Charges Reduced Against Reverend Billy and Choir Director For Toad Hat-Wearing Chase Bank Protest

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Photo by Kim Fraczek; image via Facebook.
Reverend Billy (white coat, Elvis hair) and Luckett (blue shirt) at a press conference with liberty-loving puppets after this morning's hearing.
In September, longtime New York activist Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, led by choir director Nehemiah Luckett, went into a Chase Bank in midtown and made a little music. The two led a choir of eight in a musical protest against mountaintop removal, a controversial form of coal-mining that Chase helps finance. The choir sang a song, then Reverend Billy preached a sermon on Chase's fondness for fossil fuel investments. The whole thing lasted about 15 minutes, according to the choir, who had donned fetching yellow toad hats during the performance.

For their trouble, as we told you at the time, Luckett and Reverend Billy (real name William Talen) were charged with rioting in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, and two counts of disorderly conduct. The rioting and the menacing both carried a possible punishment of one year in prison. But in a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court Monday morning, those charges were greatly reduced. According to the Manhattan District Attorney's office, the prosecution reviewed the footage and decided that the whole thing looked more like a musical protest than a riot.

- See also: Street Preacher Reverend Billy and Choir Director Charged With Rioting After Toad-Hat-Wearing Protest in a Chase Bank

After we reported on the charges against Reverend Billy and Luckett, the story got picked up by a whole lot of other places, including WNYC, the Guardian, Vice, Democracy Now!, and Forbes (yes, that Forbes). The Worldwide Hippies were also very upset, declaring, "You fuck with Reverend Billy, you fuck with the Worldwide Hippies!" (Noted.) A Change.org petition calling for the charges to be dropped has garnered 13,900 signatures so far, and a legal defense fund for the two men has raised $15,720, or 105 percent of its goal.

That petition was handed to the judge at this morning's hearing. At the same time, the prosecution announced that after talking with eyewitnesses and reviewing security footage, they were amending their complaint against the two men. The new charges are criminal trespassing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, trespassing, and two counts of disorderly conduct.

In the previous complaint, the Chase branch manager, Robert Bongiorno, told David Bornstein, the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, that because of the people with frog hats jumping and singing and whatnot all over his bank, he "believed that the bank was being robbed, felt in fear for his physical safety, and observed at least one customer or employee inside of the bank break into tears."

In the new complaint, Bongiorno no longer reports that he feared he was being robbed by a gang of frog-headed menaces. Instead, the complaint says, Bongiorno reports that he "observed many of the above individuals handing out yellow pieces of paper to the customers and employees in the bank." (Those were leaflets on mountaintop removal.) At the time, he adds, "the bank was open for business and multiple customers were present inside of the bank in order to conduct business, but that Mr. Bongiorno observed that the defendants' actions disrupted the bank's ability to conduct business."

The prosecution, led by ADA Bornstein, also have a new sentencing recommendation: They'd like Reverend Billy to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and perform one day of community service. For Luckett, they've recommended an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD). An ACD means that if Luckett stayed out of trouble for six months -- no menacing of fainthearted bank managers -- the case would be dismissed and sealed. The next court date for both men is February 27.

The choir began a run of shows at Joe's Pub earlier this month. Reverend Billy, who has a pretty robust sense of humor, told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman that the charges, upsetting though they were, hadn't been bad for attendance.

"Well, Jesus taught us -- I mean there are lots of things about Jesus that we can't listen to, right?" he told Goodman. "But, one thing he did teach us is, if you can't afford a press person, get arrested quickly."

Amen to that.

A portion of the new complaint against Talen and Luckett is on the following page.

Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.

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