Volume 74, Number 28 | November 17 - 22, 2004

Why this man hates Starbucks: Coffee talk with Reverend Billy

By Hemmy So

When tough, brutal-looking inmates at the Los Angeles County Correctional Facility questioned New Yorker Billy Talen about the crime that had landed him in their turf, the platinum-blond performance artist was honest.

He explained that he, in the role of “Reverend Billy,” and around 30 activists went into a Starbucks and protested the way money from Starbucks cash registers failed to land in the pockets of bean pickers in Latin American countries. Instead, Talen told his fellow inmates, the big money went straight to Starbucks head honcho, Howard Schultz.

Talen told his story simply, purposely trying to avoid sounding like a college-educated Northeasterner. With his 6-foot-3 stature, dyed “bad Elvis” hair and good dental work, prison gang members suspected him of being a cop. But after he relayed his mission and message against corporate greed, consumerism and Starbucks coffee, he found himself a protected member of prison society.

“What I was saying to them was well known — was well known to them. I wasn’t telling them something they didn’t know,” Talen said, suspecting that some of the prisoners probably had relatives working in those same coffee bean fields. Earning the nickname “Starbuck” and protection from other inmates, Talen spent about 40 hours in jail.

The artist-cum-activist was originally fined $100 for his activities in a Northridge, Cal., Starbucks. Slipping into the skin of infamous Reverend Billy, Talen walked into the coffee shop on Reseda Blvd. after choir members of his church, the Church of Stop Shopping, performed various skits of “retail intervention.” Heading straight for the counter, Talen placed his hand on the cash register and tried to exorcise “the beast of the evil within it” — in the Church’s view, corporate greed. The 52-year-old tried to jump onto the counter but never made it. A Starbucks customer grabbed him from behind, causing Talen to injure his hand on the register on his way down.

The performances, all of which attempt to vocalize the sins of corporate giants like Starbucks, always create hullabaloo. Indeed, an April 24, 2000, Starbucks memo offers store managers advice on “What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store?” But this past April, Talen got busted.

A police report was filed with the Los Angeles Police Department, and Talen ended up with a notice to appear before the L.A. County Superior Court.

“I believe Starbucks requested that he be charged with these crimes,” said Mark Wolfe, Talen’s attorney. “I don’t believe prosecutors would have charged him without the prompting of Starbucks.”

Specifically, the district attorney charged Talen on two counts: misdemeanor vandalism and trespass with intent to interfere with business. The judge threw out the first, more serious count and left Talen and his attorneys to convince a jury that he was innocent of the second. To be guilty of trespass with intent to interfere with business, an individual must enter a business premises open to the public, intentionally interfere with that business by either obstructing or intimidating customers or employees and refuse to leave when asked, Wolfe explained.

The defense team didn’t have high hopes to beat the rap.

“We had hoped for a hung jury. We did not expect acquittal. We were a little surprised that they reached a unanimous guilty verdict within an hour,” Wolfe said, adding, however, “I think he wanted to be convicted.”

Talen admitted as much on his Web site. “Of course, I WAS, and I AM guilty — if you consider Starbucks business lawful. Yes we obstructed it,” he wrote.

But Talen’s intentions during the two-day trial transcended fighting for a not-guilty verdict. While on the witness stand, Talen happily seized the opportunity to reenact the Reverend Billy scene. But even a muted version of the cash register exorcism failed to sway the Santa Clarita jury.

“The jury did not seem particularly amused,” Wolfe said.

Art Goldberg, an attorney from Working People’s Law Center in Los Angeles, also represented Talen. “It was difficult to pick a jury that was really open. Basically the jurors thought…that people had no right to interfere with a business. They were much more conservative than a jury you would find in downtown Los Angeles,” he said. Both Wolfe and Goldberg pointed out that only 20 minutes away stood the courtroom in which an all-white jury had found innocent the police officers accused of beating Rodney King.

In lieu of the $100 fine, however, Talen asked to serve a jail sentence. The judge gave him three days in L.A. County Jail.

That the performance artist spent more than just a few hours in the jail is remarkable, considering that standard procedure for processing misdemeanors means only a few hours in jail without an overnight stay — even if the sentence demands more time.

“The L.A. County sheriff approached me personally and said he wouldn’t spend the night,” said Wolfe.

But Talen was ready for a prison experience, viewing jail time as an activist’s rite of passage. “Going into a serious prison like the L.A. County ‘Twin Towers’ correctional facility — for me, it was like communication with all activists, all progressive activists that go to jail. I needed to do that right now. A lot of my friends did that during the [Republican National Convention],” he said. “I couldn’t get arrested to save my soul.”

By protesting at Starbucks, demanding a jury trial and serving the criminal sentence, Talen hoped to open lines of communication with the public, informing it of his mission against the corporate giant.

“I thought the right thing to do was to go to prison, because you know, the little plays that the activist and students do, that’s theater. My pretending that I’m Jimmy Swaggart in reverse, that’s theater. The trial, that’s theater.… The trial is theater and the jail is theater — it’s theater where I just about got my ass cut,” Talen said somberly. “It’s a way people receive information.… If you go to jail, that information goes a lot further.”

His message against Starbucks has indeed caught many an eye. Besides a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Talen won a special citation at the 1999-2000 Obie Awards for his Reverend Billy work. Colleges and special events organizers also call on Talen for guest lectures. He is scheduled to speak at Cornell University on Nov. 19 before returning to New York City for Buy Nothing Day on Nov. 26.

But Starbucks hasn’t been the only target of Reverend Billy, whose preacher persona was born in 1997. The Disney Store in Times Sq. felt his evangelical wrath in 1999. With crucified Mickey Mouse dolls and a loud message for consumers to avoid Disney’s products of sweatshop labor, Reverend Billy made over 30 appearances at the retail store. Later the store closed, but Talen kept spreading his word in other major retail operations, such as Home Depot and Barnes & Noble. Viewing “transnational corporations” as neighborhood destroyers, Talen seeks to recapture the original essence of the local neighborhood, particularly in New York City.

“This is what’s happening in New York, you’re getting a mono-culture,” Talen said. These days, he says, Starbucks has taken the lead in destroying neighborhoods. He particularly despises marketing posters displayed in Starbucks windows describing the coffee retailer as community creators. “They come in and destroy the community and then put up posters that say ‘Create community,’ ” he said with exasperation.

Intertwined with his messages against excess consumerism, corporate greed and neighborhood destruction is a theme increasingly near and dear to activists: upholding the First Amendment. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping organize the First Amendment Mob every Tuesday, congregating at Ground Zero at 6:30 p.m. to recite the single sentence guaranteeing freedom of speech, press and assembly. Talen particularly rues the loss of space for speech and assembly.

“I think the basic idea of our theater company, church, political affinity group, political activist group, the Church of Stop Shopping — our basic value system is that we need to steal public theater back by going into what they call ‘private property’ but we call ‘privatized public property.’ By going into this theater of moneymaking space, we’re being dramatic and educational there,” he said.

Drama and theater have been Talen’s lifeblood. Raised by Dutch Calvinists in Minnesota, Talen made his way to San Francisco, where he founded the avant-garde theater Life on the Water. After many years in the Bay Area, Talen moved to New York City after his theater lost funding in 1994. The confluence of watching protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and his view of the “super-malling” of Times Sq. from his then-apartment in Hell’s Kitchen gave rise to his decision to use drama as an activist medium.

Billy employed another artistic weapon — poetry, specifically dramatic readings of “The Raven” — as part of the effort to save the Poe House, where Edgar Allan Poe once lived on W. Third St., from New York University’s wrecking ball.

And drama there shall be on Nov. 26, when Talen returns to New York for Buy Nothing Day. Reverend Billy and followers plan to gather in Times Sq. and engage in simultaneous Starbucks cash register exorcisms. Talen hopes to include another major retailer in the project.

The event escapes the jurisdiction of a temporary restraining order issued by the L.A. County Superior Court, which prohibits Talen from coming within 250 yards of any of the over 1,500 Starbucks in California. But Starbucks itself has banned Talen from entering any of its establishments, period.

“Starbucks has their corporate policy, and they have their right to do that. I will not respect that. We will perform in Starbucks, soon everywhere,” Talen said. After New York, Reverend Billy will visit London and Hamburg, Germany. “[Starbucks is] welcome to have the police waiting for me in all three cities,” he said.

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