Reported By Jacob Scheier
Written By John Tarleton and Jacob Scheier
Photos By Mark Bailey
Brooklyn residents had reason to pause from a leisurely Sunday afternoon in Sunset Park July 19 when Reverend Billy Talen began preaching. His bleached blond pompadour and energy made him appear significantly younger than his 59 years of age. Wearing his white suit and a priest’s collar, the faux televangelist-turned-mayoral candidate paced back and forth, his indignation growing as he described the city’s plan to rezone Sunset Park for luxury condos that could block the neighborhood’s famous view of the Manhattan skyline. He was accompanied by a green-robed choir that broke out into a gospel version of the First Amendment.
“Mike Bloomberg, your idea of prosperity is what we call the demon monoculture!” Reverend Billy shouted into his megaphone.
The crowd of 50 people listened as Reverend Billy finished excoriating Mayor Bloomberg, then offered a vision of a city anchored by vibrant neighborhoods free from corporate domination.
He was, in part, preaching to the converted, as several campaign volunteers were on hand, providing a chorus of “amens” to his sermon. There were also local residents gathering around. Some nodded in agreement, while others simply looked on at the unusual spectacle. Meanwhile, a handful of volunteers gathered petition signatures.For Reverend Billy this campaign is not just political, it’s personal. “I’m running for mayor so I can keep living here myself.” This, he says, has become increasingly difficult under a development- happy Bloomberg administration, which has rezoned nearly 6,000 city blocks since 2002.
“Lots and lots of [low- and middle-income] people in New York have been moved out of Manhattan and moved out of New York altogether,” Reverend Billy says.
RISE OF A PREACHER
Since moving to New York from San Francisco in the late 1990s, Reverend Billy has crusaded against corporate culture and the loss of genuine community that he says it causes. His performances include a gospel choir and band which perform earnest, original songs with an anti-consumerist message.
In tone and style, Reverend Billy is as verbose and over the top as any late-night televangelist. But he’s serious, too. As campaign Media Manager Michael O’Neil says, “the collar is fake, but the issues are real.” By putting a progressive text into the mouth of the often bigoted and conservative evangelist figure, Reverend Billy forces his audience to mix up their symbols and labels.
He is a figure straight out of the satirical novels of his friend and admirer, the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
In 1999, he became notorious for holding a large stuffed Mickey Mouse crucified on a cross to protest the placement of an 18,000- square-foot Disney Store in the heart of Times Square. Determined to put “the odd back in God,” he gained a following over time as he staged “retail interventions” that playfully disrupted business as usual at chain stores like Starbucks and Wal-Mart.
The act grew from there. In 2001, Reverend Billy met Savitri Durkee. She took on the task of producing one of his shows, and they soon married. She also became director of his performance, helping turn it from preaching with some pick-up singers into a full fledged “church” with choir and band.
Until last year this “performance activist community,” called themselves the Church of Stop Shopping, but since last fall’s economic crash, they now refer to themselves as the Church of Life After Shopping.
Ironically, Reverend Billy’s success has made him into something of a brand himself, with two books, a national performance tour that was chronicled in a Morgan Spurlock-produced documentary (What Would Jesus Buy?) and a weekly satellite TV show. The choir has also released two albums.
In 2007, renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann hailed the zany preacher as a “faithful prophetic figure who stands in direct continuity with ancient prophets in Israel and in continuity with the great prophetic figures of U.S. history who have incessantly called our society back to its core human passions of justice and compassion.”
Through it all, Reverend Billy has continued to champion neighborhood groups from Union Square to Coney Island that are resisting Mayor Bloomberg’s gentrification juggernaut. Reverend Billy has also continued to be a fierce advocate of the right to dissent. Two years ago he was arrested in Union Square for using a bullhorn to recite the First Amendment. He sued the city for false arrest, resulting in an out of court settlement of $23,000 for the preacher-activist. Reverend Billy by his own estimation has been arrested at least 40 times in the past decade.
In March, Reverend Billy launched his mayoral campaign as the nominee of the Green Party. However, his vision of knitting together a city-wide movement of neighborhood-based activists, what he calls a “local rights movement” has proven more elusive than he and his supporters had hoped.Running a protest campaign on a shoe-string budget, Reverend Billy doesn’t dwell on how he can compete with Bloomberg, the billionaire incumbent, or likely Democratic nominee William Thompson, Jr. Instead, he has sought to use his outsized persona to steal some of the city’s election spotlight with the hope that for a moment, people will realize the absurdity of politics as normal and rethink what is possible. Parody and humor being, at times, the only way to speak truth to power.
“Bloomberg persuades people that what is happening in this city is normal through $100 million in advertising. Something’s got to wake us up,” he says. “It might just be the comic preacher. Who could say it isn’t?”
Durkee thinks the parameters of what is “real” should be reconsidered. “We are surreal,” she says, “because at this point we feel that’s what can break through this lie, this normalizing system of neoliberal capital we see all around us.”
Some Green Party members remain unimpressed. Bronx County Green Party chair Carl Lundgren said that when Reverend Billy met with the Bronx Greens he was unable to answer important policy questions, while 2002 Green Party gubernatorial candidate and academic Stanley Aronowitz echoed this sentiment saying “Reverend Billy is a comedian … I don’t get an indication he has a policy on anything.”
Reverend Billy, who lives in the almost bigbox free neighborhood of Windsor Terrace in Central Brooklyn, insists he has a clear program. “It’s not romantic, it’s not a Hallmark card, it’s very specific,” he says. “A healthy neighborhood must be identified and protected. It is our economy, it is our soul, it is the source of our greatness.”
INSIDE THE CAMPAIGN
Reverend Billy’s campaign is based out of a small, airy SoHo storefront on Lafayette Street. During the day, Campaign Manager Austin Osmer can often be found in a small back office, working away, while volunteers shuffle in and out to pick up petitions or to just hang out. It’s not just a campaign headquarters, but a social space. For instance, the campaign hosts regular BYOB documentaryfilms nights at the office.
But Wednesday evenings are for business. This is when the weekly campaign meetings occur. They attract between 20 to 30 regular volunteers. After participants introduce themselves and identify the neighborhood they live in, updates are provided about upcoming events or other information, such as prime spots to petition.
The core volunteer group, with a few exceptions, is made up of people in their 20s and 30s, most of who live in Brooklyn. The majority is white, but a handful are people of color, including Outreach Coordinator Michael Premo.
Many are involved, not because they believe in electoral politics, but because they believe in Reverend Billy.Gaylen Hamilton, a choir member from Bedford-Stuyvesant, says, “I would never be involved with a political campaign ever, because politics is a total broken crock of shit. However, I am inspired by Billy’s vision.”
“I’m tired of incremental politics,” says Katie Lyon-Hart, a development associate at a nonprofit that works closely with establishment politicians. “... What Billy does, he gets out there and yells at people and makes a scene. People are very used to the political machine [and] in order to really excite and get them off their ass, you have to make a scene and that can in a way work in tandem with maybe more practical approaches.”
Asked why she’s not working for Tony Avella, a progressive City Councilmember from Queens who is challenging Thompson for the Democratic Party nomination, Lyon-Hart said, “[His] campaign isn’t as fun.”
The sentiments of volunteers like Hamilton and Lyon-Hart are what local (mostly Brooklyn) Green Party leaders hoped to hear when they recruited Reverend Billy in the hopes he would galvanize fresh interest in their party, which emphasizes environmental and social justice issues.
“He’s been an activist for going on 10-plus years,” says Brooklyn Green Party treasurer Mike Emperor. “He will reach out to a potential base who don’t like politics as usual.”
However, can even a supercharged personality like Reverend Billy transform a party that has existed on the margins of state and city politics for over a decade?
In 1998, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis won just more than 50,000 votes as the Green Party gubernatorial candidate in New York. Subsequent Green candidates were unable to match Lewis’s total in 2002 and 2006. In New York City, Green mayoral candidates failed to attain 1 percent of the vote in both 2001 and 2005, and the Greens have never come close to winning a City Council seat. Reverend Billy told The Indypendent that he “thinks” he voted for Democratic candidate Fernando Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral election, but says he can’t recall for sure.
A CLASH OF CULTURES
The Greens and Reverend Billy have worked doggedly to win the support of the community- based organizations whose causes Billy has long championed. However, the existential politics of Reverend Billy mixes like oil and water when confronting the transactional politics of more pragmatic groups looking to meet the immediate needs of their members through the existing political power structure.
Many of these organizations are tax-exempt 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporations and by law they cannot formally endorse candidates. Nonetheless, there are a number of ways they can offer a boost, such as issue-based advocacy, shared social networks, laudatory coverage of a friendly politician’s assistance in a group’s newsletter and invitations to speak at candidates’ forums.
The Indypendent contacted a cross-section of almost 30 progressive grassroots nonprofit groups in the city to gauge their interest in Reverend Billy’s campaign. Only a handful said they were engaged with the campaign, albeit in ways that did not violate the 501(c)3 restrictions, including Retail Action Project, the Street Vendors Project and Time’s Up!, an alternative transportation group.
More typical is the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, which Reverend Billy supported in its effort to prevent New York University’s recent demolition of the Provincetown Playhouse. The group recently held a series of town hall-style “breakfast forums” in conjunction with the Historic Districts Council to discuss the neighborhood’s future with mayoral candidates. Democratic candidates Thompson and Avella participated. Bloomberg turned down the invitation, and Reverend Billy was not invited. Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, says he considers Reverend Billy “a fellow traveler,” but that only the most viable candidates were invited.
The Working Families Party (WFP) — a union-based third party that frequently aligns itself with the Democrats — unapologetically declined to invite Reverend Billy to their July 2 candidates’ forum.
“Reverend Billy is running a protest campaign and that’s great,” says WFP spokesperson Dan Levitan in an email to The Indypendent. “Sometimes you need to speak truth to power. But the WFP is about campaigns that can win, and our members wanted to hear from the candidates who stand a real chance of defeating the Mayor.”
‘HOPE AND UNCERTAINTY’
As Reverend Billy’s campaign headed into the summer, it faced a mounting series of difficulties, including raising enough money to keep its $7,000-per-month storefront open, a slow start to the petition drive to get Reverend Billy on the ballot and a sudden medical crisis.
A July 27 benefit concert featuring folk music legend Joan Baez raised $15,000, bringing some temporary financial relief for the campaign.As The Indypendent goes to press, the campaign says it has gathered more than 15,000 signatures, or three-fourths of their initial goal of 20,000. The campaign has hired 28 paid petitioners, and is planning to hire a half dozen more, as it races toward an Aug. 18 deadline for handing signatures in.
Mayoral candidates have to collect 7,500 valid signatures. In reality, a candidate needs to collect at least twice that much to make up for petition signers who are not registered to vote, or who fill out the petition form erroneously. Third-party candidates also face an additional hurdle: Republican and Democratic candidates get to go first in the petitioning process. The two major parties’ petitioning period ended in mid-July. Registered voters who have already signed a petition for one mayoral candidate cannot do so for another.
The anxieties of making rent and collecting enough petition signatures were overshadowed in early July when an irregular heartbeat landed Reverend Billy in the hospital.
Shortly after his hospital stay, Reverend Billy blogged that he had hoped the economic collapse would lead to “the recovery of independent culture,” but “the mega-corporations are working overtime to get their domination back. “Now,” he wrote, “I have the same hope and uncertainty with my own body.”
Reverend Billy was visibly weaker following the first few weeks of his hospitalization. He also missed some campaign events, due to difficulties adjusting to changes in his medication: a combination of blood thinners and beta blockers.
During a recent petitioning party outside campaign headquarters, Reverend Billy wore a 24-hour EKG beneath his preacher’s costume, the small device recording his heartbeat, as he preached and talked with curious strangers about defending neighborhoods.
One wouldn’t think to look at him that aside from being a faux-preacher with revolutionary aspirations, he was also a late-middle-aged man contemplating his own mortality.
But the prognosis, he says, is positive, and he may be able to stop taking the medications soon. His doctors have encouraged him to keep campaigning. Perhaps for now the grimmest outcome of this health scare is the medical bills, which are only partially covered by insurance. Reverend Billy and Durkee had already dipped into their modest savings to keep the campaign going, while watching their earnings drop due to not having time to do more paid performances.
Reflecting on the sacrifices he and his wife have made, Reverend Billy admits he has moments of doubt about his current path. “You have to set aside doubts,” he says. “It’s kind of part of the basic requirement of this approach to living, and in that sense, it is like a faith.”