This is the second of two very different interviews I did while covering the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that I felt were worth highlighting in their entirety. The first was with blogger and activist Imani Gandy.
Longtime prankster Vermin Supreme has been running for a variety of offices — some of them non-fictional — since the 1980s. Wearing a boot on his head and promising a free pony for all Americans (along with zombie power and mandatory tooth-brushing) if elected, his 2012 run for the Presidency came to greater prominence when he glitter-bombed fundamentalist Randall Terry during the New Hampshire primary and showed up for numerous protests throughout the year. I talked to Vermin Supreme while he was preparing for his own "victory rally" in Charlotte.
So why are you running for President?
Because I want to make America a better place, but still even.
But still even?
Still even better.
Ponies, the secret ingredient, of course.
Ah, and why the boot on the head?
When I get in a different environment it serves different purposes. When I'm actively campaigning for the Presidency, after the primary, it's become somewhat of a trademark. Different people read different symbolism into it, “we're gonna boot 'em out” or the jack-booted thugs or a boot on the face, the Orwell reference.
But ultimately it's just something I started putting on my head in a rather absurdist, surrealist tradition. The people liked it and responded to it. Out in the streets, in the police environment, it's a disarmament technique. I'm disarming, through my charms, to officers who might otherwise see me as a threat if I was without the boot. If I was a normal-looking wild guy talking shit over the megaphone, I think I'd be perceived differently than with the boot.
It sort of signifies the jesterishness, the commitment to this absurdist aesthetic, it's a shorthand. Sometimes I've worn a clown nose in the past to telegraph that. It draws curiosity. I get into a lot of conversations, meet potential voters. Of course it draws the media, I've been saying as part of my media critique that the boot is a pile of shit and the media are the flies buzzing around it.
[Laughing] Oh, we've been compared to that before.
So yeah, it means many different things to many different people.
How's it been working in Charlotte? Has it been disarming?
Yeah. I haven't been on every last march, like I was in Chicago or Tampa. There I was able to spend much more quality time with the law enforcement officers. Here, I've been out a few times. First time, they were very stiff, but over time they've relaxed.
It's hard to understand what they might see me as. For example, the other day, near the NASCAR Hall of Fame, next to the free speech zone, we were late for the march — we didn't even know there was a march — but we found ourselves behind the barricades and the police were in line on the corner, they were taking that whole space.
So I essentially went out and demanded my right of free assembly, and made it very clear they were interfering with my right of assembly, free speech, freedom of movement and all that good stuff, because they were just blocking us flat-out.
So I demanded to speak to the person in charge, so they sent me over to an officer I knew from Tampa. They obviously sent people up to train in Tampa to know what to expect and what have you, so he came over and cleared my passage.
Now this is after I demanded my passage, was refused my passage by the police officers who were closest to the area I was trying to get through and their immediate commanding officer.
Then we had the opportunity to meet the police chief briefly, I told him my references from David Gee, the Sheriff in Tampa, of Hillsborough County, and Jane Castor, the chief of police in Tampa. They'll tell you who I am, it's not too hard to figure out who I am.
Indeed, you've been at this for some time.
My core constituent base is citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. I take that part very seriously.
You think those rights, from what you've seen in the front lines, have decayed over the years?
Unquestionably. There's been a steady, ongoing push of the nation-state and the police state totally clamping down on the citizenry.
I'm always interested in trying to figure out who's going to win the race: will environmental collapse take us all out, or will the clampdown of the police state destroy us or will the economy collapse? Will that hasten the police state to push for more control.
What happened here and in Tampa, for all practical purposes, is what life is like in wartime. If there were to be a takeover or if there were to be a movement of that type, this is a perfect dress rehearsal: declaring a zone, seizing a zone, clearing out everybody who's not supposed to be in the zone and just controlling a large part of the city.
The military, various police agencies were essentially setting up an occupation that was preventing the people's occupation from freely assembling within their particular zone. They were preventing them from meeting the delegates and meeting the politicians; the right of the people to gather freely, to speak freely, to petition the government for a redress of grievances. That's what a lot of these street-level activists are doing, trying to petition their government directly.
Here in Charlotte, we have thousands and thousands of Democratic politicians, from all around the country, so what better place to engage these people in a dialogue about their analysis? But we're not allowed to get anywhere near or have the access to the people we directly want to speak to.
Now, here we did have much more access to the delegates.
I was going to ask about that.
They were mixing freely, and it was very good like that.
Did they seem more receptive than the GOP were at their convention?
You know, my own personal experience was that the Democrats were a little more nasty and a little less friendly to me.
Why do you think that is?
I really have absolutely no speculation on that. It was just a little thing that I noticed.
You mentioned some of the issues you see bearing down on the country here...
I've heard the saying that you can boil a frog alive if you turn up the heat very slowly, and it seems to me that they're turning it up, even a little quickly. For me, that's the President decreeing himself able to assassinate Americans without due process overseas. Perhaps at home too, because that's not really clear, it's a little bit vague. The restricted buildings and grounds improvement act, which is not about hedge clipping, it's about giving me a 10-year felony rap for interfering with the smooth running of government, which is something I take great pleasure in doing in a constitutionally-protected free speech way. [Note: I believe the legislation he's talking about is HR347. Here's the ACLU's interpretation of what that law says.]
If myself or some other activist that wants to be vocal and is taking it among themselves to spread the message of their constituent base, say by going to the peanut gallery, standing up and yelling. If I speak my mind, not even yelling, just saying “my name is Vermin Supreme, I'm opposed to your wars,” just by doing that you're facing a 10-year felony, a federal charge. So that's offensive.
As far as your campaign, the Occupy protests — you mentioned the absurdist tradition of pointing this stuff out — how is that pushing back against or helping to solve these issues?
My humor is certainly a critical part of my campaign and my work on the streets. I'm certainly connected with the Occupy movement, we're in the same places. My own personal politics lean in that direction. But I'm not an Occupy candidate.
Occupy is one of my many constituent bases. I've received an amazing amount of support from the Ron Paul libertarian front. At the New Hampshire primary, for example, I would show up to an event, the Occupiers would show up at an event, the Ron Paul people would show up at the event.
They are great disagreements, great divides between these groups. Yet when I was there, when we were chasing down Newt or Mitt or Santorum, they would all show up. At any moment, it could all become a Vermin Supreme rally. I had my own small contingent, but we had these force multipliers of these disparate groups who were totally at odds coming together.
I've got no animosity towards anyone. I disagree with people very seriously politically, but I don't take it on a personal level, I can't afford to alienate my constituents. I would like to steer them towards my social utopian vision of an idealistic pony-land, but I'm doing what I can to serve my constituents.
I don't consider myself a one-trick pony, I've got a broad base of support because of what I did at the event in New Hampshire...
Yes, because that was so accessible, so entertaining and fun that it struck a chord. People really understood what I was getting at with this presentation of full-on absurdity.
The tooth-brushing law, zombie energy, I was pushing the limits, holding up a funhouse mirror to American politics. As a result, people got it, from far-right to far-left, from Republican to Democrat. I am in a very interesting position, where my supporter base is right across the board. It's made the threads on my Facebook page very interesting.
Now that you've got this base of support, what do you want to see people go do?
Question what's going on. I'll give a nod to the Occupiers for their embodiment of physical presence to make a political statement, which has a long history in America. They used that to their advantage to really change the discourse in terms of the issues of the day.
The banks screwed the pooch in '08, they screwed it with the help of government. The Occupy Wall Street activists felt strongly enough about this issue — that the banks need to be held accountable for crashing the economy — came out into the streets. Their number one demands were money out of politics, restore Glass-Steagal, common-sense reformist requests, essentially.
But these things weren't being discussed. The banks crashed and they got a pass. They've still got a pass, because nobody's doing jail-time for their white collar crimes. I think people are very upset about that and justifiably so.
One of the things that's commonly leveled against anyone who runs for an office like the Presidency that's not from one of the main parties is that they'll be throwing their vote away or that one person is so much worse than the other that they have to vote for one of them. What's your response on that?
Well, I think the situation of electoral politics is not optimal by any means. I'd like to see some reform in the electoral college, I'd like to see run-off voting, I'd like to see a turn away from the voting machines.
Though a breaking exclusive: Anonymous has assured me that I will be winning the Presidency. They will be hacking the Diebold voting machines, just so you know.
You heard it here first.
That's a breaking exclusive for you.
I say straight up in my presentation that a vote for Vermin Supreme is a vote completely thrown away. I generally don't vote for bigger offices. I'll vote for referendum ballot issues, more local concerns.
A lot of people say if you don't vote, you have no right to complain, you have no right to an opinion, you have no right to commentary if you don't vote, which I find offensive. The vast majority of Americans do not vote, the people who do vote are essentially a minority, and that minority is pretty evenly split down the middle.
It's down to who can get out this very small slice of Americans who vote and swing the election either way. I think it's been that way for awhile.
Another attractive thing about the Occupy movement for me is that they've not entered politics.
There are those who believe they should.
Well look at the Tea Party. The Tea Party's brought an extremist side to the Republicans, they've pulled it way right in the House and the Senate. Politically, maybe I'd like to see some radical left pull in there.
But I respect them for not joining into the fray like that, because I believe that they represent too broad of a constituency. There are certainly people who will run for office who've been inspired by the Occupy movement, there are certainly politicians who've heard their message loud and clear.
You've been running for various offices since 1986, what keeps you going on this?
Simply because I can, because it's a beautiful country. It's a small niche that I've found, and I've just been working it in a very specific and diligent way.
Let's take back America! Free ponies for everyone!