Reverend Billy preaching against climate change during the Sept. 12 action as his choir members, in golden toad hats, cavort. Photo by Eric McGregor
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Reverend Billy and His Stop Shopping Choir are known for mixing soulful music, satirical shtick and righteous politics in their performance art and protest actions.
But a manager of a Midtown JPMorgan Chase bank branch and the Manhattan district attorney claim that Reverend Billy, a.k.a. Bill Talen, was the “ringleader” of a “violent and tumultuous” action that caused “public alarm” and placed one or more persons in “fear of death,” and reduced at least one bank customer or employee to tears.
At Talen’s arraignment on Oct. 28, an assistant district attorney charged, “This was a criminal stunt, Your Honor.”
And now Talen, in the most serious charges he’s ever been slapped with, is facing up to a year in jail.
Talen readily admits he led a protest at the bank branch, at 56th St. and Sixth Ave., on Sept. 12. On that date, he and 14 singers from his choir entered the location — Billy in his usual pompadoured Elvis / evangelical preacher getup and the singers wearing enormous, bug-eyed, golden toad hats. They rode an escalator up three flights and freely entered the bank office, where clients were making transactions with tellers or seated at desks talking with financial advisers.
The golden toad is an icon of the environmental movement. Native to Costa Rica, it hasn’t been seen since 1989.
“It’s widely felt that the golden toad was driven into extinction by climate change…El Niño-like winds,” Talen said, speaking to The Villager last week. “JPMorgan Chase is a top investor in industrial projects that cause climate change — gas, coal, hydroelectric, fossil fuels,” he noted. “They’ve always been a fossil fuel bank.”
As Talen tells it, for 15 minutes, the “toads” hopped about and sang while he preached against the big bank, calling on it to repent from its global-warming ways. The song they performed was “We Surround You,” which Talen explained, “is from the point of view of threatened animals.” He said he warned the bank’s staff and clients that their children’s lives might be cut short if climate change continues unchecked. They set up a small white camping tent and left some potted plants around it.
Then, without incident, they exited. Soon afterward, Talen and Nehemiah Luckett, the choir’s musical director, were arrested and handcuffed by police on the F train platform at 56th St. and Sixth Ave. They were caught red-handed holding several of the golden toad hats. Both were charged with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly.
“Unlawful assembly of extinct toads,” Talen said incredulously.
Talen and Luckett were both released on their own recognizance soon after being arrested. They both face up to a year in jail, the maximum for a”A” misdemeanor charges. There is no minimum jail time.
Why such a potentially harsh penalty?
“I’ve been arrested 75 times and I’ve never faced more than three days in jail,” he said, “and I think it’s because we interrupted rich people! JPMorgan Chase is a wealth-management bank.
“The toad heads are beautiful and we think they’re comic,” he continued.
However, he said, “We saw a woman running down the hall from us. … We assume she was an employee and that she called the cops.”
In addition, the D.A.’s complaint states that the toad headdresses weren’t hats but rather masks, which are presumably more threatening.
Yet, Savitri D, Talen’s wife and the choir’s director, said, “We have been doing these kind of creative protests and actions in banks, in retail shops, government agencies and lobbies and offices of senators for a dozen years, and it’s not a threatening act. And we are singing the entire time. Our faces were showing — these are hats, not masks. I would stress that our history is nonviolent. It’s a group of people in papier-mâché hats — toads — it’s fairly nonthreatening. We’re handing out fliers about who we are, we’re totally transparent about what we’re doing.”
O.K., someone may have been a bit frightened by the protest, she said, but climate change is a lot scarier.
“We’re concerned about climate change, and this is the route we take to talk about it.”
Robert Bongiorno, the branch’s manager, further claimed to police that the toads raced around the office, jumped atop bank furniture and shouted in people’s faces, “We are coming for you!”
Talen and D both deny any toads hopped on furniture, though Talen does admit he stood on a low ledge by a window as he preached.
“Yes, I’m sure Billy was shouting, but that’s not against the law,” added D, who was not actually at the action.
Attorney Wylie Stecklow, who is representing Talen and Luckett pro bono — though he hopes it will become “low bono” — said the D.A. has clearly overcharged the two, likely because the wrong individuals are on the case.
“I do think they have people in the D.A.’s Office that handle protest cases,” he said. “They’re handling it as a normal case — that people thought they were going to be robbed, that people were wearing masks. But these were hats. This was expressive-speech activity protected by the Constitution. Until someone asks them to leave [the premises] and they refuse, they have broken no laws.”
If anything, the charge could be trespassing, he said, but only a violation, not a criminal charge.
“It’s an open space,” he asserted. “They have the right to enter. They left before the police arrived.”
Furthermore, Stecklow maintained, “You’re allowed to conduct small offenses to fight larger crimes — climate change.
“I have a hard time believing that when the trial day comes, these will be the charges the district attorney presents,” he said.
The next step is that, on Monday, Bongiorno must swear to the truth of his claims, in order to validate his complaint. The next court date is Dec. 9.
A defense fund for Talen is being raised on the crowdfunding site indiegogo at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/please-donate-to-reverend-billy-s-legal-fund .