Reverend Billy's Starbucks Invasion

The Church of Stop Shopping takes a stand

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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