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Black Friday with Reverend Billy

“I told Michelle. I said I’m not comin’ in today. She said why not? I said it’s black people Friday. I’m stayin’ home to celebrate,” explains Denise Parish of Crown Heights, as she rings up items on a cash register in an express lane at Target inside the Atlantic Center complex, in downtown Brooklyn.

Buy Nothing Day 2006. Copyright: 2006 Fred Askew Photography. All rights reserved.

“What Michelle said?” asks another young woman, speaking with her head turned to her shoulder, as she also rings items on a cash register in the next lane over, while standing back to back with Denise of Crown Heights.

“You know Michelle don’t play. She said you betta herry and bring ya self.”

“What chu said?”

“I just got dressed and then came in. You see me standin’ here right?”

The two laugh briefly, until loud shouting disrupts their conversation.

A Russian woman shouts in Russian and shakes her fist in the air at an older Target employee who is directing the line of customers.

“Ma’am if you can’t calm down, I’m gonna call security.”

“You focking call them. I call Jorje Boosh. Focking tell them you are stupid.”

“Whoa lady, you need to calm down,” says a man waiting on the line. “You are fock you too,” explains the Russian woman.

“Lady I’ll bust you in the fuckin’ head,” proclaims the man on line.

Quickly security is on hand to ensure the safety of all the merchandise in the area. The Russian woman drops all of her items on the ground, and storms out of the store, cursing and screaming in Russian, shaking her fists at everyone she passes. As the commotion unfolds, the ringing registers and the long line stands still. The result is immediate hostility and grumbling from the crowd of impatient shoppers. Denise and her young friend look out at the never-ending line of customers.

“Guess they don’t know about black people Friday. They supposed to be at home celebratin’. Instead they shoppin’,” says Denise.

Buy Nothing Day 2006. Copyright: 2006 Fred Askew Photography. All rights reserved.

“Somebody need to tell ’em,” responds her friend, as the two of them return to ringing items and then packing them into bags. They look down as they work, perhaps a little shaken. Unsure if they have just seen a sign of the coming Shopocalypse.

Outside, on Flatbush Avenue, Yasir Nasseem of Pakistan has a long line in front of his shish kebab stand. Shoppers, arms filled with packages, shout orders for hot dogs, pretzels, and chicken gyros.

“Evarr since it was nine elevann, Mistarr Mike Bloomberg is going crazy,” explains Mr. Nasseem. “Evarr since this time, he is buthering us. He is making fines evarryday. Sending police. Checking license. Checking cart. Making fines on us. We have paid many thousands already. Do they make a fine on Macy’s. Do they make a fine on Target and these stores? No. They are just making fines on us. Is this how they are paying for war in Iraq? We have paid many thousands already my friend.”

“Yo stop talkin’ to dat fool and make the food arready,” says a man on the line, setting off a chain reaction of discontent from the waiting customers who have grown impatient and tired after having spent the day standing on never-ending lines.

“Yes. Yes. Food is coming,” says Mr. Nasseem, hoping to stay one step ahead of the anger and frustration. “We have paid many thousands already my friend,” repeats Mr. Nasseem, and then returns to his food.

Later that day, in lower Manhattan, the crowds go far beyond anything to be found in Brooklyn. People push past one another as fast as the foot traffic will allow. They suck teeth, roll eyes, and sigh in disgust at being slowed down in their quest to buy things. They are infuriated and they howl in protest as other humans block their path to merchandise. The spirit of black Friday is everywhere and it seems inescapable. Yet to the surprise of the angry shoppers, the police, Jorje Boosh, Mistarr Mike Bloomberg, and George Steinbrenner, a small group has gathered on the corner of Sixth and Spring to spread love, to give thanks and to protest the greed and the disrespect that has taken hold across the land.

The group is laughing and smiling, singing and dancing, living and breathing. At the center of it all is Reverend Bill Talen. He has called together his choir and his flock to celebrate Buy Nothing Day.

“Brothers and Sisters, we are up against powerful forces today. We are in the belly of the beast,” says Reverend Billy as the choir hums, and reporters snap pictures. Two young men passing by stop to look on at this man with his white hair, white suit, white collar, black shirt and black cowboy boots.

“Is that Johnny Cash?” one asks.

“Is that Billy Graham?” asks the other.

“That’s Reverend Billy,” explains a church member, “Just listen.”

“We are in the belly of the beast,” continues the Reverend, “but we are without fear in our hearts. We are up against Starbucks and we are up against Disney. We are up against Bush, and we are up against Cheney. And we know they have lots of money and lots of guns. Lots of seven story high supermodels and lots of celebrity spokesmen racing towards us in helicopters and tanks. But we’ve got each other. And we’ve got love. And we’ve got Amen! And we’ve got Hallelujah!”

“Brothers and sisters,” he continues, “our cooperation in this economy goes off in a thousand different directions. And our cooperation in this economy touches a thousand different issues. And these issues manifest themselves in a thousand negative ways. Whether we are talking about the destruction of the environment, or a man or a woman shot and killed for a gold chain or a diamond ring, it all comes back to the materialism and the greed that is being shoved down our throats day after day. People are callin’ out brothers and sisters. They can’t take it any more. They’re callin’ out. And we’re on our way. If Wal-Mart is all set to bulldoze the cemetery where your grandmother is buried. We’re on our way. If your house bursts into flames because it’s so damn hot in late November. We’re on our way. If you’re a polar bear swimmin’ for your life. Don’t you worry, because we’re on our way. We are on our way brothers and sisters. We are on our way. Amen! Hallelujah!”

“Billy you gotta say somethin’ to Santa,” says a choir member, pointing up at a building. Sure enough, about seven stories up, an inflatable Santa Claus is perched out on a fire escape.

“Santa!” shouts Billy. “Santa don’t do it! Don’t jump! We’re on our way brother! It’s not too late. We’re takin’ Christmas back!”

The crowd laughs and then the Stop Shopping Choir breaks into “Back Away From The Wal-Mart.”

When the song is complete a member of the congregation explains the parade route and distributes signs to the marchers. The crowd begins a procession down Spring Street escorted by about twenty police officers on motorcycles. As the parade moves along, Billy is interviewed by a reporter from a Dutch television station.

“We’ve been taught to assign value according to corporate logos,” he says. “Worthless and useless items can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars if they have that logo. And people get sucked in, and they start to think that the Nike sign is beautiful. They start to think that the Nike sign has real value. But if you want beauty and value all you have to do is look around you. Look at these beautiful birds,” he explains, as he points to a few pigeons gathered on the streetlight above. “But most people will tell you that those are just filthy pigeons. Now if a major clothing corporation slapped a logo on one of those birds, they would start selling for thousands of dollars. Supermodels would be walking up and down with pigeon purses. That’s when we’ll know the shopocalypse is here,” he explains, and then joins the parade.

As the group moves along Spring Street, shoppers and employees come out of the stores to view the commotion, to read the signs and to take pictures. Some are disgusted, some are offended, some are amused, and some join in. On Broadway the crowds become thicker, and the parade grinds foot traffic nearly to a standstill.

“I think we’re gonna have to do it,” Billy says to some of his closest friends and advisors.

“An intervention?” asks a choir member standing in his robes.

“An exorcism,” replies Billy.

“Victoria’s Secret?” asks the brother from the choir.

“Victoria’s Secret,” confirms Billy. And with that Billy leads the parade into Victoria’s Secret on Prince and Broadway. Store security and store managers rush to the door, but they become unsure of themselves and allow the procession to enter. Inside the store, commerce comes to a halt as the choir starts singing “The Beatitudes Of Buylessness.” The throngs of shoppers pull out their cell phones and digital cameras and begin taking pictures. Billy calls out to the crowd, recounting the number of trees destroyed each day to print Victoria’s Secret catalogues. He calls for a boycott, as the choir, the congregation, and the parade-goers clap and cheer. Billy then performs an exorcism on one of the cash registers, as the managers, the shoppers and the half-naked headless mannequins look on helplessly. The police arrive in short order, Billy and the crew are escorted back out to the sidewalk, and the rule of commerce and consumerism is once again restored.

Outside in the street, the crowds of consumers are unable to move, blocked by the parade and all the police. “It’s gon’be a riot if they don’t let these people pass,” says a man standing behind a table, from which he is selling hats, wallets, and t-shirts.

“Peepa gettin’ engry,” replies an African street vender at the next table over.

“Black Friday baby. People losin’ they minds,” returns the vender of hats and wallets. “Son they shootin’ people over them Playstations. They waitin’ in line, sleepin’ in tents an’ shit. People can’t take it. The other day some dude just pulled out a gun and started shootin’. CLACK! CLACK! CLACK! Then he shouted ‘Playstation Motherfuckers!' Then he jetted. Left his tent an’ everything.”

“You keedin’ breddah,” says the African.

“Nah man that’s no joke. That’s why I don’t go to them big stores. Waitin’ in those lines. You could get cha self killed. Besides man, you could just go downtown and get those games any time you want. You think Bill Gates invented them games? Man c’mon. Bill Gates not Chinese. That’s why them Chinese stay wit’ long fingernails. They workin’ wit’ wires and microchips an’ shit man. The other day I was down on Canal, and this vendor was out there wit’ his table all set up. Chinese dude. Ho Chi Minh. He had everything you need. Next thing you know, these cops grab him by the neck an’ start draggin’ him off. But this dude starts shoutin’. Mad as hell. He’s screamin' ‘I inbenneckbockfo! I inbenneckbockfo!’ The cop was like what the fuck? Know what I’m sayin’? Big black cop man. He said ‘Motherfucker what the fuck is inbenneckbockfo?’ But the Chinese dude just kept shoutin’, ‘I inbenneckbockfo!’.”

“Ahh so ’ee wa de fess?” asks the African.

“That’s what I’m sayin’ man. Ho Chi Minh. He was the first. He invented X Box Four. But the cops don’t speak Chinese. And see, Ho Chi Minh don’t speak police. So they had a miscommunication. They locked him up. Had him at central bookin’. He went and saw the judge on Monday, but the same shit happened. Judge said ‘My good man. What the fuck is inbenneckbockfo?’. And that was a wrap. They got him locked up down at Guantanamo Bay. Bloomberg got 24 hour surveillance in his cell too. Cameras everywhere. Bloomberg just watches him all day on closed circuit TV. Make sure Ho Chi Minh don’t start street vendin’ down there at the prison. Set up a blanket in the yard. Start sellin’ turbans. Orange jumpsuits an’ shit.”

The African laughs.

“You think I’m kiddin’ man. But this ain’t no joke. They got everything down on Canal. That’s why I don’t set foot in these chain stores. I don’t buy shit from these motherfuckers! Go down to Canal. Maan. They sellin’ the same shit. All the latest games. Sunni versus Shiite. Al Qaeda versus Jesus. You just gotta be careful. It’s hot as hell. Cops jumpin’ out from manhole covers. See ’cause Canal Street is the central front in the war on street vending.”

The story is interrupted by a shouting policeman. “Let’s go, everybody keep it movin’!” instructs the officer. Billy and his crew begin to push their way down Broadway, stopping in front of various stores to read rap sheets recounting various corporate crimes. Fighting the good fight on a long hard day, in the struggle against greed and disprespect. The parade reaches its end in front of Old Navy. Billy and the choir set up in front of one of the windows and explode into one final song. When the song ends Billy begins the final prayer. His voice strains as he tries to reach everyone in the huge crowd. Traffic in the street is backed up, horns are honking, and idling trucks are growling. But Billy’s voice breaks through the noise as he offers his final words.

“You don’t have to buy something, to give something. Amen! Hallelujah!”

And with that the crowd offers a final Amen, and then begins to disperse. Not long after, in a barroom down the street, the brothers and sisters have gathered together to share some drinks. A group of lifelong artists and activists who have built strong bonds. After the drinks have been flowing for quite a while, a beautiful song called “Are You My Lover Or My Logo?” breaks out, and overcomes the entire bar. In the middle of it all sits Reverend Billy. He takes a sip of his Tequila, breathes a long breath, and then leans his head back on the booth and closes his eyes.

And with that the crowd offers a final Amen, and then begins

“You tired Billy?” asks one of the brothers.

His eyes pop open, and he comes back to life. “I’m just gettin’ started,” he says. “Just gettin’ started.” Then he closes his eyes once again and catches some rest with a smile on his face. A man trying to stay one step ahead of the shopocalypse. A man whose work is never done.

Up against Starbucks. Up against Disney. Up against Bush. Up against Cheney. Black Friday baby. People losin’ they minds. Wal-Mart all set to bulldoze grandma’s grave, polar bears swimming for their lives, and Santa Claus on the fire escape ready to jump. We have paid many thousand already my friend, and they sellin’ the same shit- orange jumpsuits, Sunni versus Shiite, Al Qaeda versus Jesus. But don’t you worry because we’re on our way. There’s gonna be laughing and smiling, dancing and singing, living and breathing.

When all the celebrity spokesmen start racing towards you in helicopters and tanks, just get with the brothers and sisters so we can spread love and give thanks. When you see a beautiful bird, don’t let ’em tell you it’s just a pigeon. Don’t buy shit from these motherfuckers. Time to catch a new religion. Ya betta herry up and bring ya self ’cause you don’t wanna miss this. It’s just me and you and Reverend Billy. All five boroughs. Merry Christmas.


Matthew Vaz


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 06-JAN 07

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