Coffehouse Conversion

Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping are taking on the forces of consumerism, one Starbucks at a time

On a muggy July evening just after work, people in the World Trade Center PATH train station hustle by on their Tuesday commute home, talking into their cell phones as they march resolutely to their destinations. Nothing about the scene appears the least bit unusual until a preppy young man walks by and loudly insists during his cell-phone conversation, “These are your rights!” About a minute later a well-coiffed middle-aged man in clerical garb passes by gesticulating wildly and proclaiming into his mobile, “Congress shall make no law?” It seems that every fifth or sixth person who passes by in the cavernous station is having the same conversation?and it’s not about dinner plans or getting that memo out by Thursday. At first quietly and almost imperceptibly a murmur begins to grow until gradually and in unison the entire station echoes loudly with the words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Some people shake their heads and keep walking, but others stop and listen, perhaps because they remember enough of their high school government class to recognize these lines as the first amendment?or maybe they had just never before found themselves in the middle of a political street action. The action in question is the work of the Church of Stop Shopping, a 40-to-50-person congregation (of sorts) that draws attention to the evils of consumerism, multinational corporations, and threats to civil liberties. The Church, consisting mostly of actors and activists, is headed by the flamboyant, pomadoured, televangelist-like Reverend Billy, a character developed and played by playwright, producer, and Church-founder, Bill Talen. His group mixes evangelical style with dramatic techniques to rail against everything from the U.S. government’s crackdown on civil liberties to the Starbucks corporation’s use of third world labor. “We live in a radically depoliticized society,” says Talen, “even the most so-called political theatre does not provide the full-bodied engagement” necessary for change.

The Church of Stop Shopping is perhaps best known for its many kinds of “interventions” at Starbucks. Reverend Billy and his cohorts have done everything inside Starbucks stores from staging disruptive arguments that grow into a shouting matches to simultaneous “cell-phone operas” that, much like the first amendment mobs, grow in intensity as they draw attention to the speakers’ problems with the company. They’ve also stacked discarded coffee cups all over the place and have even licked everything in the store. This is only the beginning though: most interventions end with Reverend Billy preaching loud and strong and the Church Choir singing. “When we’re not running from police,” Bill Talen says, “we like to sing. Someday, we’ll sing as we run from the police.” It’s not just the police that give Billy trouble: in fact, the Starbucks company itself has released an internal pamphlet to employees explaining what to do if Reverend Billy and his followers enter a store and begin one of their actions.

Talen’s opposition to the coffee giant is based in his belief that it has co-opted the community feel and progressive vibe of local coffee houses, historically the meeting places for poets, thinkers, and revolutionaries, and replaced them with quiet and efficient centers of consumerism where nothing of real human interest could brew. Starbucks, Talen says, is “the avant-garde of neighborhood destruction. It’ll listen for original culture?.the evidence of life, the evidence of God?they listen for the immediate life so they can mediate life.”

Mickey Mouse is the antichrist
It started before Starbucks though. When Talen, a transplanted Midwesterner, moved to New York City from San Francisco in the mid 90’s, he was working as a producer and house manager in a church near Times Square that had been transformed into a theatre just as Disney was beginning its overhaul of the area. Talen didn’t like that the homeless were being kicked out and that local businesses were being forced to move. To top things off, Broadway shows, Talen felt, were becoming more and more a homogenized “vanilla.” He lashed out particularly at Disney, whom he blamed most of all for the declining quality of Broadway plays and for preying on children’s desires for toys made in sweatshops. The movement began when Revered Billy himself walked into the Disney Store in Times Square, proclaiming “Mickey Mouse is the antichrist, children!”

In Talen’s essay, Death by Latte, a tragedy, he makes a clear connection between his previous work against Disney and his current struggles against Starbucks. “If Disney encourages consumers that they dream by way of its happy animals, catching children as they invent their sense of wonder,” he writes, “Starbucks subtly appropriates cultural rebellion, and rebellion is another kind of wonder.”