Rebel of the Week: Alex Schaefer and his “inflammatory” art

November 1st, 2011


In recent years we’ve seen a handful of cases of photographers being harassed by police accusing them of plotting a terrorist attack. After all, they could be casing the joint to know how to slip through security, or where to put the explosives. Because a real terrorist wouldn’t think to use a hidden camera. But what if the would be bomber didn’t use a camera at all? What if he set up a painters aisle across the street and depicted his diabolical plot in oil? 

Sound ridiculous? Well that’s apparently what the Los Angeles police thought was going on when they approached Alex Schaefer while he was working on a painting of a Chase branch going up in flames. The L.A. artist was working on a series of paintings depicting local branches of multinational banks on fire as part of a gallery show titled “Disaster Capitalism.” He says the flames were intended as, “a visual metaphor for the havoc that banking practices have caused to the economy.”

The symbolism was apparently lost on the LAPD who rolled up on Schaefer and asked if he was a terrorist.

It’s important to understand that when a cop says “terrorist” what he means is, “I’m thinking about running roughshod over all the civil rights and due process you think you’re entitled too and this word lets me do it.” Schaefer told the police that he had no plan to take any action against the bank, but that “some might say that the banks are the terrorists.” Still, just to be safe, police took down his name and information and filed a field report on the suspicious incident. 

The police told him that someone had called  them and said that they felt threatened by the painting. In most cases it’s safe to assume that cops are making it up when they say stuff like that, but in this case it may have been Chase spokesman Gary Kishner who said, “It’s a situation we don’t take lightly. Hopefully, this is not what his actions are. It’s kind of scary – We have to look out for the safety of our customers and employees.” Apparently the Chase spokesman is as obtuse as the LAPD.

Schaefer told the LA Times “I figured that when they left they probably decided the episode was stupid and they’d just wad up the form and throw it away.” Wrong. Whenever any department participating in a “Suspicious Activity Reporting” (SAR) program reports “suspicious” activities deemed to be precursors to terrorism  (like using binoculars, taking pictures, drawing diagrams and taking notes) that report is disseminated to the local Fusion Center where it’s picked up by other intelligence agencies and often necessitates a second response. Three weeks later Schaefer was visited by three plainclothes investigators with additional questions like, “Do you hate banks?” and “Do you plan to do that to the bank?” Schaefer explained to them that, “the flames symbolize bringing the system down.”

In the end it worked out in Schaefer’s favor. After the publicity from the news coverage the painting sold for $25,000 on eBay to a German collector. But that doesn’t make the incident any less frightening. Schaefer said, “I have a feeling I’ll get different treatment at airports from now on,” and concluded in his blog, “It’s sad that we’re becoming so fearful as a culture.” But that’s not entirely accurate. No prudent person feels even the slightest pang of fear that painters are going to start fire bombing banks.

Don’t forget to visit our official website for Silver Circle:

About the Author: Davi Barker

In grade school Davi refused to recite the pledge of allegiance because he didn't understand what it meant. He was ordered to do as he was told. In college he spent hours scouring through the congressional record trying to understand this strange machine. That's where he discovered Dr. Ron Paul. In 2007 he joined the End The Fed movement and found a political home with the libertarians. The Declaration of Independence claims that the government derives its power “from the consent of the governed." He does not consent.