The Medium is the Meringue

Pie-throwing protesters who take their slapstick seriously

"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.

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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 (see "Innocence by Association"), 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 crème 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."