When preacher Billy Talen and his congregation went into a bank and performed a fifteen-minute protest, they never expected their actions to spur a legal debate on criminality, artistic performance and the musicality of activism.
Ever since Billy, real name William Talen, began his unique delivery of civic-driven sermons on the streets of New York he’s derived somewhat of a cult following. But it was the events on the 12th of September 2013, that saw Billy and Nehemiah being charged with rioting in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, two counts of disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly.
Described in his defence motion as a ‘socially-progressive performance artist’, Reverend Billy is the stage name of William Talen. Donning the garb of an evangelical preacher, he leads his congregation, The Church of Stop Shopping, in campaigns against mass consumerism, unethical cooperate practices and environmental destruction. So far, he’s been the focus of a Morgan Spurlock documentary (2007's What Would Jesus Buy?), stood for Mayor of New York City in 2007, and performed an exorcism of BP’s environmental sins in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern – he’s even managed to get a giggle out of Glenn Beck on Fox News.
Billy’s antics are halfway between Dadaist improv and political activism, where the spectacle is in the delivery and the message is clear – none of our mass consumerism and heavily reliance on energy is sustainable, and something’s got to give.
At first he was a local New York character, preaching the sins of Mickey Mouse outside of the Disney Store, "God is no bigger than the Disney company - a sweat shop company dominating the economy in Times Square and throwing out smaller shops," explains Billy.
Everything changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11. “When 9/11 happened, we had a large number of people coming to our services. By that time, we were having church services and all these New Yorkers who were all escaping their parents, God etc. Like myself, we were patching together a way of living without fundamentalism and oppressive law.”
Along the way, his anger and focus was diverted from mass consumption to big banks and oil companies. “We started to feel that retail consumption is exemplified by the same big devils who destroy high streets, destroy our comm unities and pollutes our minds with advertising and turn us into apolitical people,” Billy explains. So why single-out JP Morgan Chase specifically? “They are amongst the top financiers, yet not many people connect banks with climate change.”
On the day of the Morgan Chase event, Billy and his congregation headed to a deli on 57th Street, buying some food while getting their costumes together. The stage garb turned out to play a critical part in the eventual arrest and prosecution – the outlandish outfits referenced the now-extinct golden toad, which has become the poster child for the global amphibian decline crisis through the environmental damage that results from irresponsible environmental mining.
According to Billy’s court defence, he was actively trying to stop or hamper the damage being done to the climate by interrupting private clients at the bank from making further investments. And that particular branch of JP Morgan Chase deals with wealth management, with the financers currently investing in mountaintop removal, a controversial form of coal extraction in which mountain summits are removed through explosives to gain access to coal seams.
"We had an information sheet and a person whose job it is to explain that it is a protest. There were eleven or twelve of us and we went us to into the bank and we did what we had hoped - interrupt rich people talk about investments."
One of the witnesses claims to have been intimidated by the chants of "we’re coming for you", a lyric Billy denies singing. "I was singing, ‘we surround you’ from the point of view of threatened animals," he protests. "I’m a bat, I’m a wolverine: we want to represent the thousands of species that are disappearing. We were in there for all of 15 minutes and the response was no different from usual. Some people giggle, some people get angry, some people take YouTube videos. When our time was up, we took the escalator out."
They were arrested a few minutes later as they waited in the subway for the F train. JP Morgan Chase claimed that the group had refused to leave, despite being asked.
Billy has performed hundreds of similar stunts, but had never faced such aggressive charges. The group had the threat of a year in prison hanging over their heads for 11 weeks. Billy and his family began to feel the strain. "I have a three-year-old daughter. We stuck with it and had a supportive community."
At the eleventh hour, the charges were dropped, turning on a point of artistic interpretation.
"On 9 December, the district attorney said, ‘Your honour, we have reviewed the subject tapes and it is in fact a musical presentation'," Billy recalls. "The illustrious DA’s office - famous for the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case – this famous group suddenly became music critics and decided it was theatre."
Billy reckons it’s because the prosecutor didn’t watch the CCTV footage until the days leading up to the trial. "It’s just the fact that they’re lazy. Here’s basically an Elvis impersonator, preaching, who leaves after 15 minutes. Nobody is abusing anybody, there’s no robbery. Someone has finally looked at the tapes."
So if he could go back and reconsider entering the bank, would he change anything? "It’s the necessity of defence - millions of people are dying every year and there’s nobody stopping it. These big banks have no review, no regulation, nobody."
"The people of the Stop Shopping choir came to New York initially to perform," Billy declares. "We were all going to be on Broadway, right? But we became politicised performers instead. There is no Nelson Mandela of the climate community; we need more Edwards Snowdens and Pussy Riots who break out of the system. We have to go and occupy."