The Message

Art of the Matter

The images that recently upset Fort Collins Mayor Ray Martinez and University of Northern Colorado professor Junius Peake aren't exactly sophisticated. A sketch of Martinez rendered by cartoonist Nathan Thrailkill and first published December 11 in the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, a Fort Collins weekly, is simple and rough-edged, while a doctored snapshot of Peake that debuted last year in an underground publication christened the Howling Pig required only rudimentary computer knowledge. Yet the fallout from these facsimiles has been considerable. Thrailkill's doodle prompted Martinez to excoriate the Bullhorn in ways that representatives of the newspaper view as veiled threats against their constitutional rights. As for Peake's gripes, they led to a criminal investigation focusing on Pig founder Tom Mink and a court challenge spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union that's earned headlines across the country.

The maxim about a picture being worth only a thousand words is clearly several generations out of date.

The Bullhorn controversy arose late last year as Fort Collins was grappling with numerous racial issues. On November 20, staffer Bethany Kohoutek (Thrailkill's significant other) wrote about the Human Rights Protection Ordinance, a notion pushed by a group called the Human Rights Protection Coalition that "would prevent Fort Collins officials from inquiring as to an individual's immigration status." Coalition members argued that the measure's passage was made more urgent by a proposed piece of federal legislation, the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act of 2003. Co-sponsored by Colorado representatives Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave, the CLEAR Act would let local police officers "investigate, apprehend, detain or remove aliens" -- duties currently reserved for U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Against this backdrop, two members of Fort Collins's Human Relations Commission, Ken Gordon and Mary Gomez, resigned their posts, with Gordon telling the Bullhorn he planned to leave Colorado in part because city officials weren't doing enough to combat bigotry.

Nathan Thrailkill's cartoon put Fort Collins's mayor in 
an uncomfortable position.
Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Bullhorn
Nathan Thrailkill's cartoon put Fort Collins's mayor in an uncomfortable position.

Gordon and Gomez subsequently withdrew their resignations, but before they did so, Martinez urged them not to quit at a December 16 meeting of the Fort Collins City Council. He then ripped into the Thrailkill cartoon, which depicted him being searched by a cop who, upon being told of the mayor's identity, responds, "Yeah, and I'm the Pope. Under the CLEAR Act, without your papers, you're an illegal immigrant who was just caught speeding." Martinez told those present that he thought the cartoon was "very discriminatory.... That's the very image that I think this community is trying to avoid. And then we have the media, the Bullhorn, portraying that kind of cartoon. Shame on the Bullhorn. That's my opinion. Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame on the Bullhorn."

Martinez elaborated on this theme two days later in a letter to Bullhorn publisher Joseph Rouse. In the missive, which the Bullhorn printed in its January 8 edition, Martinez wrote that "not only did the characterization in the cartoon falsely stereotype me, it stereotyped my culture and portrayed a misleading statement that the CLEAR Act mandates the police to conduct a 'stop and search' of Hispanics."

For Thrailkill, whose Martinez illustration was one of his first forays into political cartooning, the mayor's vitriol came as a surprise. "I was shocked about how irrational his response was," he says, "and I don't know where he got the impression that it was racist." After all, Thrailkill intended the cartoon to argue against the profiling of Hispanics, which he sees as a potential danger of the CLEAR Act, even as it lampooned Martinez, a conservative politician with apparent aspirations to higher office; he nearly ran for the congressional seat won by Musgrave and was just appointed to an advisory board by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Besides, the drawing had been approved by Bullhorn editor Vanessa Martinez, who, though not related to the mayor, was certainly sensitive to racial issues, having devoted many column inches to exposés of discrimination since she and Rouse co-founded the paper in 2000. Editor Martinez confirms that she saw nothing wrong with the cartoon. "If I truly felt it was racist, we would have thought long and hard about putting it in the paper," she says.

Supporters of the Human Rights Protection Ordinance evidently weren't bothered by Thrailkill's take. Rouse was invited to a Christmas party thrown by one such group, and when he arrived at the bash's locale, he was pleased to see an oversized copy of the cartoon affixed to the front door. "The minority community's very aware of where we stand," he says.

Hence, he and editor Martinez fear that the mayor's real goal was to quell dissent. They point to another section of his letter to the publisher, in which he argued that the First Amendment "is not intended to insult, belittle or stereotype people under the guise of Œfreedom of speech.' Doing so creates an atmosphere of discord and prejudice in this day and age."

With these words, editor Martinez says, the mayor is "trying to send a message out to other local media that criticism will not be taken well by him." Adds Rouse, "It's bullying, a sort of default censorship." To emphasize his understanding that the First Amendment protects speech whether it's kind and polite or not, Rouse had a telling quote from Joseph Pulitzer embossed on his business cards: "Newspapers should have no friends."

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