Two New York activists are facing a battery of misdemeanor charges, including rioting, for a fifteen-minute musical protest they staged at a Chase Bank in Midtown last month. They were wearing toad hats at the time.
For more than a decade, Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir were mostly concerned with, you know, shopping, wading into Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret and the Times Square Toys R Us to stage mock-religious revivals against consumerism. In recent years, the choir’s activism has focused less on individual greed than on the corporate kind, with a special focus on business practices that ruin the environment.
“The shopping that matters most now is dirty coal, mountaintop removal, fracking and tar sands,” Reverend Billy writes on the group’s Facebook page. And for the past four years, the choir has also been staging protests at banks around the city, saying they’re partly responsible for ruining the planet, particularly banks who finance that mountaintop removal, a controversial form of coal-mining.
As you can imagine, Reverend Billy gets arrested a lot.
“I’ve been arrested probably 75 times over the years,” Reverend Billy (whose real name is Bill Talen) told us recently. “Although sometimes that means just sitting in the back of a cruiser for two hours.”
Sometimes the choir members go with him, and sometimes he’s singled out for a ride downtown by himself; in 2010, in his most recent serious brush with the law, he was charged with criminal trespassing after a Black Friday demonstration at UBS Bank. He was acquitted of those charges in October 2011.
For the most part, though, Talen and the choir have escaped any serious criminal charges. Which is why he and choir director Nehemiah Luckett were surprised earlier this week to find themselves in Manhattan criminal court, facing a very unamused assistant district attorney, charged with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, and two counts of disorderly conduct. They’re all misdemeanors, though second-degree riot is a class A misdemeanor, meaning it can carry a penalty of up to a year in prison; the menacing charge is a class B misdemeanor, which carries the same possible sentence.
What the DA’s office describes as a “riot,” Reverend Billy and Co. describe as a “15-minute surprise performance” of a song called “We Surround You,” which, per their press release, is “dedicated to the threatened animals in the climate change era.” The choir performed wearing those toad heads you see above, which are, the choir tells us, meant to be Golden Toads, “a small amphibian forced into extinction by extreme climate change in Central America in the late ’80s.”
After their musical interlude, Reverend Billy preached a sermon highlighting Chase’s investments in “fossil fuel industrial projects.” (The Rainforest Action Network writes that, in 2012, Chase financed $2.17 billion in transactions for companies that engage in mountaintop removal or use coal-fired power plants. The Sierra Club has also criticized Chase for the practice.)
The bank didn’t much appreciate the performance. According to the criminal complaint, Robert Bongiorno, the bank manager, told police that the defendants and eight other people were “running about the bank while wearing frog masks. … [T]he defendants repeatedly ran up to the faces of the bank’s employees and customers while screaming, in sum and substance, ‘WE ARE COMING FOR YOU!,’ among other chants and threats.”
Bongiorno also told police “he observed the people in frog masks jumping onto the bank’s furniture, running about the bank, and screaming loudly at others for a number of minutes. … [A]s a result of the above conduct, he believed that the bank was being robbed, felt in fear for his physical safety, and observed at least one customer or employee inside of the bank break into tears.”
Talen and the choir left the bank after his sermon; they were waiting for an F train downtown when he and Luckett were arrested.
“They came down into the subway and snatched us,” Reverend Billy wrote on Facebook the next day. “Got out after nightfall. They took half of our toad-heads as souvenirs, or ‘arrest evidence,’ but then let us go. Very grateful not to be in the Tombs today. Brooklyn seems like a beautiful dream. I’m not getting better at jail as I get older. It’s awful. But it does feel like the right way to begin The Church of Stop Shopping fall campaign.”
Reverend Billy’s longtime attorney, Wylie Stecklow, finds the severity of the charges “genuinely surprising.” The ADA who appeared at the arraignment, Sarah Walsh, asked for $30,000 bail for both defendants, which Stecklow called “comical.” (The bail request was denied; both men were released on their own recognizance instead.)
“It’s comical that this young ADA, someone who’s not yet admitted to the bar, stood up and asked for $30,000 bail and tried to paint Reverend Billy as a violent criminal. It’s comical, except for the fact that it happened. And but for Reverend Billy having competent counsel and an excellent criminal court judge, he and Nehemiah could be sitting in jail on a ridiculously high bail.”
Stecklow emphasis that the choir are “peaceful pacifist activists who do not engage in violent conduct. The district attorney knows this. I imagine this didn’t go up the food chain high enough for someone to really recognize what was going on here. It was shocking.” Two bank employees were also granted temporary orders of protection against both Reverend Billy and Luckett.
The attorney has one other bone to pick, and it’s with the D.A.’s characterization of the toad costumes.
“When you read the complaint, notice it states these were frog masks, not frog hats,” he says. “That becomes somewhat relevant when you’re claiming you thought the place was being robbed. Would people put on a silly hat that exposes their face completely when they’re planning to rob a bank? Would they break into song?”
In an email, Reverend Billy writes, “Must police and prosecutors look down on the 1st Amendment? Will political protest be allowed back into New York life? Big banks headquartered in New York are destroying the Earth with the billions they invest in CO2 emitting industries. We will protest vigorously. We’re betting that law enforcement will return to the great liberal tradition of the city, birthplace of the ACLU, home to Woody Guthrie, Malcolm X, and Emma Goldman.”
Luckett and Reverend Billy will return to court December 9. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
The press release from Reverend Billy and the full criminal complaint are on the following page. We also threw in another picture of toads.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.