OccuPints: Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's Co-Founder, on Dissent and Free Internet

It was your classic Eleventh Hour curveball. Early this past March, in the latest of late-editing stages for our newest feature documentary "Free the Network":http://motherboard.vice.com/2012/3/28/motherboard-tv-free-the-network, I began hearing...

|
May 1 2012, 4:45pm

It was your classic Eleventh Hour curveball.

Early this past March, in the latest of late-editing stages for our newest feature documentary Free the Network, I began hearing about a band of business leaders “planning to pour substantial funds” into various veins of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They call themselves the Movement Resource Group, and had by the end of February already raised about $300,000 (with sights set on another $1.5 million). Group members include, among others, Danny Goldberg, Nirvana’s former manager, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s Super Premium Ice Cream.

Wait. Hold up. Ben & Jerry’s, I knew, is based out of Vermont. And I also knew that Tyrone Greenfield, an Occupier and communications director with the Free Network Foundation who we’d been following around, alongside FNF co-founder Isaac Wilder, for the past half year, is a native Vermonter. Could it be? I mean, Vermont isn’t all that big. Really, how many Greenfield’s could there be in the 43rd biggest state in the Union? Probably not a lot, right? Could Tyrone, to add a complex twist to a story about a group of open-source advocates quite literally building an alternative and easily accessible Internet free of corporate interference, be part – or at least close to maybe being part – of the One Percent?

I called up Tyrone, who confirmed the connection. “Yeah,” he said. Tyrone’s got the textbook, chiller-than-chill Nor’easter drawl, but his response was purposeful, unashamed. “That’s my dad.”

And you know what? I didn’t feel the least bit crossed, even after months of extensive shooting and interviews. Tyrone never felt the need to make a big deal of his family backstory. I respected that. My co-producer and editors and I put it together, and that was that. But I was curious about a few things: Had the Movement Resource Group doled any funds to the FNF? Was he getting shit for being the son of a guy whose company, however socially conscious, is owned by Unilever? And, well, how can I get through to his dad?

To the first question: No. Tyrone admitted that his parents afford him some financial support, but no, the FNF had received no direct stimulus from the MRG. To the second question: Not really, no. “If anything,” Tyrone told me, “people have just been like, ‘Oh, so what’s your favorite flavor?’” (It’s mint chocolate chip, if you’re wondering.) And to the third: Yeah, sure. He’d put me in touch.

So after a few obligatory rounds of email tag, I finally had a chance to catch up with Jerry over the phone on the eve of May Day. In the short amount of time we had, Jerry took me back to his first encounter with Occupy, boldly admitted his techno-ignorance, offered his support to anyone striking against a broken system, and raised a true no-brainer: Who doesn’t like free ice cream?

Just to be clear up front, Jerry: What exactly do you do? Walk me through your typical day.

Typical day? That's easy. I don't really have a typical day.

Ben [Cohen] and I both still work at the company. We're employees, but we're not involved in the management or the operations. So we kind of get to do what we want to do. We're pretty much involved in initiatives that help support the social mission, or the environmental mission of the company, because those are the things that we're interested in. And we also think they're very beneficial to Ben & Jerry's.

From the looks of the Activism page at your website, I imagine you and Ben stay pretty busy. And I see there’s a dedicated Occupy page. How did you first hear about the movement?

I actually first heard about Occupy from my son, Tyrone, who'd been at Zuccotti Park since Day 1. I got a message from him a few days in asking about getting some ice cream for the people in the park. And I thought, well, that's interesting.

So I was able to arrange to get ice cream for folks. At the time there weren't that many people in the park. This was probably a couple days into Week 2. There were probably about 250 people. So it was very early on. And I was able to get some ice cream there. That was my introduction.

Ben, left, and Jerry, right, scoop ice cream at Occupy D.C. last Fall ( (via AFP / Getty)

How did people react? It seems that there is always going to be a pocket of the movement that’ll remain staunchly averse to any sort of corporate affiliation. Did you take any heat for this?

At that particular time I didn't really have any direct contact. It was just the ice cream that showed up. Later on, both Ben and I on our own happened to be down in New York City and went by Occupy. We were both just very impressed with the message and the creativity of folks there. The dedication. Our first response was to want to scoop ice cream, because that's what we want to do.

So we arranged to go down and scoop ice cream. For the most part people were extremely receptive. People tend to like free ice cream.

There was, from a small number of people – I don't know if resistance is the right word, or if they just didn't think it was appropriate to have ice cream from a corporation there. Which I completely understand. We were trying to be supportive in a way that we were able to be supportive.

And I think that's what Occupy is about – people finding their own ways of being able to use what talents or skills or options they have to be helpful.

Right. It’s been interesting to watch this sort of natural shaking out of Occupy’s working groups. Demonstrators really seem to run with their individual drops in the bucket, so to speak. What can you tell me about Tyrone’s involvement with the Open Source working group, with the Signal Corps, and with the Free Network Foundation? What does he tell you about it? How do you feel about him devoting so much of his time to building an open and free Internet?

Tyrone has talked to me about it. I'm happy to say I don't understand the technical stuff. At all.

But I think it's an amazing project that Isaac [Wilder, co-founder of the FNF] is undertaking and driving. I think Tyrone is lucky to be a part of it. I have no idea what's actually involved in doing it, or how long it takes. I think it'll be amazing if they're able to accomplish it – to have the Internet and information being free, and not controlled by these giant corporations.

VIntage Jerry, left, and Ben, right, maxing out (via Boston Globe)

What were you up to when you were their age?

I went to college in 1969. The Kent State shootings happened during my freshmen year, and I was in school in Ohio. It was also during the Vietnam War and all the protests. But I was at Oberlin College, which is not that far away from Kent. And Oberlin shut down. There was a student strike.

That was my introduction to politics. I was pretty lucky to be living in a time, in those days, where there was just a great deal of political activism. Civil Rights, women's rights, war protests. But one thing that was a little different about it was that there was a draft. And a war going on. For a college-aged man, it was a very relative issue. I think if there were a draft going on today there'd be a lot more protesting in the streets.

Speaking of, there are some massive demonstrations and general strikes planned across the country, especially here in New York City, for May Day. As a business man, how do you feel about the act of striking? What if, say, all of Ben & Jerry’s workers just don’t show up on Tuesday?

That's really interesting. I've never considered it. I'm very supportive of human rights, social rights, social justice. And in terms of what Occupy is trying to accomplish, I'm completely supportive of that.

I honestly don't know what I'd think about people not showing up for work. I mean, the idea of people being on strike is not necessarily about their particular jobs or what they're currently doing. I'm assuming it's about a system that does not provide equal opportunity or does not provide an equal world for people. I'm supportive of striking.

Connections:

Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson

(Top images via the Guardian and Duncan Hill)