By: Allan Wolper AIDS activist group demonstrates outside awards ceremonies to protest the work of prize-winning cartoonist Michael Ramirez sp.
"A PULITZER PRIZE for bigotry." That phrase had been pasted on posters all around the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University. It also drew the attention of the Pulitzer Prize administrators, who posted guards at the front and the rear of Low Library, where Pulitzer ceremonies recently took place. "We didn't want to have the remote possibility of any disruption," said Seymour Topping, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, the most prestigious awards in journalism. The extraordinary security was in place to protect Michael Ramirez, a cartoonist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the winner this year of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. ACT UP (Aids Coalition To Unleash Power), an AIDS activist group whose demonstrations have sometimes turned violent, had been targeting Ramirez shortly after the prizes were announced April 12. The organization maintains that Ramirez's editorial cartoons, which are syndicated nationally by Copley News Service, are racist, sexist and homophobic. The group has been faxing protests to newsrooms and it staged a one-hour demonstration in front of the Commercial Appeal offices that ended when local TV crews left. The main staging ground, however, was the Columbia campus, and the media that came to cover the awarding of the Pulitzers. The tone and language of the anti-Ramirez posters was threatening. "Ramirez's cartoons have become notorious for vicious racism and homophobia, and for spreading misinformation about HIV and AIDS," said one of the flyers at Columbia. It suggested that activists "call or visit both the Pulitzer office and Columbia President George Rupp today to demand that the prize be rescinded. Tell them that the award has stained the Pulitzer Prize and Columbia University with the blood of thousands of Americans dead from AIDS." It included one of the cartoons that angered the group ? a drawing of a gay man sitting on a tombstone, claiming that testing him for AIDS would cramp his lifestyle. The extraordinary security precautions at Columbia turned out to be unnecessary. Ramirez arrived in a limousine with his parents, his girlfriend and his editor, Angus McEachran, and finessed any possible confrontation. "When we got there, one of the ACT UP guys ran up to me and gave me a flyer," Ramirez said in an interview. "I said thank you and we walked right by them. When we left, I winked at one of them." Ramirez believes the ACT UP protests were merely publicity stunts. "These kind of groups use the demonstrations to call attention to themselves," he said. "I've told people who've asked me about it that the beauty and strength of democracy is the diversity of opinion. "I believe in the right of extreme groups to express their opinion and I had hoped that they understand I have a constitutional right to ignore them." Shane Butler, a Columbia University student associated with ACT UP who was raised in Memphis, said Ramirez's work has been provoking protests for some time. "But no one could believe that the most prestigious award in journalism was now going to be given to someone who was proud of being homophobic," he said. Butler said his mother, who still lives in Memphis, was part of a group leading the protest there. "She said she was going to cancel her subscription she was so mad," he said. ACT UP orchestrated an anti-Ramirez telephone and letter-writing campaign to the Commercial Appeal after the Pulitzer Prize was announced. But that effort ended when the newspaper made it clear that it was not about to fire its Pulitzer Prize winner. The portfolio that Ramirez submitted to the Pulitzer judging committee included 14 cartoons, including one critical of gays in the military. But his submission did not include the cartoon on AIDS that ACT UP used to organize its Columbia protest. Butler said campus response to the ACT UP demonstration was just as repressive as the Ramirez cartoons. "There were guards everywhere," he said. "There were security people in uniform. There were security people in plain clothes. They were everywhere, and all we wanted to do was have a peaceful demonstration." Topping, who has been the Pulitzer administrator for less than a year, said he was responding to a series of anonymous telephone calls to his office. "They didn't seem threatening, but after what ACT UP has done at other places, we had to be sure," he said. "I did not want Mr. Ramirez, who arrived with his mother and father and girlfriend, to have any problems. We did not ask for anyone from the New York City police force." Topping said there has been "no thought whatsoever" to recalling the Pulitzer jury that awarded Ramirez his prize. "He won for his techniques, not for his point of view," Topping said. "It seems to me that he has a right to express himself." The Ramirez protests follow similar protests several weeks ago against David Nayor, a cartoonist with the Daily Spectator, the student newspaper at Columbia (E&P, June 11, p. 16). Student groups complained then that a Nayor cartoon satirizing Women's History Month was sexist and offensive to women. ?( One of the Ramirez cartoons that led to the charge by gay activists that he is homophobic) [Photo & Caption] ?( Wolper, an associate professor of journalism at Rutgers University Newark, covers campus journalism for E&P) [Caption] ?( When we got there, one of the ACT UP guys ran up to me and gave me a flyer. I said thank you and we walked right by them. When we left, I winked at one of them." [Caption] ?( -Michael Ramirez) [Photo]