Most cities have some signature annual event, celebrating a unique aspect of their local culture. While New Orleans’s Mardi Gras is a massive, multi-day festivals, most are more on the scale of Binghamton, New York’s Spiedie Fest, which celebrates a regional marinated meat. Like Castroville, California’s Artichoke Festival or Pella, Iowa’s Tulip Time Festival, most are subdued harvest or historical celebrations.
Then there’s Boulder, Colorado’s annual Halloween Naked Pumpkin Run.
Over the last 10 years, Naked Pumpkin grew to involve hundreds of folks, clad only in running shoes and hollowed-out pumpkins over their heads, sprinting through the brisk downtown Boulder night. The event, which usually begins around 11pm, draws thousands of cheering spectators each year. Halloween in Boulder is often chilly, as in 2002, when the naked pumpkins had to trudge through three feet of snow. Naked Pumpkin follows in the tradition of polar bear swims, as runners struggle to endure full body reception of sub-freezing tactile stimuli. Seattle, Portland, and a host of smaller cities, mostly in the West, have followed suit with Naked Pumpkin Runs of their own, just as cities around the world emulate New Orleans’s Mardi Gras.
Not everyone, however, is happy about Boulder’s peculiar fame. City elders seem to have a more staid brand in mind. Last year they scrooged Halloween by deploying a detail of police officers to grab, fondle, and ultimately arrest a few frosty pumpkins. This year, they deployed two SWAT teams and a small platoon of riot officers to arrest the runners.
Since Boulder has a long tradition of public nudity and no laws on the books against nudity, the pumpkins, according to the police, would be charged with “indecent exposure,” following the legal logic that donning a pumpkin head, as opposed to wearing nothing, makes the remaining bodily exposure “indecent.” If convicted of this charge, celebrants would be required to register, for the remainder of their lives, as “sex offenders.” Legally, this should not pass muster, as being nude—as in skinny-dipping or participating in a Naked Pumpkin Run—is not, and should not be confused with, a sexual act.
We’ll skip the psychoanalysis of someone seeing a naked person running with a pumpkin on their head as engaging in a sex act, and just look at the effect on the runners. The threat to charge celebrants as sex offenders, and essentially ruin their lives with a potent societal stigma—a modern-day scarlet letter—appears to be grave enough to have stifled Boulder’s annual celebration this year.
The problem is that some folks in this world deserve such a stigma. Sexual predators are real, and they often commit and repeat serious crimes, horribly affecting their victims. Misemploying this stigma as a tactical weapon against whatever behavior or people police would like to control not only victimizes those falsely painted as sex offenders, but also waters down what should be a potent label: convicted sex offender.
Then there’s the deployment of a quasi-military Special Weapons and Tactics unit, ostensibly organized to counter heavily armed threats, against people who clearly aren’t concealing weapons or anything else. This misuse of force, like the misuse of prosecutorial tools, is far more threatening to society than a bunch of Naked Pumpkin runners.
The attack on the Naked Pumpkins follows suit on recent trends to brand an assortment of people ranging from artists and nonviolent protestors to stressed-out college students as “terrorists.” Like “sex offender,” the terrorist stigma could be devastating, even if charges never legally progress beyond the accusation stage. And like “sex offender,” this is a serious classification that shouldn’t be linguistically destroyed by deranged prosecutors. There are real terrorists, and like sex offenders, they are a grave threat and need to be identified as such, and not grouped in with harmless artists and the like.
Take the case of Tamara Freeman, who in 2006 spanked her two kids on a plane when they wouldn’t stop arguing over the window seat and, in their agitation, spilled a can of tomato juice on their mother. When a flight attendant responded to the commotion, Freeman loudly employed profane language and threw her half-spilled can of juice to the floor. She was arrested and charged under the Patriot Act with committing an act of terrorism, because commotions on airplanes can now be prosecuted as terroristic activities. She was jailed pending trial for three months before, at the urging of her public defender, she pled guilty to the terror charge. She eventually lost custody of her children since, as a term of her probation, she is not allowed to leave Oklahoma, and as a convicted terrorist, she can’t fly home to Maui where her presence was required at a series of custody hearings.
Then, according to a Los Angeles Times report, there’s the case of Dawn Sewell and her partner, Carl Persing. It seems they were a bit too amorous on a plane. Prosecutors claim that their sexual activity peaked when Carl put his head onto Dawn’s lap, and, according to court documents, Dawn smiled. Carl claims that he was sick from chemotherapy and simply leaned over into Dawn’s lap. When awoken or disturbed by a flight attendant, he allegedly gave the attendant some serious lip, hence netting terrorism charges for the couple.
Then there was the January 2007 case of two Fairfield, Connecticut sisters of Jordanian descent who were being arraigned on a charge of disturbing the peace. While they were being booked, a packet of what later was identified as salt fell from one of their pockets, somehow inciting a bio-terror panic that shut down a chunk of downtown Bridgeport. When everything finally calmed down, embarrassed cops charged the sisters with committing an act of terrorism, since the specter of Jordanians carrying salt seemed to have terrorized much of Bridgeport.
Or there’s last week’s case of 17-year-old Michigan State University student, Zack Aslam. Zack, it seems, is a frighteningly average college freshman with an interest in skydiving, who apparently appears in a YouTube video receiving a wedgie. Zack aparently got upset after a heated discussion with another student and began to, as the kids say, “talk shit.” Campus police haven’t released the specifics of what the 17-year-old supposedly said to his friends, but they charged him with, according to the MSU student paper, “threatening terrorism and communicating that threat to another person.” He was talking shit. Did I mention he was 17? Police later went to his dorm room and impounded all of his belongings. This kid’s now a terrorist.
Then there’s the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006. The ACLU argues that the bill outlaws even legally protected activity that could harm the economic interests of an “animal enterprise,” a term which defines entities ranging from factory farms and slaughterhouses to university research labs. In March 2006, prosecutors employed the shiny new law against six animal rights activists protesting against a private “animal-testing” company, Huntington Life Sciences (HLS). HLS is a long-time target of animal rights groups such as PETA, who filmed what appears to be beagle puppies repeatedly punched in the face as part of an animal test at an HLS facility. Protests against the company, ranging from legally protected speech to illegal threats, vandalism, and harassment of employees, nearly bankrupted HLS in 2000 when it was dropped from the New York Stock Exchange.
The arrested activists were never charged with engaging in any illegal activities. Instead, they were charged and convicted as terrorists for maintaining a Web site that unabashedly celebrated such acts.
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a fake grassroots group created and sponsored by dairy, meat, and fast food industry PR companies, bought a full page New York Times ad last year, accusing the Humane Society—you know, the cute puppy folks—of supporting “terrorism” because one of its vice presidents spoke before an affiliated group, the Humane League. The Humane League has at least two members who might be four degrees separated from the convicted HLS terrorists. See the connection?
Now let’s go to Utah. According to that state, a person has engaged in “commercial terrorism” if “he [or she?] enters or remains unlawfully on the premises of or in a building of any business with the intent to interfere with the employees, customers, personnel, or operations of a business.” Dig out your high school American History textbook and look up the Civil Rights era boycotts and sit-ins. If the Woolworth’s anti-segregation sit-in caused the store to lose any business, or if the Montgomery bus segregation protests caused buses to run off schedule, that would now be terrorism in Utah. A Utah lawmaker is attempting to broaden the law so as to charge a University of Utah student with terrorism for placing false bids at an auction of oil and gas rights on public land.
Our list of folks newly classified as terrorists is extensive. It includes the New York social worker I wrote about last month, who is being investigated for tweeting. It includes University at Buffalo professor Steve Kurtz, who faced a four-year prosecution as a terrorist for producing physically harmless but politically potent and internationally acclaimed artwork critiquing corporate sacred cows such as genetically modified foods.
With the crackdown on the Naked Pumpkin Run, can we expect our ranks of registered sex offenders to swell in much the same way our ranks of accused and convicted terrorists has grown? If so, the terms “terrorism” and “sex offender” will lose all meaning—but not before these McCarthy-era tactics of tarring your opponents with toxic labels ruins countless lives.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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