(These texts appear at the front of Pepper Spray Paradise Volume 1 and Pepper Spray Picnic)
Once upon a time, in a little town in the rolling hills of West Virginia, or perhaps it was the jagged mountains of Virginia, or perhaps it was Tennessee, or it could have been L.A., a snarky little girl was born, or maybe hatched. She would become Berkeley’s beloved Grace Underpressure, a cross between an investigative journalist and a chigger, uniquely skilled at getting under the skin of evil-doers of all stripes.
Well, kinda sorta beloved, perhaps. If she’s skewering someone you can’t stand, her brand of satiric reporting is a delight, but if she’s going after you, you just have to grin and bear it, don’t you?
She’s been at it for decades, it seems. Every little girl worth her salt wants to grow up to have her own newspaper, but only the advent of cheap copying in Grace’s lifetime made this dream possible for her.
he started out distributing copies of the Pepper Spray Times at Berkeley’s civic meeting extravaganzas, but at some point in the distant past she persuaded the doufless management of the Berkeley Daily Planet to tuck them into issues of the Planet, then available free at newsstands all over town (and worth what you paid for it.)
I met Grace during the first of many successive attempts on the part of Berkeley’s electeds to curtail the free speech of panhandlers and others by ordinance. We agreed then that the First Amendment was basically a good idea, and we’ve stuck to that through thick and thin for all these years, despite the attempts of a long string of officials, most of whom ran for office as progressives, to ignore it.
The Planet never could afford a comics section, which made the lavishly illustrated PST a great catch. When we could no longer afford a printed paper, the Pepper Spray Times became a monthly addition to the online edition. Then as now we maintained plausible deniability. We exercise absolutely no editorial discretion over its content, and we plan to keep it that way. We do read it, just for fun.
We’ve caught Grace masquerading around town in a variety of guises: singer/songwriter, op-editorialist, news reporter, opponent of smoking … you name it, she does it, mostly under another name. But only here, in this little book, will you find the real deal: the one, the only, Grace Underpressure, guaranteed to satirize all the foolishness we see all around us, and long may she thrive.
– Becky O’Malley, Publisher, Berkeley Daily Planet, August 2020
I love the Pepper Spray Times because it is the antithesis of the mainstream news and entertainment industry. The latter’s obsession with so called analysis, its incessant, empty commentary and its corporate ban on speaking the truth (done under cover of objectivity) makes me want to leap onto a table and scream “this is crazy, this is absurd, don’t turn over your thinking to these companies that just want your data!”
The Pepper Spray Times doesn’t waste its time screaming from a table top, ranting about the obvious. It takes charge of the absurd, the ridiculous, the sheer craziness of what is happening and constructs a different story that sticks with you and opens your eyes—like a good fairy tale.
The Pepper Spray Times is marvelously goofy, full of astute observations and random acts of comedy. Carol Denney writes and publishes the PST in the comforting and pleasing format of an old fashioned, small town newspaper. It has a beginning and an end and doesn’t flash disconnected, scary headlines at you 24/7. It actually covers local issues.
Denney has a way of zeroing in on truth, as she spins a story about trees that won’t fill out online surveys, or exposes the casual and offhand way we have allowed our political and social options to be guided “by background mechanisms and mathematical equations supplied by unknown parties.” If twenty years from now someone wants to understand how a whole society of relatively educated people allowed the algorithm to take over its decision-making on absolutely critical issues that had the potential to reverberate and constrain progress far into the future, they need not listen to commentators droning on and on about things they know nothing of, or read tedious analyses in scholarly journals, or even conduct surveys that require yes or no answers to every question because computers operate more efficiently that way. They will need only read one short article in the PST and they will understand why we doomed ourselves and generations to come.
Like all great satire, the Pepper Spray Times deftly uses humor to expose the stupidity and/or vices of those who hold the power. The PST does not squander any of its precious time, space, or ink laying out people’s stated positions or giving them an opportunity to explain what they really meant to say when they said what they actually said. Thus, when Mark Zuckerberg refused to consider his employees’ demand that he stop the publication of false political ads on Facebook, the PST reported that Zuckerberg thinks lies are informative then put the truth into Zuckerberg’s own mouth: “Political falsehoods may be inconvenient for elections, but they are hella lucrative.” When murals at Caffe Med were destroyed the headline in the PST was: “Caffe Mediterraneum Murals Knew Too Much.” The PST went on to explain why it was crucial to destroy the murals, which represent more turbulent times. “These [current University of California at Berkeley] students need a less disruptive environment. Imagine what would happen if they found out that the University of California used to be free.”
One reason the PST is different from a lot of satire I have seen is that Denney rarely takes the obvious road. In a piece about PG&E’s claim that a wildfire was started by natural causes rather than PG&E’s negligence Denney does not fall back on blaming “mother nature” as a way of mocking PG&E’s claim that they are blame free. Instead she creates the character of the “unrepentant Circle of Life” who stands defiant in the courtroom, handcuffed and refusing to be remorseful for starting the wildfires. This brings forth a wonderfully real image of an entity that knows exactly what it’s doing and is quite amenable to doing evil things for profit. It takes the wind out of the usual claim that dear, old, unpredictable mother nature was at it again, creating havoc, but without malice. [I can’t remember where I was going with this…]
– Kathleen Vanden Heuvel, Head Librarian, Berkeley Law, September 2020
Bob Nichols asked me to be part of the Hard Times. He was a stagehand at Zellerbach Hall, and the most independent, incisive political mind I’d ever encountered. A Political Science major at UC Berkeley, I was used to roomfuls of mostly men posturing pointlessly over hypothetical idiocy. Bob was all about the streets. He was a musician like me, and saw firsthand how developers would roll into the political mix with the same formula: knock down affordable and single room occupancy housing and build high-end condos, pay off politicians, and walk away laughing while the arts and working class community struggled. It was criminal to us how the local leadership ate it up. But it was also comic.
Bob worked with the best. He knew Eddie Monroe, an artist on Telegraph Avenue who could paint and draw anything, and got the Hard Times masthead from him. He found David Kamola, a local graphic designer, who managed the visual elements we had no head for, and he and I wrote the copy. Natalie Drest was my monthly assignment; a fashion take on politics. The rest was a free-for-all about what we thought mattered or what we could get the fuck done given the madness.
Bob wasn’t just in charge. He was the master of the hard tone he felt imperative to use given the systematic monetization of everything we valued. Bob, as a straight man, had come across the bay to support the White night riots because he knew it mattered. He worked his tail off to make sure women had an entry into Zellerbach’s previously male-only workplace. He gave me his hard hat to wear to defend UC’s failed effort to turn People’s Park into a sports facility. And there was nothing that he couldn’t make funny.
At some point he quit wanting to put out the paper. It was a lot of work, all unpaid and unsung, but I remember being annoyed when he quit publishing the Hard Times a few years before he died. I wanted to keep going, and accidentally stumbled into the moment when it made sense to go forward by producing a fake newspaper called the Pepper Spray Times for a hearing about the use of pepper spray by the Berkeley police. I thought it wise to dress as a police officer and hand the attendees at the hearing a copy of something that recommended pepper spray as good for one’s complexion.
I never stopped publishing the Pepper Spray Times. Part of my incentive was the natural comedy brewed by the productive combination of local corruption, a comatose citizenry, and the free-flowing lunacy all around us. Long may it reign. There are a few circumstances proving that speaking humor to power is effective in changing policy. But the most important goal, to me, is that someday, somehow, the working class hold the wheel.
– Carol Denney, AKA Grace Underpressure, Editor, Pepper Spray Times, September 2020