The yellow magnet was done to support troops, not to take political sides. SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Bob Means put a yellow "Support Our Troops" ribbon magnet on the back of his Ford pickup, then handed a dozen others out to friends without knowing he was making a political statement. "I wanted to show my support for the troops," said the 57-year-old retired Oakland, Calif., firefighter and Vietnam-era Army veteran, who now lives in Martinez. "Yes, I'm pro-military and pro-Bush, but that's not why I have it on there. Our troops are over there to do a job -- one that some of them would probably not choose to do -- but nevertheless, they're keeping us safe." Yet as the latest trend in bumper wear moves inexorably from its origins in the South, its cultural meaning is being debated in ways that its creators couldn't have imagined when they started turning out the magnets at the height of the Iraq war's popularity nearly two years ago. The North Carolinians who thought up the rubbery, 8-inch-high magnets saw them just the same way Means does -- as a way to support the troops. Instead, they're becoming part of the blue-red cultural divide. If you've got one on your car, many people now think you support the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. There have been reports of people stealing yellow-ribbon magnets from cars in other parts of the country, symbolic vandalism akin to tearing down a political opponent's yard sign. In November, one of the nation's largest anti-war organizations began selling a response ribbon. The similar-looking yellow magnet reads, "Bring the Troops Home Now." Some sellers of the "Support Our Troops" ribbons say they'd be leery of carrying it, fearing it comes with political connotations they don't see in the "Support" ribbons. L.A. Kauffman, a New York City organizer for the anti-war organization United for Peace and Justice, thought of the "Bring the Troops Home" idea after seeing "Support" magnets everywhere on cars in relatively conservative upstate New York. "I thought, 'We have to respond to this,' and the way to respond is to say we should bring the troops home now," Kauffman said. The first 2,500 sold out hours after being posted on the organization's Web site, unitedforpeace.org, and another 7,500 have been sold on the site since. Kauffman attributed the sales to a post-election hunger among the anti-war crowd for something symbolic to display in response to President Bush's re-election. "After the election, people were drowning in red-state sentiment," she said. "No agenda" None of this cultural reaction was the intent of Derrick Carroll, the North Carolina man who designed the ribbon. "Its sole intent was just what it says: To support the troops, whether we're at war or not," Carroll said. "That never did enter my mind that it would be a Republican thing or a Democrat thing. There's no agenda here." Nevertheless, unintended symbolic meanings have been threaded to the ribbons since shortly after they debuted in early 2003. Chris Smith, owner of a North Carolina-based printing company, heard about a shortage of the cloth used to make the yellow ribbon that is symbolic of supporting overseas soldiers. Carroll, a designer for Smith's company, took two days to design a simple yellow-ribbon magnet. Then Smith sold the rights to sell 1,000 units to North Carolina Christian bookstore owner Dwain Gullion in March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. "To be honest, at first I just did it to learn how to run an e-commerce site where I could sell items from our [four] Christian bookstores," said Gullion, owner of the Internet site that became known as magnetamerica.com. Gullion saw its potential as a fund-raiser for military families and veterans' support groups, both of which spread the ribbon magnet across the country.