The ol’ Rev. and the fish: A Dakota pipeline parable

Reverend Billy wrestles with, to his surprise, a live carp after getting caught in an “oil spill” at a pipeline-promoting Wells Fargo bank branch at E. 34th St. and Madison Ave. on Feb. 15. Photo by John Quilty
Reverend Billy wrestles with, to his surprise, a live carp after getting caught in an “oil spill” at a bank branch of pipeline-promoting Wells Fargo at E. 34th St. and Madison Ave. on Feb. 15. Photos by John Quilty

BY SARAH FERGUSON | By the standards of most Church of Stop Shopping actions, this one was relatively low-key.

Last Friday, as a frigid wind blasted up Astor Place, the activist Reverend Billy a.k.a. Bill Talen and three other church members made their way to the Citibank branch on Broadway near Eighth St.

A church member dressed in white cotton scrubs and bearing a tangled wreath of ivy quickly entered the lobby and lay down on the floor. Another activist whipped out a jar of “Bakken crude oil” and began drizzling it onto the man’s forehead and chest.

Well, he was actually drizzling a mixture of safflower oil and graphite shaken up in a jar, but the stuff looked like the type of tarry crude oil that’s slated to be carried by the Dakota Access Pipeline when it’s completed.

“This is what pipelines do. They destroy the Earth, they destroy nature,” proclaimed choir soprano Barbara Lee, as Talen — dressed in his civvies for this stunt — documented the oil spill on his cell.

Talen then turned to the line of dumbstruck customers.

“I’m asking you to divest, take your money out of Citibank. Take your money out of banks that destroy the Earth,” he urged them quietly, passing out leaflets which spelled out Citibank’s role in spearheading the consortium of banks financing the $3.8 billion pipeline.

A bank manager quickly approached.

“You need to leave now, sir. The police have been called,” she said in a rushed whisper.

So the group rolled up their tarp, wiped up a bit of black oil with a paper towel and a shot of Fantastic, and made a hasty retreat.

Reverend Billy and the carp, which was rushed to the East River.
Reverend Billy and the carp, which was rushed to the East River.

The whole stunt took less than 10 minutes, which was kind of the point.

What Billy and his choir members are trying to create is not so much a news headline as a prototype: a low-risk act of civil disobedience that anyone can do to draw attention to the role of Citi and other banks in underwriting the Dakota Access Pipeline, whose construction is now being fast-tracked by the Trump administration.

“Our effort is to make it possible for modest-scaled, D.I.Y. actions,” Talen explained afterward. “We want activists in many towns and cities to dress in white, go into one of the 17 banks financing this thing, perform in the lobby with a part of the Earth — a rock, a branch, some kind of symbol of the Earth. Do a ritual anointing of the oil, make a speech and get out.

“The plot of this play is: The Earth invades the banks that are financing the Earth-killing,” Talen added.

Simple enough, though when the group staged their first action at a Wells Fargo branch in East Midtown last month, that plot got an unexpected twist. Wells Fargo loaned $120 million to finance DAPL, making it one of the pipeline’s biggest investors, Talen said.

Reverend Billy entered the branch wearing his collar and Pentecostal whites and bearing a 40-pound carp that the church had acquired from a fashion shoot.

But when he lay down with the fish on a bed of newspapers to be “anointed” with oil, he discovered the carp was still alive.

“We thought we got a deceased carp, but it came to life during action,” said Billy, who found himself wrestling the flapping, oily fish before a startled group of customers. “Apparently, carp are pretty tough and can live for hours out of the water.

“So we quickly wrapped up and rushed the fish to the East River, where it swam away,” he said.

“It was a bit of unexpected comedy, though of course the animal-cruelty people came down on us,” Billy said.

Which goes to show, sometimes the moral of the story is not what you think.

Talen and crew are planning another bank action next week. Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir will perform Uptown this Thurs., March 16, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at a sold-out event featuring Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and artist Janine Antoni discussing “How to Reasonably Believe in God,” with Sister Helen Prejean as moderator.