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Ben & Jerry's Co-Founder Repossesses Occupy Wall Street 'Batmobile'

By Patrick Wall | October 1, 2012 7:17am

NEW YORK CITY — Ben & Jerry’s ice cream co-founder Ben Cohen wants his Occupy Wall Street "Batmobile" back.

Earlier this year, Cohen doled out nearly $30,000 to a group of Occupy Wall Street activists with an unusual idea — for a passenger van to be rigged with a powerful projector that would beam progressive messages onto the sides of buildings.

From there, The Illuminator — known alternately as the Occupy ProjectoVan, the Batmobile and an Art Car for the 99 percent — was born.

With Cohen’s cash, the group built The Illuminator and began touring New York and beyond, shooting leftist light rays onto dozens of buildings in support of the Occupy movement, as well as a host of other causes — from WikiLeaks to the Russian band Pussy Riot to stop-and-frisk opposition groups.

But before long, the van’s operators said, Cohen decided he wanted greater control of The Illuminator and less interference from the van’s affinity group, an Occupy decision-making body that relies on discussion and consensus.

After a lengthy “custody battle,” the activists agreed to share the van with Cohen through the end of the summer and then hand it over to him on Monday.

“He didn’t want to have to bother with the messy part of being in a democracy,” said Mark Read, the activist who initially proposed The Illuminator idea and helped operate it.

“He’s a 1 percenter,” Read, 46, added, “telling the 99 percent, ‘I’m your boss.’”

Messages requesting comment from Cohen that were left at Ben & Jerry’s, Ben & Jerry’s Foundation and the Movement Resource Group, where Cohen is a member of the steering committee, were not answered.

The Occupy “Bat Signal” first flashed to life on Nov. 17, when Read used a $10,000 projector to cast giant phrases like “Occupy Earth” and “99%,” onto the Verizon Building in lower Manhattan while protestors marched over the Brooklyn Bridge.

At a meeting in January when activists discussed ways to sustain the Occupy message after their eviction from Zuccotti Park, Read, who is an adjunct media studies professor at New York University, suggested attaching the Occupy projector to a van.

Cohen was at that meeting and, enthralled by the idea, agreed to fund it, according to Read and another participant, Lucky Tran.

In February, Cohen and Read hashed out and signed a “working agreement” that was provided to DNAinfo.com New York.

The agreement set a timeline and budget for The Illuminator — then called the Batmobile — and another OWS-related ride called the Changemobile, a vehicle that was later abandoned.

Cohen agreed to contribute as much as $65,000 toward the development of the cars, which included hiring Read at a rate of $250 per day to launch the project, according to the document.

The vehicles were to become the property of the Occupy Money Group, which later became the Movement Resource Group, a grant-making committee for Occupy-aligned projects that Cohen helped fund and lead.

A separate document outlined goals for the Occupy ProjectoVan, another early name for The Illuminator.

The vehicle, a modified Ford Econoline van, would “put a friendly non threatening face” on the Occupy movement and “generate good will” with the public by slowly cruising the city, projecting the “99%” signal, playing “family friendly music,” and stopping occasionally to serve hot chocolate and pass out Occupy-themed comic books, the document stipulated.

The Illuminator debuted on March 3. After some early technical difficulties, Read and a rotating crew of volunteers began lending the van to a variety of activist causes about three nights a week.

But by mid-April it became clear that Cohen was not satisfied with the group’s efforts, according to Read and Tran.

For one, the written agreement had set a goal that the van would operate five to six nights a week, for six hours at a time, by April 1.

The Illuminator Affinity Group, as the team of activists in charge of the van was called, came to feel this was an unrealistic goal for both a crew of unpaid volunteers and Read, who Cohen paid about $1,000 a week for up to 60 hours of labor, according to Read.

“After we put in all those hours and put ourselves at risk as activists, we had [Cohen], who had not been in the van, come in and critique us,” said Tran, 29, the group member who is a molecular biologist at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Cohen also wanted more direct control over the use of the van, according to Read and Tran.

Whereas the group envisioned it as a tool for any progressive cause, Cohen saw it primarily as a “mobile billboard” for the Occupy Wall Street protests, Tran said.

After a “full-out custody battle” in May, the two sides agreed to share the van until the end of September, after which Cohen and the Movement Resource Group would gain full control of it, Read said.

Since June, without financial support from Cohen, the volunteer Illuminator group covered the van's operating costs by charging groups for its use on a sliding scale, he added.

“To a person, I think we all feel kind of betrayed and disappointed,” Read said.

In late August, the activists launched a Kickstarter campaign, called The Illuminator 2.0, which raised a total of $24,546 for new projection equipment. They eventually hope to build a multi-city “fleet” of Occupy projectors that they may mount on bikes.

On Aug. 20, the Illuminator Affinity Group posted a statement about the van debacle on its website.

It said that while the members appreciated Cohen’s contribution to the project, they were disappointed by his change of heart and hoped that, in the future, “Cohen and other funders will approach movement activists as true partners and equals.”

Activists, for their part, should clearly define their donors' roles and rely on crowd funding whenever possible, the group wrote.

“We are the 99%," they stated in closing, "and we will be our own superhero.”