Woody flies the flag

Harrelson vs. Burrell, Round I: Bites is no fan of celebrity worship, an American phenomenon that has focused our collective attention on the superficial. Nothing has dumbed down our populace more than obsessively following Robert Downey Jr.’s binges, words of wisdom from Survivor castaways or the latest musings on Tom and Nicole’s divorce.

But sometimes, there are unique individuals who use their celebrity status to promote important messages and causes, and one of them rode his bike into Sacramento last week with a message of sustainable living … and with a big middle finger flipped defiantly at The Man.

Actor and activist Woody Harrelson on Friday made Sacramento the latest stop on his “SOL Tour” from Seattle to Los Angeles, spreading the message of Simple Organic Living by leading a caravan of bicycles and a bio-fuel bus that runs on hemp and vegetable oil.

Although the main local event was on campus at California State University at Sacramento, where Harrelson and company spoke with hundreds of students, apparently the real fun happened earlier in the day at the Federal District Courthouse.

Joining Woody’s posse at Sac State was B.E. Smith, who just got out of federal prison after two years. In 1997, Smith decided to test California’s newly enacted Proposition 215 law legalizing medical marijuana by planting a small pot garden on property he leased in Trinity County, notifying both the authorities and news media that he was doing so.

Earlier this year, Harrelson was acquitted on charges related to a similar stunt he pulled back East. But Smith wasn’t so lucky. Although state and local officials refused to prosecute Smith, the federal government did. He was found guilty of felony marijuana cultivation, with his sentence handed down in Sacramento by U.S. District Judge Gerald Burrell Jr., someone Harrelson considers to have a pro-drugwar bias.

So Woody’s bike brigade decided to do a few laps around the federal courthouse upon its arrival in Sacramento, or so he related to the students. While they were circling, who should emerge from the courthouse but Burrell himself.

“You’re a fascist, Burrell!” Harrelson said he yelled at the federal judge, taunting and hounding him until Burrell hurriedly ducked into a nearby eatery, at which Harrelson said he yelled, “Yeah, you better run, you fascist!”

Burrell’s secretary said he wouldn’t comment on the incident, or even confirm or deny whether it occurred, or whether the term “fascist” is a fair term to describe Burrell’s willingness to subvert civil liberties in the name of the police state.

Harrelson’s schtick these days is all about peace, love and voluntary simplicity, but it’s nice to see such noble attributes paired with a fiery sense of political indignation and direct action.

Flying the flag: One more note on Harrelson’s SOL Tour. At each stop along the way, Harrelson’s group asked the crowd to vote on whether the American flag flown by the caravan should be flown respectfully rightside up, or upside down, a distress signal indicating the country is in trouble.

Not only did the Sac State crowd agree with those on previous stops that the flag should be flown upside down these days, but someone in the crowd stepped up to donate an American flag made of hemp fiber, which Harrelson will fly during the rest of his journey.

Mea culpa: Given how quick Bites is to criticize other journalists for relying too heavily on press-release truths and the official party line, it’s time to do some self-flagellation for an item in last week’s column.

As journalist Joshua Chaffin of Capital Public Radio pointed out in an e-mail, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton didn’t attend a Sacramento rally called to support a moratorium on the death penalty as scheduled. And neither, apparently, did Capital Bites, who wrote that Burton was there.

Bites could make a lot of legitimate-sounding excuses and rationalizations, but the bottom line is Chaffin caught Bites in some lazy journalism. It’s nice to know there’s people out there keeping this column honest. So, please accept Bites’ humble apologies, and a pledge to do better in the future.