MORE

The Peter Principle

According to the Peter Principle, a business theory formulated by Canadian Lawrence Peters back in 1968, in a hierarchy, people tend to rise to the level of their incompetence. But in Boulder, that earnest, non-hierarchical community in the shadow of the Flatirons, people rise far higher than that.

Like so much hot air, they just keep heading onward and upward.

Witness the miraculous rise of one Robert Rowan, aka "El Dildo Bandido," a seventeen-year resident of Boulder County whose heroic efforts to liberate the Boulder Public Library of twenty ceramic penises last November has been elevated to the rarefied atmosphere of pure patriotism ("How's It Hanging?" November 15, 2001).

The penises, which dangled from a clothesline in an artwork titled "Hanging 'em Out to Dry," had been displayed in the Boulder Safehouse-sponsored Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence exhibit in the library's Canyon Gallery for close to a month when Rowan made his move on November 10.

He'd decided to snatch the penises only the day before. "I was listening to 103.5, with Lewis and Floorwax," Rowan remembers. "Their crotch humor is funny to me. I'm not a prude the way some people picture me." The DJs were reading a letter that Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell had sent to Boulder officials, chastising the library for refusing to hang a large American flag in the building for fear that, as library director Marcelee Gralapp put it, some patrons might find it "offensive." The senator had even offered up a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, but that second flag was not acceptable, either.

In Boulder, waving penises was just fine; waving flags was not. "The combination of the two -- dildos but no flag -- moved me emotionally," Rowan says. So he decided to execute the unkindest cut.

His brother-in-law, a lawyer, tried to talk him out of it, as did his father. Undeterred, that Saturday morning, the fifty-something grandfather walked into the library with a trash bag in one hand and an American flag in the other, took down the penises, and left in their place a note that "El Dildo Bandido was here." Then he called KOA radio and confessed. About fourteen hours later, at 1:30 the next morning, the Boulder police showed up at his house.

Charged -- after some debate -- with second-degree criminal tampering, a misdemeanor that occurs, according to state statutes, when a person "tampers with the property of another with the intent to cause injury, inconvenience, or annoyance to that person or another," Rowan has refused to accept a plea bargain. That deal would have required that he stay away from Suzanne Walker, the artist who created "Hanging 'em Out to Dry," stay away from the Boulder Public Library, and stay out of trouble for a year. If he managed to do so, his record would be wiped clean.

"I just don't believe that the plea deal was right," Rowan says. "I feel like the city is trying to sweep this thing under the rug. I'd still end up with a criminal record for a year."

And so he wants to go to trial. He'll meet with Boulder prosecutors at a case-management conference March 7.

In a town where pets have guardians, not owners, everything from supermarket tabloids to Tibetan teahouses becomes the subject of heated political debate. No case is easily managed: not an unsolved murder involving a little beauty queen (five years and counting), not last year's celebrated Barbie doll science experiment that only recently saw closure ("Blinded by Science," March 8, 2001).

And certainly not a case that raised Rowan to the level of a folk hero, celebrated on Web sites (one of them his own) and in song (ditto). A fan sent him a red, white and blue flower arrangement from King Soopers. "I'd never realized how much patriotism there is across the country," he says.

Or how eager residents of this country were for diversion from the grim reminders of September 11, even for emotional detours linking penises with patriotism. Long may they wave.

"I didn't get charged with stealing anything," Rowan points out. "They have to show a jury that I intended to hurt the artist in some fashion. I didn't want to hurt her; I didn't know her. I just wanted to get that piece of garbage out of the library, a piece of garbage that hurt people in Boulder, hurt people across this country."

Since there was some confusion over whether Rowan had intended to return the penises, even though the police report labeled his action a "theft," he was not hung with that crime. And because whatever-the-hell-it-was had occurred in Boulder, after all, law-enforcement officials wanted to first talk with Walker, a University of Colorado student, about what action she'd like to see them take. But the American Civil Liberties Union, among other Boulder regulars, demanded that Rowan be charged with something.

"Initially, it was treated the way domestic abuse used to be handled: Let's talk to the victim first," notes Barry Satlow, the chair of the Boulder County ACLU who recently brought the Barbie case to closure. "But like domestic violence, it's a crime against the public, not just the artist." Over the last two decades, Colorado passed a series of groundbreaking laws requiring that in cases of alleged domestic violence, at least one of the parties be taken out of the home and to jail, even if the victim declines to press charges.

That was the only way to break the cycle of intimidation, of helplessness, of hopelessness.

Had Rowan decided to protest the piece in a more traditional, more Boulder-friendly way, the ACLU would have been right beside him. "We support any kind of speech, from the most offensive to the least," says Satlow. "We've always said that had he wanted to picket, pass out leaflets, make a speech, we would have certainly supported him. But this wasn't civil disobedience. He was stealing art; he was stealing speech."

And Rowan's not about to shut up now. Last month he announced that he was setting up a charity, El Bandido, which would be partially funded by the sale of such El Bandido memorabilia as T-shirts, bumper stickers and mugs. But today his efforts are more star-spangled, and he's setting up what will be known as the American Patriots Foundation. The Web site, at www.theamericanpatriotsfoundation.com, is already online and features many flag-waving pictures of Rowan, songs dedicated to both El Dildo Bandido and Gralapp, and information on how you can donate to the cause.

"First of all," Rowan says, "I'm begging the artist community to come forward, e-mail me some artwork, and we'll post it for people to purchase. And there will be some merchandise. We're going to keep it a little clean, just going with 'El Bandido' rather than 'El Dildo Bandido.'"

Will he watch closely to make sure none of those artistic donations are offensive? That nothing is included that might be interpreted as male-bashing or anti-American? The foundation will "have some say-so in the art," he acknowledges. "But 100 percent of the proceeds will be donated to the families of those soldiers who gave, and will give, their lives to protect freedom in this land."

As for his own freedom, he doesn't plan to surrender an inch. "I could have walked away pretty easy, and I think sometimes my wife wished I would have," he says.

He's been back to the library, to see the freestanding flags that are now displayed there. "They're cute little flags," he says. "My personal flag in my house is bigger." And he's studied up on domestic violence so that he can counter the message in the original Safehouse exhibit. "What they're portraying is a lie," he says. "There are misconceptions about domestic violence that should be set straight."

For example, close to 50 percent of the victims are male, he says, citing statistics from www.ifeminists.com. "It is time to stop using tax dollars to sponsor hate speech against men," reads a piece on Rowan by Wendy McElroy posted on that site November 27.

"He could have been charged with desecration of venerated objects," Satlow notes dryly.

Rowan's fifteen minutes of fame should have been up last fall, but the hot air keeps rising.