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    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

    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

    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
    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

    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

    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

    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

    Published on Oct 9, 2007


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