Pie-throwing protesters who take their slapstick seriously FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 18 Apr 1999 01:10:33 -0700 (PDT)


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http://www.motherjones.com:80/mother_jones/MA99/cox2.html
FWD  Mother Jones - March/April 1999

     THE MEDIUM IS THE MERINGUE

     Pie-throwing protesters who take their slapstick seriously

     Ana Marie Cox


"I think I see shrimp."

"That's cheese."

"Could it be sesame seeds."

"I think it's cheese. Excuse me, miss, is that cheese?"

Three activists are buying lunch in a cafe across from San Francisco's Hall
of Justice, where they have just been assigned a judge for trial. They
press their faces against the glass display case and interrogate the mildly
befuddled girl behind the counter about the specific dairy and animal
content of each item. Not quite getting the point, she offers to add cheese
to something.

It's not easy being an activist these days.

"We can hold rallies 'til we turn blue in the proverbial face, and the
media doesn't care," says one of the three, Justin Gross, 27. Tall and
ruddy-faced, Gross is, for the most part, pleasantly spacey about his
activist motivations. ("Everything deserves respect. Everything is alive,"
he says, beaming.) But at this moment, he feels frustrated and slips into
sarcasm: "Oh, another rally in San Francisco."

Gerard Livernois, 34, leans in over his fruit salad, his goatee thrust
forward. "Even extreme banner-hanging doesn't get much media attention
these days," he says.

"You know several times a month, there's going to be a march," says Rahula
Janowski.

"Several times a week," interrupts Gross.

Janowski, 27, is a scruffy, slender blonde whose thrift-store clothes ("I'm
not going to buy something new," she says) and straightforward intensity
suggest Michelle Pfeiffer by way of Burlington, Vermont. "To catch people's
attention, it's got to be something bigger and different," she says. "Which
is," she continues, "the curse and the blessing of pie."

Janowski, Gross, and Livernois are just a small part of a larger group (a
"movement," they claim) called the Biotic Baking Brigade (BBB). They are
activists in a variety of causes, including the campaign to free Mumia
Abu-Jamal, animal rights, and the hunger-relief group Food Not Bombs, and
among them the three have been to hundreds of protests -- but nothing
they've ever done has brought them as much attention as throwing pies. Pies
solved what had been an insolvable problem, and each of them understood
this from the moment the group heard about pie-throwing as a tactic.

Says Janowski: "I think the pieings proved you don't have to march around
in circles all the time."

She admits it almost doesn't seem fair. "Having been involved in radical
activism for a long time, being involved in organizing events that are
geared to get attention, like doing housing takeovers and things like that,
which almost never get any press...and here's this thing that didn't take
any organizing or long-term planning or anything like that," she says,
shaking her head. "The irony still kind of strikes me: how [many] good,
dedicated, organized things happen that get ignored, [things] that are the
sum of a lot of really dedicated work, and then this...gets so much press.

"I think people are going to take up pies when they read this," she says.

In November, Janowski, Gross, and Livernois became known as the Cherry Pie
Three for their pieing of San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. In the scuffle
that ensued, one of Brown's entourage wrestled Janowski to the ground with
enough force to break her collarbone; all three were arrested and charged
with misdemeanor battery and assault on a public official. In January, they
were found guilty on the battery charge, but innocent of assault. The
initial incident made national news -- including the front page of the New
York Times.

Targeting the "upper crust" -- those they believe to be otherwise
"unaccountable" for a variety of corporate crimes -- the BBB has tossed
pies in the faces (or general direction) of 11 individuals besides Brown,
including the economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, Monsanto CEO
Robert Shapiro, Novartis Corporation CEO Douglas Watson, San Francisco city
supervisor Gavin Newsom, Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz, and Sierra Club
executive director Carl Pope. In addition, the BBB claims affiliation with
a "worldwide pastry uprising" that includes the pieing of World Trade
Organization director general Renato Ruggiero.

If nothing else, the trial of the Cherry Pie Three and Janowski's
collarbone give the actions of the BBB an edge of seriousness that one
might not normally associate with tactics of such vaudevillian origins. The
BBB's press releases and other calls to action mention both her injury and
the charges brought against the group as examples of how, "yet again,
justice has clearly not been served, which is why the BBB dishes up
delicious mischief in the first place."

During their trial, the lawyers for the Cherry Pie Three argued that
pie-throwing is an act of political protest. More than once, defense
attorney Katya Komisaruk remarked that "throwing a pie is like burning the
flag."

Actually, says the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, "it's like being slugged. The
pie has nothing to do with it -- it's the fist behind the pie."

The BBB traces its roots back to the yippies and to the "Great American
Pieman," '70s activist Aron Kay, as well as to the more recent pastry
antics of Noël Godin, the mastermind behind the February 1998 pieing
of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in Belgium and the earlier "entartments" of
filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and novelist Marguerite Duras. A major difference
between those antecedents and the BBB's activities is the way the BBB
connects pieing to a whole framework of beliefs and causes.

Al Decker threw the BBB's first pie in August 1997. Now a de facto
spokesman for the BBB, Decker, 27, ends press conferences and phone calls
with such salutations as, "It's a good day to pie" and the more casual,
"Pie-pie." An environmental activist for more than six years, he was
working in Humboldt County when he heard that Charles Hurwitz, the CEO of
Maxxam (the parent company of Pacific Lumber, a logging firm in the
Northern California county) was in the area.

"I had heard about yippies throwing pies at political figures," says
Decker, "though I couldn't tell you who or what." He also knew that Earth
First! had attempted to pie a Washington state official in 1988.

"I heard Hurwitz was in town and the first thing that came into my head
was, 'Hurwitz is going to get pied,'" he says.

Decker advocates throwing pies because, he explains, "it's a visual
Esperanto...a universal expression of criticism and disdain." And, he says,
"you'll see activists laugh more about this than you will just about any
other form of activism." I ask if that's really saying very much. Decker
replies: "This may be the best we can do."

They're not even real pies. Using organic ingredients, including tofu and
various nondairy substitutes, the BBB for the most part tosses pies bereft
of milk or eggs. This makes for pies that tend to soften quickly, becoming
drippy and perhaps less theatrical than one would expect. "The vegan ones
don't hold together so well," says Decker. "There have been emergencies
when we've needed a pie immediately. In that case, we've usually gone to
local stores. You know, we want to support community stores whenever
possible."

After the Brown incident, the BBB said that they will no longer use cherry
or any other red filling that could possibly be mistaken for blood.

At one BBB rally, four vegan desserts are served: a fruit cobbler, two tofu
creme pies, and a faux lemon tart. The cobbler is delicious. The lemon
tart, with a translucent, gelatinous filling that looks like cloudy Jell-O,
goes untouched for some time.

In terms of sheer coverage, the Brown event is without a doubt the BBB's
most successful exploit. "It was one of the lead stories on NPR," says the
brigade's minister of communications, Mark Liiv. "We got international
coverage," he continues, pressing into my palm a faxed clipping from the
Turkish Daily News. Because it is typical of the coverage received -- and
because it's only two sentences long -- it is worth citing in full:

San Francisco mayor Willie Brown was nailed in the face with an assortment
of desserts by pie-throwing demonstrators. It was the fifth attack in four
weeks by the Biotic Baking Brigade, whose members pitch baked goods to draw
attention to a series of environmental and social causes.

Of the nearly 40 news stories that covered the trio's pieing of Brown, only
about one quarter mentioned exactly why the Cherry Pie Three did it: to
draw attention to a series of city policies that the BBB calls "homeless
programs for business owners" instead of homeless programs for the homeless.

"My problem with it has been that the media tends to focus on the
sensationalism of the event...rather than address the issues that we were
addressing," Janowski says. "I mean, there have been articles that say,
'[It] had something to do with the homeless,' when we've been really
specific with our press releases about what it has to do with the homeless."

But the BBB's press releases call for no specific legislative change, and
without such an agenda, it's not surprising that the strategy produced few
tangible results. What it did create was a counterattack by Brown's
supporters, who, incredibly, claimed that by pieing Brown (an African
American) the group exhibited racist behavior. Confronted with attacks on
its own politics, the BBB quickly apologized to Brown supporters for how
the act could have been perceived, and met with some of them to, as
Komisaruk puts it, "try to get some healing out of this."

The Brown episode is not the BBB's only misstep. Says Pope: "They pied me
because they believed I had not opposed the Quincy Library bill," a
legislative attempt environmentalists claim will increase logging in
California's northeastern forests. But, he says, the Sierra Club did fight
it: "[That is] a bill both the Sierra Club and I spent an enormous amount
of time and energy opposing." Pope's annoyance with the misplaced anger of
the BBB is only exacerbated by what he sees as the short attention span of
the media. "The press covering this is not saying, Do these people know
anything about the issues they're talking about? They're saying, These pie
people threw a pie."

Pope points out that if the BBB's pie-throwing is really a response to the
media's refusal to cover more sedate forms of protest, then it has chosen
the wrong targets. "If they really want to make that point, then they
should pie your editors," he says. "If that's the problem -- the media --
then why are they pieing either Monsanto or Carl Pope?"

Still, the combination of misinformation and shallow journalism makes for
protest that is, Pope says, "utterly ineffective, if the payoff is 'I got
in the newspaper.'"

But clearly, if journalists have mishandled the BBB's political message,
they've had a certain degree of help from the pie throwers themselves.

According to a BBB press release, Shapiro, the CEO of Monsanto, got his
because of his company's "aggressive global takeover of seed, chemical, and
pharmaceutical companies, with an aim to control world food distribution."
The language is a bit inflammatory, but the BBB's basic point is grounded
in fact.

Watson, the CEO of Novartis, and Gordon Rausser, the dean of the college of
natural resources at the University of California at Berkeley, were pied to
express the BBB's contempt for the university's partnership with the
biotech firm. While the activists didn't go to great lengths to explain why
such a relationship could be bad, they did succeed in bringing attention to
the issue.

The reasoning behind the group's choice of other targets is less precise. A
recent press release heralds a future operation "code-named 'Pie2K,'"
which, says the BBB, "will target computer industry executive[s] and
consultants." Arguing that "the people have judged them guilty of gross
(disgusting, really) negligence over the course of several decades," the
press release calls the Y2K bug "one of the most striking examples of the
inherent flaws in capitalism [that]...reveal the inherent vulnerability of
technology itself, as well as the hubris and shortsightedness of the
technocrats who have computerized everything they possibly could in the
short time computers have been in existence. The proper response, truly, is
a shower of pies across the nighttime sky upon Silicon Valley."

A letter of support the BBB disseminated managed to bring in references to
the new San Francisco Giants stadium currently being built, Mumia
Abu-Jamal, the "mysterious" death of a San Francisco poll worker, and the
international labor movement. Then there's Decker's statement on the BBB's
targeting of Milton Friedman, a free market economist whose ideas were a
chief influence behind the economic policies of Chile's former Pinochet
regime. "We hold Milton Friedman responsible for crimes against the
people," Decker said in a press release. Friedman, charged Decker, supports
"globalization and 'free trade' policies which have brought the world
poverty, misery, starvation, and ecological devastation." At the end of his
statement, Decker goes so far as to link Friedman to the recent death of an
Earth First! activist who was killed by a falling tree while protesting
Maxxam's timber operations in the Headwaters Forest.

At times it seems as though the BBB members' own best intentions work
against their chances of being understood. During the trial of the Cherry
Pie Three, a reporter from CNN asks Gross, "Would [it] be fair to describe
you as homeless advocates?" But Gross equivocates.

"I'm involved in a variety of things," he says. "We're all really involved
in a variety of things."

The CNN reporter -- happy to repeat on international television whatever
specific cause the activist chooses to name -- presses on: "But what do you
spend most of your time doing?"

Gross grins: "A lot of things."

At our lunch near the courthouse, the Cherry Pie Three and Komisaruk
grapple with the paradox of their media coverage.

Komisaruk is practical. "Novelty is critical.... Pieing is currently the
tactic of the moment. In order to flourish, we'll have to come up with
something else," she says. "[The] media doesn't cover the same old, same
old. Unless you can bring out a huge number of people to your
demonstration, you're not going to get anything.

"The purpose of these strategies," she adds, "is to get people's attention,
which means getting the media's attention."

Janowski peels the mozzarella off her sandwich. "The passage of history has
sped up," she says. Sped up so fast, she says, that it's hard to figure out
an appropriate response to these times of rapid technological evolution.
"To use the term 'revolution' is a slap in the face. We are philosophically
cast adrift; we don't have ways to put what's going on into context."

What is going on, exactly?

"Once you start looking at where things come from...." Janowski searches
for an example. "Like, being vegan I'm not going to eat this cheese,
because the process that creates this cheese, I feel, is unhealthy. But
once you start tracking things back to the source....

"Like, I'm a lot more offended to see someone wearing gold than I am to see
someone eating cheese, because the process of gold extraction is bad for
the environment, it's bad for the animals [in that environment], it's bad
for the people -- [and] it's usually native people. Once you look at things
that way, you're done for. You just can't be a willing participant in
consumer society anymore."

What does it feel like to walk around in a world where there is so much
meaning attached to everything?

"You get pretty angry," she says quietly. "Some of my friends are angry all
the time." Adds Livernois, "I really only hang out with other animal rights
activists and ACT UP people."

Gross looks out the window. "Just to be alive," he says, "you're complicit
in -- for lack of a better term -- crimes."

The optimism of Daniel McGowan, 24, flags just momentarily during the time
that we talk. One of the two BBB members who pied Watson, he speaks of the
effect it had, deeming that operation a success. "Prior to pieing, the only
coverage I saw talked about 'the glorious alliance' between the company and
the university," he says. "After, there was a lot of critical coverage."
But when I ask to see some of that coverage, he rummages through the stack
of papers stuffed into his Garfield folder and comes up empty. He shrugs.
"Maybe I spoke too soon."

END FORWARD

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