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American as Apple Pie

Washington, D.C., July 1, 1982

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Summer evening a little after 7 p.m.  My parents, on their porch at Peachtree Battle Avenue, watch John Chancellor turn NBC’s Nightly News over to Roger Mudd for a report from the grounds south of the White House.  Suddenly, cigar in hand, pillow stuffed under what might be the largest suit-jacket ever made, Mother and Daddy’s 43 year-old son materializes on national TV in the role of fat-cat industrialist, clumsily but determinedly plodding into the middle of a 17-foot apple pie.  “Get back!” the son and heir yells as he scoops up a double armful.  “I’m Joseph Coors and this part of the pie is mine!  All mine!”

Back home on their porch, “It’s B!” my mother moans, praying that my father can alter reality.  “What in the world is he doing?”

For twelve years members of Washington’s Community for Creative Non­Violence (CCNV) had been feeding and befriending hungry people while digging furiously at the roots of poverty.  Then it came to pass that the Senate Republican Caucus paid the Mrs. Smith (of pie fame) $4,000 to bake 2,500 pounds of apples, 900 pounds of dough, and 750 pounds of a secret cinnamon/sugar mix into a pie 17 feet 3 inches in diameter, cleverly concocted to present an unmistakable symbol to the public: “Everyone will be getting a bigger piece of the pie under President Reagan’s trickle-down tax plan.” The day before the unveiling ceremony, an administrative assistant to House Majority Leader Tip O’Neal, tipped off CCNV as to what the Republicans were up to, and suggested someone do something. 

At their soup kitchen down near Washington’s Greyhound Bus Station, the community of a dozen chopped vegetables for the evening meal for some of Washington’s hungriest and talked about a newspaper article announcing the Republicans’ plan to set up Mrs. Smith’s pie outdoors, behind the White House where, after speeches designed to drive home a message about the glories of Reaganomics, slices of pie would be served to thousands of assembled Congres­sional staff and tourists.  Around the CCNV chopping block, images and talk flowed freely, focused on the rapidly growing numbers of men, women, and children who would, as ever, be homeless and hungry that night; and focused on Fat Cats already wallowing in the public trough, stuff­ing them­selves with grotesquely dispropor­tionate portions of the public wealth . . . 

“Wait a minute!  How about us, pretty thin group that we are?  How about we dress to look as fat as Reagan’s fat-cat friends, Joseph Coors, Justin Dart, Walter Annenberg? How about we jump into their pie and rearrange the Grand Old Party’s symbol into something more akin to what Reagan’s producers and directors are saying behind our backs: ‘Most of this pie is ours, and always, by God, will be!’  Hey, and once we get into Mrs. Smith’s pie, we can fight over it (‘This is my share!’), grab up armfuls (‘No, it’s mine!’), fight for more (‘Get away; you’re taking mine!’).” 

Images morphed into a thorough plan, and my friends called me, saying, “We don’t want to talk about it on the phone, B, but you’ve got to get down here.  We’re going to do something we know will be right down your alley.”

I did as they asked, and we arrived at the event just past noon, other CCNV members having reconnoitered the site the night before.  Five of us stumbled out of CCNV’s beat-up van, scurried as quickly as our baggy clothes and assorted stuff­ings would allow, passed through a security checkpoint fortuitously abandoned by its guard, and approached the back of the stage.  There we were blocked by the organizer of the event.

“Who are you?”

“We’re part of the show.”

“You’re not part of this show.”

Under cover of confusion and afraid our whole plan might be thwarted, I took off to the left, rounded the far corner, vaulted the three-foot platfform that tilted pie toward mesmerized crowd, rolled twice, regained some sort of footing, and landed smack in the middle of the slippery symbol of oppression.  Eight-and-a-half feet of pie separated me on all sides from surrounding Republicans.  The joke being cracked by Senator Roth, of Kemp-Roth fame was pretty weak, something about an “upper crust,” so upstaging him from my position in the pie was not much of a challenge. Cradling my double-armful, I was free to begin exposing their appallingly cruel and deceitful con-job: “Get back!  I’m Joseph Coors, by God, and this pie is all mine!”

Meanwhile, a gorgeously bewigged and begowned Marie Antoinette, played by one of CCNV’s leaders, Carol Fennelly, bore a tiny pie on a large tray, and fed the crowd: “Here you are, Dearie; here’s your share.”

It occurred to someone in the Reagan camp that in order to begin putting an end to our part of the show someone else was going to have to enter the pie.  “Get him outta there!” we heard, and, from the high side of the platform, two young security guards came sloshing forth.  They laid a pretty fine tackle on me and, together, hurtling down a slope was as slippery as the symbol, we tumbled out of the pie at the feet of the crowd that was so vulnerable to propaganda. 

Immediately, an alert NBC reporter held a mike close to my face, deterring one of the tacklers who had reared back, ready to slug me, and asked, “Why did you do this?”

My moment of fame was upon me! "We needed to make a point. This is a farce. This is as much a farce as the tax cuts are. The poor will not be getting a bigger piece of the pie. They will continue to die on our streets.”

A cop pulled the reporter in one direction, a second pulled me in another, and, as my cop held onto one of my apple-coated arms, the event organizer ran toward us screaming, “Do you realize how long I worked to get this together?”  Fists raised, she was ready to take me on, pie and all, but — bless his heart! — “my” policeman kept his body between the woman and me.

My co-conspirators had been stopped at the edge of the pie, but during the confusion one managed to jump in, and another leaned in far enough to scoop up an armful.  As I watched from the ground, a mounted policeman, walkie-talkie in hand, whipped his horse into a frenzy and galloped full speed across the Mall, the clattering of hoofbeats mixing with busy sounds of our nation’s capital.  When he reached the action, the enraged horseman, like someone right out of a John Wayne movie, leaned from his saddle, grabbed a pie-jumper by the hair, and dragged him back behind the stage, where all five of us pie people would eventually sit, circled by other defenders of law-and-order.

At this point in the show, the ultimate denouement, Vice President George H.W. Bush, arrived.  Always fast on the draw, George took one look at us from the safety of his limousine, figured we were probably not the Annenberg, Dart, and Coors he knew, and tapped on the glass separating him from his driver.  In the blink of an eye, the future president was whisked away. 

Our night in jail was sticky, but, come morning, we were taken to court where a magistrate released all of us on our personal recognizance, and, out in the hall, we were greeted by a cheering throng.  CCNV had succeeded in taking its message national.  All “major” networks had included the action in their evening news, and newspapers nationwide had found us worthy of front page pictures. The importance of that hit me as, apple pie still drying on my tennis shoes and baggy clothes, I rode a bus back to my home in a Washington suburb.  The man next to me was deeply buried in “Reverend” Moon’s Washington Times, and I noticed a little boy across the aisle, tugging on his mother’s arm.  In child-like wonder, but a little alarmed, he looked closely at me, then at the front page of my neighbor’s newspaper, back to me again, then back to the newspaper which sported a picture of me, cigar in mouth, hovering over the pie. 

My daughter, Julia, was 15 at this time, and son Shepard, 12.  They and their friends were very excited watching the action on TV, ready to beat up the tackler who seemed ready to slug me.  Their mother, Susan, was in the tough position of needing to field, by phone, my mother’s reaction: “What in the world is B doing?  His father and I have tried to support his marches and all, but jumping in somebody else’s pie . . . that . . . that’s just childish!"”

The “somebody else’s pie” has stuck with me like the pie that covered my tennis shoes.  It’s as if Mother, feeling she had failed as a parent, was saying, “I mean, if we had known B really wanted a pie to jump into, well, we would have had one baked for him.”

A young woman prosecutor with long blonde hair and southern drawl drew the unenviable task, six months later, of explaining the crime, “malicious destruction of property,” to an all-black D.C. jury.  After careful opening remarks — “The United States is a country ruled by law and we must all obey the law or face anarchy…” — she felt ready to address the question puzzling the jury: “What was the terrible crime these five committed?”

“On the First of July,” the young prosecutor began, “these five people came downtown and deliberately jumped into an apple pie” (snickers from the jury) “and” (with an emphasis worthy of my mother) “they knew that pie was not theirs!”  (Snickers almost uncontrollable.)

Still, our prosecutor, with all she had going against her, almost came up with convictions.  “We didn’t destroy anything,” we explained.  “We, in fact, rearranged a very destructive symbol into an accurate one.  Besides, everyone in the audience who wanted pie received a piece from undisturbed sectors, and the rest of the pie was fed to animals at the zoo, exactly as planned.”  

At first, only one of twelve jurors understood our careful reasoning and held firm for acquittal, but, eventually, he convinced four others to join him.  A hung jury!  When the government wanted to try us again, we offered — and the judge accepted — a “no contest” plea, and each of us accepted 100 hours of community service.

What luck!  My probation officer asked how I thought I could best serve; I told her about my distress at the thought of babies wasting away from simple lack of touch.  “If I could spend 100 hours holding and rocking these children . . .”  She found The Child Center, a haven for neurologically impaired pre-schoolers where I not only “did my time” but ended up spending one day a week for years with these inspiring children and their equally inspiring teachers.

The director of the Child Center didn’t seem at all disturbed that The New York Times had run a caption “Apple Pie Five” under a drawing of a judge looking down from his bench, shaking his finger at five little heads poking through the crust of a pie. 

And often in years to come, in demonstrations to come, I would see the cop who had saved me from the enraged organizer, and, surreptitiously, we would smile at each other, remembering the Good Old Days.