Sometimes the camera is bigger than the cause
“I think I see shrimp.”
“Could be sesame seeds.”T
“I think it's cheese. Excuse me, miss, is that cheese?”
Three activists are buying lunch in a café 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 befuddled girl behind the counter about each item's dairy and animal content. 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 Justin Gross, 27. Tall and ruddy-faced, Gross is, for the most part, pleasantly spacey about his motivations. (“Everything deserves respect,” he says, beaming. “Everything is alive.”) But at this moment, he 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 blond whose thrift-store clothes 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 the curse and the blessing of pie.”
Janowski, Gross, and Livernois are part of a larger group (a “movement,” they claim) called the Biotic Baking Brigade (BBB), activists involved in various causes, including animal rights, the hunger relief group Food Not Bombs, and the campaign to free death row celebrity Mumia Abu-Jamal. 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.
In November, they 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 and sentenced to six years in jail. The initial incident made national news—including the front page of The New York Times.
Targeting the “upper crust”—those they believe to be responsible for various corporate crimes—the BBB has tossed pies (organic, of course) in the general direction of economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, and others. The BBB claims affiliation with a “worldwide pastry uprising” that includes the pieing of World Trade Organization director general Renato Ruggiero and, more recently, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.
But only about a quarter of the nearly 40 news stories that covered the Brown pieing mentioned why the Cherry Pie Three did it: to draw attention to city policies that the BBB calls “homeless programs for business owners”—instead of homeless programs for the homeless.
The media focus on the sensationalism of the event rather than on the issues, Janowski says. “There have been articles that say ‘It had something to do with the homeless,’ when our press releases have been very specific about what it has to do with the homeless.”
But BBB press releases call for no specific legislative change, so it's not surprising that the strategy has produced few tangible results. In fact, 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 CNN reporter asked Gross, “Would [it] be fair to describe you as homeless advocates?”
But Gross equivocated. “I'm involved in a variety of things,” he said. “We're all really involved in a variety of things.” The reporter—happy to repeat on international television whatever cause the activist chose to name—pressed on: “But what do you spend most of your time doing?”
Gross grinned. “A lot of things.”
At our lunch near the courthouse, the Cherry Pie Three and their attorney, Katya Komisaruk, grapple with the paradox of 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. “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 . . . 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 so much meaning is attached to everything? “You get pretty angry,” she says quietly. “Some of my friends are angry all the time.”
Gross looks out the window. “Just to be alive,” he says, “you're complicit in—for lack of a better term—crimes.”
From Mother Jones (March/April 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Box 469024, Escondido, CA 92046-9024. © 1999 Foundation for National Progress.