Pete Wagner - POLITICAL ACTIVISM - The Generic Demonstration


Humorist rallies campus originality
By Walter Parker Staff Writer
St. Paul Pioneer Press / Front Page / Wednesday June 2, 1982

Every spring Brother Jed and the Destroyers do their level-best for a week to stop the freight train they see carrying University of Minnesota students on a one-way trip to hell.

Hour after hour this week, the fundamentalist hellfire preachers from Terre Haute, Ind., will delight their sun-drenched East Bank campus mall audiences with leather-lunged, Judgment Day warnings against ilicit sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Hissing and baiting the indefatigable Destroyers has become a favorite spring sport on campus. The whole scene captures the attention of thousands, of onlookers, even if they don't join in.

Pete Wagner caught the act and was inspired.

Not, however, to save his soul. What Wagner saw in the Destroyers was a theatrics highly visible example of how to organize a demonstration to reach someone other than the already converted.

"I see them as some of the most effective communicators around. Even if they do grate on everybody's nerves, at least they do it in a creative way," said Wagner, 27, a former Minnesota Daily cartoonist, now a Minneapolis freelance artist and humorist.

From his inspiration sprang today's first-ever All-Purpose (generic) Demonstration on campus. Conceived by Wagner and several dozen friends -who call themselves the 1985 Brain Trust- the rally is designed for those who have something to say. It doesn't matter what. The operative word for the rally is originality, and to that end organizers -will stir the pot a bit with some offerings of their own.

For example, the fellow who was arrested a few weeks ago for painting "U.S. out of El Salvador" on the side of a T-38 jet displayed on campus, has been asked to let ROTC students paint slogans on him. However, Wagner isn't sure the fellow will appear for the rally. But Minneapolis civic activist Mama "D" - Giovanna D'Agostino, restaurateur and unsuccessful mayoral candidate - is to be there, bearing a pair of 20-foot arms and a sign reading, "ARMS are for making love, not war," Wagner said. Also on hand will be 1069, the guy who tried unsuccessfully to have the courts change his name to a number. A tow truck effigy is to be burned,. signifying disgust with the hated tow trucks contracted by the university to haul away unlawfully parked vehicles. And a group that opposes campus bike-riding regulations, will be buzzing around the scene on tricycles.

Wagner insists that behind all the pranks lies a serious point, though he himself tends to obscure it with irrepressible, cartoon-panel one-liners like, "We're trying to sell revolution to the little old ladies who shop at K-Mart," or "Activism continued in the '70s, only we were more subtle. We recovered from the Granola Poisoning," or "We're trying to fight fascism with facetiousness." Satire is the most effective protest, Wagner said. Protests greet Rev. Jerry Falwell in many places, but he points out that the one that made the news from Ohio recently was a group of women who greeted him bare-foot and posed as enormously pregnant.

"We're trying to show people they can go a lot further thank they think with a little street theater, some imagination. Regular protest marches are so straight, so stuffy, and so boring. They're set pieces, always the same old pseudo-demonstration," Wagner said. Not everyone appreciates his efforts, he cheerfully acknowledged. No organized group on campus - and he says the Brain Trust approached them all - would officially support the All-Purpose Demonstration, out of fear they wouldn't betaken seriously.

Wagner and his friends have a history of adding their own touches, invited or not, to others' demonstrations. One was fined $80 for stenciling "Bible Disposal Bins" in pink on trash dumpsters near the scene of a fundamentalist rally. He said he and a few others were threatened with arrest for forming an all-male cheerleading squad that tried to inject some enthusiasm into the "limp little shuffling utterances" of the last feminist Take Back the Night parade in Minneapolis. "The marchers loved it. It was their marshals who threatened to have us arrested," he said.

"I think it's necessary for us to start using humor because these are the terms people are used to. Most people don't read books, they watch TV sit-coms. We're aiming at people who normally don't pay attention." Wagner distinguishes contemporary protests from those of the Vietnam War era. Today's causes - the threat of nuclear war, dying oceans, world hunger -are not going to go away in the foreseeable future, he says. "You can't martyr yourself to these problems, go at them 24 hours a day. If we approach them in a somewhat playful way, we can deal with them on a day-to-day basis. We need to reshape our ideas about activist causes, to think about ways of getting them into daily life," he said in defense of his style.

Copyright 1982 by the St. Paul Pioneer Press
Reprinted with permission


Goals & Purposes of The Generic (All-Purpose) Demonstration:

To show demonstrators how to demonstrate in convincing ways that will reach people who do not already agree with their cause.

To encourage optimism.

To give people of opposing viewpoints a chance to demonstrate side by side, thereby proving that individuals can hold and openly express opposing political beliefs and still remain or even become personal friends.

To expand on the boundaries of "theater."

To give people who have always wanted to be in a demonstration but who have never had the opportunity to be in a demonstration which they wanted to be in the opportunity to be in a demonstration.

To demonstrate in new ways that will draw into active participation at least some portions of those large bodies of people who sympathize with the purposes of specific demonstrations, but do not usually participate.

To convince people who have never thought they would want to demonstrate to give it a try and see what they think of it.