Earth-worshipping, honeybee-loving professional rabble-rouser “Reverend Billy” Talen is headed to trial.
At an appearance at Manhattan Criminal Court on February 26, in front of Judge Ann Scherzer, Assistant District Attorney Gabriel Hippolyte requested an “ACD,” or adjournment to contemplate dismissal, for the oft-arrested Earth-loving activist. Talen faced charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing government administration stemming from a January anti-racism protest at Grand Central Terminal.
Adjournments to contemplate dismissal involve setting aside the case for six months. As long as the defendant does not get arrested in that time, then the case is dismissed and sealed and the defendant has no criminal record. Sometimes the rulings also include a requirement to perform community service.
In other words, these are pretty cushy deals for most people.
But Talen, a professional activist and performer who has been arrested more than 50 times, is not most people.
Reverend Billy Arrested in Grand Central
He and his attorney, Wylie Stecklow, flat-out rejected the proposal, saying that, in lieu of an on-the-spot dismissal of the charges, they wanted to take the case to trial. Now Talen could face a year in jail for the charge of obstruction of government administration. His lawyer says Talen is “standing on his principles.”
“The allegations cannot be proven. They’re just not true,” says Stecklow. “In this particular case Reverend Billy has done nothing wrong. This is harassing Reverend Billy…and we look forward to our day in court.”
In January, Talen was “sermonizing” during a 24-hour #BlackLivesMatter vigil to protest the deaths of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and others. Strewn about the floor at the event was an array of placards bearing the names of victims of police brutality. Minutes into his sermon, shortly after noon, police began confiscating the placards. Talen was arrested for what authorities say was an obstruction of their attempts to collect the placards, as well as for disorderly conduct. According to the criminal complaint, he “yelled at officers who tried to remove the signs” and “push[ed]” a police inspector “as Inspector Sean Montgomery held his arms out in an attempt to keep the crowd under control.”
When he’s Reverend Billy, Talen adopts a theatrically loud voice to match his all-white preacher costume and bouffant blond coiffure, a voice that booms when delivering sermons about racism or the environment to large audiences. In court, in a brown jacket and black pants, he appeared to be more of a William.
Sitting on a court bench with a laptop covered in activist stickers — including a giant sticker of a honeybee — he told the Voice that the allegations about yelling and pushing aren’t fair. “I just continued to preach and do the gestures I was doing in the act of speaking,” he says.
Pushing or gesticulating? At about a minute in, you’ll see the hotly debated arm movements yourself:
“I’m trained…not to get caught up in the moment, not to hold tension in my hands,” Talen added. He’s referring to nonviolent-activism seminars he’s taken with groups like Peaceful Uprising that teach activists, he says, how to “know your rights but also know what tips the system to act much harsher.”
Talen says that for him, the issue at hand is one of civil liberties. “Grand Central [Terminal], if that isn’t protected by the First Amendment, then what is?” he says. “It’s a big space, 750,000 people there, it’s a secure space…Go there and speak your piece. We’ve got to protect expressive politics and free speech in Grand Central.”
Talen’s next court date is set for March 10, 2015. Meanwhile, he has another court face-off — with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — penciled in to his agenda. Last month, he filed a notice of intent to sue the agency for slander after its spokesperson told media outlets that he had pushed a police officer during the protest.
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