Manifesto for a Naïve Activism

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Manifesto for a Naïve Activism

Rev. Billy with a fish on floor of Wells Fargo. The fish, purchased as a dead fish, came to life in the bank and was put back in the East River where it swam away. (Photo: John Quilty)

It is the darkest of times; it is the brightest of times. A mentally ill President slouches toward the nuclear suitcase to mistake a Twitter feed for the big one. But he can see in the windows of the Oval Office, out in streets, the 99% and the Black Lives and the Kayaktivists and the Pussy Power and the Dreamers and the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.

This succession of startling movements are the seeds of our revolution. The pattern over the five plus years since Occupy Wall Street is one of peaks and valleys. Up in the visionary light of a life-saving rebellion and then down into the aftermath of months and months of organizing, meetings and marches and rallies… We’re entering that valley again now, headed for a hangover, as the daily rallies slow down.

Senior officials in the Church of Stop Shopping believe that a miracle is hiding in plain sight. What these uprisings all have in common is something we need to know by heart. They all share a quality of vigorous generosity.

We’ve been to all of these American revolutions, and they really date back to the taking of the Wisconsin state house in March of 2011. When the pizzas were delivered to the Madison rotunda and the delivery guy said that people in Tahrir Square paid for them long distance – that set the tone. These were real communities with gift economies, instant practical traditions, and lots of music.

Remember the peaks of these revolutions and we can solve the let-down and slow-down. Here’s our idea. Put the spirit of these uprisings into a small container. We call it Naïve Activism. Our activism is tailor-made for this long walk through the shadow of death. We use the blueprint of the big protests: 1) take the space 2) pop the hypnosis 3) and for god’s sake be kind. Let’s call it “rapid deployment love.”

Here is our under-10- minutes ritual for banks that finance fossil fuel extraction. We (5 or 8 of us) enter the lobby of Citi, TD or Wells Fargo—each is heavily invested in Dakota Access and other pipelines. We lay down newspapers. One of us dressed in white lies down on the papers clutching a symbol of the Earth, a rock, a branch, a wing… We pour an oily concoction (safflower oil and graphite) upon this prostrate person while we sing and preach and film. We hand out flyers about good banks and bad banks. Then we clean up and, help the human Jackson Pollock to the door, and disappear down the subway steps.

These are meant to be “spiritual trespassings”. We’ve gone banking this oily way three times in the last month—it’s quick and dirty. We’re making a simple point. We’re a small overture to the Earth’s invasions of the institutions that are want to kill Her. Yes, bankers —there is another movement about to move. The Earth is coming! The Earth is coming!

If there is a look of dismay and horror on the face of the bank manager who watches the splattering oil hit the body and the piece of nature—that manager is seeing over Trump’s wall! Just when she or he is wide-eyed, be gentle. We want to help. We have the laughter and the music. We are the stranger at a protest that accidentally bumps into you. We both share that moment of mutual forgiveness. Radical!

I can hear someone lamenting that it is naïve to think that a trillion dollar bank would change its policy because of such small-scale protests. Of course, nothing impacts banks. Not the marches arriving from 500 years of struggle through the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears. Not judges or juries or federal agencies or Presidents. Not even the threat of the end of life on Earth. Nothing touches banks except the people who walk right through the front door.

Zuccotti Park, Ferguson and Standing Rock. Each began on a modest scale and each was called naïve, at the beginning. An urban pocket park, a stretch of sidewalk in front of a police station, tipis by a river in North Dakota. People came from great distances to go to these spots, and they immediately pitched in. How can I help?

Something about that community-making, without the supervision of corporations, was key to why when people heard about it, they wanted to join up. This was called naïve, illegal, selfish, violent, divisive… but it was just love working hard and refusing to leave.

Here’s our small gesture. We accept the oil on our body. We offer you the information. We clean up. Does that feel familiar somehow? Have a deju vu quality? In these dark times, we remember the light on the high ground. It’s just people saving each other’s lives. Radical!

Rev. Billy Talen

Reverend Billy Talen is pastor of The Church of Stop Shopping, New York musicians and singers who create different kinds of ritual trespassings in corporate space, while holding six-part harmonies.  Their illegal concerts have recently favored banks that finance fossil fuel industries.  Upcoming shows include the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Mother's Day at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, and the March Against Monsanto in Miami.  Talen is the author of "The Earth Wants YOU", from City Lights Books.

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