Activist preacher and frequently arrested person Reverend Billy Talen took another trip to the Tombs this weekend, this time for trying to halt the removal of a 130-year-old, much-beloved, very crooked tree in Tompkins Square Park. As East Village blog EV Grieve was first to report, the tree, known affectionately as “Bendy Tree,” was condemned by an arborist with the city Parks Department, found to be “structurally unsound” and a danger to the public.
Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have spent years preaching the anti-consumerist and pro-environmentalist message in the streets of New York, an effort that frequently finds him behind bars. Last October, he and choir director Nehemiah Luckett were charged with rioting, menacing, and disorderly conduct after leading a musical protest in a Chase Bank. The charges were eventually reduced after prosecutors reviewed the footage and realized the “riot” was actually a 15-minute musical demonstration against mountaintop-removal mining, which Chase finances.
The news about Bendy Tree’s imminent demise was relayed by a flyer posted on a park bulletin board. The city is especially cautious about trees and tree branches after a series of horrific accidents, including the case of 30-year-old Yingyi Li, a pregnant woman who died in a Queens park after a falling tree crushed her last year. After that incident, according to DNAInfo, the Parks Department announced it would hire an “independent tree consultant” to review the city’s arboreal policies.
But the Bendy Tree looked a little different to Talen, given that it had stood crookedly for such a very long time without incident. In a sermon underneath the tree a few days ago, he said the removal “smacks of 9-11, it smacks of fear, it smacks of gentrification. It smacks of the kinds of things we’re growing out of because we’re identifying what they are. Bloomberg’s no longer here. Giuliani’s no longer here. And now we’re changing our police force. You don’t have to kill somebody you’re afraid of!”
The Stop Shopping Choir also replaced the city’s sign regarding Bendy Tree with one of their own, which read, “Do not touch pending community review.” When city workers arrived on Saturday morning and began taking the tree down, Reverend Billy arrived and tried briefly to occupy it, intending to climb into its boughs and deliver a sermon. When that was unsuccessful — he pulled a muscle in his leg — Talen climbed atop one of the Parks trucks being used in the removal.
“I found energy to defend Bendy Tree from having my hands on the Earth and its living body,” he said in a statement from jail on Saturday night, posted to his Facebook page. “We are called upon to have an emotional relationship with living beings that is more intense than we have in the past because so many are vanishing into extinction. Bendy Tree was executed in a rush to judgment.”
“When I found that I couldn’t climb the tree, I went over and jumped up on their truck,” he told the Voice by phone Sunday morning. “You can’t do that.” He wasn’t surprised to find himself quickly being arrested. He was taken first to a holding cell at the precinct on 5th Street. When he started feeling dizzy, he was transported to Bellevue, where he says he was placed in leg irons and chained to a hospital bed. (On the bright side, he says, he was given painkillers for his injured leg.) After a few hours there, he was transported to the Manhattan Detention Complex on White Street, better known as the Tombs, where he was charged with obstruction of governmental administration, a misdemeanor. He decided to plead guilty and was sentenced to time served, 14 or 15 hours in jail in all.
“Jail etiquette has changed in the Tombs in the de Blasio years,” he told us cheerily, upon his release. “It’s about 10 degrees warmer and they keep judges going through the weekend. I was mentally preparing myself for two nights there.”
After Reverend Billy was removed from the scene, the tree was cut down completely, leaving only a slender stump. A Stop Shopping Choir member, John Quilty, took the following series of photos:
Talen maintains that the tree didn’t need removing.
“It’s witnessed generations,” he told us, sadly. “Tompkins Square Park is a special lens into the history of the East Village, going back to the waves of immigrants to the Lower East Side. I especially think of the Eastern European immigrants. I think of the garment workers, the Jewish tenement dwellers; I think of the Irish. The waves of humanity. What a doorway to the world of New York. Tompkins Square was the heartbeat of the East Village. That tree was a witness.”
And that, he adds, “is the kind of consciousness we have to have for climate change, to battle the extinction of living things. That’s a psychological shift that’s going to be a big one for anyone in the industrial age, but especially for sophisticated New Yorkers who can’t see the stars.” The response to Bendy’s removal, he says, “should’ve been an uprising. People need to have a radical love of life. That tree was not sick.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 22, 2014