Burning Desire

The reception area outside of Leah Landrum-Taylor's office smells of burnt toast. Perhaps a file clerk in the House of Representatives has scorched an English muffin this morning -- or maybe someone is trying to intimidate Representative Landrum-Taylor with a subtle warning. If so, they're wasting their time, because Landrum-Taylor is the power behind a new law that will make it illegal to intimidate people by burning things. Crosses, mostly. But also other stuff, thanks in part to an amendment to Landrum-Taylor's bill authored by Senator Jack Harper, who wanted to spare U.S. troops returning from Iraq the indignity of seeing flags destroyed by fire. Which makes about as much sense as a bill about cross burning that isn't really about cross burning anymore.

New Times: Your bill -- which is about to be passed into law -- criminalizes cross burning. Was cross burning really even a problem?

Leah Landrum-Taylor: Yes. And I've had that comment from people: "What was the point? Why bother?" Well, less than two years ago, we had an incident in Prescott where an African-American family who moved there was greeted with a cross burning in their yard.

NT: And it wasn't left by the Welcome Wagon.

Landrum-Taylor: Right. And when it came time to prosecute, there was [no law] specifically related to cross burning.

NT: So until you stepped in, it was legal for me to burn a cross in my own yard. Or in your yard!

Landrum-Taylor: Actually, you're still welcome to burn a cross in your yard.

NT: Okay.

Landrum-Taylor: Well, not welcome to burn a cross in your yard, but if it's on your property, there would be other things you'd have to deal with: public safety and things like that.

NT: Senator Jack Harper amended your bill to include language that would make flag burning a crime. Was he trying to kill your bill?

Landrum-Taylor: I don't know what he was thinking. I wish I could jump into the minds of individuals. If I could do that, wow! Everything would be all taken care of. I've spoken to Senator Harper, and I know [flag burning] was a passionate issue of his, and he wanted to make sure that when people from the military got back [from Iraq], they wouldn't be intimidated by having a flag burned in their yard.

NT: He's kidding, right? That doesn't even make any sense.

Landrum-Taylor: Well, I've heard from veterans and others who have served our country who say, "How dare someone have the audacity to say we're going to be intimidated by anything?" They all felt that it was a kind of an underhanded thing to do, to throw that in there with an issue like [cross burning], which is purely about hate and intimidation. Flag burning is usually a form of protest, and that's a whole other issue. I said to Senator Harper, "If this was such a burning issue in your heart, why didn't you introduce a bill specifically for flag burning?"

NT: You didn't actually say "burning issue," did you?

Landrum-Taylor: Yes, but I meant it literally. I meant if it was an important issue to him.

NT: I see. So, what's his deal? He can't possibly be trying to protect cross burning, can he?

Landrum-Taylor: Well, I would hope not. After speaking with him, I've determined that he felt that the two issues were sort of similar. But after he amended my bill, he realized that wasn't the case. And I do have to speak for my good friend Jack Harper to say that when it went to [the] conference committee, he did publicly apologize for putting the amendment on this bill.

NT: Do you think he meant it?

Landrum-Taylor: Yes. Who would not want to get rid of something like this? Traditionally it's been Jewish and African-American families, and who would not want to protect them? I thought it would be a slam-dunk. Oh, my goodness. I was surprised that anyone would want to tamper with this particular piece of legislation.

NT: But you eventually stripped his flag-burning language away.

Landrum-Taylor: Yes, it's off there now. He and I went back and forth about it, and even veterans were saying, "Take off that flag burning from the cross-burning bill, for Pete's sake, it's apples and oranges."

NT: Criminalizing flag burning seems unconstitutional. And anyway, what if I have an old flag with a tear in it that I just don't want anymore, but I don't want anyone else to have it?

Landrum-Taylor: That's called proper disposal. I remember growing up hearing that if the flag touched the ground, you had to burn it. I don't condone the idea that a flag can be burned for intimidation or any other reason than proper disposal.

NT: What if I accidentally spill some lighter fluid on my flag, and then someone accidentally flicks their Marlboro Menthol onto it?

Landrum-Taylor: Right. Why would you want to jeopardize something like that, where you had no ill intent, it just accidentally happened, and then you're prosecuted for it?

NT: Doesn't it seem like Senator Harper was being racially insensitive?

Landrum-Taylor: (Long pause.) In this particular instance, I think there was a level of insensitivity. I really do. That's why he apologized, I think. Can I raise racial concerns with him? I don't know. But when you look at the bill, it only has to do with nationality and religious practice. It's about discrimination. In the beginning, his level of sensitivity must have been low. But toward the end I think he understood a little better.

NT: Perhaps the senator didn't realize that flag burning is a protected form of free speech.

Landrum-Taylor: I explained that to him, but he kept on moving forward. And there were a lot of people advising him that that's not the way to go, including the Senate staff. But he was just hell-bent on it, and I was floored.

NT: And so you ended up accepting additional wording that imposes punishment on those who burn "any symbol."

Landrum-Taylor: Toward the end there was a compromise, because otherwise we would not have gotten the bill through. We made a compromise because they began saying, "Well, what if other things are burned, what if someone goes out and burns a piece of toast, or the Star of David?" or whatever. I told them, "You'd have to prove that the intent was to threaten or intimidate."

NT: But as it stands now, I could be grilling hamburgers in my yard, and if you're a person for whom cows are sacred . . .

Landrum-Taylor: Or if you went and grilled hamburgers in my yard! If you knew that cows were sacred to me and you started flipping burgers in my front yard -- first of all, you're trespassing. Secondly, you're doing something to intimidate. But it could be that I just moved to the neighborhood and this is how you welcome people to the neighborhood. Which is why I want to look into repealing that broad language in the next session. We've done that before -- we've put bills forward and then cleaned them up later.

NT: In the meantime, it's a crime to burn a cross on someone else's property or on public property, but not on my own property. What if I live across the street from you and a set a giant crucifix ablaze every night in my front yard? Won't you still be offended or threatened or intimidated?

Landrum-Taylor: But I'd have to prove intent to intimidate. Like if you're the only Jewish family on the block, and every night everyone else on the block is burning crosses, you'd still have to prove that it was aimed at you. Right now, we're addressing the issue in increments, in steps. We couldn't say "on all property," we had to say "on personal property." Because, are you kidding? You think if I'd have opened it up to everybody's property, all this would've happened?

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela