A PIE IN THE FACE (2003)

"Anyone with a pie and a vision of a better world can be a member of the BBB."
—Agent Lemon Meringue of the Biotic Baking Brigade.

Early this month a lawyer who represented APEC protesters, Cameron Ward, was arrested by police while attending a Vancouver appearance by Jean Chretien.

Police said they had information someone was planning to toss a pie at the prime minister. They arrested a person in the crowd who apparently met the description of the suspected pie-tosser — along with Ward, who says police nabbed him as he was walking toward his car.

Ever since August of 2002, when Jean Chretien was nailed with a cream pie in Charlottetown by the Prince Edward Island Pie Brigade, the RCMP has been diligent to ensure one fling doesn’t lead to another.

Cameron Ward denies he had a pie in his trunk, intended for the prime minister, as police contend. (If Ward is telling the truth, it raises the interesting possibility that Vancouver police are using preemptive strikes on pies, real or imagined, as a pretext for arrests. Most Canadians would probably condemn this as a half-baked idea.)

Yet there is no denying there has been a brisk business in airborne flakery in the past ten years, across the globe. The protester’s flung pie has become something of a position pastry, with the toss as the text.

You might even say the meringue is the message.

And who knows what kind of world we’d have now if the Serbian who took aim at Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 had used pastry instead of a pistol? This is meant only half in jest: in today’s hundred-channel universe, where the image reigns supreme, the pie has become the pop-gun for safely channeling democratic dissent to the very top, in a comic, made-for-TV kind of way.

As they say in the news biz of violent incidents, ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ The credo of the pie tossers could be ‘if it splatters, it matters.’

In 1998, Microsoft head Bill Gates was successfully pied in Belgium by activist Noel Godin , following up his earlier "entartments" of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and novelist Marguerite Duras. Godin, who throws under the pseudonym Georges le Gloupier, has been delivering pies to the rich and famous since 1969.

Godin’s successful pitches to the powerful lit the imaginations and the ovens of the San-Francisco-based Biotic Baking Brigade, a loose affiliation of yippie-styled anarchists. The BBB claims decendance from the "Great American Pieman," '70s activist Aron Kay, but cite Godin’s work as their inspiration. (For his part, Godin cites as heroes Wile E. Coyote, Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers.)

The BBB has cells throughout the US and Europe. They and their pie-pitching partners and predecessors -- "T.A.A.R.T." (Holland), and "P.I.E." (England), have been cooking up a storm of protest lately.

Airborne baking in Canada is represented by the Montreal-based Les Tartistes, Vancouver’s Meringue Marauders, and Winnipeg’s Balaclava Bakers.

As you’ve probably already guessed, the targets of the tossers tend to be identified with big business, or involved in activities seen as harmful to the environment, public health and/or human rights.

In addition to Bill Gates, other luminaries pied in the past have included Republican Bob Dole, neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, CIA Director William Colby, and Michel Camdessus, former head of the International Monetary Fund.

One of the BBB’s greatest hits was last year, when the BBB’s "Agent Chocolate Supreme" skillfully delivered a Blueberry tofu cream pie to the CEO of the Enron Corporation, Jeffrey Skilling.

Agent A La Mode says BBB’s brief is to nail corporate crooks and the governmental crooks who do their bidding. "Our track record shows that unlike them, we don't just promise 'pie in the sky' - we deliver."

"The creamy critiques and pielitical pressure of the Biotic Baking Brigade are direct, visually pleasing and fun," writes A La Mode on the BBB web site. The BBB proclaims itself a movement rather then a group. "We have no members, though there is an underground network of militant bakers who provide us with nothing but the best vegan and organic pies."

Actually, the BBB doesn’t even use real pies, eschewing milk and eggs for nondairy products like tofu. This makes for pies that soften quickly, and have less impact visually in their drippy fragmentation. (BBB no longer uses cherry pies, given the connotations of crimson.)

"I predicted this," said Aron Kay, one of the first and most famous tossers, of the current wave of "pie-rect actions." In his time, Kay had planted pies on such worthies such as McGeorge Bundy, G. Gordon Liddy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William F. Buckley Jr. in the 1970's and 80's. "Everyone has someone who needs to get pied," he told The New York Times.

The pie in the face is a routine informed by history and mythology. It’s the archetypal slapstick shtick of clowns — and clowns are the secular descendants of the trickster, a universal figure in world mythologies. Often represented by clever creatures like the raven or the coyote, the trickster slyly reverses the normal course of human affairs, making mockery of mortal pretensions.

And talk about a reversal. Delivering a nice warm pie to a friend or family member: what could be a more succinct image of cozy domesticity and camaraderie? And what fixture of home and hearth is less likely to be used as a nonlethal weapon than a pie?

The trickster-clowns of the circus and burlesque world were first to turn oven-baked foods into ordnance, culminating in the tossing of more than 3,000 pies in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy film "Battle of the Century."

The BBB and other groups have breathed new life into an ancient tart. In its new political guise, the surface silliness of the routine deconstructs what is, technically, an assault. The pie defuses the anger and identifies the victim as a clown himself.

Yet the activist’s yummy acts sometime fails to bring attention to the political causes they espouse. A splattered politician may get passing mention in the news, but the political issues behind those who are tried and pied often go unaddressed.

The other problem is that the "pie-rect actions" aren’t just regarded as puerile by the powerful. They are assaults, and can be prosecuted as such. Three BBB agents were convicted of on misdemeanor battery charges and sentenced to six months in prison after they pied Mayor Willy Brown to protest his policies toward the homeless.


So the global wave of pie-tossing, from Montreal to Amsterdam, is not just merry pranksterism with oven mitts. It may seem like "a revolution for fun," in D.H. Lawrence’s words, informed by a desire "to upset the apple cart, and see which way the apples go a-rolling." But speaking pie to power is, in one sense, a deadly earnest pursuit. What motivates the BBB and associated groups are the distinctly non-slapstick stories about genetically modified food, environmental degradation, corporate crime, and human rights abuses.

As the number of pie-assaults against the powerful increase, the shtick may lose some of its comic force through overexposure, if not overkill. Still, the anarchical spirit of the pie-tossers — the tricksterish delight many of us feel in seeing conventions reversed, and wrong-doers with egg and flour on their face — will continue to find targets in the upper crust.

And we all know what the activists say of the upper crust: they’re a bunch of crumbs held together by dough.

Geoff Olson