Photo courtesy of Billy Talen.
At 1 PM on September 12, performance artist Reverend Billy Talen and his Stop Shopping Choir walked into a JP Morgan Chase asset management bank on 52nd Street. and Park Avenue in Manhattan. Forty-five minutes later Bill and his musical director, Nehemiah Luckett, were getting handcuffed on an F-train subway platform by the NYPD with charges of rioting, menacing, and disorderly conduct. Now, Billy and Nehemiah are facing a year in prison.
In the complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, the bank's manager, Robert Bongiorno, said he saw “the defendants, along with approximately eight other people, [were] running about the bank while wearing frog masks.” The frog people jumped on furniture and “repeatedly ran up to the faces of the bank's employees and customers while screaming, in sum and substance, 'WE ARE COMING FOR YOU!'”
Robert—who was reached by phone but refused to comment for this article—thought the bank was being robbed and, according to the DA, feared for his safety. He also told authorities that he “observed at least one customer or employee inside of the bank break into tears.”
There are more than a few things Reverend Bill wants to clear up. For one, his choir was not wearing masks. Bill's legal council had advised against the choir covering their faces inside a bank. Those were toad-shaped hats over the choir's heads—the Golden Headed Toad of Central America, to be exact, which was last sighted in the cloud forests of Costa Rica in 1989. Climate changes in the toad's habitat are thought to have led to its extinction. The Golden Heads showed-up from beyond the grave at the exclusive Chase branch to warn the financial giant and the wealthy private investors that the midtown branch caters to that they (and all of us along with them) are next if they don't change their wicked ways.
Chase is a leading investor in greenhouse gas-emitting industries. The bank, for instance, lent or underwrote more than $8 billion toward coal extraction since 2005. Reverend Billy foresees a climapocalypse, a doomsday sponsored by the likes of JP Morgan and other backers of fossil-fuels, which are igniting an uptick in heatwaves, droughts, rising oceans, and storms like Haiyan.
“We could just see people putting money into the fossil-fuel cartel from those desks,” Bill told me, this week as he fried eggs and sausage in a generous dousing of hot sauce at his apartment in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. Although he wasn't wearing his trademark white polyester suit and preacher's collar, he occasionally lapsed into the hemistich speaking rhythm of his alter-ego, “a reversed-out Jimmy Swaggart,” as Bill put it.
In his youth, Bill tried his hand at Hollywood, but eventually became disgusted with the whole aspiring movie star scene. He moved to San Francisco and, in the late 90s, arrived in New York during the height of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's reign. He came up with the Reverend character at a time when Starbucks were proliferating, Walmart was clawing at the gates of the city, and Disney had just opened a flagship shop in Times Square.
“We were anti-consumerists,” Bill recalled of himself and the crowd he ran with back then, many of whom would eventually form the Stop Shopping Choir. “We were fighting the destruction of neighborhoods by chain stores and sweatshops union busting. We championed community gardens very early on and farmers' markets. We helped keep Walmart out of New York.”
Spalding Gray was a huge fan.“'Don't ever stop preaching!'” Bill said the late, great monologist told him. “'Even if there's nobody around. Preach to the supermodels on the billboards.'”
What started as pure satire, an evangelist exorcising Mickey Mouse from Times Square, became serious after 9/11. People from all walks of life began approaching the Reverend looking for spiritual guidance. In one instance, when the scent of the collapsed World Trade Center still hovered in New York's air, Bill was in costume, riding his bike over the Williamsburg Bridge when, before he knew it, he found himself with a girl crying in his arms. “I said to myself, 'Well, let's see. I'm an older person. I'm wearing this collar, which I bought for five bucks, but I'll just console people as best I can. That's all a religious person is. They might say that God gave them this calling. But that's all just... We know what that is.”
After delivering thousands of sermons, Bill said he's learned, “You can tell a joke in the middle of a prayer and it doesn't make the prayer less powerful. A joke is not the same thing as disrespect.”
He described what transpired in the Chase lobby as an “Earth invasion”—figuratively speaking. Nobody was harmed or physically threatened. “We told everybody in there we were conducting a protest and it would be over in 15 minutes. We didn’t want anybody to be upset. People are so mesmerized by consumerism, when the choreography is broken, they don't know that to do. We've had soul's saved on the spot and people run into the bathroom crying. It's all over the place.”
Billy's attorney, Wylie Stecklow of the Wylie Law firm, described the charges as an “outrageous” attack on his clients' “expressive political activity.”
Wylie explained that, by law, police cannot arrest a subject on misdemeanor charges, in Bill's case what would have amounted to trespassing, unless they catch the suspect in the act. They can, however, make criminal arrests without having witnessed the crime in question. Wylie believes the New York Police Department trumped up the charges in order to apprehend Bill and his choir director on the F train platform after the fact. And because Chase disapproves of the content of Bills' message, they are pressing ahead with the charges.
Photo by Peter Rugh.
“You have a bank that is telling people, 'We don't enjoy your speech, so we are going to criminalize it,'” he said. “'We are going to take your very innocent speech and say that we fear for our safety.'”
Bill's been arrested dozens of times before for civil disobedience, but three nights is the longest he's ever been locked up. He has a three-year-old, so he's not exactly eager to go to go away for a year, but he's ready to take the case to trial if need be. “This our Pussy Riot at the high alter moment,” he told me.
When, they're not jumping on the tables at banks, you'll find Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir leading revivals in theaters. Reverend Billy's quest for redemption is a recurring plot-line in their stage performances.
“I'm the best known person in the Church of Stop Shopping,” said Billy. “I'm also a white, heterosexual male. Our story is that I'm failing all the time. I'm a failed prophet. I need the choir to come to my aid.”
Right now, however, Billy's put his faith in the general public, asking them to be his salvation. He's launched a petition drive demanding the charges against him and his colleague, Nehemiah Luckett, be dropped. The letter to the DA has gathered more than 10,000 endorsements ahead of an evidentiary hearing, slated for December 9. The Reverend wants us to take climate change seriously, lest the human race go the way of the Golden Headed Toad. But, in the meantime, he's praying Chase and the DA's office will learn to a take joke.