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March 2005
Thou Shalt Not Shop

The Satya Interview with Bill Talen and Savitri Durkee

 

The Church of Stop Shopping led by Reverend Billy (Bill Talen) and directed by his partner Savitri Durkee, is a performance group that takes its anti-consumerist message to the streets. Reverend Billy and his 30-member choir preach about the importance of community and against the transnational corporations who are endangering communities both globally and locally here in New York City. Talen’s sermons hit the page in What Should I do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? (available in paperback this April by New Press). For more inspiration, activists should be on the lookout for Bill and Savitri’s new book Who Will Survive the Shopocalypse? slated for release this summer by Soft Skull Press.

One morning Sangamithra Iyer chatted with Savitri Durkee and Bill Talen over a cup of fairly traded, bird friendly coffee in their home in Brooklyn.

Could you summarize the message of the Church of Stop Shopping?
Bill Talen: The Church of Stop Shopping has two parts, two gestures: the gesture of worship, prayer, and community celebration in the word ‘church’; and the gesture of stopping a sin, in ‘stop shopping.’ We do believe that there is a spiritual life in pulling back from over-consumption. If you pull back from consumption, there is something still there. You are left with yourself. Or you are left with a local economy, a thrift store; or you are left with a gift; you are left with a friend. What we talk about is how, like getting off a drug or alcohol, you have memories, you have dreams, and personal [things] that replace constant consumption. You get information from yourself. We believe that communities are created as a result of more people having that rich thing come up in themselves.
Savitri Durkee: Consider on the most basic level, how much time does a person really need to spend in the grocery store deciding what kind of peanut butter to get? Do I need to spend four minutes deciding between 100 different kinds? There’s a lot I can do with that four minutes—just stare at the sky, call my mom to ask how her hip is, or read something. If you add up all that time, it starts to really take over your life. It’s really pervasive. You could call it a spiritual happening, but reclamation of self could just come from having five minutes in which you aren’t bombarded with decision-making about things that have absolutely no consequence.

Why have you focused your work specifically on transnational corporations like Starbucks, Nike, Disney, and the Gap?
BT: In our neighborhood defense work we have found that transnational corporations literally study neighborhoods and then put them inside big boxes. And that transnational space is no longer public property. If Barnes and Noble is over here mimicking the library, the library over there loses its funding. And there are the insidious ways the community gardens are attacked, and if not officially defended, are bulldozed. The appropriation of public space, we feel is the appropriation of our ability to think independently.
SD: It’s about thinking independently together, that’s the point. You can think whatever you want, but it doesn’t actually matter if there is no forum in which it’s possible to share. That’s the creative act of being human. And that’s where political acts live—between us.

Starbucks has this corporate notion called the “third place” which is their theatrical invention, this place that is not home, not work or school, but this third place where you are safe. That’s the word they use. What is safe about Starbucks? It’s a union-busting, corrupt, exploitive company. What is safe about that? It’s a complete illusion.

When we travel overseas now, we’ve discovered that the transnationals are protected the same way the embassies or government buildings are. It’s really the same function. You get this feeling that the American government issued this proclamation: ‘Protect our Interests’, and that doesn’t mean the interests of its citizens, it means the interests of its companies.
BT: Between Wal-Mart and Starbucks, we pretty much have the landscape around us covered. They are both setting the tone and financial structure and the model and the pace in all sorts of ways for other companies to fall in place.
SD: The way Bill’s been describing it recently is that transnationals make it impossible to have certain kinds of conversations. When a neighborhood starts shopping exclusively or being exclusively in a transnational space, they’ll buy it, whatever it is—if it’s a necklace or some perfume that smells like cucumber. It’s basically a product, and I think that is how wars are sold.
BT: This war was advertised and sold to us like a product, and we bought it. Saddam Hussein flying the jets into the towers was key to the sale. The weapons of mass destruction were key to the sale. It doesn’t matter if the advertising is false when you are selling a product. Have you noticed that you don’t end up with this utopian thing that the advertising said would happen? The thing that the Bush administration has figured out with the corporate marketers they have surrounding them is that follow-through really isn’t that important anymore. You can move on to something else. It’s a product war.

And Consumers will buy it?
BT: Yes. You can point to something and call that freedom. It could be a child suffering the after-effects of depleted uranium bullets, and you could call that freedom.
SD: Right. You could call a completely screwed up election freedom, that may very well cause a major civil war that’s been avoided in a region for a really long time. You could call that freedom.

Have you also targeted any fast food chains?

SD: We’ve done actions at McDonald’s. It hasn’t been the focus of our work.
BT: There are people doing a really good job opposing McDonald’s: The big McLibel lawsuit in England, José Bové in France, and Morgan Spurlock in the SuperSize Me movie. They are not needing us. Starbucks, however, is taking over every neighborhood, yet people don’t know what that company does.
SD: There’s a whole class thing about Starbucks.
BT: Meanwhile six-, seven-, eight- year-olds are out in the coffee groves in the plantations in Guatemala. The toughest thing for me is the forced child labor. The Presbyterian Hunger Project told us about a month ago that their estimates of the percentage of fair trade coffee sold to the public by Starbucks is two percent.

And you can’t even buy a cup of it, just the beans.
BT: I’ve had them be unable to find the beans. One of the up sides of having 30 people sing with me every week, is that I can get them to go to cafés in their neighborhood, because they live in all five boroughs, and ask them to consider fair trade coffee.

After the tsunami, Starbucks had a campaign to donate to the relief with every cup of Sumatran coffee they sold. But if they really cared, they would be serving a fairly traded cup of Sumatran coffee.
SD: Oh, that makes me so angry. That’s really just horrifying. They are so clever though. They are so sophisticated. I’ve been doing research this week about Starbucks and the New York Times because I started to notice how often Starbucks was mentioned in passing. “I met him in the Starbucks,” or “We were walking by the Starbucks” or someone talking about how they wrote their book in the Starbucks. Is this product placement or what?

Then you read that four years ago, Starbucks made a deal with the NY Times to distribute the paper in their stores. Starbucks is now [one of] the largest national distributors of the NY Times. You’ll notice in that same period of time the NY Times has become an increasingly national newspaper covering national news. It’s no longer a local paper. But we still look to it for that kind of information. So when we open it and there is no news about a march that we did yesterday that had thousands of people. We wonder, ‘Didn’t they see us? We went right by the NY Times building.’

So how do you both practice what you preach?
SD: Well here we have some bird friendly fair trade coffee from the Mud Truck.

We don’t know where our clothes came from, some are gifts, and some are from thrift stores.
BT: This T-shirt (of Mickey Mouse caught in a mouse trap) is a gift from Morgan Spurlock.
SD: True, we do occasionally buy things.
BT: I bought my sneakers in a little store in Minneapolis where Paul Wellstone used to shop.
SD: And they have New Balance, the one sneaker maker now that still makes some—not all—of its sneakers in the U.S. When I bought my last pair, I asked if a lot of people ask about this and the guy said ‘you know people ask about this every day. They ask where these shoes were made, who made them. People would love it if there were more choices for that.’
BT: Now that’s a choice.
SD: We know we have to purchase to be in this economy—that’s obviously the system we are in. We can go out of our way to do it differently and take pleasure in doing so—I certainly do. But it does take time, it takes energy, and sometimes it’s more expensive. I personally don’t have very much money, but would be happy to pay a little bit more knowing the person who made it is getting paid a little bit more. I’m not just paying the middleman or some corporate executive salary. We’re all part of this situation. It’s not like we’re above it. You can’t be above it. That’s why you have to do something about it.
BT: We have a ‘no-bag’ thing also.
SD: I call it more of a ‘no-bag’ fight. We need one of those Irish 17-cent taxes on bags. The ultimate bag story is that I was in a grocery store and saw a guy get a single banana, put the banana in a vegetable bag, then go up to the counter, get a double shopping bag, go to the very front of the store, take out the banana, throw away the three bags, and eat the banana, all before he left the store. The banana already has a bag. It is a bag!

Is there a diet advocated by the Church of Stop Shopping?

BT: Savitri and I are chicken and fish eaters. We are not vegetarians.
SD: There are a few vegans in the choir. I ate only raw foods for eight months once. I drove across country during that time and the most amazing and gratifying thing about it was that I made so little trash. On an average day in New York City I probably make more trash than I did in ten days driving across the country, because I was not eating any packaged foods at all.

Like many of us, I feel confused about food and what to eat. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about distance. I’m trying to buy food that’s [local] so at least the shipping part of it is diminished. And when I can afford it, I like to eat organic food.

We think about [food] a lot, but it’s not really part of our campaign. It has been in relationship to Starbucks because it’s a way to tell people what they are drinking is probably not what they think it is.
BT: We tell them that there is genetically altered milk in their lattés. Starbucks is one of the top purchasers of milk now in this country. We work with local anti-GE activists.
SD: You tell people that the milk they are drinking has puss from infected utters.
BT: The cows are dying young. It’s really a tough image for people to take in that cows have twice as much milk in their utters. The reality is [removed] from the imagery and the language.

How have you found performance art as a form of activism?
SD: We both come out of theater, that’s what we do. Those are the tools we have. When you have become politicized, you take what you have. I think the art world is screwed up and corrupt and commodified. I’m glad to be out of that world. I find the activists performance art world a little dodgy sometimes, and it’s impossible to make a living. It might not be the most effective way of organizing people or making slow social change, but I think it’s a really effective way of getting people to wake up.
BT: So much is happening so fast: the big zoning proposals for Williamsburg and Greenpoint; visions of gated communities and 40-story condos; Wal-Marts in Queens; bulldozing community gardens in the Bronx. It’s just happening everywhere all at once. Exhausted activists need to be entertained.
SD: We went all over California last spring doing that. It was so moving. We went up to the tree-sits in Humboldt County and sang to the tree sitters who were up in the trees for eight months. It was magical for the tree sitters, but it was also amazing for this gang of urban New Yorkers, to go to this huge clear cut in the forests of northern California and really feel that product distance. Here in New York, it is really easy to forget that things come from somewhere; when the guy at the deli hands you 12 napkins with your cup of tea.
BT: That was a great concert. We prayed around this stump and we were all in tears.
SD: It was like going to the heart and source of everything we do, standing around this tree.
BT: That just energized us.

To find out about upcoming shows, campaigns, or to learn more about The Church of Stop Shopping, visit www.revbilly.com.

 

 


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