In 2020, Rod Webber and his team of performance artists and filmmakers found themselves as the targets of what Webber calls an unwarranted FBI and Boston Police Department investigation.
Webber, who is the writer and director of the documentary 2020: The Dumpster Fire, says that investigators are falsely using footage from a trailer of the movie—in which Webber and his team burn an effigy of Donald Trump, and blow up a mannequin with the word “truth” written on it that agents mistook for the word Trump—as evidence of an assassination plot.
The FBI and BPD have made multiple visits to Webber and his friends, and have served them with grand-jury subpoenas. A subpoena from January 2021 addressed to Webber that has been reviewed by The Daily Beast references an “official investigation… of suspected violations of federal criminal law.” They haven’t been formally charged with anything, but Webber says investigators told him they were looking into a plot to assassinate Trump.
Webber’s wife, co-producer, and activist Lauren Pespisa says the accusation and law enforcement attention is unjustifiable. “It’s just art,” she says. “Confrontational art.”
Their movie is a chaotic showcase of Webber’s performance art as he follows the campaign trail. He shows up at events put on by everyone from Joe Biden to Andrew Yang to Donald Trump. It’s a mash of serious interviews and Webber’s trolling, an attention-grabbing way of breaking down the election cycle and exposing the hypocrisy of the many candidates.
It culminates in a sketch featured in the trailer meant to draw attention to the various sexual-misconduct allegations against the then-recently elected president. Webber, Pespisa, and co-producer Embry Galen—dressed as Trump—attend a rally in downtown Boston, carrying a large cutout of the president. Pespisa introduces herself as E. Jean Carroll, the journalist and author who in 2019 alleged that Trump sexually assaulted her in 1995.
“I’m here on behalf of all women who [Trump’s] filthy hands have groped to do a ritual,” Pespisa tells the crowd. “To make sure his filthy paws don’t touch our beautiful country anymore.” She goes on to mime ripping the heart out of Trump-impersonating Galen and Webber lights their effigy on fire.
To understand how Webber and his friends found themselves in this situation, one needs to understand how they tick. For the uninitiated, Webber’s world is nothing if not weird and difficult to comprehend. He maintains that he is first and foremost an artist. “My way of calling out authority is through art,” he explains in an interview with The Daily Beast. But this can lead to trouble: he’s been arrested 10 times since 2016.
Webber has had a knack for mischief since high school. He recalls filling his school’s courtyard with forks stuck into the ground as a prank. As a graduation gift, he left a pine tree in the school’s steeple. That streak has always been balanced by a desire to create serious art, however. Earlier in his career, that meant making anti-folk music and directing indie-films like I Thought You Finally Completely Lost It and Northern Comfort, both of which starred Greta Gerwig.
His interests in the intersection of art and politics coalesced with the making of the documentary, A Man Among Giants. Through it, Webber tracked the mayoral campaign of WWE wrestler Doug "Tiny the Terrible" Tunstall in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Webber, who stayed politically active through this time, attending protests and events, realized he could be using that footage for more documentaries.
He’s since become one of those characters who pop up anywhere something is happening in the United States political world, dedicating much of his energy to provoking people in power through what he calls “ethical trolling.”
“That means we punch up,” he explains. During election cycles, this involves showing up to campaign events and protests to make noise and try to catch politicians in an embarrassing or hypocritical moment.
This approach has resulted in surreal moments, including a clip of Trump supporters chanting “Suck Trump’s cock” at the request of Webber and his colleague Vermin Supreme. His 2016 indie documentary Flowers for Peace has garnered over a million views on YouTube and features absurd scenes of Webber, a staunch leftist, praying next to then-candidate Jeb Bush during rallies.
As a painter and digital media artist himself, another natural arena for Webber’s trolling is in the art world. In late 2019, Webber was arrested and made headlines for writing “Epstien [sic] Didn’t Kill Himself” on the wall with lipstick at the site of Art Basel’s showcase of the work “The Comedian”—which is, famously, a $120,000 banana duct-taped to the wall.
The misspelling is on purpose. “That’s how shit goes viral,” Webber laughs.
“I’m like Don Quixote,” he explains. “I tilt at windmills and then I write about it.” And indeed, he does sometimes seem like a crazed knight charging politicians, wielding a bullhorn or a guitar, only to be curbed by campaign staffers and gallery security guards.
But unlike the character, Webber occasionally strikes a nerve, and it has lasting consequences.
While filming Flowers for Peace in 2015, Webber confronted the Trump campaign at an event in Rochester, New Hampshire, and took a pause in Trump’s speech as an opportunity to quote the Bible to him.
Trump listens as Webber rattles off a paraphrased version of 1 Timothy 3, which states that anyone who “aspires to the office of overseer” must be “above reproach, sober-minded,” and “not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Webber says the ensuing escort out of the building by the Trump campaign’s private security resulted in multiple injuries to himself.
He was later arrested at an event in Manchester, New Hampshire, when he tried to ask Trump why he was beaten in Rochester. But the charges were dropped, and Webber then turned around and sued the Trump campaign and the Manchester Police Department.
Years later in 2020, Webber and the Trump campaign settled. Webber was awarded $20,000 in damages, and, in a separate case, Webber and the Manchester Police Department settled for $15,000 in damages.
To Webber, the FBI investigation is unwarranted, but it does fall into a familiar pattern. He points to the court case for the terrorist convicted of the Boston Marathon bombing in which agent Kimball had to admit that the online evidence he attempted to use to show radicalization were memes and pop song lyrics.
“Fuck the bomber, but that’s basically what they’re doing with us,” Webber says. “They’re taking this trailer out of context and falsely accusing us of an assassination plot.”
The FBI has declined to comment, and the BPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Though Webber is often out to provoke, what he does is protected by the law—and is always, he claims, victimless.
Of course, the line between art and vandalism is thin for Webber, and is often crossed from the perspective of his targets. “On the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2019, a visitor entered a gallery booth and used lipstick to deface a wall within the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC),” an Art Basel representative told The Daily Beast. “Vandalism is a clear violation of the fair’s rules and regulations, and as such, he was escorted out of the fair by the Miami Beach Police Department.”
His charges in Soho and Basel were dropped, barring a $60 fine for disorderly conduct in New York, which Webber says he only paid because he was dealing with the more recent and more stressful harassment by the FBI.
“Everything gets null processed,” Pespisa says of Webber’s arrests. “For a guy who gets arrested so much, it’s amazing that a query check doesn’t bring up anything.”
He recalls that the case in Florida was dismissed almost immediately. “I was all ready to defend myself, and as soon as my butt hit the seat they told me that everything was being dropped.” Webber says he was frustrated. “I wanted to grandstand.”
Webber is often so confident of his innocence that he chooses to advocate for himself in court, performing his own legal research. He won the settlement from the Trump campaign without representation. “He puts me to sleep reading a book of jurisprudence that he got from his grandfather,” Pespisa laughs.
“It’s not all unicorn onesies and political performance,” Webber says. “Like the ACLU, I choose cases because setting precedent is how we keep legal power in check.”
To them, the means are justified. In the creation of their films and the ruffling of feathers, they are attempting to speak truth to power and to make lighter an often dour situation.
“A protest without joy becomes drudgery,” he says. “As long as my team and I can bring a smile to some people’s faces, I feel like we’re doing alright.”
Under the trolling is a legitimate desire to make a difference through documenting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock in their documentary The War of North Dakota.
“Sometimes you have to put down the silliness and just act as a faithful documentarian of history,” Webber explains.
But Webber and Pespisa had to slow down in face of the federal investigation into them. “We had to take time to read and understand what we were getting charged with and how to defend against it,” Webber explains.
And although things have recently calmed—they say the last visit from law enforcement was in February—Webber and Pespisa still don’t feel that they’re in the clear. When asked if he’s worried about another visit, Webber says, “All the time. They always come after an article’s published.”
“We had a congratulatory talk back in 2020 when we thought it had all died down,” he continues. “I’m never having one of those again.”
“I’m positive that they’re keeping a file open on us,” adds Pespisa. “How many other people and other artists are they doing this to?”
Despite all this, Webber and Pespisa have never considered quitting. As recently as early July 2022, Webber and Pespisa confronted the neo-Nazi group Patriot Front when they attempted to demonstrate in downtown Boston. Documenting the whole encounter, Pespia, Webber and other activists chased Patriot Front members out of the city.
Webber took to Twitter to call out law enforcement’s response or lack thereof. “We’re not just jesters hassling politicians,” says Webber. “We’re doing the hard work of researching information which has allowed us to be on the scene to confront neo-Nazis in Boston—a feat which city officials have claimed was impossible.”
This latest encounter is proof that no amount of stress and harassment will stop Webber and Pespisa. “What are we going to do, roll up and die?” Webber asks. “We’ll continue to call out power. It’s a constant struggle, but we’re looking forward to what’s next.”