Testify in court: Environmental crusader Rev. Billy might face prison
A little over a month ago, the Reverend Billy was arrested on a New York subway platform. This was a little unusual, but not very. The Reverend, a performance artist and activist named Bill Talen, had just been singing, dancing, and preaching into a megaphone inside of a Chase branch in midtown Manhattan, about how the bank’s investment practices were contributing to climate change. He was accompanied by a group of performers dressed like the golden frog of Central America [PDF], one of the first known species to become extinct as the direct result of climate change.
Reverend Billy has been arrested, he estimates, at least 75 times since 1999, when the Reverend first appeared in front of the recently opened Disney Store in Times Square in a white leisure suit and clerical collar. Since then, he’s used the persona of the televangelist to stage theatrical protests about the influence of corporations on American life. In recent years, Talen and the 50-odd performers that now make up the core of the Church of Stop Shopping have focused on the role that corporations play in climate change and species extinction.
“I’m not getting better at jail as I get older,” Talen wrote the day of his release from the Tombs, “It’s awful.” But, he continued, he was glad to be back in Brooklyn. Then, Talen got news that he wasn’t expecting. The City of New York was charging Talen and choir director Nehemiah Luckett with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, and two counts of disorderly conduct for the Chase protest. The pair faces up to a year in prison. Their trial begins on Dec. 9. I spoke to the free-for-now Talen over the phone (the judge denied the DA’s $30,000 bond request and released them on their own recognizance):
Q. Were you surprised to be arrested after that performance at Chase?
A. This idea of going into that lobby, going into that point of purchase, going into that elevator — we’ve been exploring that for a decade. So this is not new to us.
It’s a very sensitive thing for a corporation to have activists come in. We’re more dramatic than they are and we’re stopping everything. Some of the toads are up on the desks dancing. We’re singing. I’m preaching. Our researchers have it that JP Morgan Chase is one of the top financiers of climate change disruption in the world, and we’re handing out that information and that is a very sensitive thing.
I think that we’re in dicey territory here because JP Morgan Chase is basically the government of New York. Jamie Dimon is a rock star. He’s at the opening of the Met. He’s up at the Hamptons. He’s a socialite. He’s a star. He’s the only banker we know in this country. Do you know a second banker? I certainly don’t.
Q. I don’t know any bankers.
A. He’s such a rock star that he’s going to pay $13 billion in penalties and at the same moment he turns around and says “I’m damn proud of this bank.” He really is quite something.
Ray Kelly — the stop-and-frisk police commissioner who is losing his job — [is] going to work for Chase.
Q. So you didn’t think that this might happen?
A. No. Apparently someone in the JP Morgan Chase skyscraper was watching us and directed the police into the F train, which may have been a flaw in their arrest. Some people believe they have to catch you in the act and that the hearsay is not sufficient. We’ll see if that holds up.
When the DA assistant stands and looks me in the eye and says, “Your honor, for this criminal stunt, the people recommend one year in jail,” that’s a remarkable feeling. Our whole thing was 15 minutes long. And for 15 minutes you want to put us in jail for a year?
Q. You started out protesting against large corporations. Why did you make the shift to climate change?
A. Well, first: Church of Stop Shopping is a project of myself and my partner, Savitri D. It’s always been the two of us. She’s planned every performance. When I do interviews alone like this we get into the lonely heroic guy thing, out in the sidewalk in Times Square all by himself, standing up to Mickey Mouse. That makes a wonderful story, but it’s not true.
It is true that we were active in Seattle and the anti-neoliberal meetings in various cities until they started having meetings on islands like Bond movie villains. The bane of every activist’s existence is that you get up in the morning and you turn on your computer and you have 700 different emails about 700 different issues and you don’t know what to do. But it’s not such a shift. When we’re all breathing our last breath on this earth then it’s all one justice.
We’re running out of time. Maybe it’s Typhoon Haiyan or the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. I’m standing here looking out the windows of our second-story apartment in Brooklyn, and I remember branches flying through the air.
Q. Do you have any favorite preachers that you’ve used as models for the Reverend?
A. I go to churches. Sidney Lanier, my teacher who passed away a few months ago, used to say, “Just take out the content and listen to this vocal form.” Listen to this ability to fill up a vowel with wind, to stop on a turn, to stare at your audience through this wall of silence.” It’s American. It’s beautiful. It’s like auctioneers, like hip-hop people.
Q. Have you ever encountered actual evangelists who are similar in their outlook to you? I mean, there’s a lot of variation among evangelicals.
A. I met Jesse Jackson when I lived in San Francisco in the ’80s and I ran a theater there. He had a rally [at] a mass firing at the Levi’s factory. I remember just being jolted, in this Calvinist coldness where I come from, by his love. He just said, “I love you. I love you.” He said it so openly. And he made that love into politics. He established how happy he was there to fight for what was right.
Q. So about the trial. What comes next?
A. Right about now we’re starting to ask that very question. I’ve got a show coming up. We haven’t had to do this kind of thing in the past. We spend a night in jail. We spend a few hours of community service.
I’ve been a garbage man in the park. I’ve been a street cleaner in Chinatown and under the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve cleaned up a vacant lot in East New York. I helped a church feeding the homeless. You show up at dawn in this park and they give you gloves and they tell you what you’re going to do. It’s not so bad at all.
But it’s really hard to imagine getting down to community service from a year in prison. We’re in a different territory now. But in America we’ve never changed without casualties. I [might] have to go to jail for months and months and months and leave my 3-year-old with an absent father. Lena, someday when she’s older, will know this as well: It just so often happens in American culture that change can come with jail time.
Q. Have any other activists stepped in and offered you advice?
A. We’re in contact with the Earth First people like Mike Roselle. I can call them and say “I just walked into a bank with my extinct toads and we got surrounded by 40 cops and paraded down Sixth Avenue and they took us to jail and now we’re panicking.” Some of these people who were there with the Redwood Summer — the children of Edward Abbey and David Brower and Rachel Carson — they can calm me down.
I think it’s a consensus among Dave Foreman and the environmentalists who were sort of among the first to leave the big NGOs and say “this gradualism is not working.” They were the first to feel the pulse of the earth and say, “The earth is not moving at the same rate as the environmental consensus.”
The church is our messenger. The earth is our real leader. The best advice it gives us is Hurricane Sandy. I mean that literally. I think the golden toad told us to turn that bank lobby into a pond. Turn that bank lobby into an ecosystem. Amen?
Q. Uh, Amen.
A. It’s either too late, or very close to too late. We don’t get to know. We’ve got to turn the tables over, and try to get people’s attention.
Q. I’ve read that over the years that you’ve become increasingly apocalyptic in your sermons. Do you feel like that’s the case?
A. I’m a theater person, but I just don’t go to theater anymore unless it’s speaking to some issue that is going to save my life. If you’re not dealing with the water and the ground and the sky, if you’re not dealing with what you’re inhaling right now and the food you’re putting in your mouth, all that artiness becomes just so much dross.
Our message has never had less evasiveness in it. For so many years, the arts have had such a trickery to them. We don’t do that any more. Ultimately all of the arts will be an attempt to express the earth. It’s inevitable. When we have five Sandys a year in New York, Broadway will start mentioning the earth.
The earth’s crisis lends itself to the Old Testament fulminating preacher. “It’s the end of the WORLD children!” I’m more interested in the apocalypse as understood by Jesus and Mohammad the Prophet and the Buddha. They tend more towards the old Greek definition of apocalypse — a time when everything is shaken up so that it becomes unrecognizable, so we can heal.