Jun 042012

How Occupiers, pranksters, and artists speak louder than money.

by Sven Eberlein, reposted from Yes! Magazine

Money talks. Occupy George’s graphic artists highlight who has the wealth in the United States—and who doesn’t—then send those dollars back into circulation. Photo from Occupy George.

Since long before Abbie Hoffman dropped dollar bills over the New York Stock Exchange—unleashing hilarity as Wall Street traders scurried to gather up cash—humor has been a potent political weapon. It can expose the absurdities and inequities of consumer society. It doesn’t need big bucks to be effective or contagious—Occupy has shown that creativity and imagination can be powerful enough to build a national movement. And the Internet and social networking can allow a well-orchestrated prank to reach millions in minutes. Want to use your wit to confront corporate power? Here are creative and inspiring examples.

Truth in Advertising

Corporations may try to influence our perceptions through advertising, but who’s to say activists can’t give their messages a little editing? San Francisco’s Billboard Liberation Front has been “improving” ads for clients ranging from Wachovia Bank to McDonald’s for more than 30 years. One recent campaign helped telecommunications giant AT&T refine its message from an obtuse “AT&T works in more places, like Chilondoscow” (Chicago, London, Moscow, get it?) to the more discerning “AT&T works in more places, like NSA Headquarters.”

“Not only were we helping NSA cut through the cumbersome red tape of the FISA system, we were also helping our customers by handing over their emails and phone records to the government,” read a statement to press from James Croppy, designated by the Billboard Liberation Front as the “AT&T vice president of homeland security.”

Other activists have fought back by getting their own ad space. Canadian artist Franke James launched a crowd-funded ad campaign on bus shelters throughout Ottawa, using her visual essays to call out the Harper administration’s coddling of dirty oil industries. “It’s a great way to change the conversation from consuming stuff to making positive social change happen,” says James.

Mobbing the Lobby

Reverend Billy delivers mountaintop mud—and entertaining political theater—to Chase Bank lobbies. Chase has “financed 80 percent of the mountaintop removal strip mining in Appalachia,” Reverend Billy said. Photos courtesy of Reverend Billy.

The mall, the bank lobby, the retail store—the spaces where ordinary people interact with corporations—are ideal locations for political theater that raises awareness.

Reverend Billy and his “Church of Stop Shopping” are a band of activists on a mission to draw attention to the problems of consumerism. Two years ago, they decided to hold their Easter Sunday service at JPMorgan Chase’s Astor Place branch in Manhattan.

“This is a call to bring the earth back to the bank that has financed 80 percent of the mountaintop removal strip-­mining in Appalachia,” announced Reverend Billy.

Armed with soil sent by activists from West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, they built a little mountain sculpture in front of the ATMs, singing, “There’s a mountain in my lobby!”

Two months later, Chase announced that it would subject all mountaintop removal financing to more extensive review and revealed that it was no longer serving coal company Massey Energy. The Reverend doesn’t claim credit, but he believes the church’s 18-branch campaign may have been “the mosquito in [Chase’s] tent.”

Similarly, in August 2010, a progressive group called the Backbone Campaign used the floor of a Target retail store to stage a flash mob—and draw attention to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations give unlimited campaign contributions. (Target gave $150,000 to the anti-gay, anti-worker candidate for governor of Minnesota.) On a quiet day inside a Seattle Target branch, a group of ordinary-looking people standing beside shopping carts broke into song and dance as a brass band played the 1980s hit “People are People”—with new words and the catchy chorus line, “Target ain’t people, so why should it be / allowed to play around with our democracy?”

The 5-minute, GLEE-style dance party got some of the other shoppers visibly animated and shaking their booties. The YouTube video of the event, created by Agit-Pop Communications, went viral, with over 1.5 million hits.

Artist Franke James designs art and ads addressed to Canada’s prime minister.

Running for Office as a “Corporate Person”

The absurdity of the legal precedent that says corporations are people is hard to ignore. Eric Hensal decided to mock corporate personhood by testing out whether a corporation could run for office. The Murray Hill Inc. for Congress campaign began with a proposal written on a napkin at a Tastee Diner. “I’m driving to meet someone for breakfast one morning, the Citizens United decision comes on, and I’m like, the hell with it, I’m running my corporation for Congress,” says Hensal, owner of the small, Silver Spring, Md., public relations company.
“Murray Hill Inc. for Congress puts a boring subject like campaign finance on a human scale,” says Hensal. “People laugh, but they appreciate the underlying truth behind it.”

Impersonating a Corporation

Occupy Our Homes helps homeowners stand up to banks and sends protesters to camp out at the homes of people facing eviction or foreclosure. Photo by Johnny Nguyen.

Enbridge, an oil company with a long record of spills, planning a pipeline more than 700 miles long through pristine British Columbia wilderness—what could possibly go wrong? Enter the Yes Men’s “MyHairCares” campaign, a flurry of fake press releases under the Enbridge name asking more than 1,000 salons across Canada to collect hair to mop up the oil giant’s future spills.

For years, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, a.k.a. The Yes Men, have been drawing attention to corporate abuses by pretending to be corporate spokesmen. The Yes Lab for Creative Activism’s new “project wizard” allows anyone to cook up the next prank. “Nothing we do is rocket science,” says Bichlbaum. “After coming up with a funny project idea, it’s just a matter of applying elbow grease and connecting with the right people.”
Mic Check

“Mic check?” someone shouts. “MIC CHECK!” the crowd echoes, almost in unison. After the New York police banned the use of electronic amplification in Zuccotti Park, necessity compelled the first Occupiers to prove that the power of a crowd was enough to amplify the messages of the 99 percent. The simple human microphone has come to signify the Occupy movement’s resilience and adaptability. Now, this cheeky “technology” has become a tool for disrupting business as usual with righteous rants. A crowd begins an almost unstoppable call and repeat. They overpower a luncheon at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or interrupt Black Friday sales at Walmart to announce to shoppers that “Walmart could fire its employees for the mere mention of forming a workers’ union.”

University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting is interrupted by students’ “human mic”: “You value funding start-ups instead of students. We are here to reclaim the university. We reject your vision.” Photo by Sasha Kimel.

Disorder in the Court

What can match the legal power of corporations? At a courthouse in Brooklyn, a simple song was enough to drown out the proceedings. In October 2011, members of Organizing for Occupation (O4O), a group of New York City residents formed to respond to the housing crisis, disrupted a foreclosure auction with a song written specially for the arbiter of (in)justice. “Mrs. Auctioneer,” they sang, sadly and beautifully, “all the people here are asking you to hold all the sales right now. We’re hoping to survive, but we don’t know how.” While the singers got escorted out of the courtroom in plastic handcuffs after half an hour, their heroic anthem apparently reached the hearts of potential buyers, and according to reports in Village Voice, only one of the three buildings set to be auctioned that day was sold.


Sven Eberlein wrote this article for 9 Strategies to End Corporate Rule, the Spring 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Sven is a freelance writer living in San Francisco, with roots in Germany. He blogs at svenworld.com.