Reverend Billy’s Starbucks Invasion

Bill Talen, whose alter-ego Reverend Billy and his Church of
Stop Shopping have been preaching the anti-corporatism gospel to
New Yorkers for the past several years, recently launched an
‘invisible comedy’ invasion of local Starbucks shops to educate
patrons about the social, environmental, and economic practices of
the international coffee giant. This is his report.
–The Editors

On Saturday, April 6, we announced the NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL
THEATER FESTIVAL INSIDE STARBUCKS. This was timed as a part of
Citizenwork’s ‘National Big Business Day.’ By ‘We’ I mean Reverend
Billy, the character I inhabit, and The Church of Stop Shopping, a
New York group opposed to neighborhood destruction by transnational
chain stores. We performed in a number of Starbucks on Saturday,
but as a public gesture, to kick off the festival, we invaded the
devil’s cafes in the Astor Place area, the historic intersection in
downtown New York. A heated rally followed immediately by a march
on the three Starbucks that sit there staring at each other across
Lafayette Street -this was our afternoon’s work. Meanwhile folks
were downloading our ‘invisible comedies’ from REVBILLY.COM and
performing, Augusto Boal style, in other cities as well. I hope the
readers of this journal will consider using Starbucks as a theater
and consider joining us inside Starbucks in Washington on the
weekend of April 20-22.

The idea is to re-narrate these watering holes of low-level
amphetamines, to introduce new rhetoric into the suffocating
environment of 80 or 90 graphics/decorating decisions and
appropriated Bob Marley muzak. Posing as customers, we are in fact
actors who improvise along the plot lines of such classics as
‘Starbucks Correctional Facility (a play about Starbucks’ use of
prison labor),’ or ‘Sex in the Bathroom (fake Bohemia),’ or ‘My
Love is a Monsanto Product,’ and so forth. We have called these
short two-or-three actor comedies ‘Spat Theater’ because they come
in the form of a high-volume argument.

New York police agencies have privatized our parks and sidewalks.
We are forced into fake communities like $tarbucks, where our
activities could never have political impact. Then, with the
marketing plan of creating a romantic connection to the cafe
culture of Paris in the ’30s or Zurich or Vienna back at the birth
of the avant garde, they let people just sit there. Well, OK,
thanks, we’ll hang out. But while I’m here you don’t mind if I
decline to buy that $5 latte with the bovine growth hormone in it,
do you? And while I’m at it, let me find a way to get everyone to
leave and re-create real public space again.

We started out well enough. Some of us just got there from the
march in support of Palestine, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on a
sunny spring day. We had a battery operated organ with the gospel
vibrato and a great singer in Brother Derrick McGinty. He roused
passersby and suddenly we had a crowd. We handed out our signs–the
Mermaid logo with the diagonal red slash. I began to preach in the
character of Reverend Billy, at a portable white enamel pulpit. I
ticked off the Starbucks issues: the union-busting, the
mono-culture farms, the hiding of the Fair Trade coffee, the real
estate practices, the ‘DROWNING US IN A SEA OF IDENTICAL DETAILS!!!
Can somebody give me an AMEN!!!’

But we wanted to make common cause with the violence of the last
half year. We believe that mall-izing IS bombing. NO SHOPPING TILL
THE BOMBS STOP DROPPING!! One overlooked characteristic of bombing
is that it makes us stupid. We die, or we become damaged, or we
become beaten psychically like consumers. The explosive statement
is only useable in the most brutish conversation, like the great
belch of a murderer that invites a return belch from the adversary.
Language outside of violent nation states or corporations, with
that complex tenderness that is the individual human, is rendered
mute by bombing. In the Church of Stop Shopping we have always
explained the invasions of chain stores, with the fluorescent boxes
full of products and the listless, alienated workers, as a kind of
violence.

New York City, like all great cities, is great because of its
neighborhoods. You can argue that George Gershwin and Duke
Ellington and Babe Ruth and all the other heroes make New York
special, but really, it’s the neighborhoods. And that’s about
unmediated talking. Talking and listening. Three people talking on
a streetcorner is the essence of original this-moment culture.
Completely surprising stuff rises out of our laughter, the way we
cuff each other affectionately. As Jello Biafra says, ‘We become
The media.’ We are our own entertainment.

When Starbucks’ scouts enter a new neighborhood, they listen for
the laughter. They find where culture is still original, not
corporatized, and that is their opponent and prey, for Starbucks is
a jealous God. They approach the landlords of the community,
whether it’s a diner or a restaurant or a bar. They offer far more
than the traditional tenant can afford, because Starbucks arrives
with its Nasdaq funny money. They arrive from a completely
different economy, and evict the business that native residents
have built for years. This is a famous Starbucks tactic and has
been repeated throughout the country and abroad. It is a kind of
bombing. It is violent. READERS. DO I HAVE A WITNESS? STOP THE
BOMBING!!

Now suddenly we had the police with us. They were surrounding my
pulpit and started asking me about my intentions. I couldn’t tell
them that at this moment our invisible comedies were going forward,
that voices were rising, in the three Starbucks surrounding the
traffic island on which we stood. We try not to judge them. They
listen as a the head deacon of the church, Bishop Basem Aly,
explains National Big Business Day (‘Ralph Nader, huh?’) The New
York International Theater Festival Inside Starbucks drew screwed
up faces behind the badges.

We walked to the Cooper Union Starbucks, on 8th Street and 3rd
Avenue. We had a special customized action designed just for this
place. Several years ago, Cooper Union lawyers (CU is an old art
and design college) had persuaded the city to let them lease to
Starbucks a bit of property that had been stipulated could only be
used for ‘educational purposes.’ Once again, privitizing the public
commons took place. The lawyers agreed that the Starbucks would be
considered ‘educational’ — how? The lawyers agreed that since
Starbucks paid rent money to Cooper Union, an educational
institution, activities there could be called ‘educational,’
regardless of what anybody did there. It could have been a
whorehouse, but it would have been educational if the rent was
going to CU.

So we devised a mock graduation ceremony, with the robes and square
hats and diplomas. We had done this graduation ceremony from
‘Espresso U’ – with ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ accompanying the
formalities, four times previously, marching to the cafe from the
performance of The Church of Stop Shopping at the nearby Culture
Project Theater. On this occasion, though, we were too public. We
were hustled out immediately by the police. I preached as I was
pushed, and tried to earn my congregation’s love. But our plans
were definitely abridged. Performing on the slippery stage of
transnational private property is more easily done with the
‘invisible comedy,’ off the radar.

Meanwhile ‘invisible comedies’ were already in rehearsal at two
other coffee shops, the Astor Place Starbucks, the biggest one in
Manhattan, and the second floor sippery at Barnes and Noble. I was
interviewing Brother Derrick as we entered Astor Place. We were
wearing lapel microphones, being recorded for a radio show we are
hoping to syndicate. A radio show that takes places inside
transnationals. The idea was to have our interview near a roaring
bit of invisible comedy, and in this case the play was ‘Sex in the
Bathroom.’ I DIDN’T KNOW THAT STARBUCKS WAS THE HOTTEST PICKUP
PLACE IN TOWN!!!’ But once again the police encircled us, and the
moment the spat became operatic, the actors were surrounded by the
Buckheads in green aprons. It was interesting to be surrounded by
uniforms of two kinds; the spectacle of their synchronized
enforcement became a vivid drama. The green of the Mermaid and the
blue of the killers of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, working
in a kind of choreographed dance. They became the visible comedy,
and I have to say, children, you did a good job.

We pretended to break up. I took the 6 train down to Bleecker and
ran up the east side of Broadway to sneak into Barnes and Noble the
back way, but plainclothes cops were with us the whole way. When we
got there they said, ‘Billy there ain’t any episode of Law and
Order that don’t feature that move, for chrissake. What are we,
chopped liver? You insultin’ us.’ The play at the cafe in the
anchor store of so many malls across the country, Barnes and Noble,
was ‘The Neo-Liberal and the Happy Fetus.’ The actors in this case,
Ben and Sara, really did a great job. Quite a nice gradual rise to
a stand-up opera of an argument. It’s a great moment when Sara
belted out I AM THE MERMAID AND I WANT MY NIPPLES BACK!!!

This was the one that worked best. The actors were clearly in the
zone. Shamanism amidst the tchotchkes. We were all smiling — so
proud of them. They had broken through. Then, at the right moment
in the script, I walked up to them and tried to pastor to them,
like a kind of public couples counseling. Our audience was all
turned in their chairs now. But I was having trouble giving
pastoral care. The neo-liberal boyfriend kept shouting, ‘We need
more Starbucks; one on every corner, one in every home, one in
every mind!! Give the shareholders their value!!! Expand!!!
Expand!!’ while, of course, his girlfriend was losing the
frappuccino habit before his astonished eyes. Then all of us, the
radio people and anyone who laughed and applauded too much– we
were all ushered to the streets by the Barnes and Noble security.
That bookstore must have as big a private police force as
Disney.

In our follow-up e-mail salon, we decided that the persona of the
Reverend cannot enter a store surrounded by cops and expect to not
become the dominating narrative. This is interesting — a good
lesson for us, because subverting the dominant narrative is the
idea, and I’d become one. So we are learning that people having an
experience together must be framed and cared for. Reverend Billy
with bad timing can resemble just another product. The irony isn’t
lost on me, that’s for sure. I’m humbled before the God of Stop
Shopping.

But also, the participants in the plays in the three Starbucks were
excited to try it again. In Washington on April 20, and back in New
York in May. We’re planning to march down Broadway, from Columbas
Circle to Times Square, hitting each of the 10 Starbucks. Inside
each coffeeshop a play will be raging. Ten Starbucks, Ten Comedies.
Leave a trail of flyers with information about what the
fastest-growing brand name in the world is doing to us.

The Oprah hordes say ‘Follow your Bliss.’ We say ‘Follow your
Embarrassment.’ Learn to be a fool. The transnational planners have
no idea what to do with the politicized Fool. That is something
they all have in common, they are humorless. They know that our
humor is their market. When the Starbucks scouts enter a
neighborhood they cock their ear to the wind to listen for our
laughter. That’s where they try to set up shop. But our laughter
will escape them and return to sour their milk and re-nipple the
Mermaid in the window. Will someone say ‘FREE THE MERMAID!!. Amen

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