Ali, Prince, Daniel Berrigan, Berta Caceres, Oliver Sacks, David Bowie.
These lives that are breaking over us. I don't remember a time like this. This is a super storm. The fantastic chapters of their lives come down on us like a living color wave.
I'm moving in slow motion, wondering what the hell. All around me babies are being born to thrilled parents. The Earth is ready to cash us in. The fabulous cemetery of 2016 - is a generation of dead so astounding in life - they had to die for us to organize our respect.
And now their lives bear witness to this accelerating thuggery of big institutions and public figures, and the arctic liquifies and the wildfires feel more personal than celebrities and the air we breathe and the water we drink is a scandal of toxins. These teachers watch us from thousands of photographs. Their personalities make a landscape of unselfied life. They are daring us to figure this out.
We fired Him. The old male god is gone. We gave Him the pink slip. And so we are on our own, trying to find the meaning of our lives. Now what?
We are starting over; as more and more people deny to the pollsters that they have any particular god. The percentage in the United States is approaching a third of the population. "No God Please" - is our number one religious belief. Many of us, then, are looking for the meaning of life from this zero-sum position.
This is the Great Returning. If we find what our life is given meaning by our intimate relationships, by the mysterious complexity of neighborhoods and extended families, by giving service and to non-careerist arts - then we are discovering the natural world in our midst. A healthy community is a lot like a wild eco-system.
Photo by John Quilty
Berta Caceres and Father Dan Berrigan and Michael Ratner, David Bowie and Oliver Sachs and Prince, the names that ride on the surface of our modern storm of suicides and cancers and drownings of refugees.
We are a nation that is finally unable to continue its tradition of death denial. Our eternal life was something we murdered the natives with. Now we die, alone in our homes, with America exploding in the windows by our deathbed, like cartoon apocalypses...
It took a bad president to kill the word hope, but it took all of us to turn the Promised Land into a gated graveyard. Our family this Sunday hiked with through the vast resting place called the Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. It was at one point an A-list tourist destination, equal in the 19th century to the numbers who visited Niagara Falls, but now this 600 acre green world is abandoned.
People no longer mourn. The rare car that appears zooms by like a fly buzzing by ancient rocks. Is sorrow possible from the blurred vision of an SUV? I mourn Prince's passing with a hundred YouTubes. We make our way back to realistic life by walking for hours through the tombs with a child who continually asks about the lives of the people reclining in the mausoleums crushed by the falling trees of the hurricane.
The Church of Stop Shopping has come to believe that it is critical to levitate the de Young, and is sending its senior pastor, Reverend Billy Talen, to do this important work. He will preach on Wednesday noon, April 20th in front of the museum. At 7:00pm, he will read from his new book, The Earth Wants YOU, at City Lights, 261 Columbus Avenue.
Here is the Reverend’s invitation:
The de Young was constructed to resist levitation or flight of any kind. Many of the museum’s trustees and donors insist that the building should not fly or float or make any move at all. And yet, it is generally acknowledged that in this time of apocalyptic weather, increased tremblers and tsunamis, long distance desperate migrations of plants, animals and humans – and outright extinction – it is no longer realistic to assume that the building won’t move at all.
Indeed, the institution’s big donors make the world outside the museum – levitate! Fossil fuel investors take key roles in the de Young, as they do in art museums throughout the West. The extracting and emissions of burning, the flooding as plastics, fluids and gasses that persist in the soil and water and air… The world is in flames from the careers of the wonderfully dressed grandees at the de Young parties. The monumental pillar of the museum seems to give “society” a place that they don’t believe is in fiery motion.
Now the intransigence of the de Young has a new bulwark against the accelerating capital that shreds every thing outside. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, the museum admits that it is drenched in Monsanto’s RoundUp, with its carcinogenic toxin “Glyphosate.” Look at the map. Undoubtedly families are covered with the stuff as they walk away from an afternoon of culture.
Our church researchers suggest that there is a sort of death-wish here. The museum seems to be telling us that now we can ignore our own impending extinction in an artistic way. Since the Earth’s crisis was brought about by the investments so gratefully cultivated by the museum, it appears that “art” is a distraction arranged by our own executioners.
On Wednesday the 20th, do we want to levitate the museum or ground it? It is the park, which is a kind of art exhibit featuring the Earth – that must save us.
Rev Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir performed against the Koch brothers and their $100m gift to Lincoln Center. Two of them were arrested. They have exorcised the oil money from the Tate Modern, both in London and Liverpool. Working with BP Or Not BP? the church gave an unasked for concert in the BP-sponsored British Museum.
I wore my long johns so that I could sit in the Tombs, a cold jail even if its 70 degrees on the surface. So I had my baptist hanky out right away as we approached the front door of the Central Park Conservancy – that dabbing off of sweat only made me seem more like a wearied-by-the-spirit preacher. Then as we walked up to the billionaire’s club – a surprise - the police and well-dressed security types, faded away. This made me sweat just a bit less.
It showed us that in the billionaires part of town, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, between Park Avenue and 5th Avenue on 60th Street, the police work for their overlords. In another part of town the cops will walk by the crowd and the Stop Shopping Choir and push me over and hand-cuff me. Then I’m led away while the choir sings our gospelized version of the 1st Amendment. This has been going on for 15 years.
But yesterday I remained free under the CPC’s “martyrdom management,” – a more nuanced approach by the marketing department of the very rich. We began to sing and shout about poisons in the parks, starting with “Monsanto is the Devil,” from our new record.
Yesterday was about secrecy… the secrets of modern personal fortunes. Yesterday was also about the secrets of poisons dispersed in nature, that nature being the Central Park foliage and lawns and promenades.
High society New York style, of course, must have secrets. The castle has a wraith of mist, with the princess swirling briefly by a high window. That’s the classic cover of those bodice-ripper books that after-work nurses read on the subway. Funny how the cheapest pop culture can accurately catch the essence of the modern governance…
This is essentially the Central Park Conservancy’s presentation to the hoi polloi, and to the ten singers and Elvis impersonator dogging their doorway with the Tiffany glass awning. We look like a subway car of people who stumbled into the rich part of town, but we ara a threat. Our little theater company’s lawyer has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the NY Parks Dept that is well-made and legally binding. We demand to know when and where of the spraying by the city of Monsanto’s carcinogenic herbicide “RoundUp” is incomplete. The city showed us where the poisons were sprayed on the African and Hispanic citizens, the working poor and new immigrants – but where the rich live in Manhattan and in Brooklyn around Prospect – we got big blanks. The conservancies refused to cooperate. They should have given us the information last October. Our map on the website Revbilly.com has a Joker-like question mark on Central Park. Secrecy.
The largest gift the park ever got came in 2012 from John Paulson. The gift was a cool $100 million. Paulson is a god of secrets. He used the credit default instruments invented by Blythe Masters at JPMorgan Chase, to “short the housing market.” Let’s say that again. Paulson created hedge funds where he and his speculators could take bets that the housing bubble would burst. He made $4 billion that year as millions of families lost their homes. He made a market that was secret because he invented it, a definition of the waves of absconded wealth in recent decades.
So we sang and shouted for a couple hours. My sermon was all about secrecy. The bullhorn made nice echoes in this canyon of billionaires. The snuck in an out of our harmonies. We tried to give them information on the sidewalk but they scurried off. Savitri got into fascinating conversations with clumps of lunchtime workers, who drifted near us, smoking and smiling – but maybe not quite clapping or shouting Earthalujah!
They will privatize this sidewalk as soon as they can, I suppose. Meanwhile the laws of the land reach this far: shouting citizens in the doorway. We’ll be back. And of course they know that – because the police being there as we arrived indicated that they had read our emails.
Concservancy people – listen to me. If we’ve been sprayed by RoundUp, a carcinogen that is banned in scores of countries. And insiders in the Parks Dept. have whispered to us that we have been sprayed by the stuff… we need to know about it. The rich can’t keep secrets.
Photo by Kate Bingham
That’s what I’m facing, a return to the beginnings of the idea of Reverend Billy, a return to his first church – the pavement. This time not so much in Times Square, where homeless citizens sleep in doorways. The sidewalk preacher’s new church is the front door of billionaires on East 60th Street.
The Central Park Conservancy is overseen by about 70 trustees. Among them are the world’s biggest gamblers – real sinners who desperately need the advice and comfort of the Church of Stop Shopping. Take for instance – the man who made billions betting on the pain and suffering of millions of Americans when he hedged the housing bubble, the eviction and mortgage fraud bubble, of the late naughts.
Such a legend of depravity as John Paulson hangs in the air at East 60th Street. He is an untouchable. He lives somewhere around the park, and maybe he comes to the conservancy office once a year, who knows? He has given millions to the conservancy. He has said that the park is a dreaming place of his boyhood, but now he allows his park workers to spray the playgrounds and picnic areas with Monsanto’s carcinogenic herbicides.
You say he doesn’t even know about it? Well they say he jogs in the park most days, and lives in a townhouse on the east side, somewhere around the conservancy offices. It is more important to ask, why would another Conservancy trustee, Mitchell Silver, who is the Commissioner of the Parks Dept of New York City – be so complacent about the poisons. His deputy commissioner told us (the Coalition Against Poison Parks) that there is a minimum safe dosage for RoundUp. What? What study said that? No scientist that doesn’t work for Monsanto ever proved a safe ingestion of this toxin, not of any amount.
No, Silver and his people is as close to the death struggle of poisoned everyday people as Paulson was to evicted home-owners in 2008, when he made $4 billion in 12 months.
So a shout in the street is my media again. I was in Times Square in the 90’s with the Naked Cowboy and the Black Hebrews, and now I’m here. But comparing the two church sites, this place feels much stranger. It is quiet here. There are no shouts here. Only the Romanesque facades of money, layered in law enforcement. Where will my shout go? Maybe my echo will wend its way through the airshafts of the super-rich.
Perhaps my echoes will somehow ascend the elevator into the building and trip something in the brain of the conservancy staff. Perhaps the Monsanto chemicals, banned in so many countries, really is the asbestos and lead and Marlboro murder of the future? Somebody was shouting about those killings too, when everyone was making too much money to hear.
I’m becoming nocturnal. This morning I was up at 3:30. I rummaged around the foot of the bed in the dark, picking up my clothes and pulling them on, made a thermos for my Sidamo coffee, and set out for the forest in Prospect Park. The woods are closed after dark, and the police shine spotlights into the foliage from their cruisers, but part of the forest is near the fence-line at the street, so I can escape into the trees.
I squint as I walk to avoid twigs in the eye. It is a night with some wind, the clouds sailing over the black swaying branches. I climb a ridge that stretches into the interior of the park. There is a forested Quaker cemetery there. I can just make out the gravestones in the roots and leaves. In a low voice I talk to the peace-makers who are sleeping beneath this forest floor. I am thanking them for their courage. Now we need their guidance.
The choir and I will attempt some activism this week against the socialite New Yorkers who control these parks. They spray Monsanto’s toxic RoundUp, and they have increased the spraying as they replaced park workers who for many years weeded the parks by hand. While the World Health Organization and scores of studies warn that glyphosate is linked to cancers, endocrine disruptions, autism, birth defects – the spraying doesn’t stop, it spreads. And they won’t tell us where and when they do it.
I share all this with the dead heroes in the shadows. I look up at the starry sky up above canopy of old trees. I am wondering how it must have felt to look out across the Pacific Ocean, back in 1958, when a small band of Quakers set out from San Pedro, California in a sailboat called the Golden Rule. The USA and the USSR were testing large atom bombs during the cold war, and radioactive clouds were roaming the atmosphere.
The peace sailors planned something unprecedented. They would sail into the giant sloping waves of the Pacific for weeks and weeks. 5000 miles later they hoped to be floating in the center of a nuclear test site in the Marshall Islands, daring them to kill the witnesses. Pushing away from the dock and raising the canvass to the wind, how did you feel? They got about halfway, but halfway the Golden Rule was boarded twice at their stop in Hawaii, and then the crew of five was quickly charged, convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. An international outcry ensued, and the Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd ships set sail from the
inspiration of the Golden Rule.
We ask for your blessing. The distance that we are facing with our toxins is of a different kind. This is the endless ocean of the life around us that we cannot see. We have the mystery of tens of thousands of invisible gaseous chemicals. The poisons are far away, but it is here in our breath as we take the stuff of the outside city into our bodies. It’s right here.
Mother and father activists! Be with us as we sing in the doorways of the Conservancies of New York City. If and when we are arrested, may some kind of articulate scandal make this hidden world obvious to everyone, so that we can sail into the molecular manipulations of power.
Both industries feature toxic corporations that morph and market, evade regulation and constantly sue. Their tactics are the same with the press and the police. Neo-nicotinoids and glyphosates, Agent Orange and PCB’s and bovine growth hormones leave Big Chem with a trail of evil labels. The fracking tradition is newer and the cocktails of hundreds of toxins they pump into the water table - are still unknown. They even cover up their earthquakes. But at the end of the day both are at war with the natural world in remarkably similar ways.
And by fighting them as separate issues, on two fronts, with two groups of activists - we automatically place ourselves in the defensive posture of demanding the old solution of more big government. Big government instead of big god. But this is the weakest position politically. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren shouldn’t always end up there. Big government hasn’t been a good sell since the New Deal.
The Right always proceeds from one point, the belief in a single God and His morals of purity and decency, anger and war. They don't really have have a single unifying issue hey but they act like they do because they have that militaristic god figure. Their right and wrong is so violent.
Now what is happening? We are discovering a more powerful supreme being. In our godless “Church of Stop Shopping” we’ve been teaching over-cultured agnostics to do this for years. It might hurt for a minute, but hold hands and take the leap. We pray to life. We pray to life on Earth. We talk directly at the condition of living as if it's listening to us and conversing with us.
No matter what we say, the conversation ends up asking for the same blessing, which is the continuation of that life, our own survival. And that is a unifying politics.
Demanding that life flourish does the trick – it combines the defense of humanity with the defense of nature. This kind of freedom – to live – includes and creates justice. The combining of all issues this way is a spiritual practice with no-god-please-thankyou. We are admitting that something mysterious binds all life together.
Then something else happens: Our activism becomes much fiercer. We aren’t split into scores of issues anymore. We aren’t in competing campaigns. It isn’t theoretical anymore. Right-thinking isn’t its only basis. Courage isn’t even the issue anymore. Fighting for life is a form of breathing, dreaming, and loving.
This is another of Reverend Billy's Unasked-for Moral Advisories. The halting of Donald Trump rallies is one of the only moral guides that we have in America today. It is holier to stop a Trump speech than it is get on your knees and recite a thousand Hail Mary's. The lesson for us is this: Find the Donald Trump rallies that is close at hand. Surely there is a Trump rally in the immediate vicinity that is asking for a robust interruption. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn New York, there is a bar called "Farrells" that should be declared a "Hate Speech Site". This watering hole needs a cleaning up as thoroughly as a brown field at an abandoned Monsanto chemical factory. The casual hate in this place is enough to make you scream STOP.
NEXT TIME WE'LL PROBABLY HAVE TO KILL HIM. This is the statement of the Trump supporter in the picture below, with the red shirt and cowboy hat, who attacked the protester moments later. Yes, there it is. Violence is the dream. He dreams that his victim sags to his knees, the fist crushing the face, the horror of witnesses, the contorted faces, the lives changed forever.
Violence as a dream. Violence as a validation. Violence as the perfect illusion. “I have a feeling that is so strong that society does not provide me a way to express myself, so I must go beyond what is permitted. I kill you.”
I can stand next to Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Donald Trump. I am a man who said no. I am a man who said no.
WE SHOULD HAVE SAVED HIM. So how would the opposite dream work? The dream of peace?
The protester is shouting. “Stop the hate!” The people around him listen to his demand. They try to understand. Oh, he thinks that we are haters. Then someone asks, “Are we?” (Seems unrealistic. But social change historically takes place in the distance from the shout to learning.)
The extreme accusation at close range is illegal everywhere in the United States. In New York, a cop can take a citizen to jail for shouting too loudly. A good shout needs the frame of illegality or the volume is pointless. A protest sign must be a simple demand that argues with its surroundings and the people who are nearby. Many shouts in 2016 have a good reason and corporate media won't cover the shouts except to disapprove, to recite the police charges.
The act of peace is no longer allowed, and in fact, is rendered unbelievable. The average age of the peace advocacy groups that still exist is 75 or 80.
Consumerism and Militarism do not endorse acts of kindness. Fear drives the economy. Each product we buy elevates us over the rabble. We escape into convenience, into speed, into style, into America, into watching violence with approval. We don’t save the killer, we pay him.
THANK GOD FOR BLACK LIVES MATTER. I am grateful for the immigrants, for the earth-lovers who stop the pipelines. Donald Trump will not leave the podium and go back to his hotel because of politicians who imitate him. He will stop shouting when he loses his voice, because his entire audience is shouting over him, to save him. At some point even he will stop and ask, “What are they saying?”