New York performance artist Reverend Billy Talen is an institution at Burning Man. He also takes his show on the road, throwing Cacophony Society-style protests all around the US with his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.
From the Village Voice:
In September, longtime New York activist Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, led by choir director Nehemiah Luckett, went into a Chase Bank in Midtown and made a little music. The two led a group of eight choir members in a musical protest against mountaintop removal, a controversial form of coal-mining that Chase helps to finance. The choir sang a song, then Reverend Billy preached a sermon on Chase’s fondness for fossil fuel investments. The whole thing lasted about fifteen minutes, according to the choir, who had on fetching yellow toad hats during the performance.
For their trouble, as we told you at the time, Luckett and Reverend Billy (real name William Talen) were charged with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, and two counts of disorderly conduct. The rioting and the menacing both carried a possible punishment of one year in prison. But in a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court Monday morning, those charges were greatly reduced. According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the prosecution reviewed the footage and decided that the whole thing looked more like a musical protest than a riot.
After we reported on the charges against Reverend Billy and Luckett, the story got picked up by a whole lot of other places, including WNYC, The Guardian, Vice, Democracy Now!, and Forbes (yes, that Forbes). The Worldwide Hippies were also very upset, declaring, “You fuck with Reverend Billy, you fuck with the Worldwide Hippies!” (Noted.) A Change.org petition calling for the charges to be dropped garnered 13,900 signatures so far, and a legal defense fund for the two men has raised $15,720, or 105 percent of its goal.
That petition was handed to the judge at this morning’s hearing. At the same time, the prosecution announced that after talking with eyewitnesses and reviewing security footage, they were amending their complaint against the two men. The new charges are criminal trespassing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, trespassing, and two counts of disorderly conduct.
In the previous complaint, the Chase branch manager, Robert Bongiorno, told David Bornstein, the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, that because of the people with frog hats jumping and singing and whatnot all over his bank, he “believed that the bank was being robbed, felt in fear for his physical safety, and observed at least one customer or employee inside of the bank break into tears.”
In the new complaint, Bongiorno no longer reports that he feared he was being robbed by a gang of frog-headed menaces. Instead, the complaint says, Bongiorno reports that he “observed many of the above individuals handing out yellow pieces of paper to the customers and employees in the bank.” (Those were leaflets on mountaintop removal.) At the time, he adds, “the bank was open for business and multiple customers were present inside of the bank in order to conduct business, but that Mr. Bongiorno observed that the defendants’ actions disrupted the bank’s ability to conduct business.”
The prosecution, led by ADA Bornstein, also have a new sentencing recommendation: they’d like Reverend Billy to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and perform one day of community service. For Luckett, they’ve recommended an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD). An ACD means that if Luckett stayed out of trouble for six months — no menacing of fainthearted bank managers — the case would be dismissed and sealed. The next court date for both men is February 27th.
The choir began a run of shows at Joe’s Pub earlier this month. Reverend Billy, who has a pretty robust sense of humor, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that the charges, upsetting though they were, hadn’t been bad for attendance.
“Well, Jesus taught us — I mean there are lots of things about Jesus that we can’t listen to, right?” he told Goodman. “But, one thing he did teach us is, if you can’t afford a press person, get arrested quickly.”
Fortunately, Reverend Billy seems to have got the charges knocked down to a day’s raking. Thanks to Burner Kevin for bringing this latest update from the Rev earlier today to our attention:
SO THE PROSECUTOR IS NOW A MUSIC CRITIC? They tell the judge that by examining the surveillance tapes they determined that our action of Sept 12 did not constitute “Riot” and “Menace” and “Unlawful Assembly” but rather a “Musical Presentation,” and so the penalty they request for the plaintiffs Nehemiah and myself zooms from one year in jail down to a single day raking leaves in front of City Hall. Goes from 2nd and 3rd degree misdemeanors and criminal record down to a couple violations and community service. So, I’m sitting in a local cafe with Savi feeling much relief. We presented the 13,500 petitions to the judge and refused to accept even the much reduced charges… It was over in ten minutes. We thank our community of singing anti-consumerists and we are very grateful to our supporters from far and wide, and our neighbors and fellow activists here in NY, and also the press people who rallied to our cause. Something obviously happened in the last several weeks over at the District Atty’s office. At a minimum – the surveillance tapes the prosecutors looked at (finally) don’t have us hopping on desks, don’t record us threatening people. The riot and the menace didn’t show up there. Who knows, maybe earth-lovers in the DA’s office, people with kids who know that the banks have to stop the fossil fuel investments… maybe they hummed along with our toad-song. Earthalujah!
The Indypendent, billed as a Free Paper for Free People, interviewed Reverend Billy at Burning Man in 2009:
He paced back and forth, blond hair bobbing as he ducked and weaved and shouted his sermon. His white suit blazed in the sunlight, a black microphone coiled around his arm as he exhorted the audience.
I watched them bask in his fervor, quiet but curious. “Children…” he rolled his voice into a preacher’s rhythm. “We know the wonders of Burning Man. Here we see things seen nowhere else. Here the sun and moon set at the same time.” Voices whoop as the Reverend leans forward, “I know you want to take this fire into the world of big box stores. But children, without social change, we support, every day we support the statement of the American military culture. And that statement is, ‘If you threaten me I will kill you.’ And we support this statement with our taxes. We do most of our shopping, as Americans, not at Wal-Mart but at the Pentagon!”
People nod as if his words were weights tipping scales in their minds. His hands jumped around the air, “We need to be radical Americans like we’ve been before in the Labor Movement, in the Civil Rights Movement, in the Women’s Movement.” He dabbed his face with a sweat rag. “Children the earth is sending us messages. We see it in the typhoons that rip our coastal cities. We see it in the floods that sweep away towns and the earth is saying, we must be like the typhoons, we must be like the flood.”
Eyes lit up. His mythic words opened a door into a world of primal forces that could wash away our numbness. “All the life that is not human is calling us to join it in a duet of activism,” he crooned. “Children…” his voice darkened as he stopped and held out his hand as if gently parting a veil. “Some of us are going to have to die. In every great movement our freedom was earned by those died and there is life in death…”
A strange light glowed on their faces. He made visible a terrible truth that promised us a reality more powerful than our lives. I’ve heard preachers my whole life and many have said the same thing but I read about Reverend Billy and know that his campaign for mayor has taken a toll on his body. Recently his heart skipped and jumped. He missed campaign events until medicine thinned his blood, now he’s back on-stage, inviting the silent anxiety of people to shake him again until prophetic words cascade out and the audience can see the dream they buried inside themselves.
“Gradualism has taken over the world of social activism, there isn’t a 60’s movement that hasn’t become a Starbucks flavor. The earth is saying join in, join in your survival by participating in the survival of the earth. Change-a-lujah!”
Reverend Billy was brought to Burning Man in 2003 with a $6000 grant from BRAF, and was a big hit, according to the Chronicle:
Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Starbucks are frequent sites of the Rev. Billy’s sermons.
The Rev. Billy, who lived in San Francisco for many years, is a disciple of Burning Manwho received $6,000 last year from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the nonprofit arts funding arm, for an evangelical anti- consumerism tour of California. He is among a handful of artists to be sponsored by the organization.
He was a big hit at Burning Man in 2003, with his nightly shows denouncing consumerism and the Bush administration. He was among the first artists to be openly political in the desert.
He has used art to force people to think about their consumer choices for more than a decade.
If you’re in New York you can catch his shows at 2:30pm at Joe’s Pub on December 22, and January 12. The December 15 show is sold out.