On Tuesday morning, when Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his company’s data collection practices, there was a familiar mustachioed face in the crowd. To most people, this person — also wearing a monocle and toting a bag of cash — is none other than the famous board game character most commonly known as Monopoly Man. But behind the fake mustache and provocative message about capitalist greed is a dedicated activist for economic justice.
Ian Madrigal, who uses they/them pronouns, gained internet fame when they first dressed up as Monopoly Man during an October 2017 Senate Banking Committee hearing with the CEO of credit reporting agency Equifax, following its massive data breach. Their creative stunts — which have taken on powerful figures from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — are effective, in part, because they understand how to strategically draw the worlds of politics, art and activism together. With a background in music and improv — plus a law degree from UCLA — Madrigal’s Monopoly Man has inspired activists around the country, as well as people on both sides of the aisle.
Why was the hearing with Google’s CEO an important place for Monopoly Man to make an appearance?
My appearance as Monopoly Man aims to highlight the need for regulation and antitrust action to rein in Google’s monopoly in many areas of tech. I’m also hoping to call attention to the controversy raging over Google’s development of Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine that would endanger dissidents and human rights defenders in China, as well as internal battles over sexual harassment, racial discrimination and pay inequity. All of these various controversies show that Google and other tech giants cannot be allowed to self-regulate. We need comprehensive legislation and agency oversight that we have in many areas of business outside of tech.
You have done a number of creative stunts during Congressional hearings, from playing the audio of children crying in detention centers to dressing up as a Russian troll. How do you prepare for these actions and what makes them so successful?
I usually just come up with a random idea and bounce ideas off of friends to get their reactions. I order something to use as a costume on Amazon Prime, which I think of as using one billionaire to fight other billionaires. And when I go to the hearings, I have to ask a friend to hold a spot in line for me because waiting there in a costume for five hours would give them way too much lead time to figure out what to do with me.
For me, one of the singular successes of the first Monopoly Man action was not just the attention it got, but the fact that every single article — from the Washington Post to the most clickbaitey news site — talked about the reason I was there, which was to oppose Equifax’s use of forced arbitration and specifically to oppose a bill that was pending in the Senate. Everyone who was writing and tweeting about it mentioned the bill. So you have to be really conscious when you’re using these antics. You don’t just want to be funny — you want to make your message clear.
You have been doing creative activism for a long time. How did you first get started?
I’ve basically been raising hell since I was a child. I’ve naturally been a troublemaker challenging authority. When I first got active in politics, one of the first things I learned about was corporations and sweatshops and slave labor happening abroad. When I was 14, I went to the Disney Store at the mall and printed little slips of paper that said, “This clothing item was made in a sweatshop.” I slipped it into the pockets of the clothes and staged a protest outside. Within about five minutes I got kicked out of the mall. So those were my roots.
How did your family and community react to your activism early on?
Honestly, I don’t even think anyone knew about it. I did a lot of things at that age without my parents knowing. My parents are actually Republicans. So they would not have been particularly supportive of that. They’re where a lot of my insight comes from. There are a lot of hand-wringing articles about how progressives don’t understand Trump voters and I’m like, “No, I grew up with them. I know them very well.”
I grew up in a very odd place in southern California between Los Angeles County and Orange County. Our town slogan is: “Times change, values don’t.” But the weird contradiction is that this buttoned-up suburb is next to one of most diverse places in the country. There were no [openly gay] kids at my school of 3,000 people — even though we were close to Long Beach, which is a hub of the gay community. So I had no idea how I fit in.
You eventually ended up going to law school. How has that fit in your work as an activist?
I always worked for some kind of cause. As I was organizing with people, anytime we would achieve a victory it would be overturned in the court system or there would be a law passed that undid it. So it became clearer to me that if I wanted to make long-lasting change, I needed to understand how these systems work and be able to infiltrate them to some extent. So I actually went to law school with the intention of just suing all these corporations. I thought if part of the problem is people trying to sue them and just running out of money, I could avoid that problem by becoming the lawyer. Now I see that was a very naïve way of thinking about litigation. I just wanted to be a pain in the ass for corporate America for the rest of my life. It turns out I took a slightly different tack. Instead of suing them, I’m just harassing them in Congress.
But my legal training has been really helpful. It’s good to understand how laws actually work once you pass them, but I think what people in the Washington, D.C. policy realm are missing is the artistic and cultural push of knowing how those ideas resonate with people. You have to know your audience, and the audience is the American people who are very removed from life here in D.C. I’m a musician and I’ve also worked in film, so I have those different perspectives I can fuse together for theatrics and art and creativity. It’s always been my natural approach to be a jack of all trades.
What role has social media played in shaping your activism and amplifying the message of your actions?
Using Twitter allows me to not only go viral, but to also control the narrative when it does go viral. The toughest thing about viral internet culture is that it’s hard to control how people will interpret what you do. You can use these tools to help interpret it. When the cameras are on me during a hearing, I’m hamming it up. But when they aren’t, I am on Twitter frantically tweeting at anyone about the bill I am opposing, so that every single person gets my message.
The whole Monopoly Man concept essentially brings a meme to life. There is a novelty in this type of humor that has evolved within internet culture in the last decade or so, and this approach takes it into the real world. Monopoly Man is over-the-top internet culture — it’s cartoonish, it’s baseline humor everyone can get that draws on imagery people can relate to from a lot of different perspectives.
What role does your specific brand of creative activism play in engaging people at this political moment when people feel so much rage at the Trump administration, but also somewhat powerless to do anything about it?
The Trump presidency has really been an important moment for creative and innovative action, specifically those targeted to get media attention. Obviously, one of the central challenges of the Trump era is that he’s always sucking up all the air time, so even if you do something huge at a policy level or organizing level it gets ignored. The actions I have seen become so successful are the ones where people get in front of cameras and make themselves impossible to ignore. The reason Monopoly Man worked was because I was in every single photo. They couldn’t talk about the hearing without talking about who the person was twirling their mustache in the back. It’s important to be entertaining, which is something progressives have shied away from in an effort to seem serious, angry, dignified — you name it. If you take Trump’s entertaining-but-nihilistic approach and add something inspiring, you can use that to advance your goals.
Even though we’re in a really divisive time right now, there is a pretty large set of issues that I think Americans agree on. We have these large issues of white supremacy and patriarchy to battle, but at the end of the day there is also a central struggle between the rich and powerful, and everyone else. Monopoly Man was successful because it cut across the aisle in many ways. I even got an interview request from Fox News. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time, or if they were going to try to trap me. I had just come out publicly as trans a couple of days before, so I was wondering if they were going to ridicule me. But, surprisingly, they didn’t go on the attack. The host asked me a couple of leading questions to make me say something silly, but I stuck to my talking points. The interview actually went really well and reached a really wide audience.
Are there times you have found humor to not be the right approach?
I’ve been trying to tailor my creative protest to the moment. One of my more recent protests that went pretty viral was of Kirstjen Nielsen. It was the week after the child separation policy was announced and two days after audio of the child crying in the detention center had been released. I got a text from a friend who saw her eating at a Mexican restaurant, and they said I should get folks down there. So I put out the call on Twitter and Facebook and texted all my friends. We got a group from the Metro DC Democratic Socialist Alliance — we had about 15 people there protesting her. And with that action, it wasn’t the right moment to use humor. That would have hurt a lot of folks at such a vulnerable time. When you’re talking about children being imprisoned, anger is the right approach and sadness is the right approach. A lot of things this administration does are ripe for satire and mockery, but you have to read the room and make sure you’re hitting the right chord.
Shaming and ridicule can also alienate people from supporting your cause. How have you struck a balance in your work with calling people out and calling them in?
For me, it’s been very important to use ridicule against people who have a lot of power, whether that’s elected officials or the extremely wealthy who hold a lot of power in society. I do think there’s a difference in making fun of people in power and making fun of everyday people. You can punch up or punch down, and I only advocate punching up. A lot of oppression that exists in our society is born out of the shame oppressors impose, so I don’t want to increase that. But it’s different to ridicule ideas. When you give hatred a platform, you legitimize it. You never want to delegitimize people themselves, but if you delegitimize their leaders and the ideas that cause suffering in the world, I think people move away from those leaders and ideas.
What will creative activism look like in a post-Trump era?
I’m inspired by how people have dug in and started organizing together since Trump was elected, but I’m nervous that it could disappear. In American culture, especially white American culture, we have a tendency to ignore issues if we ourselves are comfortable, and to engage with oppression only when it’s in front of our faces. The moment it isn’t right there, we stop thinking about it. I’m very aware that the moment Trump is gone, folks on the left could become complacent again. I do have hope that it won’t happen because we’ve seen that organizing really works. There have been a lot of victories in the past couple of years. If we have stopped as much of it as we have with zero institutional power, imagine what we could do when we have power. I just hope we’ll see it as a moment to build stronger institutions instead of going back to the ones we had before.
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