Why are investigators after the Boston satirist and filmmaker behind 2020: The Dumpster Fire doc?
There are many places that you may have seen or at least read about Rod Webber. The activist and filmmaker is known for bringing showy props to protests and trolling rightwing events, and in 2020 was charged with criminal mischief in Miami after writing “[Jeffrey] Epstien [sic] Didn’t Kill Himself” on the gallery wall where an artist had recently made headlines for selling a duct-taped banana for more than a hundred grand.
All charges in Florida were later dropped, but that wasn’t even the top highlight of the past few years for Webber. In early 2021, he also won $20,000 from the Trump campaign and $15,000 from the Manchester, New Hampshire Police Department in a settlement stemming from his getting assaulted at a campaign event in 2015. That one received national attention and it didn’t look too good for Trump or the police.
Thrilling as that victory was, Webber and his wife and collaborator Lauren Pespisa have faced the irrational wrath of federal prosecutors and local investigators since. Even as their newly released film, the Buffalo 8-distributed 2020: The Dumpster Fire gains traction on Apple TV, authorities appear to be digging their jackboots in.
I have known Rod professionally for years, and have witnessed his antics countless times at protests and on the campaign trail. Any investigation into him and his crew for nefarious or violent anything, related to Jan. 6 or any other date, is nonsense, and I’m not afraid to say it. This impugnment is an outrage, and if you are a fan of film, art, or the First Amendment, I think you will agree.
Since this is such a volatile topic, I asked him to explain what the hell is going on …
How long have you been dealing with this particular ongoing runin with authorities?
Since shortly after Jan. 6 .
And where were you on Jan. 6?
In Boston, at home.
Did you consider going to DC [to film stuff]? How on your radar was it?
It was on my radar, as far as knowing that it was a thing, but it was fairly well known that it was not going to be a lefty event. It was going to be a shit show; [rightwingers] were talking about Civil War.
Wouldn’t the promise of a shit show be enticing to you?
Typically. I had been to all the other shit shows, and we were getting a lot of tips that things were going down. Words like “honeypot” were thrown around. I had been pursued by federal agents throughout 2020. … There was a notion that it wasn’t just Proud Boys or rightwingers that we needed to be afraid of.
I don’t usually care about labels, but in this case I feel it’s relevant. What do you call yourself these days? Are you a filmmaker first? Do you have activist in the title?
I’d say I’m an artist and I’m a documentarian and a musician and a filmmaker. Artist seems to be the better blanket term, but within that spectrum I’m absolutely working in the realm of journalism too. I hate to say that I’m any one thing.
Those are all covered by the First Amendment last time I checked. Of all the nonsense you have dealt with authorities in the past, how much of it has been that you are an activist-journalist, and how much of it has been because you were being trolled by right-wingers and cops don’t understand that?
I view the authorities and right-wingers almost entirely as one in the same. [Regarding the current investigation], it’s lip service. I don’t think these feds investigating this want to do it. They’re looking to get a win for their team. They saw an in with us and decided to go for it. They got this tip from a Proud Boy saying something wasn’t kosher. And rather than treating it like a Mark Walhberg movie where they’re in a film appearing to have a weapon, suddenly we’re being investigated.
How do you know what you know about the investigation of you, and what that is?
Because I was approached by federal agents who straight up came at me. When they approached me, it was Secret Service, FBI, and JTTF [the Boston Police Department Joint Terrorism Task Force]. They said they had seen this video which indicated a possible assassinatin attempt on Donald Trump who was president at the time.
Is the video in question still posted?
It’s a 2020: The Dumpster Fire trailer.
Please describe it.
We were explicitly making a rebuke to what was going on with Stop the Steal, and their calls for a Civil War. We wanted to say, That’s not the way. And so I got my hands on some mannequins, on which I wrote the words “truth,” “liberty,” “justice,” and other slogans.
What [BPD Detective Andrew Creed of the department’s JTTF and Field Operations Group] says is that one of the mannequins said “Trump” on it, which is absolutely not fucking true. It said “truth.” And his claim is that we are firing at it with firearms, which is also not true. There’s all sorts of CGI and it’s slowed down and stylized. And this was after we were done filming.
This was promotional. It was a satirical statement, it was not done at a protest, it was not like Redneck Revolt running around with a bunch of [rifles]. I have to say that, because I’m getting people saying, You shouldn’t have been running around a protest with weapons, and I’m like, Where the fuck are you even getting that from? I’m not going to say that I’m against the Second Amendment, but I don’t like guns. They’re not a thing that I’m into.
It can be a traumatic experience for someone to have federal agents come visit them at home. What’s been going on? Give me some of the most inappropriate and absurd examples.
Hands-down the most traumatic visits have been to Embry Galen, one of our producers slash performance artists who dressed up in orange and played Donald Trump when we burned a Donald Trump effigy last October. They’re basically harassing Embry for being trans. That harassment went on and on.
Have you slowed down? Has anything changed?
Oh my god have I slowed down. I’ve only done four pieces of any value whereas I’d usually do dozens of pieces a year. We didn’t really know what was going to happen on any given day. Plus all of the legal research. The chilling effect is not theoretical on free speech, it happened. They’ve effectively silenced us.
How alone have you felt going through this?
It was really lonely up until we went public. We had no one we could talk to. It’s basically been me and Lauren. I think it’s actually happening more to Lauren. I think when they figured out that they weren’t going to be able to get me, [they] go after the ones you love. We do our best to comfort each other through this, but it’s a looming Damocles over our head.
When you’re the one who’s going through this, how much do you feel the Neanderthals doing it to you actually believe the shit that they’re saying?
I don’t think they believe it at all. They just don’t like me.
Follow Rod on Twitter @RodWebber for updates.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.