Ear for Trouble 

Oakland gives an unstable artist five grand and lives to regret it; Butt, really? Councilman says nemesis is good enough for Richmond Fire Department.

An Oakland artist has allegedly threatened to use his arts grant from the city to kill "niggers." That's according to sworn statements filed in Alameda County Superior Court by city employees seeking a restraining order against Richard Aswad.

Aswad, who has painted for more than two decades, was one of 21 Oakland artists to apply for and receive "individual artist support" grants last year through the city's cultural arts and marketing department. The 52-year-old was given a $4,999 grant to help him frame and exhibit his paintings, as well as create new works.

Cultural funding program administrators say that after he got the grant, Aswad grew increasingly abusive, calling them up to seven times a day and screaming at them. They say he made veiled threats against the administrators and more explicit ones against African Americans. Funding program assistant Jason Jong said in his court declaration that Aswad, who is white, told him during an April 10 phone conversation, "I can do some real damage with this money," and "Those niggers are so full of shit and I will kill some of them if I have to. They need to be killed, some of them." Jong said he took those comments to mean Aswad planned to use his grant money in some way to hurt his black neighbors and nearby store owners.

Also seeking protection was Phil Linhares, chief arts curator for the Oakland Museum, who said in his declaration that Aswad blurted out during a July 16 phone conversation, "Pretty soon I am going to get a gun and use it." Linhares later reported the conversation to Oakland police.

Eighteen months ago, Linhares had written the city a letter of recommendation in Aswad's behalf. The curator now acknowledges he knew Aswad had some problems, but adds that the artist has grown worse in recent months.

Reached by phone, Aswad denied threatening anyone and accused city staffers of taking him out of context. "I have no intention of hurting anybody," he said. He suggested that city cultural arts employees were trying to get back at him for missing reporting and exhibition deadlines, as well as using some of his grant money to help pay his rent. He didn't deny using the word "nigger," but said he hears people in his neighborhood use the word all the time. "I've got a right to use that word," he said. "I'm not prejudiced against those people."

A court hearing has been scheduled for November to give Aswad time to find an attorney. In the meantime, a temporary restraining order is in effect, prohibiting him from going near the Oakland Art Gallery, the Oakland Museum, or the ninth floor of City Hall where the cultural funding program has its office.

It wouldn't be the first time the artist has been accused of behaving badly. Last fall, Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado cited him for contempt of court for making disruptive noises from the gallery while a black drug dealer testified at the Riders police trial.

A deputy city attorney representing the arts employees stated in court documents that he believes Aswad is a diagnosed schizophrenic. "It's none of their business" as to whether he's schizophrenic, Aswad countered. Raissa de la Rosa, the cultural funding program coordinator, says she and other colleagues sensed Aswad was possibly unstable from their early interactions with him before he got the arts grant. But "because we're a public program," she says, "we were reminded that we needed to be mindful of equal access and equal opportunity issues."

A volunteer panel of local artists reviewed Aswad's grant application and approved it. Oakland muralist Dan Fontes was Aswad's biggest advocate on the panel at the time. He recalls arts program staffers privately telling him before the panel approved the grant that Aswad had "mental health problems." Fontes says he didn't want to hold that against Aswad, whom Fontes considers an undiscovered talent. He describes Aswad's surrealist paintings as beautiful and original. "I'm kind of a bleeding-heart liberal," Fontes admits, "and I wanted to try and do the right thing and give the guy a break." He adds, "I've always viewed him as a modern-day Van Gogh."

Of course, if Vincent were alive today he'd probably have had a restraining order slapped on him by the woman to whom he handed his severed, bloody left ear.

Peace Is Reese's

It came as a surprise to even the most cynical Richmond pols a couple of weeks ago when convicted tax-evader and political fixer Darrell Reese tried to get a job in the fire department. In the end Reese, a retired fire captain, didn't get the job after loud community protests forced him to withdraw his name. Even so, the episode showed just how much influence he still has around town.

Members of the city council who'd been backed by Reese in the past reportedly floated the idea of rehiring him to City Manager Isiah Turner. Turner wasn't about to hire Reese, according to City Hall insiders, unless he knew his decision would be backed by a majority of the nine-member council. Insiders counted four likely pro-Reese votes -- Nat Bates, Richard Griffin, Maria Viramontes, and Jim Rogers. Who might supply the fifth was a mystery, given that Mayor Irma Anderson went ballistic.

Had the process had moved forward, it turns out Reese would have likely scored what you might call a "passive" vote from the least likely councilmember of all, Tom Butt. In Reese's role as political consultant, he has designed numerous campaign smear pieces attacking Butt over the years. But the councilman tells Bottom Feeder he wouldn't have tried to prevent Turner from giving Reese a job. "From my standpoint, it wasn't worth making a big issue of it," Butt reasons. "Frankly, it's his decision who he hires."


TAKE OUT

Be Aware

In this great country of ours, almost every day is special.

Feb. 14: Valentine's Day; National Condom Day

Feb. 25: Spay Day USA

April: Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month

April 1-7: Genital Integrity Awareness Week

May: Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorder Awareness Month; Groundwater Awareness Month

May 4-10: Cinco de Mayo week

May 7: National Masturbation Day (courtesy Good Vibrations)

June: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Month

June 8-14: Odd Fellows Week (San Leandro)

July: Eye Injury Prevention Month

July 13-19: Probation, Parole, and Supervision Officers' Week

July 21-25: Invasive Weeds Awareness Week (one month after National Garden Week)

August: National Missing Adult Awareness Month; Psoriasis Awareness Month

October: National Window Covering Safety Month

Oct. 1: Shelter-in-Place Day

Nov. 27: Thanksgiving (part of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Awareness Week)

Dec. 25: Christian Consumption Awareness Day**

SOURCE: Bay Area city council agendas, California Legislative Index, House of Representatives, National Health Information Center.

**Not an officially designated special day.

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