Friday, July 20, 2012

At Home with the Reverend Billy and Family

Posted By on Fri, Jul 20, 2012 at 3:41 PM


Since moving to New York City in 1994, Reverend Billy has made waves with his unusual form of activism: preaching as the self-ordained minister of The Church of Stop Shopping and staging melodic protests and demonstrations with the church's gospel choir. He and his partner Savitri, who are both well known for their public activism and service to their community, have recently added a new addition to their family, Lena, two. On a thankfully cool summer evening I stopped by their Windsor Terrace apartment to talk a little about Brooklyn's changing landscape and the domestic life of a couple who is well-known for the role in their community.

Brooklyn Magazine: Given the anti-consumerism, anti-corporation stance you both have taken, how has having a child changed that? How do you guys stick to your ideals when dealing with things like diapers and bottles and all the endless stuff that kids need?

Savitri: It's hard. It's hard to—I don't want to judge anyone's parenting. Parent how you parent. It's the most natural thing in the world but we're in the most unnatural situation.

Billy: You look at the weather map—just a few days ago two thirds of the country was having record heat. And you look at our little Lena and look out the front door at the 40-50 kids in the PS 144 playground. That's what's hard. You don't even know what kind of climate will be in existence. Things are changing so fast from one year to the next.

Savitri: I've always had a bit of resentment of the chauvanism of children. The "Oh, let's do it for the children," or "I care because of my kids."

As if you need to have a kid to give a shit about something?

Billy: [laughs] Right!

Savitri: It just drives me crazy. It's sort of like a hollywood ending. "And then they found love! And everything was fine and great forever!"

Billy: [singing with saracasm] We are the world! We are the children!

Savitri: It's so chauvanistic and limited and so species-centric and...

Billy: On the other hand it's so real right now because you really can't know what's going to happen. And that's the big picture, but on an every-day scale there are all these new choices you have to make with Lena in mind that you know have a small effect on the environment. Baby food and bottles and clothes and on and on.

I'd imagine that's a new obstacle when it comes to boycotting certain stores and companies, especially when you're on the road.

Savitri: Yeah. It's really different for me to just grab some kind of food that I don't really know where it came from and shove it into my competely toxic forty-year-old body, than it is for me to do to her. Then again I think we have a terrible tendency toward puritanism—no matter how perfect I make her life she still has to be in the world just as we all do. Being a parent can take you away from that broader picture and make you really myopic. You just have to be disciplined and look up and think about what's happening out there, what's happening in my community, what's happening in my city, what's happening on my planet?

Billy: You know—you're always on the look-out for sharp objects. You're baby-proofing the space you're in all the time. And now the world needs to be baby-proofed. What we're trained to do in a near space... When you open up the door and look at the sky—that's not baby proof.

Savitri: Yeah, who's going to baby-proof the watershed or sub-Saharan Africa?

Billy: We're trying to keep the oil companies away from the aquifers [that ones upstate that supply the city with drinking water] so we can have safe water. That's when the fracking battle got local... There are those decals from the Yes Men by some public water fountains that say something like, "This water is safe to drink, but just in case, light a match near it and see if it's alright..." Which of course is a reference to the scene in Josh Fox's documentary. Are we off topic?

Not at all.

Billy: Oh right, because the topic is protecting Lena.

Savitri: Well, I was just saying the opposite. We can't protect Lena. We can't just protect Lena. That's the danger of being a parent, that it keeps your perspective inside the house.

Billy: Of course, we wondered, "Is this going to rock our world, and to what extent is this going to effect The Church of Stop Shopping? We had to ask that question. I think people in the choir were wondering. Actvists in other cities were wondering and emailing us. I think one reason the change wasn't that unsettling was that in our comedic—our faux-televangelism and the choir going into stores harmonizing about "stop shopping"—the things that we do are already, in a way, parental. There's advice we're giving. And some people who've received our advice are parents. We get emails from people who have seen What Would Jesus Buy on Netflix or the Sundance Channel and they'll talk about raising thier kids, changing what they do.

Lena: Blah Dah dah.

She's adorable. You're right that she is a tiny Judy Garland.

Billy: Those midwestern looks.


Changing the subject—I was wondering what your take on Atlantic Yards is.

Savitri: [a tired sigh] It's so unbelievable. I think what's really frustrating about it is that if they had just sold Brooklyn on a stadium instead of saying that it was going to bring in all these jobs and affordable housing and all this stuff we could have just had a chance to respond to an arena...

Lena: Mommy!

Savitri: ...that would have been very different than what happened, which is this whole big re-zone was sold, this development project, none of which is going to happen.

Lena: Daddy!

Savitri: And everyone knew that. The lie of it is very frustrating and the way the democratic process was interrupted—we've seen that over and over in New York City. Also, it was racialized from the beginning and that was also upsetting and divisive at a time when Brooklyn didn't need to be divided that way. Gentrification was happening on so many fronts and we really didn't need to be divided. So that's, to me, incredibly distressing. We worked really hard against Ratner, but then on the day they broke ground I spoke to a woman who said, "I'm going to get a job over there. I'm going to get a union job over there." I can't remember what local she was in, but I asked her, how long ago had you had a union job and she said it had been twelve years. And I asked her how long that gig lasted her and she said seven months. So she's cool with whatever happens as long as she gets a union job. So this is a really different consideration. She really hasn't had a solid gig in twelve years. So—it's complicated. There's so much at stake for so many different kinds of people.

Billy: I just remember the one percent arrogance of the whole thing: Pataki, Bloomberg, and this completely poleticized developer Bruce Ratner. The three musketeeters, there they are. Twenty skyscapers. A two-mile shadow cast over fort greene. The whole thing was so arrogant and so massive and so not financed. But the finances were projections of corruption.

Lena: Blah-skah-sheee!

Billy: It was the one percent arrogance. It's a lot like what we're experiencing right now with the Spectra pipeline.

Lena: [laughs]

Billy: All the constituencies along the pipeline route from Pennsylvania, all the city councils, all the mayors—none of them want this pipe of eight hundred million cubic feet of fracked natural gas coming through their neighborhoods, along their roads, by their schools. None of them. All the way into New York, into the West Village. The company has a history of leaks and explosions but construction is about to begin. Because you have JP Morgan Chase and Spectra and then you have Mike "Wall Street" Bloomberg running the political coverage. So you've got the billionaire mayor, you've got one of the biggest banks in the country and you've got a Texas oil company and that's apparently all you need. And everybody else says no.

Savitri: And the community doesn't matter.

Billy: That's the same way it felt with the Atlantic Yards. It felt like—you have major opposition here on the ground and it doesn't matter.

Savitri: And Bloomberg is always saying that in 20 years no one will remember that there was opposition to this, that the legacy of this will be great, that people will be so happy to get to go to their basketball game. And you hear the same thing about privatization of the parks. And if you're not supporting this now, you're just not visionary enough to see what it means for our community and our city. And here are some wonderful things. It's amazing to go to Brooklyn Bridge Park, it's amazing to see these things. But wasn't there a way to do it that included some community determination?

Billy: And that's been one of the biggest projects in the twelve years of the Church of Stop Shopping: opposing the privatization of public space.

So with fracking right now, what is it that any of us can really do at this point?

Billy: Did you see our hot pink polka dots?

I think I missed that.

Billy: Ok, let me show you some of the pictures. This is our latest action. [Billy shows me photos of a construction site with large hot pink polka dots on the bulldozers and equipment. It is where the Spectra pipeline is set to end in the Meatpacking District.]

Why hot pink polka dots?

Billy: We felt there was some magic in hot pink polka dots. Hot pink polka dots on bulldozers: we just like that concept. So we're going back as much as we can. After a while they'll start arresting us… We went in on Sunday and it was very hot. There we are in our hazmat suits.

But you don't have one on.

Billy: Yeah, I stayed in my Reverend Billy suit. The gas is supposed to be, to some degree, radioactive. It has Radon decaying off of it.

How are the dots attached?

Billy: They're sticky-backed. Humor! Humor and music! Works for political action and works for…


Billy: And babies! That's why we got this piano. We thought it would be good for the baby. Now I need to learn how to play. [Bill plays a few chords.]


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Catherine Lacey

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