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The Roundtable

"Freak Power" Recounts Hunter S. Thompson's Upstart Run For Sheriff

"Freak Power" movie poster
"Freak Power"
"Freak Power" movie poster

Many of the debates in today’s politics were predicted by a local election from 50 years ago: expanding the electorate, protecting the environment, and the role of the police. The election: a race for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado. The candidates: the incumbent and…Hunter S. Thompson. The campaign and its legacy are the focus of the new documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” co-directed by Ajax Phillips.

Before we talk about Hunter Thompson, let's talk about you for a minute. You're a filmmaker now, based in the West, but you're from the Capital Region originally, right?

Yep, that's right. I grew up in Saratoga Springs. And I went to the Waldorf School there, and then I went to Skidmore College.

How did that upbringing influenced your art?

I think going to a Waldorf School definitely had a big impact. It's very creative, and it's very project focused. And then Skidmore was also, you know, really great creative, intellectual experience.

Let's turn to the film. I really enjoyed it, and it was also a part of Hunter Thompson's background that, you know, I think maybe most people don't know about, how did you get interested in this particular story?

So my co-director, DJ Watkins, wrote a book on Thomas W. Benton, who was an artist and activist here in Aspen. And while he was writing that book, he started coming across all this material of Hunter’s campaign, and realize that very few people knew that Hunter had run for sheriff and they had no idea that he had written all of this material about law enforcement, and protecting the environment. So he decided to write a book called freak power. And I edited that book. And then in 2017, a friend of ours found one reel of 16 millimeter footage in a barn that said Hunter Thompson for Sheriff on it. And of course, because DJ had written the book, they went to him and DJ digitized the film. And that was when we realized, wow, this is this is footage that nobody's ever seen before. So we went to the family of the cinematographer who had shot the original footage. And they found 40 more reels in their archive that they didn't know that they had.

So during the campaign and the run up to Election Day, the people around Hunter Thompson, were really interested in documenting things day by day. I mean, they just left a raft of footage, right?

Yeah, I think people had a sense that, what they were doing, that what Hunter was doing, and the whole campaign itself was something really unique. And it was something that they felt, might have a life after the campaign. I think because Hunter lost, the project kind of got shelved. And then over time, it was just sort of forgotten that this footage even existed.

People probably are familiar with the caricature of Hunter Thompson, that what is remembered today. But where was he in terms of his own development and his career at the time of this particular election?

At that point in Hunter’s career, Hunter wasn't that well known. So he had written “Hells Angels.” And he was, you know, a moderately successful journalist. But he was very serious and very kind of committed to political social change. At that point in his life. He had been to the 1968 DNC in Chicago and seeing the police brutality there. And he felt that getting involved in the political system trying to challenge the establishment was the only way that it would be possible to affect change in the U.S.

What was the city like in Aspen? Because it seems like based on your film, he really was surrounded by a lot of like-minded people, you know, people who had come for the beauty and for the free living, so to speak.

Yeah. So in the 50s, Aspen became this kind of secret hideout for artists and intellectuals. And the Aspen Institute was founded. And a lot of artists and writers and actors would come here in the summertime. And so it was this cool kind of place that people would gather together. And the word kind of got out in the late 60s that this was a really special place. And after the Summer of Love on the west coast, a lot of hippies started moving here. And the hippies were seen as a threat to kind of the ski tourism development faction here in town.

How did Hunter Thompson decide that he would run for sheriff?

He had actually run the campaign for this other guy, Joe Edwards the year before who was running for mayor on the same kind of freak power platform. And they had realized, wow, this is something that's really starting to get traction, Joe only lost by six votes. And so then Hunter, who lived in the county, Hunter didn't live in the city, so he couldn't run for mayor. And I think he just liked the idea of running for sheriff had this, you know, there's that kind of wild west persona around the sheriff. And so I think it appealed to the theatrical side of him.

There's a question that kind of runs through the entire film, which is just how seriously was he taking the campaign? Was it a put-on? Was it a publicity stunt? Or did he really have a platform, you know, based in police reform, and so on? Do you have an idea of the answer to that question?

No, I think some things can be ambiguous. I think, with him, it was he was seriously involved in politics locally, it was not a game for him in terms he was already very committed, very involved. He was going to city council meetings, he was going to, you know, various different social organizing meetings in the valley. I think initially, he thought he would run a campaign that was so weird and so wild, that he would be able to kind of push the whole conversation to the left, and get some of these other candidates who were also running down ballot from him elected because they would seem much more reasonable compared to him. But then as the campaign gain traction, he realized, wow, this is getting really serious. And I actually have a possibility of winning. And if we win, we can really take on reforming the law enforcement system here.

It seems from your film that he even if he won, he didn't want to be day to day sheriff, you know, carrying a gun and going around the county, right? He saw himself and as sort of a potential ombudsman on behalf of the public who would have a seat at the table in terms of local law enforcement.

Absolutely. He wanted to be kind of the people, lobbyists and sort of the political philosopher behind the sheriff's department.

So tell us a little bit about the incumbent. Hunter Thompson was running against Pitkin County Sheriff Carroll Whitmire. He seemed like he was out of central casting in terms of an opponent for Thompson.

He was so old school, so traditional, not challenging and kind of the establishment idea of what the sheriff's office was in any way.

Give us a sense of the motley crew that came to surround Hunter Thompson during this campaign. Your movie shows a lot of different thinkers and visual artists and, you know, people who are working on radio ads. It seems like kind of a fun place to hang out.

Yeah, I think Hunter’s secret magic to kind of making a local political race into something that was so exciting and kind of sexy, was that he would bring all these artists in and just kind of let them have free rein rather than trying to, you know, give them some kind of really tight directed thing of Oh, make a campaign poster for me. He’d say, OK, go for it. Yeah, you want you want to try doing this crazy thing? Why don't we see what happens with that? And I think that really empowered people and made people more excited about his campaign.

What was the role of Rolling Stone in all of this?

So the first article Hunter ever wrote for Rolling Stone was about his campaign for sheriff. And it deals with his campaign for Sheriff and kind of the bigger issues in Aspen that had to do with law enforcement. It was actually the first civil rights case in Colorado that was ever filed was filed against the local police here for harassing the hippies. And so that was a big issue in town. And then the other thing was development and the environment because 1970 was sort of this watershed year when Aspen really was having an existential crisis about what kind of development it wanted to embrace.

So along those lines, how did the town react to his campaign?

In the city of Aspen, he won. He lost in the county. There was a lot of speculation afterwards about whether or not it was just because they had not done enough campaigning outside the city or if it was because people were so much more conservative outside the city. But I think in the town itself, people had gotten to a point where they really didn't want more of this large scale development that we see in resorts like Vale.

What was meant by freak power?

He basically was essentially co-opting this term that was often used for hippies at that point. It was, you know, just like an alternative word for hippie or for longhair. And then power was the idea that these people who were disenfranchised, who were the freaks and the hippies, and kind of the dispossessed, were going to own their own political power and try to take back the system.

And at a certain point during the campaign, your film shows that Hunter Thompson was threatened to a certain degree that got very scary in the closing days. Give us a sense of how that played out.

So essentially, the establishment here at some point realized that Hunter was becoming a really viable threat to them, there was actually a third candidate who was running, named Glenn Rex, and he was running on the Republican ticket. And he was there was a backdoor deal where the Republicans agreed that they would all vote for Whitmire in order to prevent Hunter from being elected. And along with that, in addition to that, what happened was that the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms got called in, and they decided to plant an agent provocateur in Hunter’s campaign, and try to incite violence and get Hunter and Hunter’s friends arrested for saying that they were going to do something like blow up the bridge into Aspen. Because at the time, the feds and the ATF thought that Hunter and his friends were affiliated with the Weatherman, who were a major left-wing kind of terrorist group in the United States at the time.

And so how did that play out? They had to go basically into hiding late in the campaign, right?

Yeah. Hunter had his house called Owl Farm, and it was up a valley that was pretty isolated. So they sort of, they started these kind of armed patrols of the property. And Hunter was sort of hiding out up there. And there was just this sense that something really terrible could potentially happen, because this was 1970. And there had been a lot of, of political assassinations at that time, including Fred Hampton, who was a Black Panther activist in Chicago had been assassinated the year before by the FBI while he was sleeping in his bed.

What was his platform in terms of drugs?

He was a full advocate for legalizing marijuana, he believed that, you know, it was ridiculous to have  marijuana be illegal. And then in terms of other drugs, I think he thought that it should be treated more as a community issue where we need to help regulate the distribution, and we need to help people who have addiction issues.

So it comes down to election night. And your film shows something that really surprised me, which was that they seem pretty surprised that they lost. They thought they had a good chance at it.

Yeah, they, I mean, they really there were 54 articles nationwide on Hunter’s campaign. And the weeks before the election, he was in the New York Times, he was in the LA Times he was in the Washington Post. NBC came and did a spot on him. There was just as feeling of this tremendous momentum. And as I said before he won in the city, and he lost in the county. So in the city itself, which is where his campaign headquarters was, there was this feeling that, Yeah, of course, we're going to win. Everybody supports us. So I think they were quite shocked when they lost. And I think a big factor in them losing was partly that they hadn't campaigned outside the city and partly that the Republicans and Democrats consolidated their vote behind Whitmire.

He was early on in his career at this point. Was that his last foray into politics, electoral politics?

That was the last time he ran for office. He did actually talk about running for Senate in 72. There was, you know, there was a conversation going on about whether or not it would be good idea for him to run. But I think the opposition to try to take him out, I think really soured him in terms of wanting to run again.

Your film features interviews with a lot of the people who worked on the campaign. Obviously, Hunter Thompson is not around anymore to talk about it. But from the people that you spoke to for this project, what do they see as the legacy of this particular moment in in Aspen politics?

I think the biggest thing is that our scene here is so different from most other places in the country. And I think that that is in large part the legacy of Hunter’s campaign. There's a focus on compassionate law enforcement, on, you know, treating addiction issues as mental health issues. And on trying to, you know, not incarcerate people. If it's not absolutely necessary.

You live there now. The things that he warned about, have they come true 50 years later?

Oh, you know, I think, to some extent, in 1972, a couple of the people who were involved in Hunter’s campaign actually won county commissioners seats, and they were able to prevent a lot of the large scale development that was being proposed here at the time, they were talking about putting in several 20 to 30,000 unit condo complexes here, and none of those ever actually happened. In terms of the kind of glamorization, and the kind of hyper development of Aspen, a lot of that ultimately did come to pass. And unfortunately, you know, this is probably one of the most expensive places in the United States to live today.

On the other hand, Colorado was one of the first to legalize marijuana.

Yes, and I think Hunter’s efforts, and a lot of people who were supporters of Hunter got involved very early on in something called NORML, which was a group of lawyers that were working on legalizing marijuana. And Hunter was always very involved with that group.

What's his legacy like in town now?

I mean, Hunter is still probably our, you know, number one legend, local legend here. He's still very much deified, and everybody's got some hilarious story about Hunter’s antics.

I just have one more question about how you actually put this film together. How do you take, you know, 40 boxes of film that hasn't been seen in many decades and craft a narrative out of it? What was that process like?

That was a really challenging process. So one of the really interesting things when you're using old film is that the audio and the footage are not actually they're not linked together, right. So you have to find you have to sync the two of them together. So a big part of the challenge was actually going through the footage and going through the audio and finding where those two connected to each other. And often we would find footage where we couldn't find the audio or we had audio where we couldn't find the footage. And so you just basically, when you're doing a historical doc, you have to really lean into what you have, you have to be super accepting of what you have and what you don't have. I think for us, as we as the film starts to take shape, we realize that a lot of the national issues in 1970 were so relevant for right now. And also, so many people don't know who are younger, younger people don't know what was going on in 1970 that we also felt that it was really important to bring some of the backstory of what was happening in the country at the time.

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