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Ben Cohen Launches Topsy-Turvy Bus to Protest Tax Priorities

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 13, 2007

It’s the school bus from Neverland. And yet it sends a message to the powers-that-be in a way that could never have been imagined. 

“Topsy,” the topsy-turvy yellow school bus that was born in an Oakland warehouse not too long ago, was launched in front of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall by the Priorities Campaign Wednesday. 

A project of marketing guru Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, Topsy demonstrates upside-down federal budget priorities. 

“It’s the first bus of its kind,” Cohen told the Planet while aboard Topsy at Channing Way. “It shows how the federal budget is different from what people of the country want. We want to educate people about where their tax dollars go.” 

The unveiling of the bus was scheduled to be a part of the Hip Hop Caucus National Tour to end the Iraq War and focus on upside-down budget priorities. A message from Rep. Barbara Lee’s office about the continuing labor dispute involving janitors at the UC campus led to the rally being canceled. 

“I wish it hadn’t been called off, but I support it at the same time. Our janitors need decent wages,” said UC freshman Suman Gupta who volunteers for Berkeley Stop the War Coalition. 

“I am excited to see the bus. It feels like magic,” she said, waving it down in front of Sproul Hall.  

Cohen says the project was part of the Priorities Campaign run by Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a group of 700 business executives, retired pentagon officials, admirals and generals who want to increase federal investment in education, healthcare, energy independence, job training and deficit reduction by reducing funding for outdated Cold War-era weapons. 

Topsy—two school buses, one welded atop the other—was stopping traffic and turning heads across the Berkeley campus while it was parked there. And the curiosity wasn’t just about the incredible artwork. 

If you looked closely enough, the rear and left side of the bus had pie charts illustrating the federal budget breakdown. The Pentagon took the largest slice. 

“The United States is contributing money to the Pentagon at the same rate as when we were fighting the Soviet Union,” said Cohen.  

“That’s $60 billion being wasted. That’s enough money to rebuild all of America’s schools, provide healthcare to children and reduce our need for oil by fifty percent. We always hear that there is no money to do these things, but the reality is we do have the money. We just spend it in the wrong way.” 

Stefan Sagmeister, a famous New York graphic artist who also designs for the Priorities Campaign, drew out the idea of the bus five years ago. Cohen hired Bay Area artist Tom Kennedy—who has designed and ridden art cars such as Ripper the Friendly Shark, whales and Cheshire cats—to build the bus last fall. 

“We want to think of ourselves as fabricator elves,” said Kennedy, gesturing toward his teammates. His partner Haideen Anderson helped with putting in the nuts and bolts, as did his friends who design sets for the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. 

“This bus is art car magic. It will act as a magnet for people. I am concerned that no political candidate is willing to talk about the federal budget. We have 12,000 nukes which is enough to blow up every major city in the world ten times. Let’s reduce that to four times.” 

As students, tourists and even faculty flocked to admire and photograph Tom’s creation, there were others, such as Bay Area musician Josh Gary who dedicated his song “Yellow Bus” to Topsy. 

“The idea is to spend the most of next year in Iowa and New Hampshire, the big presidential states,” said Kennedy. “We want to take advantage of the early voting in those two states. We will invite people to watch a 10-minute video on the Priorities Campaign and urge them to sign a petition asking presidential candidates to start a dialogue about federal spending priorities during the presidential campaign.” 

The bus, which has a complicated structure, is under the 13.6 feet height limit. 

“The thing about ice cream is that people have a lot of fun associating with it. But the national budget is something dull and boring,” said Cohen. “We have to make ways for people to pay more attention to it. This is where the bus comes in,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. 

Cohen, however, is not the only one having fun with the bus. Until late Tuesday night Kennedy and his merry crew were busy welding wheels onto the top bus. 

“It needs to have the paneling put back on the ceiling and get a sealed roof,” said Anderson, traces of yellow paint on her shirt. “Then there’s some detail painting left, which is the fun part for me.” 

Shaping the bus, Kennedy said, had been a great way to channel his anger at the current state of politics. “It’s been a great learning experience,” he said. “We still need to fix a few things on the bus. Some stuff is temporary but it’s safe. We should be ready to roll by April 17.”