An art exhibit in the cafeteria of the California Department of Justice’s headquarters building, featuring Stephen Pearcy's painting of an American flag being flushed into a toilet with the inscription "T'anks to Bush," has spurred a battle between progressive supporters of the exhibit and its right wing opponents.
“A Creative Merger: Artists and Lawyers,” the exhibit sponsored by California Lawyers for the Arts, prompted right wing radio hosts Melanie Morgan of KSFO and Mark Williams of KFBK to recently hold a rally opposing the exhibit and to set up an “I Love America” art display on the sidewalk in front of the office. They organized their rally of around 200 people in conjunction with Move America Forward, an organization supposedly “supporting America’s efforts to defeat terrorism and supporting the brave men and women of our Armed Forces.”
However, an even larger crowd of 400 activists, organized by Code Pink, the ACLU, Christine Craft of the local Air America affiliate, 1240 Talk City Radio, and other progressive organizations, arrived there before the exhibit’s opponents. The two groups shouted insults and chants at one another, separated by California Highway Patrol and other state police officers, with a brief scuffle breaking out at one point.
A diverse group of civil liberties and anti-war advocates supporting the exhibit shouted, “Rove is A Traitor,” “Dissent Is Patriotic” and “Free Speech, No Blood for Oil.” On the other side, the display's opponents shouted jingoistic slogans such as “God Bless America,” “Get A Job” and “USA, USA, USA.” In response to the right wing slogans, creative progressive activists shouted, “Go Read A Book!” and “Why Do You Hate America?”
Mark Washburn, executive director of Move America Forward, told exhibit opponents gathered there, “They are using your tax dollars for this art exhibit. We are here to support our patriot art display, along with showing support for our troops.”
However, Attorney General Bill Lockyer said Washburn’s contention that the exhibit was supported by California’s tax dollars simply wasn’t true.
"This exhibit is one of many the Department of Justice has displayed on a rotating basis over the past six years -- at no expense to taxpayers,” said Lockyer. “I don't endorse any of the pieces. Some suit my taste; some don't. But neither my taste, nor anyone else's, should determine how much free speech others get to exercise.”
Lockyer, who is planning to run for State Treasurer in 2006, emphasized that he was firmly opposed to the broad censorship that the right wing forces are aiming for.
"Some would like me to act like a Soviet-style government censor and remove pieces from the exhibit that critics have deemed offensive,” he said. “I will not, my office will not, engage in such censorship. The Constitution prohibits it.”
He cited a statement from the United States Supreme Court, “The Constitution does not permit government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer.”
"Sometimes, it's tempting to turn our backs on the freedoms and liberties provided by our Constitution,” explained Lockyer. “But we have to keep faith in the First Amendment and the free marketplace of ideas. They protect every American, and we have fought and died to preserve them. It's because of them our country stands as the world's greatest nation.”
Many of the hastily assembled drawings and paintings in the “patriotic” art display exhorted their “support” for the troops. Several works were aimed specifically at Stephen and Virginia Pearcy, Land Park homeowners and activists who put up a controversial anti-war display showing a soldier’s uniform in a noose with the sign, “Bush Lied, I Died,” earlier this year. The latest uproar about Pearcy's “T'anks to Bush” painting is just one in a series of attacks by right wing extremists against the Pearcys.
One crudely drawn painting by the right wingers showed Steve and Virginia Pearcy’s faces being flushed down a toilet.
As Haleh Welch, one of the most vocal demonstrators and a frequent guest on Talk City 1240 Radio, said, “They don’t want offensive art to be shown -- unless it’s their art. They don’t want freedom of speech unless it’s their freedom of speech.”
Washburn blamed exhibit supporters and other progressives for undermining the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq. “When the message like that given by the other side goes out every night on the TV and other media, what it does is demoralize our troops over there in Iraq,” said Washburn. “We love our troops, but we want them to come home when their mission is done.”
However, Mariah Marshall of West Sacramento, whose serviceman husband, Miles, is currently flying a transport plane every month between the U.S. and Iraq, completely supports the exhibit and disagrees with the Iraq war and occupation. She waved a sign, ‘Bring My Husband Home!” on the other side of the sidewalk from Washburn.
“The war in Iraq is ridiculous and based on lies,” said Marshall. “It’s tragic that women and men are dying everybody solely for greed and oil. My husband has been flying every month since October 2001, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq.”
Stephen Pearcy believes that the opponents of the exhibit are insincere and motivated by their desire to embarrass Bill Lockyer, a Democrat.
In fact, Mark Williams, in an article in SacUnion.com on July 25, referred repeatedly to Lockyer as “Baghdad Bill,” as well as blasting Stephen for being a “cowardly, pasty, frail, control-freak Berzerkley Attorney.” (Actually, Stephen is a marathon runner!)
“The same exhibit was shown in the Sacramento County Public Library two months ago, after being announced on Channel 13 and other news outlets,” he stated. “If they really had an issue with it being in a public building, they would have protested at that time. The real reason for protesting the exhibit now is a political ploy to go after Bill Lockyer.”
Pearcy added, “it is ironic that the right wing is saying they are promoting freedom and democracy by invading Iraq and Afghanistan while at the same time they are sponsoring this campaign attempting to limit freedom of speech.”
Karen Bernal, chair of Sacramento for Democracy, summed up the feelings of many anti-war activists supporting the lawyers’ exhibit when she said, “Honor, pride and love of one’s country are denigrated in the practice of a lie; they only have meaning where they are grounded in the righteousness of truth. If they want to talk about honoring the troops, why are they sending them there for a war based on a lie? If this is indeed the home of the brave, then you must be brave enough to face the truth.”
Dan Bacher is an outdoor writer, alternative journalist and satirical song writer from Sacramento, California. He is editor of the Central America Connection and contributes to numerous publications and websites, including Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Because People Matter and the Sacramento News & Review. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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