Parked on Union Square West, in front of a nondescript NYU dorm, sits a truck painted in primary colors. There’s a carnival awning on it. It’s high noon, and the shade seems like a nice place to get out of the swelter.
A modest crowd is gathered, less frothing political rally and more absent passersby watching older men tinkering with a Rube Goldberg machine on the back of a car. By 12:30 the crowd is mostly people who heard some white guy was passing out dollar bills.
Said white guy, Ben Cohen, co-founder and co-namesake of Ben & Jerry’s , was stopped in Union Square on his tour across the country spreading word of his latest political project (the dessert potentate’s Wikipedia page states that “Cohen has been described as a hippie or an ex-hippie.”)
Called the Stamp Stampede, Cohen and his team use the elaborate contraption on the back of the truck to stamp $1 bills with the message “not to be used for bribing politicians,” a startlingly simple ad campaign in support of a constitutional amendment to put an end to money in politics and corporate personhood. It’s his way of taking on Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that certified money as free speech and affirmed that corporations are people, too.
Cohen talked with the Voice while fixing a perpetually breaking-down machine about touring with Crosby, Stills and Nash, what it takes to build an 12-foot-high stamp, and why Arkansas is the frontier of a post-Citizens United world.
So where are these dollars coming from?
My pocket! These dollars that we’re stamping? Yeah, they’re coming right out of my pocket.The more important thing is where are these dollars going. You know when you put a dollar into circulation, a stamped dollar into circulation 875 people see it as it gets passed around. So putting this message, “not to be be used for bribing politicians,” on $1 bills is an incredibly effective way of spreading the movement to amend the constitution to get money out of politics. You know normally, it costs millions and millions of dollars to get your message out, but in this situation, if one person wants to stamp five bills a day over the course of a year, 1 million people will see this message. It’s kind of like a petition on steroids.
Did you get the idea to stamp the bills from Where’s George [a popular dollar-stamping community]?
Yup, Where’s George was an inspiration, and there was another site called Occupy George. Where’s George is the most successful money stamping project ever. They’ve stamped over 200 million bills. I’ve gotten to know the guy who started that and we talk about bill-stamping together.
What goes into setting up and maintaining a Rube Goldberg machine to stamp people’s money?
I had a lot of help. It’s an ongoing process to put it together. The first guy who worked on it was a guy named Allen Rory in Oakland, and then there were some people who worked on it Arizona. Of course I’ve been working on it, and then there was a team in Vermont that worked on it. The first week in July we’re bringing it back to Vermont. We’ve got another team of people, including some process engineers from Ben & Jerry’s, who are going to help tweak it up a bit.
I’m usually pretty surprised by activism on this issue from wealthier people or people who are in big business. How do you get around that elephant in the room?
You know, the idea of life is not just to go around acting in your own self-interest. The idea of life is to help other people. You know, it’s, like, written in the Bible, isn’t it? As you help others you’re helped in return; as you give you receive. You know, the idea is happiness. And you know when you help other people, it generates a lot of happiness–it’s contagious, it goes around. And when you’re just helping yourself you can’t get enough money to make you happy.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the earlier part of the tour you were travelling with Crosby, Stills and Nash. What was behind that?
Yeah, they’re really on board with this issue. They were very active in terms of the McCain-Feingold regulations which were struck down by [Citizens United]. So they’re still very active in it. They were wearing [The Stamp Stampede] T-shirts on stage, and talking about it from the stage. It was great.
By touring with Crosby, Stills and Nash, it’s hard not to evoke the political ethos of the ’60s. Or is that just me?
Well, there’s been political activism since the founding of our country which I believe was a revolution. I mean, that’s kind of like major political activism. Just to let your readers know, in honor of the birth of our country, we are gonna have pay-what-you-can month at the stampstampede.org. So normally the stamps cost $10, but due to the generosity of some anonymous donor you can name your own price during the month of July. Get a stamp for anything you wanna pay and stamp a lot of money. That’s how I’ve been signing off my e-mails lately: S.M.B.O.–“stamping my balls off.”
Your tour has been splitting the difference between places like Northampton, Massachusetts, Middlebury, Vermont, and Jacksonville, Florida. Was that a deliberate choice, going deep into Conservative territory and also places that might already be on board with the message?
Well, we’re going all around the country. Actually, we’re starting to think about where we’re gonna be going in 2014. One of the places we’re gonna go is Arkansas. We believe that Arkansas might be one of the first states in the South that will pass a resolution in favor of this constitutional amendment. We’re partnering more and more now with other organizations, like People for the American Way, and Common Cause, and Public Citizen, and Move to Amend, because they’re working on these state resolutions, so we want to be going to be going to the states that are working on the resolutions.
Why did you pick Union Square? Is there some symbolic gesture you’re trying to make?
You know, we picked Union Square just because there’s a bunch of people around. We had thought about Times Square and we just thought it was too crazy there. I’m really happy that we’re here actually. Good people downtown.