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To Protect and to Serve Political Art 

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When 17-year-old Alice Woelfle-Erskine landed in court for pasting up guerrilla artist Robbie Conal’s political poster lambasting the Rampart police scandal, she found an unlikely ally — in the LAPD.

The two LAPD officers who arrested Woelfle-Erskine in West Los Angeles on April 1 liked Conal’s artwork, a sardonic take on allegations that officers from the LAPD’s Rampart Station beat, framed and even shot innocent people. They liked it a lot. Both asked for copies, and Woelfle-Erskine obliged.

“One of the officers wanted the poster for his home, and the other one wanted his for the office,” said Woelfle-Erskine.

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At Woelfle-Erskine’s court date, one of the arresting officers, Steve Carr of the LAPD’s Pacific Division, told L.A. Superior Court Referee and Santa Monica Juvenile Traffic Judge Pamela Davis he was not offended by the poster. As a matter of fact, he had one hanging in his home, Carr said. Davis abruptly dropped a vandalism charge that could have cost Woelfle-Erskine a year’s driving privileges and a stiff fine.

The Santa Monica High School graduate was instead convicted of a curfew violation. And although she has 42 hours of community service ahead of her, Woelfle-Erskine says she would do it all over again. “Posters are a way of showing your art and a good way to express your political beliefs,” she says. “People should know what the LAPD is doing.”

Mar Vista–based Conal, on the other hand, says he will be more cautious about staffing his midnight postering raids.

“When we meet at Canter’s [restaurant] in the middle of the night and I give my guerrilla etiquette, I should ask for ID,” said the nationally known artist, whose sardonic, punning visual takes on local and national issues have become a staple of L.A.’s streets. “It was a shocking learning experience for me.”

So what is the art that caught the fancy of the boys in blue? Conal altered a photograph of an LAPD badge to look like a skull, and framed it with two crossed, burning police batons. The poster’s copy reads, “Dis Belief.” Kind of an outlaw-biker look; just the thing for those LAPD officers who persist in seeing themselves as members of their own gang. (Remember the Vikings, a Sheriff’s-deputy pack in Lennox that a federal judge once declared to be a “neo-Nazi” organization?) Or are some LAPD officers just art lovers? Carr declined to comment. —Christine Pelisek

A Plague on Both Our Houses

There’s been much talk lately — with the exoneration of 13 death-row convicts in Illinois, and Texas’ controversial execution of Gary Graham — of a coming “sea change” in the U.S. electorate’s attitude toward capital punishment. While we at OffBeat are not at all sure about the ever-shifting sands of popular opinion, we have noted a change in position — and some unexpected nonpartisanship — by pundits of both the left and the right.

To wit: cantankerous progressive Christopher Hitchens, who in his June 26 “Minority Report” for The Nation writes about the conservative Weekly Standard staff writer credited with exposing Governor George W. Bush’s callous mockery of a soon-to-be-executed murderer’s pleas for clemency:

“Tucker Carlson . . . told me that in an in-house discussion it emerged that almost all the writers for his [neo-neo-conservative] magazine were [death penalty] abolitionists,” Hitchens says. “But until then, each had thought that he or she was the only one.”

After bemoaning the fact that the majority of recent high-profile expressions of skepticism re the death penalty seem to be coming from — yuck — Republicans (e.g., Illinois Governor George Ryan, New York Governor George Pataki, evangelist Pat Robertson), Hitchens segues into a harsh indictment of Bill Clinton’s record on the issue. Lowlights include Clinton’s supervision of the last-minute photo-op execution, during the 1992 New Hampshire primary, of brain-damaged Alabama convict Rickey Ray Rector, and the draconian Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act the president pushed through Congress in 1996.

“It’s high time,” Hitchens concludes, “that Vice President Gore [were] asked where he stands on this essential and infamous part of his boss’s ‘legacy.’” (Hitchens’ own estimation of the pro-capital-punishment veep’s stance is summed up in his title: “Gore on the Hands.”)

Meanwhile, in the concurrent issue of that biweekly bastion of hard-line conservatism, the National Review, reporter and essayist Carl M. Cannon — who has assisted personally in the exoneration of more than one death-row inmate — presents a strong case for why even death-penalty proponents should review their position on state-sponsored killing.

“If ideology and experience lead one to the conclusion that government is by nature inefficient and inept,” he writes in a carefully worded appeal to conservative instincts and principles, “then why should it be astonishing that the actions of one branch of government — the judicial branch — are so routinely wrong?”

Cannon goes on to recount the reasons, based on hair-raising personal experience, that he believes executions of the wrongly accused constitute a “universal problem” — why, in other words, there is “nothing aberrant about [the recent findings of] the Illinois court.” Then, having cast a gimlet eye at the present GOP presidential candidate’s self-serving assertion that “nothing like what had happened in Illinois had happened in Texas on his watch,” Cannon goes on to note that Dubya’s brother Jeb expressed the same sentiments despite the fact that Florida, where he is the governor, “has set aside the capital-murder convictions of some 20 Death Row inmates since 1973 — more than any other state.”

“Conservatives,” Cannon concludes, “need to ignore their impulse that anything the liberal establishment approves of, they must oppose. They should instead focus on this one issue: If a democratic society executes criminals with the foreknowledge that some percentage of them are innocent, are all members of that society implicitly guilty of murder themselves?”

Now, with both Gore and Bush continuing to express support for the death penalty, capital punishment still looks to be a nonissue in November. But insofar as the right wing has shown itself willing to allow for some slight movement on this front, we must, for once, tip our hat to the well-heeled opposition: You’ve come a long way, Binky!

—Ron Stringer

Take My Wife, Please

Down Santa Monica way, the City Council is about to appoint a new member to the powerful Arts Commission, and guess who has the inside track? Well, would it help if OffBeat told you that Mayor Ken Genser’s sister and Councilman Robert Holbrook’s wife are up for the job? And that the two women tied 3-3 in a preliminary City Council vote? Can you say . . . nepotism?

Genser denies using his influence to help his sister, Harriet Beck, a public school theater teacher. “I have not lobbied for or against her,” says Genser.

Not so Holbrook, who nominated his wife, Jean Ann, for the single open post on the 13-member commission, says Genser. “I don’t think it looks good,” Genser opines. Hollbrook responds that although he did throw his wife’s name in the hopper, she was officially nominated by another council member.

“Why should she be penalized just because she is my wife?” Holbrook asks. Jean Ann Holbrook, a community volunteer who has worked with the PTA and the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum, has “a middle-of-the-road view on art, which is missing on the present arts commission,” he adds.

“It seems to me government structures like this are always compromised and corrupted by things like this,” counters newly appointed Arts Commissioner Charles Gaines.

“If the City Council picks them, it would definitely be a preferential thing,” agrees Margaret Silbar, one of the 20-some other candidates for the arts board.

Assistant City Clerk Beth Sanchez points out the relationships could cut both ways. “There are people who won’t vote for them, because they are related.” It’s perfectly legal for council members to nominate or appoint relatives to commissions, says Santa Monica Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence.

Councilman Paul Rosenstein once abstained from voting to put his mother, Millie, on the Commission of Older Americans. Et tu, Mayor Genser? “If [my wife] is nominated, I will vote for her,” he says. The vote is set for July 11.

—Christine Pelisek

Edited by Gale Holland

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