Free Speech Phone Phreak

Meet the First Amendment Flash Mob


Every Tuesday evening at rush hour for the past 30 weeks, a group of otherwise sane New Yorkers has gathered in the World Trade Center PATH station to send a message to President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft using unconnected cell phones.

The PATH train is the commuter tube connecting lower Manhattan with New Jersey. Thousands of folks who work in the financial district travel this way every day. Cell phones are ubiquitous. On Tuesdays, though, some of the people holding them recite a mysterious incantation:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Say hello to the First Amendment Flash Mob.

The instigator of the prank is a man with a long resume of similar actions, a faux Southern preacher out of central casting known as Reverend Billy. The good Reverend, whose real name is Bill Talen, is blessed with an evangelist's physiognomy: a strong chin, Hollywood teeth, a thick pompadour, and the height (6'3″) and shoulders of a linebacker. He augments the effect by wearing a white suit with cowboy boots, and a possibly blasphemous clerical collar and dickey. He could walk into almost any protestant church and start preaching and it would be some time before he was spotted for a phony.

An actor by training and experience, Reverend Billy first gained notoriety with a crusade he calls The Church of Stop Shopping, an anticonsumerist campaign against the perceived evils of global capitalism. In the late nineties and early aughts he made a stir by causing trouble in and around Starbucks stores. But September 11 caused a seismic shift for lefty performance artists just as it did for everyone else. The demon Billy wants to exorcise now is the PATRIOT ACT, with its increased wire-taps, its permission to monitor libraries, and above all its lamentably loose definition of what constitutes terrorist activity. According to Section 802 of the act, for example, activity can be construed to be criminal if it "appear[s] to be intended" to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" or to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population." Under the right circumstances this definition could be made to include Reverend Billy and thousands of his costumed friends. More to the point, zealously applied, this section of the act could be applied to all public protest, which puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment. Hence the symbolism of Ground Zero.

Most Tuesdays, the mob is small, consisting of two dozen or so participants. They blend in with the commuters. From a distance one would be unaware that a political action was taking place at all. But standing in the middle of the platform is a surreal experience, as first one person, and then another,and then another, passes by quietly mouthing "Congress shall make no law…" into their cell phones. The experience is almost subliminal, like a whisper in your head.

"Most of the people in the flash mob like to blend in," Billy says, "But some of us are sidewalk barkers. I prefer to hound people. I'll walk right next to someone, follow them all the way up to Church Street. I love the escalators 'cause you're frozen in relation to them, and they can't get away."

Reverend Billy likes the limelight. When press hits, he tells me, the numbers at the flash mob swell to about 80 or so. He's right. A month after my first visit, following a major profile in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, I returned a second time, and there were close to a hundred people. Perhaps a quarter of them were press; it seemed as though there were almost as many cameras as cell phones at the event. Possibly because of all the attention, Billy took a different tack this time, leading the whole group of protestors in a loud, rabble-rousing recitation of the First Amendment in unison. Remarkably, there were precious few cheat notes. Most of these people seem to have the words down by heart.

Up on the street, Billy and the mob were joined afterwards by a contingent from the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, which sang a hymn with the words "George Bush, you will not protect Ground Zero." Commuters rubbernecked without stopping for the most part. Most smiled; some shook their heads. Predictably, a couple of tourists argued with protestors, attempting to defend the loss of some freedoms so that "this [indicating the hole behind them] doesn't happen again." One belligerent, drunken homeless man joined Billy right in front of the crowd, shouting "Shut the fuck up! Get the fuck out of here!" By the time Billy and the choir were done, they had converted him, and he was shouting amen along with the rest of them.

The fuzz were watching, too, of course, with that peculiar way New York's Finest have of being able to make anything seem not only a crime but a perversion. That's always been the entertaining part of NYC street actions. Not to belittle Billy's power as a thinker or an orator, but if what he is doing is a crime, so are the pratfalls of the clowns at the Ringling Bros. circus. To watch grown men looking threatened by behavior so innocent is like watching a caveman or an ape encountering…well, a cellphone. They sniff it, they scatch their heads. It rings and they jump back in terror.

If serious violence erupts at the RNC protests this week it will likely be on account of a misunderstanding born out of just such unreasoning fear. In a previous time of crisis, FDR told the nation that just such fear was America's worst enemy. As Reverend Billy says, "George Bush, he's got to go study his First Amendment, children."