On January 26, 2000, the band Rage Against the Machine stood on the steps of Federal Hall to shoot the music video for “Sleep Now in the Fire,” a song from the group’s 1999 album The Battle of Los Angeles. Michael Moore directed the music video; in it, he’s shown arguing with New York police. Toward the end of the shoot, the film crew and band tried to enter the New York Stock Exchange and the scene devolved into chaos. In interviews, guitarist Tom Morello says Moore yelled to the band, “Take the New York Stock Exchange.”
Perhaps that sentiment is what stuck with Travis Boersma, and not in the way Moore intended. Boersma, who co-founded the Oregon-based coffee chain, Dutch Bros, rang the trading bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on September 15 in honor of the company’s public offering. Dutch Bros, which started as a coffee pushcart from two dairy farmers in Grants Pass, now operates more than 400 locations across the country, selling caramel pumpkin brulee cold brew, strawberry white chocolate almond sodas, and lemon poppyseed muffin tops (just the tops); now that the company has gone public, Boersma hopes to climb up to 4,000 locations nationwide. The primarily drive-thru coffee kiosks are known for their cheery staff the company calls “broistas,” and the company’s various charitable causes and fundraisers.
So when Boersma arrived at the New York Stock Exchange to ring the bell, he decided to dress in a way that reflected the company’s brand: a backward baseball cap, flip flops, sunglasses, and, presumably in earnest, a Rage Against the Machine shirt. Maybe Boersma just grabbed the shirt from the laundry pile, threw it in a suitcase, and headed to New York without really considering the context. Maybe he thought the shirt was a statement piece, an “I’m not like other chairmen” fashion choice. But either way, the irony of a man in a Rage Against the Machine shirt making his company $484 million in its initial public offering and transforming into a billionaire in a single day is palpable.
In a week where progressives have been skewering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s choice to wear her “tax the rich” dress to the Met gala, Boersma’s shirt has gone under the radar. Isn’t a man making millions in a shirt representing a band that famously criticized American greed something we should question? At least Ocasio-Cortez didn’t actively make millions while wearing her sort of ill-advised political statement, and, as Samhita Mukhopadhyay argues in her piece for the Cut, at least the dress spurred a real conversation. No one is writing think pieces about Travis Boersma’s T-shirt choices — except me, I guess.
Of course, this comparison only makes sense if Boersma intended to make a political statement; there’s a strong possibility that he is simply a guy who likes late-’90s, early-aughts rock and, I don’t know, nuns with guns.
The company’s behavior when faced with issues of injustice would support that possibility: There’s a veneer of toxic positivity and quiet neutrality covering pretty much every Dutch Bros in the country. In 2019, Dutch Bros pulled support for the Oregon carbon cap bill; a company spokesperson defended the position by saying “Dutch Bros doesn’t take political stances.” In 2020, company leadership asked locations to take down all Black Lives Matter signs in cafes; in a press release, a company spokesperson said “We removed the signs not because we don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement… We’ve chosen to focus on taking massive action internally to ensure we’re making extraordinary strides in diversity, equity and inclusion.” By choosing to focus internally, the conversations related to race and white supremacy could stay behind closed doors — out of the sight of its customers.
But to sever Rage Against the Machine from its political message feels like the largest possible insult to the band. Rage was inherently political — in every song, in every album, in every performance. Zack de la Rocha regularly raged against the military-industrial complex, police brutality, and capitalism. The band attended, played at, and spurred protests. I mean, it’s even in the name. In the summer of 2020, a Twitter user complained about Morello being vocal about his political views in his music as if it were a recent development. “What music of mine were you a fan of that DIDN’T contain ‘political BS’?” Morello tweeted in response. “I need to know so I can delete it from the catalog.”
In the first verse of “Sleep Now in the Fire,” de la Rocha says, “So raise your fists and march around/Don’t dare take what you need/I’ll jail and bury those committed/And smother the rest in greed.” Let’s hope Boersma can still breathe.
• Dutch Bros [Official]
• Dutch Bros Coffee IPO Brews Oregon’s Newest Billionaire [Forbes]
• Inside Dutch Bros’ big day on Wall Street [PBJ]
• Rage Against the Machine — “Sleep Now in the Fire” [YouTube]