‘Freak Power’ and Liberty Salons start a dialogue in Aspen
August 24, 2015
Daniel Joseph Watkins' new book "Freak Power: Hunter Thompson's Campaign for Sheriff," recounting the journalist's seminal 1970 run to be Pitkin County's top cop, has sparked a local dialogue about Aspen and America then and now.
Rather than a standard book talk and signing, Watkins — in his reopened, relocated Gonzo Gallery — has organized a series of salon-style conversations.
An overflow crowd showed up for the first one Saturday night to hear former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and his successor, Joe DiSalvo, talk about the local brand of humanitarian law enforcement and the long echo of the 1970 Thompson campaign through policy-making here.
"This book is an incredible testament to what I would call the balls of Hunter S. Thompson," Braudis said. "Even though he lost, he paved the way for (county commissioners) Michael Kinsley, Joe Edwards, Dwight Shellman — a whole litany of Aspen and Pitkin County elected officials who also shared in the great call to make change. We made a lot of changes."
In events over the next three days, the gallery will host talks with activist and culinary philanthropist Robert Egger, attorney Gerry Goldstein and journalist Loren Jenkins, and former Pitkin County Commissioner Joe Edwards with photographers David Hiser and Bob Krueger.
Dubbed "Liberty Salons," the events aim to start conversations about politics, power and activism — both local and national — with the Thompson campaign and the new book about it functioning as a sort of rallying cry. Braudis and DiSalvo's salon, for instance, used the Freak Power campaign as a starting point to discuss recent incidents of police brutality against young black men, mass incarceration and local and national drug policy.
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The book itself — elegantly printed and coffee-table ready — is a deep archival dive, filled with photos from Hiser and Krueger, campaign materials from the Aspen Historical Society, ephemera Watkins has obtained over the past three years and Aspen Times articles pulled from microfiche at the county library.
Watkins' curator's eye serves the reader well. He often lets documents speak for themselves — wholly reprinting stories and advertisements from the Times, the Aspen Illustrated News and the national media's coverage, along with photos, campaign pamphlets and the Aspen Wallposters created by Thompson and Tom Benton. Watkins adroitly guides the reader through the archival material with short chapters written in clear, concise and mercifully un-Gonzofied prose.
He methodically lays out the conditions that led to the Freak Power campaign — police harassment of hippies, unchecked development planned for the valley and the political organization of Aspen's young dropout populace through Edwards' unsuccessful 1969 campaign for mayor (under the banner of "Sell Aspen or Save It").
Along with the ups and downs of the campaign, the colorful scenes in Thompson's Hotel Jerome campaign headquarters and the international media attention that they drew, Watkins lays out the philosophical grounding of Thompson's run, focusing on four planks in his platform: reimagining law enforcement, protecting the environment, reining in development and defanging drug laws. The battle lines drawn then, local readers will find, have remained through city and county election seasons since.
Watkins argues that the timing of Thompson's Rolling Stone story on his campaign, "Freak Power in the Rockies," came too late to register enough like-minded voters to put him over the top but early enough to motivate his opposition against him.
"If the article had been released perhaps two weeks earlier to influence voter registration, or two weeks later to inspire greater voter turnout, the outcome might have been different," he writes.
Of course, the story of the campaign has been told and retold frequently since 1970 — in Thompson's hand in the letters collection "Fear and Loathing in America," by associates in books such as the oral history "Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson" and in documentaries such as Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson." The details of the campaign and its lasting impact on Aspen, however, aren't the concern of those works. Watkins' book — a valuable addition to the shelf's-worth on Thompson and the too-few good ones on modern Aspen — meticulously tells the story through a local lens. In it, the extraordinary Freak Power campaign stands on its own and out of the shadow of the rest of Thompson's legendary life and literary career.
As a result, Watkins unearths some illuminating stories that have been overlooked elsewhere. For instance, it traces how, as his campaign grew in momentum, Thompson tweaked his oft-quoted "Fat City" platform for a less bombastic one (printed days before the election) that includes many elements of the sheriff's office we know today.
It also unearths just how seriously Aspen's anti-hippie, pro-growth establishment took Thompson as Election Day approached and the ruthless tactics it used to keep its grip on power. An illegal campaign mailer depicted Thompson as a Nazi, holding progressive candidates for other offices, such as Bill Noonan and Sam Caudill, on puppet strings. Incumbent Carol Whitmire's campaign attempted to plant a spy within the Thompson campaign, to gather intelligence on violent revolutionary Freak Power plots that didn't exist.
Watkins self-published the book through his Meat Possum Press, which borrows its name from the entity Thompson and Benton used to publish the Aspen Wallposters. He is hopeful that "Freak Power" will be the first in a series of volumes from the reborn press.
"My goal is to focus on Fat City, Aspen and any way that I can use that to promote Aspen's history and the colorful characters and culture here," he said in a recent interview. "I want to use the Meat Possum Press as a vehicle to publish other things."
Braudis provides a gem in his afterword, tracing how Thompson's ideas fueled the ascendancy of Sheriff Dick Kienast's humanitarian policing model, carried on by Braudis through 2010 and by Sheriff Joe DiSalvo since. He recounts how the sheriff's office has been targeted by the feds for 40 years, unsuccessfully attempting to link Kienast, Braudis and DiSalvo to drug trafficking, and echoing the aggressive tactics of the local establishment in 1970. His afterword, along with Watkins' book and maybe the Liberty Salon series, is a plea for vigilance from progressive Aspen.
"It took the continuing work of Dick Kienast, me, Sheriff DiSalvo and many followers, journalists, artists, writers, hippies and freaks to change the tone and type of our law enforcement," he writes, later concluding: "What we do here works here, and Hunter Thompson cracked that egg."
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