The Wisconsin State Journal cartoonist’s treatment of Black activists has placed him in penile peril.
Editorial cartoonist Phil Hands, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s purveyor of meaningfully crooked fingers and Leprechaun Paul Ryans, stuck himself into the debate over abolishing the police with a June 5 cartoon. It suggests Madison non-profit Freedom Inc.’s demands for justice and radical change are rooted in legitimate concerns, but go too far because, as a Black woman in the cartoon suggests, defunding police and releasing people from jail would leave Black people defenseless against white supremacists.
Police departments grew out of various efforts to enforce a racist social order and have a well-documented problem with employing white supremacists. No community is monolithic and issues of public safety are absolutely complex, and yes, sure, white supremacists have gotten arrested. But members of marginalized communities in the United States often experience more persecution than protection from cops. There is also something profoundly fraught about a white cartoonist drawing a dialogue between two Black people in this way. Hands has acknowledged the “justified outrage” about systemic racism and about George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. But the tendency to want to lampoon “both sides” of every issue gets him into trouble.
This latest Hands cartoon was the last straw for Dr. Sami Schalk, a UW-Madison professor of Gender and Women’s studies and an uncompromising commentator on all things dealing with race, gender, disabilities, and sexuality. Schalk wrote a Twitter thread about long-running problems with Hands’ cartoons and started a #FirePhilHands hashtag that has picked up some steam. Schalk also tweeted a response directly to Hands: “Also, how fucking dare you use the BLM hashtag & George Floyd’s name in this. I truly hope a witch curses your dick.”
Subsequently, a witch cursed his dick.
On June 5, Twitter user and self-proclaimed witch @ROCYarnSiren responded with a 30-second video of a brief ceremony. A cutout paper dick and balls with the name “Phil Hands” on it is set ablaze, tip first, left to burn in a small vessel, and sprinkled with an ominous pinch of black salt. The spell also employs smoky quartz and a seed from a water chestnut.
— ✨The Crow Witch has returned ✨ (@ROCYarnSiren) June 5, 2020
“As a woman of color with a pale complexion that has given me a hell of a lot of privilege in life, at a time where we have been rioting for a week straight for justice, it felt important to oblige this black woman’s request,” the upstate New York-based @ROCYarnSiren says. “I mean, in all honesty, it was basically a shitpost. Sami is someone I found before COVID and riots and I found her interesting and informative. And she’s been out there breaking her back for the betterment of the world, so when I saw her post I thought, ‘I can slap a video together and make her laugh for a minute.'”
Shitpost or not, the spell directs genuine negative energy toward Hands’ pelvic region.
“I set a vague intention of anything bad happening to this guy’s dick—really I’m open to anything ranging from a painful zit to it falling off from gangrene,” @ROCYarnSiren says. “I’m gonna let the universe decide what’s appropriate. I cut a simple dick shape out of paper, wrote this dude’s name on it, and set it on fire before sprinkling it with black salt which is good for curses. We got lucky that it happened to be a full moon, which is a bonus for any spell.”
A self-described “fierce political moderate” who loves “using both sides of my brain every day,” Hands will hurl his spongiform harpoons toward any political target, pencils ever prodding at the sore spots of partisans and ideologues of all stripes. People across the full length and girth of the political spectrum chafe at his commentary, but to Hands’ knowledge this is the first time a witch has ever cursed his dick.
“I didn’t see the whole video initially,” Hands says. “I quickly glanced at the video on Twitter and saw someone performing some sort of ritual and I thought it was a unique way of showing displeasure with my work, so I tweeted about it. Later, a friend watched it more carefully and noticed the phallus with my name written on it. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that. It’s a pretty personal attack, but I don’t feel threatened by it, and people are welcomed to criticize my cartoons and my point of view. I’ve done lots of other cartoons about the protests and racial justice, which can be seen at Madison.com.”
I’ve asked Hands if he has any responses to the criticisms of his portrayals of Freedom Inc., and will update this story if I hear back.
The crux of this member-magicking ordeal is that when Hands draws cartoons involving Freedom Inc., he portrays the organization’s leaders as irrational, emotional Black people polluting the political debate with uncivil interruptions. In her Twitter thread, Schalk wrote that Hands depicts the group “in an inaccurate, racist, fatphobic, transphobic manner. His image of FI is almost always a fat Black genderqueer figure likely targeting one of FI’s 2 co-directors who is a large, dark-skinned Black queer non-binary person.” Schalk also took issue with Hands’ treatment of the controversy over cops at Pride events, pointing out that one of his cartoons on the subject misrepresented the racial dynamic of that debate.
There are a few reasons why Hands’ cartoons about racial issues rub people the wrong way, and it’s not simply that he doesn’t agree with the demands Freedom Inc. has articulated. Wherever you stand on Freedom Inc.’s specific goals, it’s easy to get tired of local commentators clutching their pearls over the organization’s tactics, given that we’re talking about literal life-and-death issues that elected officials have failed abjectly to address. While Hands does indeed almost always represent the organization as a Black person, Freedom Inc. is explicitly a Black and Southeast Asian organization that serves members of those communities with a range of support and educational programming in addition to leading advocacy work, including an ongoing campaign to remove Madison Police Department officers from local public schools. It has gained even more prominence over the past couple weeks as a leading organization in Madison’s protests against police brutality, hence that latest cartoon.
While the idea of defunding and/or abolishing police and prisons has only penetrated the mainstream discourse in the past couple of weeks, radical thinkers and activists have been articulating their visions of a cop-free world for years. Freedom Inc. definitely advocates for its agenda through disruption, whether at school-board meetings or on the Beltline, but it would be a mistake to treat this as irrational or emotional behavior. It’s strategic and, despite the odds, has actually moved the needle. For instance, on Sunday night, the teachers’ union Madison Teachers Inc. announced that it would support eventually removing police from public schools, a major reversal. Even without that development, imagine seeing what Freedom Inc. and its partners have managed to pull off in these past 10 days and not coming away with a profound respect for their organizational savvy, political intelligence, and unwavering commitment to their goals.
Freedom Inc. and its allies have not yet convinced many of Madison’s elected officials to support full-on police abolition. But on Sunday night a veto-proof majority of Minneapolis City Council members announced that they would support dismantling the police department that murdered George Floyd. Who knows what will eventually happen, but the gathering of political will alone is an extraordinary breakthrough in a major United States city. It shows that sometimes radical demands can catch on, and over the past week it’s become increasingly clear that even people who don’t want to abolish police altogether are suddenly far more willing to question the impunity and lavish resources police enjoy.
Similarly, a goodly witch on the shores of Lake Ontario has taken concrete steps to defund and/or dismantle Phil Hands’ dick, and only time will tell whether this bold hope can be realized. Given that the State Journal still employs Chris Rickert, Hands’ knob might be a more realistic target than his job.
“I’ll also say that Hands hasn’t responded to any of the #FirePhilHands tweets to my knowledge EXCEPT the dick curse,” Schalk told me on Twitter Sunday night, “so we know where his priorities lie.”
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