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At their show at Conway Hall the night before, we’d learned that Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir would be round the Tate Modern the next day, protesting against Tate’s long term sponsorship, of twenty years standing, with notorious Gulf of Mexico polluters, now tar sands (which they’d promised not to touch) drillers – BP. So we went along to help them liberate Tate. Around 4:45pm all was as usual, with gallery goers nonchalantly milling around the Turbine Hall. However, pairs of police officers poised at either end of the long hall indicated that the Reverend’s intended exorcism was anticipated.
While we were sitting on the stair like elevations flanking the right side of the hall near the main entrance, we noted that first one, than another of the choir members sat down there too, alongside of other people we didn’t recognize who were surely fellow activists. At what seemed the stroke of 5:30pm we watched in amazement as Reverend Billy materialized, as if out of nowhere, in the centre of the hall, pulling a dark cap off, revealing his Elvis inspired shock of blonde hair, while his choir members, still in their street clothes, helped him out of the loose black outfit he’d been wearing over his trademark white suit, one helper on either side of him, snapping him into his block shirt front and white collar. In no time, his group had donned their green choir robes, and gathered round the Reverend as he began to preach, and they began to sing, ‘Earthallujah, and he knelt on a BP logo he’d placed on the floor. Many looked on from the sidelines and leaned over the railings above, those who knew him, admiring his nerve, those who didn’t looking on with puzzled or bemused expressions. Calling out, ‘Anoint me,’ from his prone position, his cries were met with dribbles of what looked like thick black oil, poured by the choir down his shoulders and arms, soiling his white suit with long black streaks, as he put his head back and another of his many baptizers poured the heavy black liquid over his head, letting it run through his hair and trickle down one side of his face. Rather than give a verbatim recount of what was said, I’ll leave you to click on the link to the film the Guardian put together, possibly from various films made by eye-witnesses, as a camera-less man claiming to be from that newspaper was seen going through the crowd outside afterwards, asking each onlooker who had a decent camera to contact him with film clips and/or photographs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Lz7ECeOCWQ
Leading us to a wall of corporate insignias, Billy cried out, ‘I see the logo…They’re trying to make it a sunflower,’ which drew boos from the crowd behind him. At the suggestion of one of the choir members, we all touched one another’s robes, so to speak, in order to stay linked, and crouched down as Billy writhed along a wall-full of logos, smearing the formerly pristine, yellow and green BP insignia with long black smudges. A Tate security guard stared in alarm, her hand poised over a mobile. She needn’t have worried – Rev. Billy leapt to his feet, leading the faithful back down in the direction of the entranceway, as an armada of photographers and film-makers kept their cameras fixed on him, his green robed choir, and followers all the while. Although guards and police officers had gathered and had been watching Billy during his performance, no arrests were made as we headed en masse out to the lawn behind the galley.
Outside, Billy, standing alongside activists from Liberate Tate, UK Tar Sands Network, London Rising Tide, Art Not Oil and Climate Rush, spoke of the need for people to get together to fight corporate domination, citing the fact that ‘BP need Tate more than Tate needs BP.’ A fact many expressed agreement with. Miro, himself an activist would have been pleased with this protest. Billy’s expression was impassioned as he said, ‘I dress like an American, radical right wing fanatic, that’s what I do,’ humbly stating between the lines that we should all do whatever we can. Meanwhile, the cops who’d gathered talked and laughed among themselves, then quietly moved off. No doubt they had bigger fish to fry. But there are no bigger issues than us versus them, humanity, equality and need versus greed.
Fellow protestors enthusiastically shook Billy’s blackened hands, with one cheery young fellow giving him a big hug, despite the fact that he’d probably ruined his cream coloured jacket by doing so. That said, the women who were there were generally photographed while keeping him at arm’s length to avoid soiling their clothes. I went up to Billy in one of his rare free moments and asked him if he would pose for a photo with me, reminding him that the night before, we, 'London’s only independent, non-commercial, arts website with creative writers, rather than critics’ had been there to review his show. Given the number of people swarming round him, most of them wanting to speak to him, I wasn’t surprised he’d needed a memory jogger. Photo agreed, we got into place…‘I’m not afraid,’ I said, putting one arm across Billy’s blackened back as co-editor John worked the camera. ‘I’m wearing black anyway, I added. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, smiling amicably. ‘Mary,’ I said, grinning at him and, John, I nodded.‘This is the first suit I wore ten years ago, when I first went into Starbucks in Times Square,’ Billy said, touching one sleeve of his suit fondly afterwards. The day Reverend Billy walked through the door of his first Starbucks was truly, a legendarily pivotal moment in the history of activism. I can only guess what may have been going through his mind back then. I really admired his bravery. ‘That’s got great sentimental value’ I said, genuinely moved. ‘Yes, but we decided to sacrifice it, he said.’ That and complacency, for all of our sakes.
As Reverend Billy stated, ‘we want to teach ourselves to see more…to live in a state of gratitude…collaborate, like artists do.’ Amen. ‘Green Place in My Soul,’ sung beneath heavy storm clouds on Tate’s back lawn said it all. Next stop - BP backed Lincoln Centre in NYC, this Friday night, where it will, no doubt, be sung yet again.
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