Reverend Billy — real name William Talen — has lead the radical activist group, The Church of Stop Shopping, with his wife Savitri Durkee for the last fifteen years. In that time, the two have been arrested more than fifty times during their protests. Both maintain they aren’t trying to get arrested — it’s simply a function of America’s relationship with the police in the post-9/11 world.
“The supermalls and chain stores have been militarised. You don’t have to do anything for a cop to come running towards you. It’s a military approach,” Talen recently told Business Insider. “If you say Starbucks too loud in a Starbucks, you will get kicked out. The level of intimidation that people feel for any kind of behaviour outside the norm is extreme. “
Talen, Durkee, and the group’s behaviour does admittedly fall outside the norm. The Church of Stop Shopping frequently stages protests inside banks like JPMorgan Chase and stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and Starbucks. Their protests generally consist of the group singing anti-corporate songs, while Talen shouts a “sermon” conveying their message.
While some may see Talen and Durkee’s disruptions of public space as a reasonable grounds for arrest, many of the duo’s arrests seem like gross overreactions. The group’s demonstrations in private or public spaces usually last fifteen minutes or less, their protests generally consist of speaking or singing, and, just as often as not, the group will leave a space when asked by security or police.
“The arrests are so arbitrary,” says Durkee. “I’ve been arrested for tiny infractions. The police response to creative action in a retail space is ridiculous.”
One of the group’s most high-profile arrests occurred last year at a Manhattan Chase Bank. Upon arriving at the Midtown bank, Talen told the crowd that they were about to perform “expressive politics,” before preaching against JP Morgan Chase’s fossil fuels investments. The choir sang a song about the extinction of the Central American golden toad, while wearing toad-themed hats. The performance lasted fifteen minutes and the group left after finishing.
While waiting for the subway, the group was arrested for rioting, menacing, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct. The bank manager told police he thought the bank was being robbed. The charges, like most of those levied against Talen, Durkee, and the Choir, were reduced or dropped.
It wasn’t even the first time the group had done the protest:
During a protest in 2007, Talen was arrested for reciting the First Amendment through a bullhorn in front of police officers during a protest in Union Square. Here’s the sequence of events that lead to that arrest:
Wylie Stecklow, a New York lawyer who has represented Talen many times, told Business Insider that too often the lawyers prosecuting the cases against Talen don’t understand he is an activist. They try to seek extreme penalties that are not commensurate with the actions.
“These are civil disobedience cases. Reverend Billy is not a hardened criminal, he’s a hardened activist,” says Stecklow. “Often, part of the process of civil disobedience is that you suffer an arrest. As long as the penalty is equivalent to what a civil disobedience action warrants, we can move forward in our society.”
At this point, Reverend Billy is well known by New York City police, so much so that his presence can turn police attitudes on protests. At a recent 24-hour vigil in Grand Central for those lost to police violence, people demonstrated without interference from the police. When Reverend Billy arrived after 18 hours to deliver a short sermon, however, police moved in quickly to break up the vigil and arrest him. The MTA alleged that he attacked a police officer, which he has denied.
Talen has since filed lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for $US500,000, accusing the MTA of falsely alleging that he attacked police officers. Officers maintained that Talen was arrested because he “got physical” with other officers, but Talen was never charged with assault, only obstruction and disorderly conduct. Talen says he exercises strictly non-violent protest.
Despite whatever efforts Talen makes to avoid arrest, the truth is he sees arrest as necessary to any successful social movement — he cites the labour movement of the 19th century and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as examples.
Durkee has a more pragmatic view: “If Billy and I can’t risk arrest, who can? We are at the top of the food chain in America: middle class Caucasian-American citizens. There are people who don’t have any of those privileges and they risk arrest,” says Durkee.
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