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Reverend Billy and His Choir Director Face Year in Prison for Bank Performance

Golden Toad Performance in a Chase bank (courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates, LLC)
Golden Toad Performance in a Chase bank (photograph by John Quilty, courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates)

For a performance in a Manhattan JP Morgan Chase bank, where they made an environmental statement dressed as extinct amphibians, Reverend Billy and the music director of his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, Neremiah Luckett, are facing a year in prison and $30,000 bail.

The “Golden Toads” performances, wherein the choir members don headgear representing toads that went extinct in the 1980s due to climate change, are part of a series of actions in bank branches. But the surprisingly harsh demand from prosecutors is specifically for a September 12 performance. During this 15-minute occurrence, the group sang a song about animals in danger from a shifting environment, and Reverend Billy preached about Chase bank’s role as a major supporter of the fossil fuel industry. The arrest took place right after the performance on the platform for the F train.

The five-count complaint was given by the prosecution in court this Monday, with William Talen (Reverend Billy’s legal name) and Luckett pleading not guilty. The two are being represented by lawyer Wylie Stecklow of Stecklow, Cohen and Thompson. According to a press release on the situation:

Lawyer Wylie Stecklow defended the action as ‘expressive speech activity protected by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution’ and pointed out that, similarly, at Rev. Billy’s very last Bank arrest, two years earlier, the NYPD also overcharged the conduct as misdemeanors due to NYPD policy (and NY Criminal Procedure Law 140.10) that does not allow for non-criminal arrests that occur outside the presence of the NYPD. This prior arrest occurred after a protest in the UBS bank, at 58th and 5th Ave, when Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping singers were asking UBS to reconsider ties to mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. After a bench trial, Judge James Burke found Talen innocent on all charges, throwing out charges of trespassing and resisting arrest.

The charges come just as Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir are preparing to hold a string of shows at Joe’s Pub from November 24 to December 22. For now, the court has, according to the release, “denied the request for bail and released both defendants on their own recognizance,” to adjourn until the December 9 trial — which starts right in the middle of the run at Joe’s Pub.

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