BY SARAH FERGUSON | Earthalujah! Looks like the Manhattan district attorney is not throwing the book at Reverend Billy after all.
Last week The Villager reported that performance artist William Talen (a.k.a. Reverend Billy) and Nehemiah Luckett, musical director of the Stop Shopping Choir, were facing up to a year in jail and a whopping $30,000 bail for staging a protest romp through a JPMorgan Chase bank in Midtown in September.
The pair were charged with riot in the second degree and menacing in the third degree after Talen and Luckett led choir members dressed in papier-mâché hats depicting the golden toad — a now-extinct amphibian of Central America — up an escalator and into the third-floor lobby of the Chase branch on Sixth Ave. and 56th St. to evangelize about the threat of climate change.
JP Morgan is one of the top financers of mountaintop removal coal mining and other fossil fuel projects around the world — industries that are the main engines of climate change.
According to prosecutors, several bank employees somehow mistook people singing in toad hats for bank robbers, and at least one of them reported a robbery to police, prompting the cops to arrest Talen and Luckett as they were waiting for the F train.
Talen was cast as the “ringleader using violent tactics,” and the toads, prosecutors claimed, had approached customers with the ominous refrain, “We are coming for you!”
A barrage of incredulous media coverage followed, blasting the charges as too severe.
However, at a court hearing on Monday, the Manhattan D.A.’s Office sharply reduced the charges.
Assistant D.A. David Bornstein told the judge that after re-interviewing witnesses and reviewing the bank’s surveillance footage, he concluded that the group’s actions were “more in line with what we consider actual protest.”
Bornstein dropped the more serious charges and reduced the remaining offenses to Class B misdemeanor criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly.
Talen was offered a plea deal of one day of community service, while Luckett was offered an A.C.D. — Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal — meaning that if he does not get arrested again in six months, all charges will be dismissed and the record sealed.
That’s a big shift from how the case was presented at their arraignment in October. Then, a prosecutor accused Talen of engaging in a “violent and terrifying masked criminal stunt, which demonstrates his utter disregard for the law.”
On Monday, the prosecutor termed the action a “musical presentation.”
Defense attorney Wylie Stecklow — who sported an “Occupy” button on his lapel —commended the D.A.’s Office for reducing the “almost comical” charges, but declined to accept the plea deal. Instead, he asked for the charges to be dropped entirely — both on factual grounds (they are subpoenaing the surveillance footage) and through what’s known as the “necessity defense”: That the rate of species extinction and climate fluctuations have become so severe that provocative acts are justified to call attention to the earth’s plight.
“Any harm that may have been caused by Nehemiah and Billy is far outstripped by the continuing harms caused by Chase bank,” Stecklow told The Villager.
“Who causes more harm in the world, Reverend Billy or Jamie Dimon?” quipped Luckett’s attorney, Samuel Cohen, referring to JPMorgan Chase’s chairperson.
A smiling Luckett said he felt relieved to have escaped jail time. But he said the notion of pleading guilty to even a low-level misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass was “still upsetting.”
“It was the public lobby of a bank, so we don’t want to set a precedent that would make future actions by us or others illegal,” Luckett told The Villager.
“We are going to press forward until we get a clear constitutional mustering of that,” added Talen.
“I want our campaign to continue,” the performance-artist preacher declared. “Nehemiah and I and the Stop Shopping Choir want people around the world to enter hedge funds and banks that are participating in the destruction of our biosphere and expose them.”
Of course, when it comes to exposure, Talen couldn’t have asked for a better press agent than the Manhattan D.A.’s Office.
The threat of an actual jail sentence landed Talen and his toad warriors coverage on WNYC radio and “Democracy Now,” as well as in Vice and the British Guardian, even Forbes.
Index on Censorship, which monitors free speech worldwide, compared Talen and Luckett’s plight to the persecution of the feminist band Pussy Riot in Russia.
And at Monday’s hearing, Al Jazeera America was there to film the proceedings.
As the two activists went into court, nearly 14,000 people had signed a petition calling for the charges to be dropped, and they’d raised more than $15,000 to pay for their legal costs via indiegogo.com.
Even better, Reverend Billy’s show this Sunday at Joe’s Pub is sold out.
Not that the Rev is out of hot water entirely. The current complaint still claims he engaged in “tumultuous and violent conduct likely to cause public alarm.” At the hearing, Bornstein told the judge that one bank employee locked herself in the bathroom in tears.
The judge ordered all parties to submit their responses in January, after which she is scheduled to issue a written opinion on Feb. 27.
Her ruling may help define the parameters of free speech in the city.
Talen insists his troupe’s actions were in no way threatening. Although bank employees claimed the choir toads were shouting, “We are coming for you!” Billy says they were actually singing a song from the point of view of the toads and other threatened species, with the lyrics: “Humankind, we’re around you, we surround you.”
It’s the same song and dance that he and the Stop Shopping Choir have performed at scores of Chase branches and other banks across the U.S. and Europe. What perhaps made the response to this protest different, Talen says, was that this was a “wealth management” branch of Chase that caters to higher-income clientele.
Talen concedes he flamboyantly urged the bank customers, several of whom were in cubicles meeting with portfolio managers, to either withdraw their funds from Chase or use their leverage to change the bank’s investment priorities.
“It’s not a crime for a preacher to make someone cry,” observed Stecklow.
In fact, Luckett’s role in the demonstration, Talen says, was to pass out fliers and inform customers and employees, “This is a protest.”
With the threat of jail time over, Talen and Luckett and an exultant crowd of supporters gathered outside the courthouse for a press conference. They posed before giant puppets of the Statue of Liberty and the Scales of Justice, as members of the Stop Shopping Choir performed the Bill of Rights a cappella.
Talen vowed to continue his campaign targeting Chase as America’s leading “fossil fuel bank.”
Some may ask, Why single out Chase? According to BankTrack.org, the company is a leading underwriter of controversial mountaintop removal mining projects here in the U.S. and abroad, and is heavily invested in the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian tar sands extraction, and the construction of new coal power plants around the world — though it’s a bit of a leap to tie Chase to the demise of the golden toad.
“We’re losing ecosystems. We’re losing species every day,” Talen warned, before getting into a cab to take his young daughter to preschool.