The Ice Cream Man Drives a New Truck

Ben Cohen seems determined to have fun, even when he’s organizing a cross-country grassroots campaign. It should perhaps not be surprising that the man who in 1978 co-founded Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream would take a light-hearted approach to his “Stamp Stampede.” The longtime activist’s latest cause aims at nothing less than a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed for unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns. Cohen’s approach to challenging the law? In partnership with the Move to Amend coalition, he devised a traveling Rube Goldberg-esque device christened the Amend-O-Matic StampMobile. Built into the back of a small cargo truck, the oversized contraption carries cash through a series of colorful gizmos, eventually stamping the bill with a slogan about purging money from the political process. The StampMobile is in the midst of a nationwide tour and is scheduled to be in Boston on Election Day. The campaign encourages citizens to spread messages in support of a constitutional amendment by purchasing rubber stamps online and marking bills themselves. Cohen said he has already personally stamped thousands of bills, and Move to Amend has distributed more than 1,000 rubber stamps. When Pioneer caught up with Cohen by phone, he was taking a break from the campaign and in the middle of a three-day bike tour around Big Sur, California.

Organizers (from left) Ben Cohen, Ashley Sanders, and Renae Widdison with the Amend-O-Matic. Photo by John Cobabe.

Your lawyer claims that stamping money is perfectly legal. Have you had any run-ins with the law since you started the campaign?
No, no run-ins with the law. The only people that have raised concerns about it are members of the public, because it’s a fairly commonly held view that putting marks on dollar bills is not legal, but that’s not the case.

How did you get the idea that stamping money would be an effective way to organize a campaign?
I felt it was really important for people to have a way to visibly demonstrate their support for getting this amendment passed to get money out of politics. I was familiar with a couple of different money stamping projects that kind of provided some inspiration for me. One of them is wheresgeorge.com and the other one is Occupy George. Where’s George? is a project to track how paper currency moves around the country. That thing has been going on for many, many years. There’s been millions and millions and millions of bills stamped. The other stamping project I was inspired by is “Occupy George” and that came out of the Occupy movement. It was by these two grassroots artists in San Francisco, one of them named Ivan Cash, who developed these incredibly well-done graphics that were designed to be stamped on paper currency, that illustrate the economic disparity in the country, how much wealth is owned by the one percent versus the rest of the population.

How would you feel if stamping efforts like these started a trend that led to dollar bills becoming political handbills?
I think it’s interesting. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but the way I see it, stamping money for this Stamp Stampede campaign is kind of like a petition on steroids. When somebody signs a petition and he says something like “well, I support an amendment,” nobody ever really sees it. Maybe eventually one person sees that petition, whoever the target of the petition is. But when you stamp a dollar bill, 900 people see it over the average lifespan of that dollar bill. What I think is the critical part about it is that it’s demonstrating ongoing, massive, accelerating, visible support for this amendment. It will only work when there’s an issue that such a huge percentage of the population supports. That’s the case with this amendment and the desire to get money out of politics. Eighty percent of the population, Republicans and Democrats included, want to get money out of politics. I’m hoping that we will get to the point where it’s considered de rigueur to have your money stamped, that having money in your wallet that’s not stamped is considered to be a faux pas.

On the road, do you get the impression that Americans are angry about the influence of money in politics? Are they aware of the impact of Citizens United?
They’re totally aware that money in politics has corrupted our democracy and that it’s changed the democracy from one person one vote to one dollar one vote. They’re totally aware that politicians don’t represent them, but politicians represent the people who pay them. The average person on the street is well aware that they don’t count, their voice doesn’t count. That’s why half the population doesn’t vote. Money has shut them out of the system, because in order to get a politician to hear you, you have to have donated at least a thousand dollars to that person, and a thousand dollars, that’s the bare minimum. If you’re really want to figure you have to have donated tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That latest headlines we’ve read suggest that Democrats are beginning to embrace Super PACS more and more. How do you react to news like that?
In the current system, politicians have no choice but to raise as much money as they can however they can raise it. We need to change the rules. Until we change the rules, if someone decides “I’m going to let my opponent raise gobs more money than I’m going to raise,” that’s like somebody giving up, throwing in the towel, that’s like going on to the football field with one or two arms tied behind your back. They have to get the money from someone, and they end up getting money from people who are willing to give them gobs of money. The people that are giving gobs of money are giving that money with strings. It’s legalized bribery. It’s incredibly screwed up.

How do you generate the political will to change the rules when everyone has their hands in the cookie jar?
Every once and a while there is a huge outcry from the public insisting that something be done, and when that happens Congress actually acts. In this situation, there’s already been over 300 municipalities that have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment. There’s now nine state legislatures that have passed resolutions calling on Congress to amend the Constitution. There’s over 100 members of Congress who have signed on to an amendment to get money out of politics. This thing is moving. There’s a tremendous amount of momentum behind it.

So you decided to build a Rube Goldberg device. Do you think humor is an effective tool for raising political awareness?
Humor is an incredibly effective tool for all parts of life. Yeah, the Amend-O-Matic stampmobile is humorous. It’s also interesting, it’s also engaging, it’s also artful, and it’s also educational. And it’s really unique. There was a woman named Molly Ivins who said, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” (Editor’s Note: the quotation is usually attributed to the activist Emma Goldman) If we have a chance, if we can amend the Constitution by being really dry and serious, or if we can talk about a really serious need in a fun kind of way, I would choose the latter.

Did you ever consider trying to bribe lawmakers with ice cream?
(Laughing) No. I’m certainly willing to do it if that will get them to sign on to the amendment.

For details about the Stamp Stampede campaign, including an itinerary of upcoming Amend-O-Matic stops, visit http://stampstampede.org.

Buy your own stamp:
http://stampstampede.org/shop/