The sting is in the small type

Times Staff Writer

It took Dan Frazier a long time to figure out how to make a living.

He cared for a quadriplegic. He sold health food from the back of his bicycle. He drove a van for disabled people. Then, after years of drifting from job to job, Frazier turned to the Internet. Marrying his politics and entrepreneurial instincts, he began selling left-leaning bumper stickers.

He designed one in 2003 that listed the names of troops -- about 500 then -- who had been killed in the Iraq war. The phrase "Bush Lied" was superimposed over the names. As the casualty count grew, the bumper sticker became a T-shirt, and Frazier added the words "They Died."

The venture started out as a way to pay the rent, but it landed Frazier in the middle of a fight over what is free speech versus what is exploitation of the dead.

Frazier says that he has an inherent right to use the names and that he's not ascribing any political belief to anyone. "The shirt doesn't say these people opposed the war. Just that they died," he said.

Some parents say their children would not want their names used this way. When they asked Frazier to remove the names from the shirts and he refused, the families turned to their elected officials.

Five states -- Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida -- have since passed laws requiring permission from members of the military or their next of kin before their names can be used commercially. A version of the law has been introduced in each chamber of Congress.

After Arizona's Legislature unanimously passed its statute in May, Frazier said, he had to find a new printer because his first one feared breaking the law. Frazier has received so many irate calls he is afraid to answer his phone, and he believes someone has been watching his apartment.

"A lot of those soldiers died thinking they were fighting for American values like freedom of speech, and now their loved ones want to take that right away," said Frazier, 42.

The parents say it's a matter of respect.

Margy Bons argued furiously with her son Michael Marzano about the war. He was so gung-ho to go to Iraq that he hunted for and joined a Reserve unit that was scheduled to quickly deploy. Marzano, a sergeant in the Marines, was killed in 2005 -- by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq -- just weeks after writing to his mother in Phoenix that he remained convinced he was "doing the right thing."

"Do you believe anyone who wrote that would want his name on this T-shirt?" Bons asked. "Do I believe in this war? No. But my son did. And that's whose name I have to protect."

Robert Vandertulip of Irving, Texas, had also demanded that Frazier remove the name of his son, Army Spc. Josiah Vandertulip, who was killed by a sniper in Baghdad in 2004. "From the time that they're born, your main concern is trying to make sure they're protected," he said. "It does not end when they have died."

The son of a newspaper executive, Frazier moved constantly as a child. He wanted to be a movie director and studied film production at UCLA, but he ended up working for a videotape editing company, then a business that sold Super 8 film equipment.

In 1992, realizing that his Hollywood dreams were out of reach, he left Los Angeles for Arizona. For several years he lived in a tent in the woods outside Flagstaff while working odd jobs.

He attended a conservative church and freelanced articles such as one on the odds of a woman meeting a good Christian man. But he began to question his religious beliefs as he spent more time in this mountain city.

Eventually he married a writer and liberal activist here. The couple got rid of the tent, rented an apartment and founded a progressive weekly newspaper. They refused to take ads from any non-locally owned business and depended on donations from readers. It folded after two years.

"We pioneered our way right into the ground," Frazier joked.

With the newspaper gone, Frazier experimented with another moneymaking venture: He had found plastic wheels to replace the ones on his office chair, so it could glide easily on carpeting. He began to distribute the wheels over the Internet.

That was 2002, and there was growing anger with the Bush administration and the buildup to the Iraq war. Frazier saw opportunity in selling bumper stickers. So a year later, he began producing the one with names of the war dead. "I got on the bandwagon just as it started going," he said.

By May 2005, the number of U.S. troops dead reached 1,600. He started printing the T-shirts. Sales were slow. Frazier cut the price from $18 to $10.

Parents who were Googling their children's names saw what Frazier was selling. He turned down their requests to stop making the shirts and thought that was the end of it. Last year he heard from a reporter writing an article about a new law in Oklahoma -- the first in the nation -- that had been prompted by his shirts.

As other states considered adopting similar laws, the publicity drove up sales. Frazier posted ads on liberal blogs boasting: "Our antiwar shirts are illegal." He raised the price to $22. He figures he's sold more than 3,000 T-shirts -- printed with the names of 3,461 slain servicemen and -women.

Frazier periodically updates his shirts to include the latest casualties. There are different versions with catchphrases such as: "If any question why we died . . . tell them, because our fathers lied." He says he gives $1 from each sale to a charity that helps families of those killed.

Frazier makes no apologies for his commercial instincts. "I'm not losing any sleep over the fact that I'm trying to make a living while doing good," he said.

He's not exactly prospering. He and his wife live in a bland apartment complex that wouldn't be out of place in Tarzana. The tidy home shows few signs of Frazier's politics. There's a United Nations flag on one wall, a small American flag on a desk stacked with computer books, and a copy of the original "Bush Lied" bumper sticker on the fridge.

Copies of the couple's 2006 tax return show that Frazier and his wife, who writes about organic food, reported $23,500 in adjusted gross income, including $497 a friend paid them to use their truck. Frazier says he expects to make more money this year, though his expenses are rising.

The Arizona law has not slowed Frazier's business, and state and local prosecutors have said they do not plan to charge him with any violations. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued to block the statute. At a hearing in Phoenix last month, a federal judge said that the law was poorly written and that it did not appear to outlaw Frazier's T-shirts. The judge is expected to issue a formal ruling soon.

Many states, including California, have a "right of publicity" that allows people -- especially celebrities -- to control how their names are used. But those rights cannot stop someone from using names in a political context.

"My feeling is, because he's using the names to make a political statement, it will be trumped by the 1st Amendment," said Jennifer Urban, a USC law professor. "It's obviously a very poignant situation and something that is sad and upsetting to the families. But in the U.S., the 1st Amendment is a very robust doctrine, and for good reason."

Frazier's stand on the shirts has won him admirers. He also has a reputation in town as a muckraker who has fought against luxury homes springing up on mountainsides and against national chains that have forced out quirky local businesses.

"Dan is an uncompromising idealist," said Bill Buell, 83, who once faced misdemeanor charges with Frazier for a demonstration at a City Council candidate's house. Frazier insisted on letting the case go to trial, and the protesters were acquitted.

"He will not back down," Buell said.

Margy Bons' phone rang at 1:45 a.m. on Mother's Day 2005. She assumed it was her eldest son calling from Iraq.

Bons grabbed the phone. "Hey, sport," she said, using Marzano's nickname.

On the other end was her ex-husband. The Marines are at my door, he said. Our son is dead.

Outside her house on the northern edge of Phoenix, Bons displays a reproduction of a plaque that her son's unit made for his headstone. Framed photos of Marzano in his dress uniform hang above the sofa. She treasures a thick photo album of his funeral service.

Bons helps run a group that supports families of slain troops. She heard about her son's inclusion on the T-shirt from some of those parents. She said the shirt's existence increased the pain she felt every day.

"It comes down to treating people right," said Bons, who plans to sue Frazier now that the Arizona law is in effect. "This is using your political stance and hurting me."

Bons is allowing her son's name to appear on a memorial to Arizona troops killed in the war because its builders asked for her permission. She has also agreed to let Marzano's name be included in a traveling display of combat boots that symbolize the fallen because the American Friends Service Committee, which conceived the project, had asked beforehand.

Frazier said it's impossible for him to seek permission from every relative. "I don't mean them any disrespect," Frazier said. "I know they're going through hell. I don't want to make it worse. I want to make it better and stop other families from going through this.

"To take away the right to use the names, it cripples the antiwar movement. It takes away one of the most powerful tools we have."

Lila Lipscomb of Flint, Mich., who appeared in Michael Moore's 2004 antiwar documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," agrees with Frazier's opinions of the war. But she does not tolerate the T-shirt.

"He's doing nothing more than what the president is doing," Lipscomb said. Her son, Army Sgt. Michael Pedersen, was killed when his Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in 2003. "Bush didn't have the soldiers' permission to send them to war. This guy didn't have permission to sell my son's name."

Frazier has also received e-mails from troops asking him not to use their names if they are killed. "That's really not their prerogative," he said. "That's history's domain. . . . Imagine what could happen if Holocaust victims' names could be erased from walls and memorials."

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°