MANHATTAN (CN) – The self-ordained Rev. Billy Talen, a performance artist who preaches against consumerism, was acquitted of criminal trespass after his angel-dressed choir protested UBS Bank’s connection to a type of coal mining known as mountaintop removal.
Talen held the protest at UBS’ midtown Manhattan office last Black Friday, a day on which Americans typically storm department stores for pre-holiday discounts. Anti-consumerism activists have rechristened Thanksgiving eve as Buy Nothing Day.
Minnesota-born Talen and his trademark white suit are the face of a “post-religious” nonprofit church that serves as home of the Life After Shopping Choir.
“It was a tough trial,” Talen told Courthouse News. “It really is an amazing experience to have a talented, experienced assistant DA delivering a summation where you’re the devil.”
Manhattan Criminal Court Judge James Burke delivered his verdict Thursday without explanation, Talen’s defense attorney Sam Cohen told Courthouse News.
Joined by dozens of chorus members, the Rev. Billy entered the public lobby of the UBS building at 1285 Avenue of the Americas on Nov. 26, 2010, as his chorus belted out an anti-mountaintop removal hymn.
“Your bank is full of secrecy / Blow up the mountains, to get the coal / Take it off shore, the mountaintops explode / But you don’t hear the roar,” they sang, using music and lyrics composed by Benny Key, a West Virginia resident from the region affected by the mining.
Security footage showed that the choir sang in the UBS lobby for 10 minutes, and guards never warned them away, Cohen told Courthouse News.
Though there was public art gallery in the building, police arrested the preacher-performance artist blocks away from the scene for criminal trespass, which the Rev. Billy said reflects the overcharging of political activists since Sept. 11, 2001.
“During those 10 years, it became habitual that protesters get overcharged so they have to spend a night in prison,” he explained.
The Rev. Billy is no stranger to incarceration, having spent three days in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, which he said was “scary as hell.” Talen said he had to serve a conviction for “interrupting legitimate business” at a Starbucks in San Fernando Valley because security footage cameras showed the choir stood between a woman and her Frappuccino,.
The Rev. Billy was also arrested last Easter, when his choir “hexed” a JPMorgan Chase bank branch in lower Manhattan and “deposited” mini-mountains of West Virginia mud in front its ATM machines.
Police dropped all charges that night, and the choir did not stop demonstrating at the bank for weeks.
Talen takes credit for the fact that Chase subsequently withdrew much of its support of mountaintop removal.
“We were told by Rainforest Action Network that we had something to do with that,” he said.
But Talen says that the Switzerland-based UBS still funds the Patriot Coal Corp., operating like a “military outfit” in its “secrecy” and “paranoia.”
“They’re the Swiss mercenaries of banking,” Talen preached.
Among financial institutions, the biggest mountaintop-mining “sinner” is now Bank of America, the Rev. Billy says, adding that he plans to protest that bank’s mortgage practices with Occupy Wall Street next week.
Talen said he recently joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson at Zuccotti Park, a private park that protesters have dubbed “Liberty Square.”
“He took up all my sermon time!” complained Talen, who said that the Rev. Jackson was initially put off by his “post-religious, hipster spirituality.”
“For traditional Christians, it’s like, ‘Are you insulting me, or what?'” Talen said, adding that Jesus fought consumerism in his day, too.
Another of Talen’s attorneys, Wylie Stecklow, represents several arrested Occupy Wall Street protesters.
As with Zuccotti Park, Stecklow said there is a controversy surrounding whether the land outside of the UBS building is public or private.
“What came out at trial is that the security believes that their private space extends past the front door,” Stecklow told Courthouse News. “Was it public space? Was it private space? Nobody seems to have those answers.”
Talen estimates that up to eight of his choir members sleep in Zuccotti Park every night, and the group composed a song for the movement.
His press release emphasizes the connection between his recent trial and the growing protests.
“Mountain Top Removal is killing people in Appalachia and destroying one of the most glorious and biodiverse regions in the world,” the reverend thundered in a statement. “Today I witnessed a judge do the right thing, he heard the arguments and honored his conscience. The spirit of the 99 percent is rising.”