Rev. Billy warns of rampant consumerism's eternal price
June 04, 2005 San Francisco Chronicle
A tanned reverend with a bleached-blond pompadour and a beige polyester suit blessed the offices of three San Francisco supervisors on Friday to protect the city from the "shopocalypse."
Bill Talen, more commonly known as the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, delivered a rousing sermon denouncing the evils of sweatshops on the steps of City Hall before he and his choir marched into the offices of Ross Mirkarimi, Aaron Peskin and Fiona Ma. None of the supervisors was present, but the Rev. Billy blessed their desks, chairs and computers anyway.
" We are in the office of exalted leader Peskin," the reverend told Peskin's stunned staff. "He is on vacation in Utah, but we know he will use San Francisco's taxpayer money to do the right thing."
New York's the Rev. Billy is a nationally known — well, in some circles — performance artist and crusader who travels the country to support local movements against big-box retailers and rampant consumerism.
His collar may be fake, but he's got a true preacher's style. He and his Stop Big Boxes Gospel Choir are on a six-day Shopocalypse Tour of the Bay Area, to coincide with World Environment Day.
He stopped at City Hall to praise a sweatshop-free ordinance Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Tom Ammiano are expected to introduce within two weeks.
The legislation would deny contracts to businesses that engage in questionable labor practices, said Tomas Lee, legislative aid to Ammiano. It would apply to all city purchases, ranging from police uniforms to flags to forks in the cafeteria.
The Rev. Billy and his choir were invited to preach their gospel by Global Exchange, which is strongly pushing the law.
"We want to pass the strongest 'sweatshop free' ordinance in the country, mandating that whatever the city buys is not produced in sweatshops," said Valerie Orth, Global Exchange's organizer for campaigns against sweatshops.
After several "hallelujahs" and "amens," the reverend put his hands on the supervisors' desks and asked them, in spirit, to support the ordinance. Mirkarimi was an obvious proponent who knelt before the Rev. Billy, who had earlier honored him as a saint.
Blessings offered, the Rev. Billy took his message to the masses.
" Blessed are those who forgo the Gap," he preached while walking through Civic Center Plaza, drawing stares from tourists gathered in the park.
The reverend and his choir travel nationwide, performing "retail interventions," raising awareness and fighting labor and legislative battles.
" We give energy to activists," the reverend said. "They are often exhausted and isolated."
The choir — complete with organ, trumpet and trombone players — wore traditional blue and yellow robes, singing songs like "Union in My Soul" and "Stop Starbucks, Stop Disney."
The group's first Bay Area stop was Wednesday at Wal-Mart in Vallejo, where it urged Solano County officials and shoppers to boycott the store and prevent others from opening in the area.
Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Starbucks are frequent sites of the Rev. Billy's sermons.
The Rev. Billy, who lived in San Francisco for many years, is a disciple of Burning Man who received $6,000 last year from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the nonprofit arts funding arm, for an evangelical anti- consumerism tour of California. He is among a handful of artists to be sponsored by the organization.
He was a big hit at Burning Man in 2003, with his nightly shows denouncing consumerism and the Bush administration. He was among the first artists to be openly political in the desert.
He has used art to force people to think about their consumer choices for more than a decade.
The Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping will appear at 8 p.m. today and Sunday at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. For information, call (415) 478-2277 or visit www.revbilly.com. For information, call (415) 478-2277 or visit www.revbilly.com.E-mail Leslie Fulbright at email@example.com.