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Censorship Alive and Well!

Inside Track

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And y'all thought it couldn't happen here, right?

You thought that art was expression protected by our constitution, eh? That the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring art even if individual government officials disagree with what they perceive to be the message?

Think again.

The recent 13th annual Art Hop, sponsored by the South End Arts & Business Association, was an unlucky 13, indeed. Who would have thought that in the People's Republic of Burlington, a public official would and could order the censorship of an original art work simply because she found its antiwar message "unacceptable."

The artwork in question was the giant mural that artist Ron Hernandez -- http://www.airbrushron.com -- painted on the side of the little red brick Burlington Electric Department storage building on Pine Street. For last year's Art Hop, Airbrush Ron painted a giant Buddha face on the front. It was pretty cool, and certainly brought life to what most Pine Street passersby considered an abandoned, graffiti-covered building.

"Seeing that the state of affairs in this country was heading down the toilet," Hernandez told "Inside Track," "I thought that people needed something to reflect on. So last year I painted Buddha as a way for folks to reflect on what's right and what's wrong. This year, I thought I had to make it more obvious, so in came the tsunami."

Hernandez airbrushed his newest creations -- two giant waves -- onto the previously blank north and south walls of the brick BED structure during the first week of September, just before the popular annual Art Hop. On the north side of the building, however, he added something extra in the lower left corner.

In the original, the viewer's eye is caught by the giant blue wave on the right, a tsunami curling 30 feet high, with red and yellow flowers spilling out of its white frothy foam. Then the eye follows the floral froth to its impending, inevitable landing zone. But instead of a sandy beach in the lower left corner, there's a blackened silhouette of rockets, soldiers, turret-mounted machine guns and barbed wire. Unfortunately, it's an all too familiar silhouette these days, a painful reminder of human madness.

Also unfortunately, it's no longer there; the artist was ordered to paint over it, and last week, he did. It's gone forever. Only the tsunami remains.

The expression of antiwar sentiment hardly seems out of place in the largest city in Vermont. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Bernie Sanders, both hometown voters in Burlap, voted against the disastrous Bush invasion of Iraq. So did Sen. Jim Jeffords. Surely, the votes of politicians regularly elected by 2-1 majorities reflect the Vermont mainstream?

Three years ago, before Bush pulled the trigger, the Burlington City Council adopted an antiwar resolution that, among other things, expressed "our opposition to the United States' continued and threatened violation of United Nations Charter and of international law by its unilateral, preemptive military action against the nation of Iraq."

On Town Meeting Day last March, 50 Vermont towns, including Burlington, passed antiwar resolutions. (Check http://www.iraqresolution.org to learn more.) The Burlington resolution asked the city council to tell President George W. Bush that its citizens "strongly support the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces and believe the best way to support them is to bring them home now."

The antiwar measure passed in a landslide, supported by 65 percent of Queen City voters.

Fact is, Burlington's antiwar tradition isn't anything new. Back in 1999, Burlington voters approved an advisory referendum supporting a nuclear-weapons abolition treaty by a 3-1 margin. And way back in the early 1980s, old-timers will recall Independent Mayor Bernie Sanders leading the charge against President Ronald Reagan's dirty little covert wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. What ever happened to Ol' Bernardo, anyway?

Oh, right. He's won the last seven congressional elections and is the favorite in the 2006 U.S. Senate race.

SEABA Director Keith Brown told "Inside Track" that, "Nobody had really seen what Ron did until he did it. I saw it and I thought it was fine, and I agreed with the sentiment."

Unfortunately, BED Communications Coordinator Mary Sullivan, who sits on SEABA's board, had a problem.

According to an email obtained by "Inside Track," Sullivan contacted SEABA on September 14 to express the public utility's displeasure with Hernandez's art.

"We love the Buddha -- have gotten lots of compliments on that," wrote Sullivan (a former state legislator who currently chairs Burlington's Democratic City Committee). "While most of us like the wave," continued Sullivan, "we just can't have such blatantly political statements on our buildings. How about we just keep the Buddha but the wave gets removed?"

"Blatantly political," eh? God forbid art should ever reflect the real world. The nerve of people to express antiwar feelings on public property!

Sullivan got her marching orders from BED General Manager Barbara Grimes (also a former Democratic state rep). Grimes told "Inside Track" that she really hadn't looked closely at Hernandez's tsunami mural until she received a call from a "ratepayer" whom she declined to identify.

The BED boss then made a personal inspection. What she saw, said Grimes, reminded her of the antiwar protests of two decades ago at the nearby former General Electric Gatling gun factory. Ah, yes, the good old days.

"My personal feelings are about as antiwar these days as you can get," said Grimes. "But since it was a public building," she said, BED has "to serve all ratepayers."

Grimes called the Hernandez mural "inappropriate," noting "some people have very strong feelings both ways."

Wouldn't want to offend the "war is good" crowd, now, would we?

Grimes also said she had not been "informed in advance" about what Hernandez intended to paint.

"We were told," said Grimes, "it'd just be a touch-up of the Buddha."

Hernandez told "Inside Track" he'd never before had to inform anyone at BED about what he intended to paint on the little brick building. In fact, he did call BED in advance to see if he "needed to sign off on any insurance coverage." He was told he was "still covered from last year and should proceed with his painting."

According to minutes of the Burlington Electric Commission's two September meetings, no discussion of censoring Hernandez's artwork occurred. Commission Chair Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur did not return our call.

Democratic Mayor Peter Clavelle, did, however. We'd emailed him photos of the controversial original Tuesday afternoon. Before leaving with his wife Tuesday for hurricane-ravaged sister-city Moss Point, Mississippi, Clavelle left yours truly a voicemail indicating our contact was the first he'd heard of the controversy.

"While I'm not going to make a federal case out of this," said Clavelle, "I see no need to revise the original piece." Mayor Moonie said Hernandez's censored original "reflects a widespread community sentiment that was borne out at the polling booth. This is a community that's opposed to this war in Iraq and art seems like an interesting way to express that opposition."

He's got a point, eh?

By the way, BED is owned by its "ratepayers," and that includes everyone who pays an electric bill in Burlington. Check out http://www.burlingtonelectric.com for more information.

P.S. BED boss Barb Grimes isn't exactly breaking new ground. Censorship has been around a long, long time. Freedom of speech remains a work-in-progress.

Last February, the city manager of Lakewood, Colorado, ordered the removal of a ceramic art exhibit from the city's cultural center. It was called "Hope Stones," by Air Force veteran Gayla Lemke. The messages painted on some of the stones caused several city council members to call the art exhibit "anti-American."

Messages included: "There was never a good war or a bad peace," "War would end if the dead could return," and "A real coward is someone who drops a bomb from a protected space several thousand feet up" -- the last one attributed to TV satirist Bill Maher.

The Colorado ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship quickly stepped up to the freedom-of-speech plate. One month later, the Lakewood City Council restored the censored exhibit and wrote a letter of apology to Ms. Lemke.

As goes Lakewood, so goes Burlington?

We'll see.

Hoyt for U.S. Senate? -- Heard a great story over the weekend about behind-the-scenes business types, old "Howard Dean Democrats," who had made a pitch to Ho-Ho's former chief of staff Kathy Hoyt to enter the 2006 U.S. Senate race as a Democrat.

At the moment, the current leadership of the Vermont Democratic Party has expressed no displeasure whatsoever with the notion of sitting out the contest so Independent Bernie Sanders can go head-to-head with the Republican candidate, whoever it turns out to be.

Nevertheless, the story I heard was true.

Hoyt told "Inside Track" she had indeed recently been contacted by politically connected individuals whom she declined to identify.

"It's nice that they thought of me," said Kathy, who also was chief of staff for Gov. Madeleine Kunin in the 1980s.

Our sources say that individuals formerly aligned with Dean, as well as others aligned with Sen. Jim Jeffords, have been looking for a Democrat to make things dicier for a Sanders victory.

"The fact that so many Democrats have already signed onto Bernie's campaign," said Hoyt, "and the fact that many major political actors in Vermont have cast their dice for him, means there's nothing to be interested in at this point."

Think the backroom boys will give up?

Terminator Terminated? -- Surprising news Monday: Sources told "Inside Track" that Burlington attorney Richie Berger, the nominee of Sen. Leahy and Gov. Jim Douglas to be the next chief federal prosecutor in Vermont, was no longer in play. "He's withdrawn his nomination," said our source.

On Tuesday, the AP moved a story quoting Senate Judiciary Committee spokesman Tracy Schmaller as saying the White House "is not moving forward with the nomination."

"I'm shocked," said Will Hunter, the editor and publisher of Vermont Lawyer and Trial Reporter. The premier Vermont court-watcher described Berger as "unquestionably able" and "a straight shooter."

Said Berger via email, "It was an honor to be considered for the position, but with the passage of time, and after much reflection, I came to appreciate how much I enjoy the practice of law here and the people I work with. I therefore have decided to remain with the firm."

GMP Exec Running! -- He's been a U.S. Senate aide for George Aiken, a newspaper editor for the Rutland Herald, a corporate executive and registered lobbyist for Green Mountain Power. Now Steve Terry of East Middlebury says he wants to be a Vermont state senator.

"I'm a Democrat," Terry told "Inside Track," "a Howard Dean Democrat. And public service is something I've always aspired to."

For out-of-staters, Terry's referring to the anti-left, big-business-friendly, law-and-order Howard Dean we all knew as governor.

Steve retires from GMP on January 5.

Addison County is currently represented in the state senate by two Democrats: Clair Ayer of Weybridge and Harold Giard of Bridport.

Flip-Flop -- State Rep. John Tracy surprised us all last week when he suddenly dropped out of the Burlington mayor's race -- a race he forcefully had jumped into last March. John-John now says he wants to concentrate on his health-care reform responsibilities at the Statehouse.

Oopsie! -- How about last week's column? Apparently the previous week's was so good that our printer, the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, decided to dump the new one and rerun the first half of the old. Same thing happened to the first page of "Local Matters." At least the Internet edition got them right. The reprint of last week's "Inside Track" can be found on pages 22A and 23A in the issue you're holding.

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