Stephen Parlato, a Boulder artist who is currently staying at a small Hyatt in Washington, D.C., takes a Lyft every day to the U.S. Capitol, where he stands outside with a four-by-six-foot banner of his prints strapped around his neck and decries President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters in the Senate.
His prints are unabashed agitprop. They show dramatic images of fists ripping apart a U.S. flag and are emblazoned with phrases like "His lies tear us apart." An image of Christ on a cross made of guns hanging above human skulls has the phrase "Every Gun Murder a Crucifixion. How Many Must Die Before We Change the Laws?"
Parlato’s a lone protester in a largely empty city, speaking his truth to power and rarely being listened to, though he and his placards have attracted some attention from the international press.
“I’m putting these things in the faces of the senators as they go out of their cars real fast to go in and take their vote and then come out and scamper away,” he explains.
When Parlato sees a lawmaker like Senator Rick Scott of Florida, whom Parlato describes as “a despicable sort of man,” he confronts him. “I ask him out loud: ‘Do you think it’s a good idea when you continue with the killing of the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic?’ He just ignores me.”
Parlato is used to being ignored.
Especially concerning one of his overriding obsessions: In recent years, he has attempted to replace the ass, the symbol for the Democratic Party, with a horse.
“I really feel — especially now, with our candidate locked in his basement there — we need an image that is strength and momentum and a whole idea of a return to moral leadership,” Parlato explains.
But his proposal has gone nowhere with the party.
When he got wind that Governor Jared Polis was about to talk about the stay-at-home order from the Homeland Security center in Centennial, Parlato sped out there to display one of his signs — this one showing a huge mound of human heads with the message “The Lasting Monument to Trump’s Presidency Is Being Built One Death at a Time.” But when he arrived, Parlato says, a Marine came out and told him that Polis would be delivering the speech from the governor’s mansion, so Parlato rushed back to Denver, hoping to make the news.
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He stood there with his sign and watched a reporter with a camera enter. Eventually, a security guard came out, asked him what he was doing, gave him the okay to stick around, and went back inside. Parlato waited for the reporter with the camera to return for more than an hour and a half, and when the journalist came back out, he ignored Parlato.
This, the artist relates, is standard practice for Denver media.
“You don’t exist if you’re not there for the story you’ve been assigned and the angle they’ve been assigned,” he says. “At one of the demonstrations for new gun laws, I brought an eight-foot-high Christ made out of guns, and I marched. You’d never know I was there. They shot around me.”
One of the odder demonstrations he attended — in this case, protesting the protesters — was the recent gathering at the Colorado State Capitol in opposition to Polis’s stay-at-home order.
“I was torn about what to do when I heard these crazies were going to have these demonstrations to try and force Polis to reopen as a result of Trump sending these liberate-the-states tweets,” says Parlato. “I did wrangle some N95 masks, so I felt I could be safe enough, and I went there with one of these banners that just got published by The Guardian. It says, 'Slow Dancing With Death?' — and it shows a ghostly figure representing death and says, 'Only Widespread Testing Will Tell.'”
He was bemused by the crowd. “All these people were acting as if they were at the state fair,” he says. “You had motorcycle gangs and anti-vaccine people pulling their kids in wagons, and Cowboys for Trump on horseback.”
Parlato situated himself with his back to the Civil War monument and watched in amazement as people toting "Don’t Tread on Me" and American flags stood near a man having a hacking fit. "There was this guy who couldn't keep himself upright,” he recalls. “He was coughing like death personified. I thought this guy was at death’s door, so I called 911, and they showed up in ten minutes.”
The next thing Parlato knew, the cougher was chasing away the ambulance.
“He was screaming at the paramedics, screaming, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you! Leave me alone,’” Parlato continues. “I say it was a symbol for what happened. These people were like, ‘Fuck you! Leave me alone! I don’t care if I die.’”
Parlato, a lifelong Democrat who's been making political art since he was a high-schooler protesting the Vietnam War in the early ’70s, and who spent most of his career working with youth suffering from schizophrenia, found himself returning to the streets right before the 2018 elections.
“The activism really begins because of Trump,” he says. “It really begins in earnest with the midterms, because I felt I had to do something.”
In the months that followed, he ramped up his actions. At one point, he rented trucks to drive around D.C. On the sides, he displayed prints with slogans like "Your Vote Is the Only Antidote," accompanied by a horse made of flags symbolizing the Democratic Party, standing off against a nightmarish image of Trump. He brought massive helium balloons with slogans on them to the midterm debates. And he started strapping signs to his body and dogging politicians.
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While Parlato is concerned about the current administration's handling of the pandemic, he also sees it creating a moment of political possibility...assuming that a civil war doesn’t break out.
“The moment we’re in has been like an instant MRI on the inequalities of the Republic and the disease of our politics,” he says. “That offers an astounding opportunity for change...for curative politics. But we’ve got two huge roadblocks. One is Trump, and the other is the virus and what it’s about to unleash that we haven’t even seen yet, which is quite possibly social unrest in a fashion we haven’t experienced since Vietnam. That fear was made very concrete for me experiencing that gathering of the anti-stay-at-home crowd in Denver.”
But while others are staying at home, avoiding the virus and the ideologues who insist that public-safety orders are akin to gas chambers, Parlato insists on spreading his message that there needs to be large-scale political change in the United States — and that begins with a new president.
“All I have is my art,” Parlato explains. “I couldn’t live with myself if, through this period, I didn’t try and help tag Trump as the danger he is.”