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Top Hat Jesters

08.05.2004 | ACTIVISM

Phil T. Rich. Iona Bigga Yacht. Mya Cash. Seymour Benjamins. Lucinda Regulations. Noah Countability. Robin Eublind. These are the aliases of a handful of Billionaires for Bush, a highly driven election-year campaign force focused on publicizing the "Bush administration's disastrous economic policies" to swing-state voters through the use of outrageous, over-the-top street theater and razor-sharp satire. Though the Bush administration has, with arguably great success, portrayed the president as an aw-shucks everyman who's protecting the average, middle-class American's interests, the Billionaires believe that's the ultimate joke--according to them, Bush caters to the country's wealthy elite, and to them only.

Decked out in tuxes and ballgowns as garish aristocrats, Billionaires act as cheerleaders for Bush and his policies. The natty buffoonery paints the president as in the pocket of the well-endowed; the group says this goes far to turn Bush's everyman image on its head. Mock counter-protests, where they heckle protestors at demonstrations, champagne glasses in clenched fists and faux diamonds all around, are a basic Billionaire tool. The schtick is wickedly clever; slogans like "Small government, big wars," "Free the Enron 7," "Blood for Oil," "Hands off Halliburton" and "Bring back indentured servitude" put a twist on traditional lefty rhetoric.

Several months ago, when Karl Rove paid NYC a visit, the Billionaires were there to meet him, chanting "Four more wars! Four more wars!" One security guard told another, "There are two groups--against and for." When a limo pulled up, a path was cleared for what security assumed was Rove's arrival. "Rove" made a beeline for the Billionaires, shook their hands and schmoozed. Except it wasn't Karl Rove: It was a Billionaire, and this was an elaborate media stunt that won the Billionaires coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere.

"We provide a media-friendly front-end," explains Andrew Boyd, better known these days as Phil T. Rich. "It's engaging, entertaining...designed to draw in the media but point them to the main [activist] group and their message. Sometimes it doesn't work, and we suck up the limelight, but that's not the intent. If we organize a counter-protest to a serious demonstration, we point to their website off ours."

In the mid-90s, activist Steve Collins had formed the Rich People's Liberation Front. When Boyd was Minister of Culture for United for a Fair Economy in 1999, he began polishing Collins' concept. At Steve Forbes' first New Hampshire press conference, an early batch of well-dressed Billionaires filled up a third of the room; Forbes' team took them in earnest and positioned them in the front. Once the press cameras started rolling, this banner unfurled: "Billionaires for Forbes: Because Inequality Isn't Growing Fast Enough." The following year, Boyd, whose Activist Cookbook is a well-regarded manual for creative direct action, launched the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), hoping to spread the idea that both candidates were working for big money, not for Americans.

In 2000 and now, the tactics are based in grassroots activism. Boyd has honed the Billionaires concept as a meme, the goals being that other people adopt the approach and form their own chapters, and that the satire educates voters in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Ohio and Iowa. "We work in tandem with the straight organizations," says Boyd. "We think of ourselves as providing counterpoint, extending and highlighting their messages."

Boyd leads a large team of volunteers that includes chapter developers, project managers, costume designers, techies, event planners and a speakers bureau. They've just released a CD, and a book is forthcoming. On the Billionaires' website, everything one needs to start a chapter is available: Since January, more than 50 have sprung up nationwide.

Many of the Billionaires are new to activism. "The approach has really drawn people in," says Pam Perd, public relations director. "It's unconventional and fun, not your typical standing-on-a-street-with-a-sign.

"Some of the most active members were not activists before. I don't think the lack of experience matters--the effort, talent and dedication more than compensates. Newer activists look to more experienced ones for input on how to handle certain scenarios. Rather than a detriment, the mix of new and experienced activists has been beneficial."

The Billionares are currently fundraising for their "Get on the Limo Tour," which they launch at the Democratic National Convention on July 27. From there, they will drive in, yes, an actual limo, to swing states throughout the Midwest, where they'll visit a NASCAR rally, a football game, hold trainings, and do readings. The Bling Bling K'Ching Singers will perform songs off the CD. The tour's final stop is the Republican National Convention.

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