Flag-in-Toilet Artist Gets Threats
July 27, 2005
An art exhibit in the cafeteria of the California Department of Justice is causing quite a stir. Actually, one particular piece of art: It’s a depiction of a map of the United States draped in a flag and going down a toilet.
The artist, California lawyer Stephen Pearcy, is used to controversy over his expressions.
But this time, it’s hotter than ever, with the California Republican Party demanding the removal of the artwork, and rightwing bloggers calling Pearcy a traitor, and one blog soliciting ideas for his assassination.
Pearcy’s art is part of an exhibit of “more than 30 works by lawyer artists and pieces with overt legal themes,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “The sponsor of the show is California Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit group founded in the Bay Area in 1974 to aid
artists with their legal issues.”
On the side of Pearcy’s painting are the words “T’anks to Mr. Bush.” In a statement accompanying it, Pearcy explains his motivations: “I painted this on the 4th of July, 2003, to show what direction this country was (and still is) headed under the Bush Administration. It also confronted the absurd display of ‘fanatical patriotism’ following 9/11.
“This country is going down the toilet,” his statement continues, citing the unjust occupation of Iraq, torture of detainees, conservative domination of the media, lack of corporate accountability, and censorship, among other items. “We’ll remain in the toilet until we vote out the party whose goal is to limit our freedom.”
There were other political pieces, including one depicting Lady Liberty shackled to a cell after being tortured as in Abu Ghraib.
But Pearcy’s is the one that has drawn fire.
“I don’t know why we need to tolerate the cheap artwork of a gadfly with a worldview that is so offensive to a majority of the people,” said Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.
She added that Pearcy’s painting is “so blatantly offensive to our military and what we are doing in Iraq to fight a war on terrorism.”
Hanretty is demanding that Attorney General Bill Lockyer take Pearcy’s painting down.
Lockyer’s director of communications, Nathan Barankin, said the AG wouldn’t budge.
“Expressing your political views is not a crime, at least not yet until Karen Hanretty has her way,” Barankin told KXTV.
Neither Hanretty nor Barankin returned a phone call for comment. I spoke with Pearcy about the controversy on July 26.
He said his goal was to “engage in dialogue and discussion about the war and other injustices.”
And while he is happy that a lot of discussion has ensued, he is concerned about his safety.
He mentioned a rightwing website called caosblog.com, which is run, he says, by Lynn Thomas of Streamwood, Illinois.
On that blog, Thomas, who goes by the name of Cao, is running a “Treason Hunters Contest.”
“I’m taking submissions for a contest about the anti-American left,” she writes. “I’m looking for a visual representation of what you would do if you were George Washington and someone like Stephen Pearcy was in your command. George Washington shot and hung ‘dissenters’ . . . people who went AWOL weren’t’ allowed to live.”
She provides a visual representation of her own on the site.
She displays a photo of Pearcy and has a blindfold superimposed over his eyes. Less than an inch from his forehead is a gun held by a masked soldier. Next to Pearcy’s torso are the words “Traitor” and “Infidel.”
Thomas’s phone number is unlisted. She did not respond to two e-mails I sent to her.
Pearcy says the site clearly suggests “I should be executed. It’s intended to make me fear for my safety because of my political expression.”
And he does fear for his safety.
“Bottom line, I’m concerned somebody might feel they would be heroic if they carry out what she seems to be indicating,” he says, adding that his wife, Virginia, is also very concerned.
This is not the first threat that Pearcy has received for his political views, nor the first time he has raised people’s ire.
Back in 2003, he taped three signs to his garbage can. They all depicted an American flag with a circle around it and a line through it. He says one of his neighbors came out and tore them off and threw them into the can.
He drew a more menacing reaction when, earlier this year, he depicted a U.S. soldier in a hangman’s noose, which he dangled from the eaves on the front of his house. Around the soldier he put a sign: “Your tax dollars at work.”
Pearcy says a conservative talk radio host made a big to-do about this.
Mark Williams of KFBK “parked his van outside of the house and for the next several nights he incited people,” Pearcy says. “Within a couple of days, someone drove up in front of the house while television cameras were rolling, climbed the face of my house, and tore the display down.” (Pearcy, who was not home at the time, has photographs of this video on his website, corruptionexposer.blogspot.com.)
Not to be deterred, Pearcy and his wife put up another dummy of a soldier the next weekend, this time with a new sign: “Bush Lied, I died.”
“Within two days, again while television reporters were in front of the house and we weren’t home, somebody else climbed the face of my house, tore down this display, and then gave an interview on camera,” he says.
Both times, he reported the trespassing and vandalism to police, who forwarded his complaints to the DA, once with the recommendation that an arrest be made. But the DA refused, saying that the evidence in the first case was “so deminimus in nature that we would not ordinarily file charges” and in the second that—amazingly—there was “no witness to the crime.” (A copy of the DA’s letter.)
These earlier incidents drew local coverage, which in turn brought a nasty phone message, which Pearcy played for me.
“Steve and Virginia, I want you to know something. You’ve got some problems. Big problems. You’re fucking mentally insane for one thing.
But now you’ve gone ahead and slandered the life of the men who died
for you. Now it’s your turn. Don’t ever put something up like that again. Do you hear me? I certainly hope so. Because we’re less than a day’s march from your house. Cunt!”
Some people who disagree with Pearcy are countering his message with a nonviolent one of their own.
A group called Move America Forward is hosting an “I Love America” art exhibit and rally on July 28 in downtown Sacramento outside of the building where Pearcy’s “anti American” piece is being exhibited, the group says in a press release.
“The offensive material displayed at the Department of Justice building sends the message to the terrorists around the world that American morale is low,” said Melanie Morgan, chairman of Move America Forward.
For Pearcy, “there’s a bigger issue here than free speech, and that’s the war.” He adds: “The ultimate sign of patriotism is to engage in dissent when you think your government is doing something wrong.”