Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
by Jill Lane
From his beginnings as a sidewalk preacher protesting the corporate redevelopment of Times Square in New York City to his trenchant anti-war, anti-empire actions today, Reverend Billy (pseudonym of artist-activist Bill Talen) has taken his theatrical activism to a range of sites which he calls "contested spaces": those urban sites that have been recently commodified, commercialized, gentrified or placed under state or police surveillance. In this vein, he has staged numerous "Shopping Interventions" in which he, along with prime collaborator Savitri D and the artists in "the Stop Shopping Choir," often perform in transnational corporate spaces themselves—from the Disney Store to Starbucks—in an effort to intervene in the seamless corporate architecture and choreography of shopping, or to "re-narrate" them with alternate forms of sociality and with the memories of the lives they displace.
As an ironic preacher and storyteller, Talen has committed himself to rescuing realities, memories, and even history itself from the relentless commodification of experience under transnational and corporate capital. He does so through a range of radical storytelling practices: comic sermons in Starbucks; marathon readings of The Raven on the roof of the historic Edgar Allen Poe House in New York City as bulldozers prepared to knock it down; an impromptu sermon for the workers in the Halliburton cafeteria in Houston, Texas; or, most recently, a protest parade at the very epicenter of the commodification of childhood, "Main Street, USA" at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as part of the group's cross-country "Shopacalypse" tour in December 2006.
Needless to say, Reverend Billy is often arrested. When he is arrested—and dragged by security guards past a shocked Mickey Mouse and hundreds of gaping tourists—his act of civil disobedience makes visible the degree to which the private space of such cherished "American" institutions—like Disneyland, McDonald's, or the malls that now punctuate every suburban landscape—exclude absolutely the American values of free speech and free assembly.
In 2004, Reverend Billy sought to make a claim for "Ground Zero"—site of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11—as an essential public "Commons" for New York City, to oppose the profit-driven claims of real estate developers as well as the ways the site has been enlisted to support the "War on Terror" by the Bush Administration. The present and future use of Ground Zero has been hotly debated in New York City since the attacks in 2001, subject to competing demands for the property to function as a de facto burial ground for those killed on 9/11, as a public memorial for the city to remember the traumatic events of 9/11, as a potential tourist site for visitors to the city, and at the same time, as valuable private real estate to be used for maximum profit by its owners and developers. While George Bush could enter the space and claim its traumatic history for his own political ends as he sought reelection in 2004, New Yorkers like Bill Talen could gain no access to this heavily fortified property; no permits for public actions or performances at Ground Zero would be granted.
However, Billy and his flock could access the site of the newly built, temporary train station at Ground Zero without a permit. This cavernous pathway, designed to facilitate the passage of those on their way to and from work on Wall Street, was generally filled with white-collar commuters on cell phones. Reverend Billy decided to make his claim on the space by impersonating such commuters and "re-narrating" it with only one text: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Gathering every Tuesday evening at the station, the protestors—soon known as "The First Amendment Mob"—would speak into real or simulated cell phones, repeating again and again the text of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Gradually, in the echoes of passing commuters, the voices of the protestors began to rise and they coalesced as a group, rather than as isolated pedestrians. The action culminated when the Mob recited the Amendment together in crescendo.
In the essays that follow, Reverend Billy and his director and collaborator Savitri D offer us reflections on the practice of civil disobedience in our new times. In his essay-sermon, "The Commons," Reverend Billy suggests that performance activism is our primary avenue for reconstituting the "public commons" of decades past, and his reflection on "A First Amendment Mob" graphically illustrates both the challenge and exhilaration of trying to produce such a "Commons" in heavily surveilled space. Savritri Durkee, in turn, offers an account of their infamous action against Starbucks in Barcelona, illuminating—as she says—the power of "leaving something other than your money in a chain-store."