Bennett Cohen was born on March 18, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York. He was born at the same Brooklyn hospital where his future friend and business partner, Jerry Greenfield, had been born just four days earlier. The two subsequently grew up near one another but did not meet until they were in the same seventh-grade gym class.
Cohen attended Colgate University for two years before dropping out and moving to Long Island. From 1971-74, he attended the University Without Walls (at Skidmore College), where he took courses in jewelry-making and pottery. He subsequently worked menial jobs until 1977. These included jobs as a cashier at McDonald’s; a guard at the Saratoga Raceway; a night mopper at a Jamesway store and a Friendly’s restaurant; an assistant superintendent at Gaslight Square Apartments (in Rochester, New York); a pottery wheel delivery person; a pediatric emergency-room clerk at Bellevue Hospital; and a taxi cab driver. He also took courses in experimental sound recording at The New School, and in art therapy at New York University. In addition, Cohen interned as a craft therapist at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and at the Grand Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side.
On May 5, 1978, Cohen and Greenfield together invested $12,000 to open an ice-cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont, which they named Ben & Jerry’s (B&J). The store was enormously successful and soon developed into a franchise business.
In 1985 Cohen and Greenfield created the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, a philanthropy that historically has taken 7.5% of B&J’s pre-tax profits and distributed them to organizations whose political and social agendas are consistent with the leftist leanings of the founders. In 1998 Cohen created Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a now-defunct organization that called for 15% of the U.S. defense budget to be transferred into educational funding.
In 2000, Cohen and Greenfield sold B&J to the British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever for $326 million. As Biography.com notes, “the sale … contained provisions to allow Ben & Jerry’s to maintain its existing social mission and brand identity.” Also under the terms of the sale, B&J became a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever and maintained a separate board-of-directors that included the two founders.
In 2002, Cohen founded the group TrueMajority to promote a variety of anti-war, environmental, and social-justice agendas.
Claiming that “it can no longer be denied” that “the effects of climate change” caused by “man-made carbon pollution” are having an “increasin[g]” effect on “our fragile planet,” B&J declares: “The scientific evidence is settled; global warming is real and already impacting people around the world.” Adds B&J: “The cruel irony of climate change is that people in the developing world, who can least afford to adapt to climate change, will pay the steepest price for the 200 years of industrialization and pollution from the developed world. It truly is an issue of climate justice.” To address this matter, B&J:
Cohen and Greenfield strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2004 they took a twelve-foot effigy of President George W. Bush on a national “Pants-on-Fire” tour, setting it ablaze at each location to signify that Bush had lied to the American people when he announced that major military hostilities in Iraq had ended.
In late 2010, as a number of Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire unless Congress intervened to extend them, Cohen was one of more than 45 millionaires who signed an open petition stating that tax breaks for the wealthy should be terminated “for the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens.”
In 2012, Cohen and Greenfield joined with other business leaders (calling themselves the Movement Resource Group) to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement.
Also in 2012, Cohen helped launch the “Stamp Stampede” campaign, whose purpose was to “Stamp Money Out Of Politics” by lobbying for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which had struck down a ban preventing corporations and labor unions from funding the production of political campaign ads within 60 days of a general election. In May 2015 Cohen said: “This system [under Citizens United] is disgusting. It’s proof that our democracy is more awash in political spending than ever. It’s a reminder that the richest 1%, corporations, and their lobbyists are going to own these elections—and that pushes the rest of us to the sidelines.” Asserting that “big money in politics is the root of injustice,” Cohen in 2017 appeared at a Philadelphia rally pushing the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a resolution that would create a “distinction between the rights of natural persons and the rights of corporations, unions, and other legal entities under the First Amendment,” thereby giving “Congress and state legislatures the power to regulate political contributions and expenditures.”
In 2015, Cohen and Greenfield spoke out in support of the nuclear-weapons-program agreement that President Barack Obama and other world leaders were in the midst of negotiating with Iran. In an email to MoveOn.org activists, the B&J founders stated that the pending deal represented “the only peaceful way to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons” and to “kee[p] America out of another war in the Middle East.” Moreover, the longtime Democrat supporters vowed not to donate any money to congressional Democrats who failed to back the Iran accord.
After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 U.S. states in 2015, B&J, claiming that “the movement for marriage equality is on an unstoppable roll,” celebrated the decision by introducing a new cookie-dough ice-cream flavor called “I Dough, I Dough.”
In 2016, Cohen and Greenfield paid honor to their preferred presidential candidate, the self-identified “Democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, by introducing a new flavor of ice cream, “Bernie’s Yearnings.” “The solid disk of chocolate” at the top of this item, Cohen explained, “represents … all of the wealth that’s gone up to the top one percent, and underneath [in the mint ice cream] is the rest of us, and the way you eat is just [to] whack it up into a bunch of little pieces and move it around.” Defending Sanders’s socialist economic politics, Cohen said: “We have a program in the U.S. called Social Security that puts people ahead of profits essentially. All Bernie’s talking about is making health care a human right and making access to education something that’s available to everybody regardless of how much money you have.”
In April 2016, Cohen and Greenfield were both arrested along with some 300 others at the U.S. Capitol during so-called “Democracy Awakening” protests agitating for an end to Voter ID requirements and for the restoration of an anachronistic provision (requiring mainly Southern states to undergo special federal scrutiny before being permitted to change their election laws in any way) that the Supreme Court had struck from the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
On May 17, 2016, B&J announced that the proceeds from yet another new ice-cream product, “Empower Mint,” would help fund the North Carolina NAACP’s campaign to repeal that state’s Voter ID law. At a local voter-registration drive that Cohen and Greenfield helped launch with North Carolina NAACP president William Barber, Cohen said he “felt really good” to be working with people “who’ve been struggling to get back their right to vote for them[selves] and other people of color.” Campaigning against voter suppression is “not something we get to do in Vermont,” added Cohen, “because they’re so white…. Right now we have a government that represents rich white people. That’s not what’s it’s about. We’ve got to overturn these laws.”
Announcing its support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest movement in October 2016, B&J lamented that “systemic and institutionalized racism” was “disadvantaging and discriminating against people of color” nationwide, most notably in the form of “violence and threats to the lives and well-being of black people.” “All lives do matter,” said B&J. “But all lives will not matter until black lives matter.” One method by which B&J raised money for BLM was by selling T-shirts that read “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” a slogan that had grown out of the false narrative which claimed that a white police officer’s fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man in Missouri, had occurred while Brown was raising his hands in submission and pleading, “Don’t shoot.”
On March 3, 2018 in Burlington, Vermont, Cohen and two fellow activists were arrested for disorderly conduct after they had used a mobile public-address system to play the loud sounds of jet noises — all in an effort to persuade city officials to vote against allowing F-35 combat aircrafts to use the Burlington International Airport. “[Cohen] said the goal was to simulate what it might be like for residents living under the flight path of Vermont National Guard F-35 fighters,” the Bangor Daily News reported, and “he tweeted that if he [had] violated the city noise ordinance, then the fighter jets will, too.”
In September 2018, Cohen and Greenfield collaborated with MoveOn.org to initiate a “Take Back Congress” contest where participants were invited to think of creative names for new ice-cream flavors that would promote the congressional campaigns of seven progressive candidates who were running in the upcoming midterm elections. Those seven candidates were Democratic House challengers Jess King, Lauren Underwood, Aftab Pureval, J.D Scholten, Ammar Campa Najjar, Stephany Rose Spaulding, and James Thompson. In a press release announcing the contest, Cohen and Greenfield said: “We need a Democratic majority to check President Trump’s unrestrained power.”
In October 2018, B&J introduced a new ice-cream flavor, “PeCAN Resist,” consisting of chocolate ice cream with fudge chunks, pecans, walnuts, and fudge-covered almonds. This roll-out was part of what the company described as a campaign to “lick injustice and champion those fighting to create a more just and equitable nation for us all”; “lift up those who are leading the resistance to the current [Trump] administration’s regressive agenda”; and “celebrat[e] the activists who are continuing to resist oppression, harmful environmental practices and injustice.” As part of the campaign, B&J partnered with four leftist organizations — Color Of Change, Honor the Earth, Women’s March, and Neta — and donated $25,000 to each of them.
On December 10, 2020, B&J announced that it was partnering with former National Football League quarterback and Black Lives Matter activist Colin Kaepernick to bring consumers a non-dairy, vegan-flavored flavored ice cream called “Change the Whirled.” Said the company in a statement: “We are so inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s bold activism for racial justice that we did what we do best: We whipped up a euphoric flavor to honor his work.”
In early February 2021 in Tampa Bay, the city which was hosting that year’s Super Bowl, B&J erected a 30-foot-by-90-foot billboard with a mural honoring Kaepernick. The sign depicted Kaepernick with a raised fist, along with images of his “Change the Whirled” ice cream, an “I Know My Rights” sign from his “Know Your Rights Camp,” and children wearing Kaepernick t-shirts. “As we look back, it’s clear that Colin was on the right side of history,” said Chris Miller, the head of B&J’s global activism department. “His pre-game protests were before George Floyd’s murder, before the 2020 summer of racial reckoning. He knew a long time ago that we need to address the root causes of racism and the structures of our society that are so brutal to Black people. We wanted to be part of the effort to honor Colin’s courage and legacy because we share the same values.”
On April 12, 2021, B&J tweeted about an incident where a white female police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota had accidentally shot and killed a young black man named Daunte Wright when he resisted arrest and tried to flee the scene. “The murder of #DaunteWright is rooted in white supremacy and results from the intentional criminalization of Black and Brown communities,” B&J tweeted, adding: “This system can’t be reformed. It must be dismantled and a real system of public safety rebuilt from the ground up.” The tweet also included the hashtag #DefundThePolice.
Further Reading: “Ben Cohen” (Biography.com); “Ben & Jerry’s To Unilever, With Attitude” (NY Times, 4-13-2000); “Ben of Ben & Jerry’s Takes Bush Effigy on [‘Pants On Fire’] Tour” (Fox News, 1-21-2004); “‘Tax Us’ Say Some Rich Americans” (Newsmax.com, 11-25-2010); Overview of the Stamp Stampede Campaign (StampStampede.org); “Ice Cream Magnates Ben & Jerry Promote Iran Nuclear Deal” (Breitbart.com, 8-19-2015); “A Taste of Socialism in Every Scoop of Ben and Jerry’s Bernie’s Yearning Ice Cream” (FoxBusiness.com, 2-22-2016); “Ben and Jerry Arrested After Double Scoop of DC Protest” (Newsmax.com, 4-20-2016); “Ben & Jerry’s Flavor ‘Empower Mint’ to Help NAACP Fight ‘Voter Suppression’” (Breitbart.com, 5-17-2016); “Ben & Jerry’s co-founder arrested in Vermont” (Bangor Daily, 3-25-2018); “Ben & Jerry’s Founders Creating Democrat-Inspired Ice Cream Flavors to ‘Take Back Congress’” (Fox News, 7-22-2018); “Together, PeCAN Resist!” Multivu.com).