Pie not a protest medium

Last year at this time, the first whispers about Monica Lewinsky were appearing in the national media. Since that time, we have had more than our share of weird political stories: from our anti-tobacco president’s strange penchant for cigars, to a sex scandal involving a president who has been dead for nearly two centuries, to Minnesota’s new governor and his history of elbow-dropping opponents. But, by far, the strangest political development of the year took place in, you guessed it, San Francisco.

Mayor Willie Brown always seems to be in the press, and usually for something only vaguely related to politics. Such was the case on November 7, when four protesters from the Biotic Baking Brigade interrupted a speech kicking off his third Great Sweep of the City cleanup campaign with three home-baked pies.

The group was protesting policies that it says criminalize the city’s homeless, calling Brown’s campaign the “Great Homeless Sweep.” The Biotic Baking Brigade throws baked goods at famous people to draw attention to environmental and social causes. The group chooses its targets by taking informal surveys of friends and random strangers in pubs.

Members of the brigade call themselves “American operatives” of Belgian Noel Godin’s International Patisserie Brigade, which recently pied Bill Gates. Other recent victims of the BBB include Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Charles Hurwitz, CEO of Maxxam (which owns Pacific Lumber and the Headwaters Forest in Northern California).

Willie Brown has needed a pie (or three) in the face for some time now. Before he became “Da Mayor,” Brown made boss politics into an art form in the California State Assembly. This is the same man who, after Forty-Niners quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a crucial interception in a 1996 loss to the Green Bay Packers, said, “He’ll never work in any stadium of mine.” This is the same person who was once a supporter of the infamous Critical Mass bicycle rides, until one day he got stuck in traffic during one such ride, and forever reversed his course on alternative transportation.

Brown came out of the incident with a sprained ankle, damaged pride and a reputation for not being able to laugh at himself. The three members of the brigade who actually heaved the pies came out of it with a lot of puns about them in newspaper headlines (“Pie verdict slices two ways,” “Pie-throwers get their just desserts,” etc.) and six-month jail sentences for misdemeanor battery.

The jury acquitted them of assault on a public official. One of the protesters also broke his clavicle when a security guard wrestled him to the ground in the ensuing melee. Neither side is happy with the verdict. Defense lawyers called the verdict “half-baked.” Da Mayor snarled, “I guess the jury doesn’t think I’m a public official.” Jurors wanted to dismiss the case as an act of comedy rather than battery.

Juror Susan Cassidy said she and her colleagues were unconvinced that the act was retaliation for the mayor’s policies, an essential ingredient in convicting for assaulting a public official. A likely story, seeing that every protester freely admitted that Willie got creamed because of his anti-homeless policies.

In the end, Operation Free Willie was entertaining.

“No matter what, we win and they look stupid,” said Jeff Larson, 29, a San Francisco man accused of smearing Monsanto Corp. (producers of genetically engineered foods) CEO Robert Shapiro on Oct. 26. “If the government can’t laugh at itself, then maybe the people should.”

But the implications this incident are not funny at all (at least not that funny). Home-baked projectiles are amusing in the hands of a small number of yippie protesters, but these weapons of mass hilarity could easily fall into the wrong hands.

Suppose a Christian Right organization took to pieing anyone whom they had targeted as a supporter of gay rights: that is only one step away from a pie in the face of every (suspected) gay person.

More serious than that, though, is the fact that we cannot have everybody running around hurling pastries at each other; that is not a functioning system of government.

The BBB hopes to “inspire others to take up pastry throwing as a weapon of struggle,” said a protester who insisted on referring to himself as Agent Apple.

Let’s hope that it fails. But in the meantime, consider bringing your topping of choice next time you go to watch President Payne make a speech.