Reverend Billy Talen is taking his merry band of rabble-rousers to Missouri. Not surprisingly, he’s prepared to get arrested.
The environmental and anti-capitalist activist and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir are setting out for the Gateway to the West, where they plan to make separate appearances to protest genetically modified food producers and, in Ferguson, civil-rights-violating cops.
First stop: Creve Coeur, an affluent St. Louis suburb that’s home to agricultural-chemical and -biotech giant Monsanto — or as Talen calls it, “the world headquarters of the Devil Monsanto.”
On Tuesday, November 25, choir members will board a bus, intending to arrive in St. Louis in time to cook an organic Thanksgiving feast and roll it out near Monsanto HQ.
“We will have a dinner in an inappropriate place in the vicinity of their headquarters — inappropriate to them, I mean,” says Talen. “It’s appropriate to us. And we’re inviting people to pledge to eat organically with us. We believe that’s what’s sending us to hell right now, is factory farms.”
They’ll also be stopping by Ferguson, the suburb where a local police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. The shooting sparked massive protests, plus assorted looting and mayhem. Law enforcement from around the county and state responded with military-style tactics, including tear gas and tanks.
The events prompted the choir to add Ferguson to its itinerary and to revise its fundraising mission in an Indiegogo campaign that began in July. They even considered marching from Ferguson to Creve Coeur, but nixed that plan.
“It was the wrong direction,” said Talen’s partner and show director Savitri D. “We realized our energies should be going toward Ferguson, not away from Ferguson.”
Reverend Billy did visit Ferguson over Columbus Day weekend with two other members of the choir. During that trip, one of them wound up hugging a cop.
Now, with a St. Louis County grand jury expected to issue its findings in the Michael Brown case any day, Missouri’s governor has declared a state of emergency and called for the National Guard, leading to speculation that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, will not be prosecuted for manslaughter or homicide.
The choir intends to picket in front of Ferguson’s police station after its Monsanto meal, Savitri D tells the Voice — but they’re also keeping plans flexible in light of the city’s violent track record.
“We have to consult the choir; it’s a democracy,” says Talen. “We’ll have parents, we’ll have children [with us].”
The dual mission has led Reverend Billy to bill the Thanksgiving trip as part of a rush of “frenetic sanctified activity.” On Wednesday, November 19, Talen and his crew will perform with the Lower Eastside Girls Club Choir in a fundraiser to support community organizing in Ferguson. He says they’ll donate the funds to two Ferguson activists, Netta and Deray, who write a daily newsletter called Words to Action.
Before heading west with the cash, the choir will premiere Monsanto Is the Devil, a Sunday-afternoon show at Joe’s Pub. It’s set to run from November 23 to December 21. The show will touch on the themes of police violence and environmental concerns, Talen says, quoting a lyric from one of the songs: “Cops and bankers love their children/We’ve got to love them too.”
Talen has been arrested more than 50 times, including a notable bust last year for a protest at Chase Bank during which his choir wore delightful yellow toad hats and he was charged with rioting in the second degree.
Should the St. Louis sojourn result in any arrests, Talen is prepared. The choir raised $20,000 on Indiegogo. In a video seeking donations for the trip, the reverend is heard to say, “If you support the Church of Stop Shopping, you’re supporting a legal fund. Because we know we’re not just going to take a parking-ticket kind of arrest. We know that we’re going to be accused of something up to and including, perhaps — it happened recently — ‘terrorism.’ ”