Artist's Prank Punks Re-create 68, Other Activists
The attached flyer is far from subtle. The screaming slogan "WE BEAT YOU THEN! WE'LL BEAT YOU AGAIN!" appears over two images -- one of a police officer outfitted in riot gear (he looks like an extra from Rollerball), the other featuring footage of helmeted cops facing off with a crowd at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In addition, a winged insignia printed in the lower left-hand corner hovers above the rhetorical, and badly spelled, questions, "Want to 'Recreate '68'? Think your tough HIPPY?"
Re-create 68's Glenn Spagnuolo and Denver CopWatch volunteer Evan Herzoff both received copies of the flyer, and they took it seriously, scheduling a July 10 press conference to decry what they took to be a threat against them and other activists by a rogue cop. Turns out it was no such thing, however. The creator of the flyer and an accompanying e-mail is an area artist -- he spoke to Westword on the condition of anonymity -- who wanted to inspire conversation, not violence.
The artist hoped the stunt would raise the topic of potential violence at the DNC in a provocative way. "I definitely appreciate the roving spotlight being shown on the police as a way of saying, 'Look, here's what's possible,'" he maintained prior to the news conference, held at 11:15 a.m. outside the office of Richard Rosenthal, Denver's Independent Monitor; as IM, Rosenthal is charged with overseeing the internal-affairs bureaus for the Denver police and sheriff's departments, among other duties. "And maybe by doing that, it will make people more vigilant -- maybe make it one percent less likely that it will happen." But he also liked the idea of tweaking protesters-in-waiting from a prankishly artistic point of view. "It struck me as something that was kind of funny -- it plays into my sense of humor," he says.
Neither Spagnuolo nor Herzoff are laughing. After learning that the flyer had been created by an artist and hearing about his motivation in the hour or so before the press conference was scheduled to begin, Spagnuolo said, "We'll still be filing a complaint with the police. I find nothing artistic about threatening violence against me." As for Herzoff, who also learned about the artist's actions in the hours before meeting the media, he said, "It angers me that this person did this -- and it's quite the opposite of what he intended to do. I don't see how something like this makes violence less likely. To me, it looks like they were trying to provoke people -- police or protesters. That's the kind of thing that could escalate the situation, and that's not what we're about. We want to de-escalate the situation."
The scheme "started innocuously," the artist insisted. He enjoys fiddling about in the communications and media fields, and he felt activist groups such as Re-create 68 and Tent State University were ripe for his style of gamesmanship. "They have my sympathies politically -- I would maybe agree with their objectives," he conceded. "But the way they do things is kind of a throw-back way of protesting. It's oppositional thinking: The powers-that-be have position 'A,' so we're going to take position 'B,' and we're going to hold up some placards. And to me, that's outmoded, because it doesn't effect change. It's like what Barack Obama says -- what effects change is inclusive thinking, not oppositional thinking.
"I come from the perspective of being a utopian anarchist," he went on, "and to me, that doesn't mean a counterpoint to a point. It means generating some kind of critical thinking -- and doing it with misinformation and subterfuge."
He also liked the idea of making art in character -- in this instance, taking on the mindset of a policeman set on cracking heads. He said he was careful not to cross the line into impersonation, never explicitly claiming to be an officer. Rather, he tried to imagine what such a cop would be like and express himself in that manner -- hence, the overuse of capitalization, not to mention frequent misspellings and purposefully terrible grammar.
By the end of May, the artist had assembled a MySpace page based on this persona, complete with several videos: brutal footage from the Chicago DNC, an interview clip of Spagnuolo and the "Go ahead, make my day" scene from the Dirty Harry vehicle Sudden Impact. He also printed up a batch of flyers, leaving a stack in the Gypsy House Cafe, 1279 Marion Street, where he'd been told Re-create 68 sometimes meets, and posting them in the neighborhood nearby. Then, on June 5, he sent e-mails to a handful of Denver activists, including Spagnuolo and Herzoff, plus several ideologically similar advocates in the Pacific Northwest; he found all of their address via web searches. These communiqués included the flyer plus the following message:
YOU HIPPYS HAVE A GROUP CALLED RECREATE ‘68?? !!
REMEMBER ‘68 HIPPY? WE BEAT YOUR ASS! WE BEAT YOU THEN! WE’LL BEAT YOU AGAIN!
THERE IS LOTS OF SISSY TALK FROM THE DENVER POLICE BRASS AND THE SISSY DEMOCRATIC POLITICOS ABOUT ACCOMODATING THE HIPPYS. WERE PUTTING OUT THIS FLYER TO LET YOU KNOW WHATS “GOING DOWN IN THE UNDERGOUND” ON THIS SIDE OF THE NIGHT STICK!
WE BEAT YOU THEN!
WE’LL BEAT YOU AGAIN!
THINK YOUR TOUGH HIPPY?
GET READY TO GET DOWN!!
WERE CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF BEATDOWN!!
The reaction was far from overwhelming. He received a few replies from recipients -- and unbeknownst to him, the blogger behind the Fire Witch Rising site posted an amusing diatribe correctly predicting that the person behind the mailing was "about as much a part of the Occupation police forces as I am." After that, silence -- and the artist admitted that he more or less forgot about the whole thing and moved on to other projects.
Others did not. Herzoff said the recipients were all worried about the flyers and e-mails but were so busy that they couldn't get around to responding for a month or so. By then, other matters had arisen that sparked their concern, including the city's continuing refusal to reveal what it planned to buy with a $50 million federal grant provided for DNC security despite an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, and a Denver Post revelation that "some police teams have been dispatched to Alabama for up to twenty hours of specialized 'homeland security' training."
In Herzoff's view, such developments stirred fears that DNC protests could deteriorate into the sort of chaos that took place around World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle circa 1999, not to mention the most recent Columbus Day parade in Denver. At the latter event, Herzoff argued, "police used pain-compliance holds and dressed in riot gear to intimidate us in advance of the Democratic National Convention. They were flexing their muscles to show what they were going to do at the DNC."
Herzoff and Spagnuolo planned to link such concerns to the flyer and e-mail at the July 10 press conference -- but learning that an artist, not a cop, had been behind them shortly beforehand threw a kink in their plans. Westword staff writer Jared Jacang Maher attended the conference along with representatives of several TV stations, including channels 4 and 31, and a man carrying a whirligig mounted on a broomstick that depicted two policemen beating someone whenever the wind blew. According to Maher, Herzoff gave an opening address focusing on concerns about brutality at the DNC before mentioning that yours truly had told him an artist claimed to be behind the mailing. But he called for an investigation anyway to confirm the perpetrator's identity, as did Spagnuolo, who blamed the city of Denver for creating an atmosphere in which something like the flyer incident could happen. Spagnuolo also said that he had received three e-mails related to the flyer, with the author identifying himself as a police officer in one of them. In a post-conference dialogue with Westword, the artist reiterated that he only sent Spagnuolo one e-mail in total and never said he was a member of the police.
There's no telling how much air time local TV stations will devote to the flyer dust-up, but no matter how much publicity is or isn't produced, both Herzoff and Spagnuolo want the artist to be punished for his activities. For his part, the artist said he spoke up to save law enforcement the trouble of investigating the police when he was actually responsible.
"It could have very easily become a situation where some poor FBI agent had to waste two hours of his afternoon figuring out that I'm just some kook, and that goes into my file -- and I don't need that," he said. "I don't need to have a conversation with the police about why I did what I did."
If he avoids such a chat, he'll look back on his artistic shenanigans with some measure of pride. "Honestly, I didn't expect them to take it as seriously as they did," he admitted. "But I like it when my projects take on a life of their own. And in that regard, this one has been really quite successful." -- Michael Roberts
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.