Reverend Billy Talen Thinks Monsanto Is the Devil

The colorful actor and performance artist may seem silly, but he's dead serious about the targets of his activism: unfettered capitalism, racism, and, now, GM seed giant Monsanto.

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Dec 12 2014, 10:18pm

Photo via Flickr user

Bill Talen has a colorful resume. The 64-year-old, Minnesota-born actor, activist and performance artist found his calling in the 1990s, when he moved from San Francisco to New York and began appearing on Times Square street corners as "Reverend Billy," an Elvis-slash-Billy Graham-inspired street preacher whose diatribes railed not against the sins of the soul, but the sins of the wallet.

Situating himself near the then newly opened Disney store, Reverend Billy regularly delivered impassioned—but lyrical and clever—rants decrying the evils of capitalism, which was increasingly rearing its ugly head in the area that the city's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, had scrubbed clean of its past associations with the illicit trade of drugs and sex. These vices were replaced with temples to consumerism like the Disney store, which Reverend Billy demonstrated against by, variously, marching through the store with associates who talked into fake cellphones about the evils of Disney products; openly preaching to customers until being forcibly removed by the police; and leading his followers and eventual back-up band, the "Stop Shopping Choir," through the business as they chanted anti-capitalist tunes in unison. Since those early days, Reverend Billy has taken on Starbucks, Walmart, Black Friday, and the Iraq War. He's been arrested more than 50 times, performs annually at Burning Man with his choir, and, oh yeah, in 2009 ran for Mayor of New York City on the Green Party ticket (spoiler alert: he didn't win).

These days, though, Reverend Billy is thinking about food: specifically, what he sees as our flawed, and dangerous, agricultural practices. He and his choir have taken on GM seed giant Monsanto, currently performing a six-week residency at Joe's Pub in Manhattan of a show entitled, quite pointedly, "Monsanto Is the Devil." As a complement to the production, on Thanksgiving last month Reverend Billy and his followers hosted an organic meal on the lawn of Monsanto's headquarters in Creve Coeur, a St. Louis suburb. Later in the evening, the group met with protestors in nearby Ferguson. We caught up with the Reverend to learn more about his beef with Monsanto.

MUNCHIES: When were you first inspired to target Monsanto with your activism? Bill Talen: I think in 2002, I was at Bioneers, in California, and I met a Canadian farmer, a pioneer in resisting the notion that when a GMO crop nearby arrives on your land and changes your farm, that the corporation is not responsible. So he was in court. And he was a big man, with calloused country hands, but he was also exhausted. I talked with him, and I sensed the emotional cost of what was happening to him. He said that he had his own relationship with the plants and animals around him, but that a neighbor contracted a GMO cash crop. And it came into his community of life, and he said he was discovering that the courts seemed prearranged to defend this invasion, this invisible invasion. It was spooky, he said.

So that was 12 years ago, and he felt a bond with me. And of course at that point, my main work was my opposition to the emotional and informational manipulation that comes to us from corporate marketing. But he felt that we were fighting a very similar fight. Monsanto has really captured the romance of science, and the romance of progress, in a way that is really hard to fight.

Tell me a little bit about your show "Monsanto is the Devil." The show at this point is quite something to be a part of. You can't tell if it's a political rally, or if it's a theatrical comedy about church, or if it's a real spiritual, intentional community having prayers. It's got a great gospel choir—we're all in recovery from fundamentalist systems of some kind, but then there's no fundamentalist church quite like Monsanto, right?

What kinds of people come to the show? Well, there are the urban gardeners, there are the rooftop farmers, there are the tourists of New York City. There are a smattering of scientists, biologists and so forth that are concerned about the devastation in our biosphere right now. And we have a lot of theater people, they're like radical earth activists, singing activists.

And it's an interesting group of people onstage. We have people in our production that have to quite for a couple of months because they're in Broadway plays. They've resisted arrest and gone to jail together and stood in courtrooms together, and yet they can belt out a Sondheim song for you.

Tell me about the organic dinner on the lawn of Monsanto headquarters. How did that go? Well, we thought it was going to be a lawn, but when we got there it was all snow and ice. A New Yorker's idea of Missouri is, like, the south. And the Ferguson police department acts like they are southern cops, it's a slave state, and they definitely have that in them.

The act of eating a good, healthy meal on the property of the great poisoner—that's activism. It's you, having a healthy body—that's non-violent, direct activism.

And we wanted to honor Ferguson, which is next door. We had some leftovers from our meal, and that night we brought it to a St. Luke's Church in Ferguson. We met in a local park, and we walked along the state highway, so we started our action with a civil rights gesture. We kind of combined our organic food with the distinctly non-organic soul food in the church basement. And I sang and I preached and we prayed, and we broke bread together. And after that we went to a Walmart, and these young people in Ferguson improvised the slogan, "Hands up! Don't shop!" We were really gratified by that. Because we've been holding out all these years, trying to explain to people until we're blue in the face that consumerism is violence. They're one and the same.

Food safety, and people trying to save their children from racist police? That's gotta be the same issue. "Hands up, don't shop"—that's gotta be the same issue.

Thanks so much, Reverend Billy.