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Reverend Starbucks 

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Photo by Ted Soqui

What better setting for a rendezvous with a prophet, even the semisatirical sort, than in the shadow of the Babylon Gate? Alas, the prophet does not appear. He is elsewhere, and in chains! Nonetheless, his flock has gathered faithfully, here on a sunny Saturday morning at the far end of Hollywood and Highland’s Babylon Courtyard, just across from Starbucks. But for the fact that he was sentenced to three days in jail last Friday for obstructing the flow of commerce at a Reseda Boulevard Starbucks, the blond, pompadoured Bill Talen, known to the world as Reverend Billy, chief and only minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, would be here too, primed to preach to the unconverted and the profoundly unconcerned.

“We haven’t heard from Bill since we dropped him off at the courthouse in Santa Clarita,” laments Tony Perucci, a young, goateed and sideburned professor of performance at Cal State Northridge. So today’s planned “retail interventions,” as the good Reverend calls them, will have to proceed without the good Reverend.

On the phone last week, Talen, who acted in mainstream theater for years before taking on the Reverend Billy role in 1997, explains the purpose of an intervention: “It’s an attempt to manipulate narratives. We have to break down the wall that separates people from the products they buy. People are radically depoliticized. Maybe that sounds too academic, maybe I have to come up with another phrase: Stupid.”

Starbucks has been a special target of Talen’s theatrical assaults, and not just because of the child labor in the coffee fields, the prison labor in the packing plants, the aggressive anti-union tactics at home — or the mysteriously missing nipples on the mermaid icon. The company has become for him a perfect symbol of the corporate takeover of the American unconscious — all that creeping sameness, the viral conquest of the commercial landscape, the replacement of eccentricity and grit with sanitized mediocrity and “fake bohemianism.” So Talen dons his Reverend Billy supersuit (off-white suit and black T-shirt with clerical collar) and storms into Starbucks across the land, throwing his hands in the air and praising “The God-That-Is-Not-a-Product.”

Starbucks, predictably, has fought back, not just with the criminal charges that landed Talen in Twin Towers, but with an April court order that forbids him to come within 750 feet of any Starbucks franchise in California. Talen says he has no intention of obeying the company’s injunction, but on this day he is otherwise incarcerated, so his flock will act without him.

Perucci, nine students from his “Performance and Social Change” class, and Savitri Durkee, Talen’s wife and creative co-conspirator, stroll across the Hollywood and Highland courtyard. They cross the boulevard to the Disney Store and begin circling the aisles, talking into their cell phones and fondling the merch: Peter Pan action figures, Buzz Lightyear sweats, child-size pink negligees. Perucci paces and loudly acts out one end of an argument into his phone, “Right, I understand, but if it’s made in Thailand, it’s made in a sweatshop. If you can tell me one thing here that’s not made in a sweatshop, I’ll buy it!” Two students fake a fight: “This store is like a devil and you know that,” says one. “They should put chains on Tigger, just like the kids that made him!”

The staff looks confused. The security guard stands by the door, oblivious. At last, a salesperson named Candace tells Perucci he’s disturbing the other customers. He apologizes, but sticks to the script and asks if there’s any product in the store not made in the Philippines, China or El Salvador. “Not that I know,” Candace says. “I have no idea.” She promises to call “guest services” to check, but instead consults the guard.

Normally at this point, with the store suitably prepped, Reverend Billy would step onto the retail stage and begin sermonizing. In his absence, Durkee raises her hands and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a sweatshop company. Many of these products were made by children!”

The guard escorts Durkee to the sidewalk. A pack of preschoolers mobs a display of The Incredibles figurines. A shopper looks up briefly from a table of T-shirts and declares her creed: “Whatever.”

The Starbucks down the street at McCadden Place is next. The students loiter by the counter and talk among themselves about the corporation’s various sins. The manager is on her guard (in 2002, Starbucks distributed a memo to all its franchises titled, “What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?”), and within a minute asks Ryan Howard, a tall, soft-spoken young man in a knit cap who has been quietly debating the merits of child labor, to leave. He does. She phones security nonetheless, and soon enough two burly Hollywood Entertainment District guards amble in. Seeing nothing amiss, they amble back out. About half the customers go with them. Perucci and a student named Matt Mugar, both playing Reverend Billy in white blazers with priests’ collars affixed to their T-shirts, rush into the store. Perucci leaps about, red-faced, hollering something about the money and the children, and sending the money to the children. All but one of the few remaining customers flee.

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