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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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
SD: Right. You could call a completely screwed up election freedom,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
SD: It was like going to the heart and source of everything we do, standing around
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.