Carry The Names & Reverend Billy

"Carry The Names" - 24 hour vigil at New York's Grand Central Station, Jan. 5- 6, 2015. Photo by anonymous photographer.

"Carry The Names" - 24 hour vigil at New York's Grand Central Station, Jan. 5- 6, 2015. Photo by anonymous photographer.

On Tuesday afternoon, January 6, 2015, while evangelizing at New York’s Grand Central Station, the fire and brimstone preacher known as Reverend Billy was arrested on trumped-up charges of “obstructing governmental administration” and “disorderly conduct.” You might ask “who is that preacher man” and why was he Sermonizing at the nation’s busiest train station? Allow me to explain.

A coalition of activists in New York operating under the title, Carry The Names, decided to hold a peaceful, public vigil at Grand Central Station on January 5th and 6th, 2015. The vigil would be held to commemorate the victims of racist violence in the U.S. and to “bear witness with the names and stories of over 150 people killed or brutalized with impunity.” Most were killed by “legally-sanctioned extrajudicial violence,” that is, by those armed bodies of men employed by the state. It was at the vigil that those same men would put the good Reverend Billy in hand-cuffs.

Carry The Names was mostly promoted by social media. In Twitter and Facebook announcements, organizers of the vigil stated that “we will carry into the New Year the memory of more than 150 people who have been subjected to the tyranny of violence, in a country where racism and police brutality are pervasive. We will hold their names high for the world to see.” Hundreds of New Yorkers of all races and ages turned out for the vigil, where activist/artists from Carry The Names provided them with black and white signs printed with the names of those African Americans and Latinos slain due to racist violence.

 "Carry The Names Vigil" - Photo by Enbion Micah Aan/www.enbionmicahaan.com

"Carry The Names Vigil" - Photo by Enbion Micah Aan - www.enbionmicahaan.com

During the opening hours of the vigil the signs were held aloft as statements were made, songs were sung, poetry recited, and the names of the deceased were read out loud.

Vigillers never blocked travelers at the train station. Eventually the signs were arranged in neat symmetrical rows on the station floor. The roster of victims included Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Akai Gurley, and Eric Garner. Interspersed with the names were other signs bearing messages of rage and sorrow: Racism Is A Deadly Force, Beware Police Brutality, Not One More, Stop Killing Our Loved Ones, Imagine Freedom, Who Will Be Next, We Will Not Forget, Don’t Shoot, Stop Killing Our Loved Ones, and When Will We Be Free?

Some eighteen hours after the start of the vigil, Reverend Billy arrived. Seized by the Holy Spirit, he began to Sermonize the crowd with a homily aptly titled, Black Lives Matter. Approximately two minutes into his reflection on racial oppression in the U.S., he was arrested, hand-cuffed, and frog-marched off by the New York Police Department to cool his heels in “The Tombs,” the Manhattan Detention Complex in Lower Manhattan. The Carry The Names vigil completed its twenty-four-hour run despite the arrest, disbanding at 5 p.m.

I know Reverend Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) as a brilliant performance artist who has dedicated his life and work towards social transformation using the arts. He is wholly committed to the vision and practice of non-violence, both is his street theater interventions, and in his writings. Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir are radical performance artists that stage mock revival meetings to deride and ridicule the folly of late capitalist “culture” in the 21st century.

The police maintain that the Reverend’s disorderly conduct charge stemmed from his “intentionally causing public inconvenience and annoyance,” and that he had been arrested “for physically trying to block a police officer from doing their lawful duties.” I think not. His arrest was politically motivated, an act of state repression designed to squelch the free speech rights of all Americans.

The Daily News reported the Reverend saying “I was handcuffed while I was speaking in the middle of expressing my beliefs in a public space. This is the most basic form of American freedom.” On Wednesday the police released the Reverend on his own recognizance.

In a message to his supporters posted on his website, the Reverend said that “I shouted ‘Black Lives Matter’ a few times in Grand Central Station and police rushed at me like I was a fiend.” But his note was also conciliatory, he wrote: “The cops can be reached and changed. That must happen. It will come from black lives and white lives being unafraid to talk to them in public space. That was always how it was. We have to bravely go to them and change them - and that is a strange transfer, like wrestling with very old culture.”

I have the highest regard and fondness for Bill Talen and what he does… though I am not in full accord with him. When all is said and done our differences do not matter, for we are kindred spirits. I will say the same for the movement that has sprung up in the U.S. in opposition to police violence against “minorities.” I shrink back from its naiveté and political disorientation, yet at its core there are incontestable truths regarding race and class in America. Ultimately, this post is not about the Reverend Billy at all. Rather it is about all of those individuals, who, despite the odds, work to uproot the poison of racist terror that continues to exist in American society.

In my July 2011 article, An Exorcism at Tate Modern, I detailed a performance the good Reverend had just conducted at the Tate Modern in London to protest the museum taking sponsorship from the oil giant, BP. The article included a short video of the Reverend’s antics at the Tate, which were nothing short of inspirational and illustrative of the powerful performance art Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir engage in.

In 2013 I had the pleasure of meeting the Reverend when he came to Los Angeles to perform at a local venue with punk icon Exene Cervenka. I covered the event in my article, The Burning Palm Tree Epiphany, which I concluded with the following words: “Talen’s love of humanity, the earth, justice, and beauty, finds expression not in dry political discourse but in artful burlesque; he speaks a language community organizers are by and large unfamiliar with, or willfully disdainful of - the vernacular of art. The conformist machine society is equally non-aesthetic, so, the Reverend Billy Talen provides us with a revelation - art and action leads to salvation!”

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