Ben & Jerry give political art contraption to AVAM

Ben & Jerry's indelible message at AVAM: "Stamp money out of politics."

Susan Speirs fed four dollars into the Amend-o-matic Stamp Mobile. After spiraling up the "Tower of Corrupted Power," gliding past a clanging gong and sliding down hairpin turns on a roller coaster-style track to a final stamping station, the bills came out with bright red lettering in all caps.

Now, they read, "Stamp money out of politics."

That's the message Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — the Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame — have been spreading through their Stamp Mobile the past three years. The traveling machine — a Rube Goldberg-style contraption on the back of a flatbed truck — came to its last stop Tuesday as it was donated to the American Visionary Art Museum.

After a demonstration Monday in Washington, D.C., led to a brief arrest, Cohen and Greenfield visited Baltimore on Tuesday to give the machine to the museum. Cohen estimates it has stamped more than 100,000 bills since it hit the road.

"The issue of money in politics has risen, I think, to the top of the agenda for the presidential candidates. Bernie Sanders' whole campaign — the heart of it — is about getting money out of politics," Cohen said in an interview. "I think finally the public is fed up."

The original makers of "Vermont's finest ice cream and frozen yogurt" are backing that state's senator in the 2016 election and have traveled with him on the campaign trail. Cohen and Greenfield sold Ben & Jerry's to Unilever in 2000 and no longer hold a stake in the company.

Sanders is the only politician for whom Cohen has created an ice cream flavor. He and Greenfield came out with a limited "Bernie's Yearning" flavor: a variation on mint chocolate chip with a thin layer of chocolate atop mint ice cream.

"Somehow or other all the chips had risen to the top and congealed in one huge chocolate disc, and that disc of course represents all the money that's gone to the top point-one percent since the end of the recession," said Cohen, donning a canvas ball cap embroidered with "Bernie MMXVI." "It's a participatory pint, and the way that you eat it is you whack the chocolate disc into a lot of little pieces, you mix it around and you put the money back where it's supposed to be before there was this huge transfer of wealth."

The Ben & Jerry's brand plans to release another politically charged — if less partisan — flavor, "Empowermint," focused on voting rights, Cohen said.

The Stamp Mobile has served as a literal vehicle for change for the Stampede, a nonprofit aimed at removing big money from the political arena by amending the Constitution. Members of the Stampede were on site Tuesday teaching passersby about their mission while stamping dollar bills.

"It's done its job," Cohen said of the Stamp Mobile. "It's gotten us off the ground."

He said about 60,000 volunteers across the country are stamping bills with their own rubber stamps — now for sale at the American Visionary Art Museum — and 1,000 more stampers are being added weekly.

"It's a brilliant idea," said Bill Edinger, a Catonsville resident who was visiting the museum with his wife, Sara Edinger, and friends from New England. They weren't aware the Stamp Mobile would be there until they visited.

The dedication came a day after Cohen, Greenfield and about 300 other protesters were arrested in Washington as part of Democracy Awakening, a gathering of hundreds of organizations to demand the removal of big money from politics.

AVAM founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger said the Stamp Mobile fits with the museum's mission of celebrating visionary thought.

"We're excited to have this playful thing here," she said. "It's so sad that the most well-meaning politicians, as soon as they're elected, have to spend so much time raising funds rather than focusing on change."

The Stamp Stampede estimates every dollar in circulation is seen by 875 people. Speirs, a Greenville, S.C., resident visiting family in Baltimore, said she was glad her $4 would reach close to 3,000 people.

The contraption was well-received by visitors to the museum, many of whom stopped by to stamp their dollars.

"It's nothing I didn't know, but everyone needs to know it," said Heath Hall, who was visiting Baltimore from Albuquerque, N.M., with Miriam Blake.

Blake, a Greensboro, N.C., resident, said she had seen the bills circulating and hung one on her mirror. Until Tuesday, she didn't know it was marked by the Stamp Mobile.

They said they planned on buying their own rubber stamp to spread the word.

"One thing that Democrats and independents and Republicans can agree on is that the pressure of having to raise such huge amounts of money makes everybody a less-efficient public servant," Hoffberger said. "This is a bipartisan issue."

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°