Tactical Ice Cream Unit - Selling Ice Cream, With Sprinkles of Anarchism Favorite 


Sep 16 2008


Across United States


There was something odd about the ice cream truck that pulled up to the curb on Park Avenue near 67th Street on Friday, with its proletarian color scheme and its overdressed driver with the subversive grin.

He was offering free ice cream in the middle of a rainstorm. The ice cream flavors were fudge, cherry, grape and tropical. But the right side of the menu offered flavors like Know Your Rights, Anarchy, Protest Tips, Black Panthers and Graffiti Liberation. There were also fact sheets on Halliburton and the Patriot Act.

Inside, the ice cream shared freezer space with emergency gas masks, and the condiment shelves held equipment for protesters at demonstrations to use when confronted by the police. The ice cream inventory is limited, because cabinets are used to store rolls of film for documenting police action, Ibuprofen for billy-club headaches and rain ponchos in case of fire hoses and water cannons. There were pepper spray treatment kits and the counter-weapon of choice: water balloons. There is an ample supply of work gloves.

“These are for throwing tear-gas canisters back at police so you don’t burn your hands,” explained the driver, Aaron Gach, 34, who wore a skinny bow tie and black-and-white saddle shoes, and a uniform with “Art” on the name tag and the words “Tactical Ice Cream Unit” on his white captain’s hat. He was not wearing his usual big fake mustache.

Mr. Gach calls the Anarchist Ice Cream Truck “the alter ego of a police mobile command unit.” Mr. Gach is a co-founder of the Center for Tactical Magic, an arts group based in Oakland, Calif., that advocates “positive social transformation” and “actively addressing power on individual, communal and transnational fronts.” The group says it uses tactics taken from “the ways of the artist, the magician, the ninja, and the private investigator.”

The truck distributes literature developed by neighborhood progressive groups and works to “confront the rhetoric of ‘Big Brother’” and “provoke thought about political engagement,” according to Mr. Gach. It is appearing this week around New York City and will be on display next week at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as part of a weeklong exhibition called Democracy in America: The National Campaign, featuring dozens of artists’ works. It is produced by the arts group Creative Time and the armory.

The truck is the perfect tool for monitoring police action at a demonstration, and protecting and replenishing protesters, Mr. Gach said. The ice cream attracts protesters and even some police. Often the police wave them through blockades, fooled by the truck.

There is a police scanner on the dashboard, and there is a GPS unit, and the cameras are digitally recorded and can broadcast the video to media outlets, in case of a newsworthy demonstration, or police action, Mr. Gach said.

Since it first took to the streets in 2005, the truck has been across the country (never before to New York), stopping a various events. Sometimes it is on the perimeter of demonstrations, and sometimes helping conduct them. Mr. Gach said he has never been arrested, but has had many standoffs with the police. Customs officials have searched the freezers at borders, and at one demonstration, undercover officers asked him if he was distributing weapons and explosives to demonstrators.

In Vancouver, he said, he was pulled over by Canadian Mounties who wanted to search the vehicle but finally relented after Mr. Gach insisted on his rights to privacy.

“They got no ice cream,” he said, smiling.

In Riverside, Calif., he said, the police threw a man to the ground, but stopped roughing him up after a member of the Tactical Ice Cream Unit ran out with a video camera and informed the officers that he and the truck were filming them.

Mr. Gach said, “At a demonstration in Chicago, the police told us, ‘You can’t sell ice cream here — it’s a protest.’”

Inside, the truck is done in sleek red upholstery, and there is a repeating loop of dance tunes and musical samples with ice cream themes. There is a poster on the truck condemning war. The freezer bears the socialist-looking insignia showing a fist thrust in front of a red star, holding an ice cream cone with a cherry and a lighted fuse. Tacked above it was a flier — “Free the San Francisco 8” and “Resist the police state” — and a lyric sheet for protesters. Mr. Gach sat in front of a bank of screens and a laptop showing a radar sweep of the area. The truck has 16 surveillance cameras and ultrasensitive microphones monitoring the exterior.

Somehow, all of these surveillance tools managed to miss the parking agent that slapped a ticket on the truck almost as soon as it arrived. Another blow in the fight against “The Man” — a $115 penalty for parking in a No Standing zone.

Elizabeth Winn, 31, a counselor at a neighborhood homeless shelter, walked up to the truck seeking ice cream, but became interested in the literature. Asked about her political activism, she said she was interested in sweat shop conditions and keeping “Wal-Mart out of New York.” She suggested to Mr. Gach that he would get more interest in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, than the Upper East Side.

Then Gregory Belton, 26, a construction worker from East New York, Brooklyn, ordered a tropical-flavored ice pop and three pieces of propaganda: Know Your Rights, the Patriot Act, and Black Panthers.

“I want to learn about this stuff because I hate being stopped by cops,” he said. “I got a ticket for being in the park late one night playing chess. I get stopped and searched by cops just walking down the street.”

Two electricians walked up and ordered ice cream. The men, Ralph Camoia, 35, and Matt Schulz, 32, were unaware of the truck’s political function, and ordered Protest Tips from the propaganda menu, thinking they were some exotic type of sprinkles. Mr. Shulz laughed and said, “Ah, give me the stuff on Halliburton.”

Mr. Gach said: “My first customer was a little old lady who got an ice cream, and I asked if she wanted a piece of propaganda. She said: ‘Only one? I’ll take Anarchy, Black Panthers and Earth First.’ I was like, ‘Right on.’”

Posted by Jason Chau on