As the bell signaling the start of Tuesday’s lecture sounded, an audience of all ages rushed to fill the roughly four hundred seats in Western Michigan University’s Miller auditorium. After a brief introduction, Mike Bonnano entered the stage in all of his gray-jeaned glory. and He immediately began to describe his career as a political prankster, which started in 1993 when he performed “gender reorientation surgery” on thirty talking Barbies and GI Joes. After switching their voice boxes, he returned these dolls to toy store shelves all over the country. As a result, many children received GI Joes that said, “Math class is tough,” and Barbies that barked, “Dead men tell no lies,” for Christmas.
The event was part of the Thirtieth Annual Peace Week at WMU. Bonanno, part of an activist group called the Yes Men, spoke along with special guest and environmental activist Tim DeChristopher. Bonanno and his partner in social justice Andy Bichlbaum continue to perform “identity correction.” These days, however, their targets are more flesh than plastic. The Yes Men pose as representatives of big business and governmentinstitutions that arguably have a negative influence on our society, such as BP and the United States Chamber of Commerce. They then publicly admit to faulty policies, wrong-doings, secrets and distortions of the truth.
In describing his commitment to political activism, Mike Bonanno explained that the threat of lawsuits has never prevented the Yes Men from following their collective conscience. Financial risks, he insisted, are minimal when compared to those of inaction. By posing as people with lots of money and power, the Yes Men can speak at the same volume as the world’s most influential organizations. For this reason, they have been able to create significant changes at the policy level of institutions.
This idea of playing outside of the rules carried over into environmentalist Tim DeChristopher’s story. DeChristopher was a college student when in 2008 he crashed an illegitimate BLM oil and gas auction for parcels of land surrounding national parks in Utah by adopting the Yes Men’s technique. Arriving at the auction, he realized that he could create greater charge by bidding than by picketing. He entered the auction and, with the notion that “we follow the rules and nothing changes,” began bidding on more and more parcels, for which he had no intentions of paying. His goal was to keep oil in the ground and out of the hands of oil companies. By the auction’s end, he had won fourteen parcels and had driven up prices on countless others. He was subsequently taken into custody and convicted of two felonies despite the auction’s later-deemed illegitimacy. In spite his impending sentence, DeChristopher maintains that by practicing civil disobedience, he fully seized his freedom as opposed to sacrificing it.