The city had set up a large lifeguard’s chair in a sandbox at the focal point of Union Square South to advertise jobs that would be available on New York’s beaches this summer. Around churchgoing time on a Sunday in March—a particularly frigid morning—Rev. Billy climbs it, toting a long, white, acoustic megaphone.
“I want to pool you all out of Mike Bloomberg’s bullshit. You’re drowning,” Billy shouts, through his cheerleader cone, toward 14th Street. “Amen?”
“Amen!” someone shouts back.
The Rev. Billy campaign is about to begin in earnest with an official announcement of candidacy. Men with cameras mill about, as do a few reporters clutching notebooks, looking anachronistic. Some pedestrians pause to investigate, though most don’t stay long.
After posing for photographs, Billy alights from his perch. He is wearing his five-dollar clergyman’s collar, a black shirt and a Blue Man Group-blue-colored suit. His pompadour stands firm in the breeze.
He goes off to join his choir—The Life After Shopping Gospel Choir—huddled together beneath the equestrian statue of George Washington, warming up their voices by running through scales. Dressed in green robes, like St. Patrick’s Day graduates, the female-dominated, multicultural group is impressive in its polyphony and professionalism; they lend Billy a bit of legitimacy. “I’m hot!” Billy tells some choristers once the warm-ups had finished. “But I’m freezing.” It has started flurrying.
About five minutes after noon, the choir kicks off the rally with an anthem called “Democracy is Not for Sale”. The crowd has grown to a few dozen. “There’s justice in my vote,” the choirmaster shouts. “And I want you to vote for Rev. Billy.” Gloria Mattera, the erstwhile Green Party candidate for Brooklyn borough president (and a member of Billy’s campaign), gives the reverend a proper introduction, citing his commitment to social and economic justice, to equitable and sustainable development.
“Can I preach now?” Billy asks when she’s through. Mattera sounds like a high school principal in comparison; Billy is eloquent, impassioned and catch phrase-prone in his sermons-more Jeremiah Wright than Barack Obama. “We’re surrounded by the logo-infested Bermuda Triangle of retail!” Billy says. “We feel the attack of the consumerized palaces all around us… The Demon Monoculture here at Union Square,” he calls it. “A tsunami of monoculture.”
He invokes legendary New Yorkers, from jazz musicians and Jane Jacobs to the Statue of Liberty—”she’s the leader of the Green Party, amen?”—and references the “Theme from New York, New York”: “it’s up to you, New York. It’s up to us New York!” (In the following months, with reworked lyrics, this will become the campaign’s theme song.) He rails against Bloomberg, accusing him of spinning off neighborhoods because they are unprofitable, of treating the city as a corporation and dubbing himself the chief executive. He talks about the importance of neighborhoods, and refers several times to Jacobs, Robert Moses’ famous pro-pedestrian foe. “Neighborhoods are hip!” he announces to great applause. “I just came up with that!”
“Gentrification is the absence of God,” he adds, generating a few lusty amens. “Loveallujah, let’s win this election.”
The choir ends with its call-and-response gospel rendition of the First Amendment. Afterwards, Billy goes into the crowd, shaking hands, posing for photographs. An impromptu press conference begins, which Billy relishes until his press secretary pulls him away. He ends with a joke about debating Bloomberg on his private jet, so they could share his carbon footprint.
Back near the Washington statue, Billy idles with staffers and chorines. “This is when I think of all the things I wanted to say. I was supposed to make people cry,” he tells me. “Some of these people don’t have gospel backgrounds.”