Adam Eidinger: A protester looks at 40
Adam Eidinger’s most recent arrest was on Oct. 10, 2013, the 10th day of the federal government’s shutdown. It began with a trip in a van. He was in the back, and Alexis Baden-Mayer was driving. They were arguing. Baden-Mayer and Eidinger used to be married, and Eidinger had told me a few days before that there was no person he’d rather be arrested with than his ex-wife.
I had found his comment touching, but at this moment it seemed a stretch. A cold rain fell in sheets. The van windows were closed, and as the argument continued, I could feel the Chrysler LX shrinking in size as we made our way from Adams Morgan to the Capitol, where the goal was to create outrage, a few headlines and maybe some honest-to-God change.
“We’re going to be late,” Eidinger said. “Everybody who knows me knows I like to be on time.”
With the weather, the traffic and the construction barricades, getting to the group’s assembly point for the day’s civil action had become a problem. Baden-Mayer suggested dropping us off somewhere else. Eidinger cut her off.“That’s where we’re meeting,” he said, referring to the Capitol South Metro station. “That’s where the press is.”
As we barreled down Pennsylvania Avenue, the argument turned from traffic to tactics. The general plan was to agitate for labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients by pretending to be lobbyists for a fake biotechnology association. But there was disagreement about how to end with the biggest bang.
“The people who are being arrested are being told what to do. I want to be arrested in Elizabeth Warren’s office,” he said, referring to the Massachusetts senator.
“Adam, you’re being a baby,” Baden-Mayer said.
The van was now quiet. Perhaps this storm had passed. Then Eidinger’s phone rang. “We’re in front of the Capitol,” he said with exasperation. “Alexis doesn’t know where to go.”
There’s no other way to put this, but Adam Eidinger can be a Costco-size pain in the butt. It is who he is and — according to his mother — has been from a young age, a persona shaped in part from the intensity in his beliefs and a desire to right wrongs. In a city where the line between policy-making and political theater really no longer exists, he is the relentless promoter of lefty protest. He just turned 40, at a stage in life when things get complicated. He is a middle-age activist with a condo and a checking account from one of the banks that tanked the economy, a guy with a business built around and kept afloat by being disruptive.
He has worked to legalize marijuana here for 15 years. He chairs the D.C. Cannabis Campaign and is a daily user, he says, to alleviate the pain of an arthritic condition called ulnar drift, though he doesn’t have a medical prescription. He co-owned the head shop Capitol Hemp until police closed it down. He doesn’t think the current legislation in the District to decriminalize small amounts goes far enough and blames his allies for cutting a deal. He wants the voters to decide.
Eidinger runs a media-consulting company called Mintwood Media Collective and knows how to attract attention for his causes and for himself. He tweets prolifically under five accounts. He has been arrested by choice and by force. He has sued D.C. police and Capitol Police over arrest procedures. He has lost two races to be the District’s shadow representative. He delights in being the mosquito buzzing around the people in power.
“One of the things in this town is that people want to be liked,” he said. “I’ve taken the approach that I’d rather be hated. Everyone’s forgotten that politics is pressure, and people are afraid of losing their jobs.”
In person, Eidinger is hard to hate. He is generous, enthusiastic and resourceful. He has a seditious sense of humor. He is also confident and stubborn. He has a lot of gears, but reverse is rarely one of them. He understands that everyone in Washington has a job to do. His is this: to poke the bear.
We are a nation built on the idea of righteous dissent. Yet most of us never exercise that right, particularly at the instance when the handcuffs are coming out. We seek the familiar safety of the middle, where disagreements are polite and compromise seems within reach. But we need Adam Eidinger and his passionate fringe, even if we don’t want to admit it. Protest, he says, is about creating the breathing room that allows moderates to work, even if the deals they strike are far from perfect. And here’s the other thing: Today’s fringe is quite often tomorrow’s mainstream, so we dismiss the tattered edge at our own peril.
Eidinger’s typical attire is jeans, a hoodie and a shirt with vintage civil-defense patches, but for the action on Capitol Hill he was dressed in a suit. The women with him were dressed as lobbyists, or at least how activists imagined that corporate lobbyists dressed. They were going to the offices of seven members of Congress to present them with a Monsanto Minion’s Award, a gag gift to highlight their support of Monsanto, the global agribusiness that is at the heart of the fight over whether to require labeling for food made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Most major food corporations think labeling is unnecessary and too expensive; Eidinger and other activists say people ought to know what is in their food. A referendum was coming up in Washington state, and the hijinks in Congress were a chance to generate buzz.
Among the many amazing things about Congress is that anybody can just show up. You don’t need a ticket or a pass. After clearing the metal detectors at the Rayburn House Office Building, our first stop was the office of Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rogers wasn’t in, but Eidinger’s group of a dozen or so activists swarmed his staff in an attempt to get one of the aides to pose with the award. A videographer captured the event, and it’s a little painful to watch. It was satire, and, like a lot of satire, it can be funny to the people doing the satirizing and all but lost on those not in on the joke. Eventually, the office pop-ins and the filming attracted the attention of the Capitol Police, and a gaggle of officers kicked the group out into the rain.
But Congress, as we all learned in school, is bicameral. So it was off to the Senate.
Eidinger has been pursuing causes mostof his life. He grew up in Pittsburgh, the older of two boys. His father was an electrician; his mother, a welfare caseworker. They were a union household, solid Democrats, with many political discussions around the dinner table. Linda Eidinger told me her son had a penchant for arguing regardless of the facts and even then was an activist. Among his first causes, she recalled, was his successful effort to remove foam trays from the lunchroom at Taylor Allderdice High School.
He is an Eagle Scout and was student council president his senior year, in 1992, when a cheating scandal involving many of his classmates (but not him) nearly tore the school apart. It made national news, including the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and Adam didn’t sugarcoat the problem. “There’s a lot of cheating that goes on,” he told the newspaper.
Now retired to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Linda Eidinger has a mother’s pride and a touch of concern about her son’s chosen career. “It’s gotten to the point when I can say, ‘I really wish you wouldn’t get arrested anymore,’ ” she said. “It worries me.”
Eidinger’s first true battle with authority was at American University. As a junior majoring in communications, he organized protests against tuition increases, shouting obscenities at the administration and urging students to delay registration. One columnist wrote dismissively in the student newspaper that “Mr. Eidinger will make no progress until he has gained some respect, and it is apparent he has a long way to go.” President Benjamin Ladner waited out the small band of protesters, and the increase went through. “He killed us,” Eidinger said. But “I learned that it was okay to stand up and fight, even if you lost.”
After graduation, Eidinger moved to Israel for a short period, then returned home and wound up at Rabinowitz Communications, a public-relations outfit with close ties to the Clinton administration. Eidinger helped plan the Dalai Lama’s trip to the United States and went to Croatia on behalf of George Soros’s Open Society Institute, which was fighting that government’s crackdown on independent journalists. Eidinger was a natural, said Steve Rabinowitz, the firm’s founder.
In early 2000, Rabinowitz fired his young apprentice. The firm encouraged its employees to do pro bono work, and Eidinger began helping groups protesting the International Monetary Fund. Some of Rabinowitz’s paying clients had ties to the IMF, and he told Eidinger to find another cause. He didn’t, and Rabinowitz let him go. It was the right decision, Rabinowitz said, but one that still pains him.
“Now I look at it, and it’s not about him being antiestablishment,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s about determination that he’s right and not taking no for an answer. Purists don’t like to compromise. Purity marginalizes. But I respect them more than myself, because it’s intellectually honest.”
Sen. Warren’s office was closed. Maybe because of the shutdown or maybe a tipoff, but in any event there was nothing for the group to do other than take a photo of the fake award outside her locked door. What was clear was that the day’s events needed a new ending.
Most of the group now gathered in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Eidinger had brought 2,000 $1 bills of his own money that the group had been waving around to suggest the corrupting influence of money in politics. Ariel Vegosen, who often works with Eidinger, dumped a bag of money from the fifth floor into the atrium, shouting, “Monsanto money.”
The cash floated to the ground like the best confetti ever. A Huffington Post intern tweeted the drop, along with video of Eidinger and four others denouncing Monsanto and frolicking in the money as the bills piled up on the floor. Congressional aides came out to snap pictures. People stared at the money, and a few eased over, perhaps unsure whether it was okay to grab a few bills as souvenirs. Then the U.S. Capitol Police showed up.
Eidinger has been arrested 15 times, including a charge at American University for streaking. He was held for eight days after being arrested at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. Undercover police had infiltrated his group, and Eidinger blabbed to them about what the protesters had in store. He said it was the most embarrassing moment of his life. He was convicted of conspiracy charges and sentenced to time served.
Not all protest must lead to getting arrested, Eidinger says, but if you go into an action with that intent, it is incredibly liberating. “You’ve never been more free in your life,” he said. “You’re saying to the police, ‘I don’t care if you arrest me.’ ” The problem is it’s not always apparent when a protester is consenting to arrest, pushing back to test the will of law enforcement, or something between.
Eidinger was among more than 400 demonstrators arrested at Pershing Park in downtown Washington on Sept. 27, 2002, while they were protesting the IMF and the World Bank. They were supposed to gather in nearby Freedom Plaza, but police pushed the demonstrators into Pershing, wouldn’t let them leave, then began arresting everybody in the park. Eidinger was one of seven (along with Baden-Mayer and her father) who sued D.C. police for wrongful arrest and in 2005 won a collective settlement of $425,000 and a personal apology from then-Police Chief Charles Ramsey. The settlement outlined new procedures for police interaction with peaceful protests. It made clear that protesters didn’t require a permit and that arrests could take place only after officers gave three clear warnings to disperse.
Eidinger now praises the District’s police force: “This is the most friendly city for civil disobedience in the world.”
He has twice gone to trial to contest arrests rather than resolving them through the usual post and forfeit, in which the protester pays a small sum of money and charges are dropped. He was part of a group that showed up in colonial attire at the office of then-Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2003 to protest the District’s lack of budget autonomy. A jury acquitted them. In October 2007, Eidinger and others were arrested for singing and dancing in polar-bear costumes (sewn by Eidinger) on the Capitol steps, protesting how the war in Iraq was affecting global warming. They were acquitted, then sued the U.S. Capitol Police for false imprisonment. The settlement clarified that protesting in costume is not in and of itself cause for arrest.
All this rubs some people the wrong way. The Washington Times blasted the Pershing Park settlement as waving a flag of surrender to the far left. “Not all the plaintiffs who won the $425,000 were innocent bystanders,” the paper wrote. “One of them was Adam Eidinger, a career activist with a history of protest-related misdemeanors. You might remember him as the man Charlie Brotman elbowed off stage at the Washington Nationals’ team-naming ceremony at Union Station in November.”
In that incident in late November 2004,Eidinger stormed the stage and denounced the stadium-financing plan. Because Brotman was 76, the image of this elderly man skirmishing with Eidinger, then 31, created a fair bit of ridicule. Eidinger said it was worth it. After his protest, the District was given more protection from cost overruns, saving taxpayers millions. “I never got proper credit for it,” he says, though there’s no hard proof that his theatrics made the difference.
It can be difficult to draw a line between Eidinger’s personal and professional causes, because they overlap. Or maybe because there’s really no distinction. At some point it all becomes an endless loop of protests and pushing large rocks up larger hills.
“Adam has managed to carve out a niche that is self-sustaining over the years,” said Julian Mulvey, a friend and political-advertising consultant who booked Eidinger for his first TV gig in 1998, on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” He appeared opposite Peter Thiel, who was three months away from starting PayPal and becoming one of the richest men in the United States.
Eidinger “is a man who is going to fight for his principles, and that does not put you in the middle,” Mulvey said. “He will immediately get pushed out of the center space, and that puts you either ahead of the debate or opposing it.”
Agitating is a hard way to make a living. Eidinger attributes his sustainability to being selective about where to spend his energy. “A lot of activists are willing to work on lost causes,” he says. “One of the reasons I’ve been able to make a career at this and pay my bills is that I won’t do that.”
For that reason, he doesn’t work on climate change or try to prove that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, involved a coverup, a belief he acknowledges could damage his reputation if more people knew about it. “I’m so passionate about this issue that if I took this on I’d do nothing else,” he said. “The thing should be investigated. There’s a conspiracy, and the official story doesn’t add up.”
Eidinger’s largest client is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. He won’t disclose his income from the company but said it’s less than half the $250,000 salary of the owners. Dr. Bronner’s has been making soap for 65 years, and although it has dipped its toe ring into the mainstream and is now available at Target, the soap is still a favorite of hippies and those who wish to wash like them. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether the company sells soap to promote social action or promotes social action to sell soap.
In truth, Eidinger said, it’s probably both, and sales now top $50 million a year. CEO David Bronner hired Eidinger in 2001, just after Sept. 11, when Dr. Bronner’s began fighting the Drug Enforcement Administration over its proposed ban on the importation of hemp, a key ingredient in the oil used in many of Dr. Bronner’s products. “He is a warrior,” Bronner said. While the hemp industry went to court — and eventually won — along the way it poked fun at the DEA by setting up a table outside the agency’s headquarters and offering hemp-infused snacks to employees.
There have been other stunts. Four years ago, Bronner, Eidinger and other activists were arrested for planting hemp seeds on the DEA lawn. In 2012, Bronner put himself in a cage next to the White House and made hemp oil until he was arrested.
The DEA still considers hemp a controlled substance, but when Colorado voters legalized the sale of marijuana in 2012, they also approved the cultivation of industrial hemp. The first harvest took place this fall at a 60-acre field in southeast Colorado. It was a small victory but a victory nonetheless.
The Capitol Police set up a perimeter around the protesters in the Hart Building atrium and issued the three warnings to disperse. Like the sheepdog and the wolf in the old “Merrie Melodies” cartoons, everybody on either side had a job to do. I was struck by the officers’ sense of fair play, how the pause between each warning gave protesters who didn’t want to be arrested time to move away. After the third warning, Eidinger and two women were handcuffed.
As the video of the money drop skipped and hopped around the Internet, journalists kept showing up. They worked the small crowd and tweeted away, while an officer carefully swept up the evidence — the money — into paper bags. When he was done, bystanders and protesters cleared out. Baden-Mayer looked out over the atrium, restored to its Zen calm. “Wow,” she said. “It’s like nothing happened.”
Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association, one of the organizers of the day’s events. She and Eidinger, who were married for six years, still work together from time to time and share custody of their 9-year-old daughter. Baden-Mayer declined to be interviewed. “Adam believes all press is good press, and I’m not so sure about that,” she said. “It’s about the policies, not the people.”
The action didn’t quite get the bounce everyone had hoped. The video went semi-viral, like a weakened strain of the flu. The media heavyweights that dominate in Washington pretty much ignored the event, Eidinger admitted, but it did generate interest in marches planned for that weekend.
On Election Day, Washington state voters rejected GMO labeling. Eidinger was disappointed but not discouraged. The margin was close, and he noted that his side was vastly outspent. He was already planning his next event, for this Friday, to project huge images at night on the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration to protest its refusal to label GMO foods. He called the action “Labeling the FDA.” Activists don’t give up, he said. “You lose, lose, lose, lose, and then you win.”
Eidinger’s friends say he has matured as he has grown older. The past few years were difficult. He got divorced in 2010, and the next year the police raided Capitol Hemp and forced the store to close in 2012 as part of a deal to avoid criminal prosecution. He talks about slowing down, trying to find more balance in his life.
He just moved from an apartment he owns in Adams Morgan to a house he is renting in Kalorama Heights, where he can live and work under one roof. Often he heads out in his Chevy van, which is converted to run on recycled cooking oil, to an old house on 80 acres he owns cooperatively with 19 people. The land backs up to Shenandoah National Park, and Eidinger can get downright giddy talking about the spirituality of using a chain saw in a way that at first blush appears out-of-character but is just who he is and maybe who we all are, which is people who want to keep warm.
“When I go for a long walk in the woods, or frankly, sawing wood, and seeing the inside and out of a tree and I see the rings and the light and I see the carbon all locked in there and I think about the heat that is going to be released and all the transitions of every molecule in the universe, that really trips me out. And it makes me feel, yeah, I am connected to God. I’m not alone. I’m connected to everything.”
He even views his opponents a bit differently, perhaps more charitably. Not long ago, Eidinger met with Monsanto representatives to discuss a shareholder resolution he wants to bring to the company’s board meeting. “I had an existential crisis,” he said. “You think you’re fighting the devil, but you sit down with them, and they’re just working people.”
On one trip to Washington to interview Eidinger, I saw Donald Rumsfeld near the Farragut North Metro station. With his big square head, the former defense secretary is instantly recognizable, but nobody acknowledged him. I found myself wanting to ask some questions. But of course I didn’t. I just continued walking.
I met with Eidinger later that afternoon, and we sat in his office as the sun went down and the sky turned orange, then crimson. I asked him what he would have said to Rumsfeld. After all, Eidinger had been arrested three times for protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said he didn’t want to yell at Rumsfeld or hound him. Instead, he talked about wanting a dialogue with Rumsfeld and asking him whether he thought the United States could reduce its nuclear arsenal as a show of good faith. That was it. “I could work with that,” Eidinger said. “I could tweet that.”
Ken Otterbourg lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he writes frequently about business and politics. His last story for the Magazine was “The Rift at Luray Caverns.”
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.