaction by the four speakers was inevitable. How sad.
Charles D. Gill
Cool Justice Editor's Note: Gill serves as a Superior Court judge / referee.
AN HISTORIC TRADITION
IDIOCY & ARROGANCE
* BLACK SANTA
From Law & Justice
In Everyday Life
I Have Met
Lady Brickload And The Pretenders
Up the road a ways from the Litchfield town green, about 190 years ago, there lived a precocious and free-thinking girl who would make history.
She grew up to write the first American protest novel. "She is as odd as she is intelligent and studious," wrote her father, the renowned preacher, Lyman Beecher. "I would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy ..."
Harriet Beecher was 11 years old. Today, control over the legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe is fought on a fierce battleground; it's a mini civil war in a small New England town governed by town meeting. The combatants reveal the underside of small town politics. Money, influence and government by whisper of the Power Elite are lined up on one side against an upstart band of preservationists.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," shocked the reading public with its portrayal of Negroes as intelligent and caring individuals. Worse than that, the book dramatized damage done by slavery to souls of masters. It also sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies during its first week of publication, maintaining a solid pace with 300,000 sales by the end of 1852. In the entire 19th century, only the Bible sold more copies. Upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."
"She spoke for motherhood and the flag and apple pie, but made her readers uncomfortable eating that pie unless others were eating it too," wrote Stowe's biographer, Joan Hedrick of Trinity College. This message is too much for some to take.
Stowe's childhood house, used for many years as a dormitory at a private school, was slated for demolition last year. The local Historical Society and anyone who pretended to be interested in history missed the opportunity of a lifetime to buy the Beecher House for $1. An antiques dealer and restorer stepped forward to fill the breach.
He meticulously dismantled and preserved the structure, earning tributes from experts in the field. But alas, he was a newcomer, and not on anyone's A-List of the socially acceptable. In an unintended tribute to George Orwell, prominent keepers of taste would use Historic District regulations to try to keep the house out of the center of town. Now they are spitting bullets and blood because Chandler Saint is not part of their tribe, he does not welcome busybodies, he does not kow-tow.
Leading the charge against Saint is Lynne Brickley of the Litchfield Historical Society and Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust. Brickley denies "sour grapes" on behalf of the society, but says: "It should be turned over to an impartial group of professional experts who would determine how the house would best be used." Translation: Power To My People; We Can Still Get It Back; Never Mind His Property Rights. The Hartford Courant calls Brickley a "Grande Dame." Saint's supporters call her "Lady Brickload."
Push came to shove this month when a Superior Court judge granted intervenor status to supporters of Saint's lawsuit against the board of selectmen. Selectmen had denied a petition for a town meeting. The town's legal counsel said the petition -- a proposal to acquire town land -- was legitimate. "I'm not sure they say that now, though," First Selectman Jerry Zinn told me. The town meeting, however, was a legitimate device when it acquired the land in question.
Officials also seem to forget that they don't own the land -- citizens own it. Another lawsuit looms, this one a civil rights action in federal court over denial of voter rights. After the petition was denied, Zinn was reported to have said, "We really stuck it to 'em."
"A lot of things are going around," Zinn said. "I don't know. It's not something I would have normally said."
Black Santa: Back Of The Bus
Symbols are important. Santa Claus, statues of military heroes, Columbus -- they all say something about the values of our society.
The day Black Santa came to virtually all-white Litchfield, values and fears were played out in a most curious way. It all started when Paul Mordecai Rosenberg, a self-described Jewish atheist, brought a plastic, three-foot-high, black Santa Claus to town hall. Rosenberg said he was giving the town a chance to show it was not bigoted. Top officials had been under fire because they refused to allow a town meeting on a proposal that would honor the great abolitionist and best-selling author of the 19th century, Litchfield's own Harriet Beecher Stowe. There seemed to be a methodical attempt in town to downplay Stowe. Stowe was rarely, if ever, honored by the local historical society or town officials. Some owners of the big mansions talked openly about the prospect of declining property values should the Stowe house be restored in a prime downtown location. Others whispered and trembled at the possibility that busloads of black kids would be coming to town to see the childhood home of the woman who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
For two days, Black Santa sat happily under a Christmas tree. Then he disappeared.
It seems a few people were quite upset. "Everyone knows Jesus was white," one town official was reported to have said.
Someone handed First Selectman Jerry Zinn a memo complaining that this Santa was, well, "inappropriate." No one ever explained how or why.
And so Black Santa stayed tucked away in the back of Jerry Zinn's office for Christmas. Connecticut's TV stations came to see. Even CNN ran a story. Zinn said he liked being on TV.
I asked Zinn for a copy of the memo. He told others he tore it up.
Because this memo -- from one town employee to another -- was a public record, I asked Zinn to produce it or reconstruct it in accordance with Connecticut's Freedom of Information law. The FOI Commission advised me that destruction of public records is a serious criminal offense, a Class A misdemeanor, Sec. 1-240, and that the State's Attorney should be informed. Penalties include fines of up to $1,000 and up to a year in jail. The State's Attorney's office advised me to report such an incident to the state police, and I did.
I also asked Town Assessor Harold Doucey if he had written the memo or if it came from his computer. Doucey responded, "I don't know the source of it. It could have been computer-generated. It didn't come from my computer." When Doucey was told by a citizen that Zinn had given him up to others as the author of the memo, Doucey stated, "I believe in putting everything in writing."
Tourism is the top priority in Litchfield's plan of development. Some communities would be proud to have the Stowe House. How can this Board of Selectmen turn their backs on a no-brainer?
"It would be nice," said Dorothea DiCecco, a University of Connecticut biology professor and a local proponent of the Beecher House, "to show the world that Litchfield is not racist, that Litchfield welcomes everyone."
DiCecco is right. It would be a shame to let Litchfield get away with this.
Law & Justice In Everyday Life by Andy Thibault at Amazon.com
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