Taos Sign Man Damn Near Dies Hard

By: Bill Whaley
5 August, 2013

Breaking News: Had an incident will Amos today. (August 5, 2013) He stole 11 signs, at least two step stools, and yanked my arm.  Jeff 

Town Cops Cite Protester and Protester’s Protester

“When I jumped on his hood, he sped up. It was exciting. I was hanging on for dear life”—Jeff Northrup

(Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013. Midtown Taos) I was walking toward the Plaza, returning from a visit to a friend at a Kit Carson Road gallery when the Town of Taos patrol cars peeled out of the Plaza, turning right, lights and sirens blazing. “I hope it’s not Jeff,” I said to myself.

Sure enough, the call came through. “The cops and the ambulance are at Casa Los Cordovas.” Deb and I left the old County Courthouse on the Plaza, jumped in her car and drove down the street and parked in front of the former Shadows. Jeff, in neck brace, bloodied knuckles, bruised face, was prone on the gurney in the back of the ambulance. Several cops gathered round Chief Weaver, a short distance away, while emergency techs checked the 66-year old’s vitals. Apparently, his blood pressure registered dangerously high. Mayor Darren Cordova, looking distraught, and his wife, Brenda, stood nearby. A dozen or more protest signs dotted the rightaway on both sides of Highway 68 in midtown Taos.

Concern and frustration set the mood. For months the sign man has protested with picket signs attached to step stools, weighted with rocks and broken concrete. According to Jeff, confirmed by video, a number of mayoral supporters have confiscated the signs, “stealing” them, according to the protester. But Town Attorney Brian James has refused to prosecute the perpetrators; he bases his decisions on the claim that signs in the highway rightaway possess a kind of outlaw status in “no man’s land,” wherein the town has no jurisdiction.

So, alleged sign thieves are free to pick-up the signs just as the protester is free to erect them, leaving the laws and regulations untested. Consequently, yesterday a dangerous situation became deadly as frustration boiled over and the sign man decided to defend his property. Fortunately, tragedy was averted, the cops and emergency technicians saved the day and citations were issued. The town police and the chief behaved in what one might consider an entirely professional manner.

During the melee, I yelled something at the mayor about “showing leadership” and remonstrated with the police chief about “doing something.” For my pains, the Chief pressed me into service to pick up Jeff’s signs on both sides of the road after Jeff was taken to the hospital. So there was yours truly, picking up signs and incurring, no doubt, the displeasure of the mayor’s supporters, who, later, expressed their indignation by giving me the one-finger salute.

At the hospital, where Jeff, my once and future student of literature and writing at UNM, was checked out by the warm and hospitable staff at Holy Cross Hospital. Indeed, the staff remarked on their support for his message and, like many in Taos, expressed their admiration for his moral courage.

So I heard the following story three times: once in the ambulance, once at his bedside, and once as Jeff related it to the patrolman, who interviewed and recorded the patient’s remarks. I shall paraphrase and quote the account, which I liken to a Bruce Willis adventure. Though I shouldn’t advise the sign man to try this foolhardy act again, especially sans a stunt double.

Jeff said that “I saw this guy, a small Hispanic male, who hassled me last fall, pull up by one of my signs in front of the County building. He got out. When he got back in, my sign was gone. The car drove round the county parking lot, turned right on Albright St. then right on the highway, heading north. I ran (south) on Pueblo Sur, stepped in front of a car, which stopped. He pulled around into the middle lane. I got in front of him but he kept coming. I jumped on his hood, he sped up. It was exciting. He pulled into Casa Los Cordovas and whipped around the parking lot. I grabbed the windshield wiper to hold on but it broke. I could see the driver, a big guy in the passenger seat, someone in the back seat. I slid off the car to the ground. He grabbed the camera, attached to my neck and around my shoulder by a cord, and began whipping my head back and forth on the pavement, ripping off the camera.”

One of the Casa Los Cordovas employees said the man, a musician, reportedly, from Las Vegas, had merely stopped to look at the courthouse murals on the county fiesta float, due to a cultural interest (in the famed WPA social realism depictions of justice and the laws by famous Taos artists). But, while picking up the protester’s signs, I found a sign and step stool, kicked over on the ground. The out-of-towner apparently engaged in a cheap kick—vandalism against the First Amendment, not sign thievery.

The alleged musician was cited, according to the town’s patrolman—investigator for “aggravated battery” and “reckless driving.” Northrup was cited for “assault” and “criminal damage” to property. The cops called the DA for instructions prior to the citations. The accused will be arraigned in magistrate court.

In a letter posted on Taos Friction, dated June 26, 2013, the DA, in a letter to Jeff, copied to the Town Police suggested they charge a fellow in a prior incident, saying, “I believe that there is evidence to charge Mr. Cohn and prosecute him with misdemeanor assault. That should be referred back to the police agency and taken care of in Municipal Court. I believe that the charges that the municipal judge threw out dealt with the signs, not Mr. Cohn’s conduct towards you.”

Now the DA and the cops have done their duty. During the ride home from hospital, I advised Jeff to “cool it” for a while. But he is adamant that they will not drive him off the streets. In a contentious community, and despite our political differences and the impulse to retaliate, we must all acknowledge that old National Guard slogan, “safety first” lest somebody get injured or die due to misadventure.

I am a member of Triple A and, due to the nature of traffic accidents or my own problematical vehicles, sometimes rely on the services of Mr. Cohn and his friendly drivers. Years ago, in the summer of 1969, Mr. Cohn’s relative, Stevie, was my first employee, an usher, at the Plaza Theatre. Indeed, I enjoyed his Uncle Robert’s hospitality at El Pueblo Café. We remember Uncle Levi and Cousin Louie (sp) fondly.

I wish that Jeff’s head wasn’t so hard and that the Mayor and Amos might develop thicker skin. Quien sabe?

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