New Internationalist

Interview with Reverend Billy

Issue 425

Reverend Billy is a bleached-blond dog-collar-wearing cross between Elvis and a televangelist. He is also a candidate for the New York Mayoral elections this November. A long-standing performing artist and community activist, he is standing on the Green Party ticket against multi-millionaire Mike Bloomberg. Here, Rowenna Davis talks to him about his hopes, fears and crazily eccentric dreams.

Photo by: Canary Mason under a CC Licence
Photo by: Canary Mason under a CC Licence

Are you optimistic about running a race as radical as this in one of the most capitalist societies in the world?

Let’s face it. We’re living in a very conservative era. An era of gradualism, fake change and miles of mind-dulling marketing. Religions have converted to corporations, and corporations are pretending that they have personhood. Militarism and consumerism are teaming up to create a super-virus of conservatism that afflicts millions. In the old days, forces that brewed in New York City – like Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, John and Yoko, James Baldwin, Lenny Bruce – could be counted on as the counter-weight to the Borg and its minions. Now New York seems to have joined the Demon Monoculture. It is suburbanizing itself with a government led by the corporation-in-human-form, Mr Mike Bloomberg. It’s a challenge. Yet Mike’s entire house of cards is dependent on our acquiescence, our purchases, our giving in to him. He holds his breath all day, like all the corporations do. If we refuse to be consumers, and flip back to the sensuality of citizenship, he’s cooked. And I think we will. It’s already happening…

What is your target constituency?

We are trying to arouse a coalition of working families in the neighbourhoods and the traditional progressive liberals living in the upper westside of Manhattan and the village.

Militarism and consumerism are teaming up to create a super-virus of conservatism that afflicts millions

What is turnout like for these elections? Could you mobilize those who normally don’t come out?

We hope to. In the last mayor’s race less than half the eligible voters pulled the lever. The flagrant disrespect for basic democracy may bring people out of the woodwork for this upcoming election.

If you don’t win, will you still think it was worth standing?

We’re winning every day and we will have won on 4 November, the day after the election, because democracy is the only issue here. The people of New York voted twice for a two-term mayorship and Bloomberg flouted that with a special election by the City Council, in which they all voted for their own 3rd term opportunities, while accepting Bloomberg’s money in all sorts of ways. Our campaign slogan is ‘It’s our democracy’. That’s our cry in the wilderness. Of course, it fits our general cause over the years – resisting consumerism. Bloomberg tries to turn every city activity into a money transaction – this corrupts us all. Yes, it privatized schools and libraries and parks. Wall Street rides roughshod over everything. But it turns citizens into consumers – it corrupts each of us. Bloomberg’s $100-a-vote campaigns are famous, but Americans have trouble calling it outright ‘corruption’. Just as we have never been able to call saturation advertising an abuse of free speech. So – let’s keep democracy alive as his monoculture drives us into deadly boredom. That’s our job.

How do you respond to people who say you’re just a ‘random fringe candidate’?

We would be the most visible third party candidate in this race. We will be in the general election, pitted against the Democratic and the Republican candidates, who will look remarkably similar to most voters precisely because they are. The one has $16 billion, of course, but policy-wise they match up. The possibility of an upset by an outsider and non-politician is clear. We have previously elevated a professional wrestler to one governorship, an Austrian action hero to another, and now a man whose father was from Kenya… so Americans are beginning to look outside of the political/financial class for their leadership.

What should New York stand for?

The neighbourhoods buoyed up the Charley Parkers and Joan Baez and Jackson Pollocks. Lenny Bruce could be sick and tired, but someone would bring him a bowl of soup. The great souls who expand our freedoms on this earth – they were sustained here for a half-century after World War Two. Some version of that greatness can still be here. I want to stay here and work. I want to be my eccentric self and have my city’s support. Amen?

If the bottom line of profits always rules – you end up with a Tesco on every corner, sweatshop products on the shelves and dumbed-down consumers stumbling along with the load of their personal debt

What’s the first thing you’d do if you were elected into office?

I would break the business partnership between the city government and the landlords and developers. They treat the neighbourhoods like they are third world countries, exploitable markets ready for the extraction of their resources. The city should partner with longtime residents and small independent shopkeepers. They are the backbone of our city.

It’s easy to say ‘consumerism is evil’, but quite another to say why and how. What is it about consumerism that destroys creativity, diversity and freedom of individuality?

Monetizing all the activities of humanity finally averages us into less interesting, and less interested people. So much of what we do that used to be exchanged in the form of a gift, a tradition, a ritual – is now a marketed product purchased, used and thrown away. Consumerism has its place in the world, but it must be rebalanced with the old gift economy. Some things are best remaining public, volunteered. If the bottom line of profits always rules – you end up with a Tesco on every corner, sweatshop products on the shelves and dumbed-down consumers stumbling along with the load of their personal debt. A deadly critical mass is reached when our senses are so dazzled, blocked and dis-informed by consumerism. Even a city of great hardened eccentrics like New York becomes passive. So we have to interrupt it, rip it and pour new symbols and meaning through. We’re devising a surprise performance, almost an archeological dig crossed with performance art renditions of politicos We’ve found an enormous basement – a part of old radical New York trapped under a luxury condo project. It is a great auditorium waiting in the dark. We will have to break in with generators and musicians. We will burrow down there and light it up and try to stir the souls the New Yorkers overhead on the pavement…

Do you think New York’s mayoral elections can be described as free and fair?

No. New York City is deeply constricted now. Its politics are run by machines, networks of oligarchs, as much as the old days. Politics on the state level and on the city level are openly manipulated by billionaires. Tom Galisano, a billionaire who founded a cheque-cashing empire, persuaded two New York State assemblymen to switch party affiliations and through this the control of the house to the Republicans, but then they switched back again. The state representatives in Albany have been like a reality comedy show this summer, shouting at each other, locking each other out – while the billionaire watches from his mansion in Florida.

Has the financial crisis changed New York?

Well, the most dramatic example is all these frozen-in-mid-gesture bulldozers and construction cranes. The construction epidemic in New York City was based on the credit bubble and financed by Wall Street. Now whole neighbourhoods have been laid waste by the city’s developers with tax breaks, legal protections and all that. So we’ve got communities that look like a half-built Miami, with skeletal condos sticking up. Just a few months ago, the lawyers and bankers were evicting people in droves… Yeah, people are turning away from consumerism in this form, because they remember how the zoning was manipulated, and they remember that people in their 70s and 80s who built up the neighbourhood were suddenly pushed out. Now it’s a wasteland.

How does your campaign machine work?

There are key people in the campaign from our choir, yes. But so many volunteers have come through our headquarters door as complete strangers, ready to work. Mike Bloomberg’s $300,000 a day is an oppressive corruption for all of us, he has electronically wall-papered our town like’s he the new Apple computer or something, and many of us are motivated to look for an alternative, almost for the sake of survival. The pressure on the individual citizen’s psyche by this government is a version of the eight years of invasion by the Bloomberg economy on neighbourhoods, mom and pop stores, human-scale compassionate economies… We don’t like to see this great city become a suburb of chain stores and condos…

How many people are involved?

Our volunteers number about 1,500. A couple hundred are active on a weekly basis. More than a hundred different folks gathered petitions to get me on the ballot – and they submitted 18,350 names to the city. We are operating on a shoe-string budget – raising less than $50,000 at this point through supporters’ donations alone, with about seven weeks to go. We have an office with a fulltime staff of three people – all in their 20s. We meet weekly with our volunteers and staff, and these meetings average 40 people. We are a community running for office, more than the lone hero candidate.

New York City is deeply constricted now. Its politics are run by machines, networks of oligarchs, as much as the old days. Politics on the state level and on the city level are openly manipulated by billionaires

You grew up with a conservative family in Middle America – the route you have taken is not a predictable one. What inspired you to take this path?

The tradition of re-raising yourself is thought of as an American idea. The biography – influences that were pressing or intriguing as a youth; the form of love and abuse from parents – all that is supposed to be the story of a life. But I dreamed of New York City when I was a kid in South Dakota and Minnesota. I used to watch satellites orbit over and think of them as miniature Manhattans glowing up there in the stars. Once I got to the Apple, I had not just the virulent environment of the city to change me, I was also preaching on the sidewalk, and entering big-box stores to cast the devils out of their cash registers. After that, I was in the New York Times or in our local jail, called The Tombs, or I was preaching on a stage backed by 40 anti-consumerists – the Life After Shopping gospel choir. So perhaps these latter-day influences were as strong as those of my younger days… Although a shrink told me that the reason I shout at large Mickey Mouse statues was because Mickey Mouse was my father. What?

I believe your father was a preacher – is he proud of you?

My father is a banker in a small town in Iowa. Father made a living and fed and clothed me by loaning funds to farmers and small businesses. He is proud of me, although he doesn’t necessarily agree with me. He is a Dutch Calvinist and a Republican who supported George Bush and doesn’t give the climate change idea must credence. We’ve become friends…

Did you ever think of running in the election without a persona?

No, Reverend Billy is an invention of New York City. Taking that late-night cable TV Elvis-impersonating character and raising him to front a popular church (with its particular post-religious and homemade spirituality) – this had to be a New York idea. In a power suit with a power tie I’m just a politician – a theatrical tradition that is so conventional. There are literally a handful of political gestures – no more. Kissing babies, working the rope line, reading Teleprompters… it is a restricted choreography. I’m most proud of singing and preaching with the Life After Shopping choir in subways, on piers, rooftops and ferries and parks. Democracy needs to ring in the public air again. That’s what Reverend Billy has been doing for more than 10 years. I’m a sidewalk preacher, after all.

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