Windsor Terrace–based performance artist Rev. Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) demanded on Saturday that charges against him be dropped, following his recent arrest for allegedly harassing police during a gathering of cyclists in Union Square Park.
His crime? Reciting the First Amendment to the Constitution — the one, ironically, that guarantees free speech.
Talen was handcuffed and spent the night in the Tombs after he and his partner, Savitri Durkee, recited the free speech clause during a June 29 gathering of Critical Mass, the monthly gathering of cyclists that has frequently sparred with police over the right to assemble (also guaranteed by the First Amendment).
“When I got to Union Square, [my partner Durkee] was upset at the presence of NYPD,” said Talen, who e-mailed The Paper from Reykjavik, where he is meeting with Icelandic activists.
“They out-numbered the bikers by two to one, and were lined up military-style with their scooters and paddy-wagons and cruisers up and down the streets and around the square.
“Savitri spotted a circle of police brass and watched them for a while, then went over and started shouting the First Amendment at them.”
The pseudo-preacher joined Durkee with his trademark white bullhorn and proceeded to, in his words, “broadside their [police] meeting” with his own recitation of the Amendment.
“At one point they asked us to stand 20 feet away, and we complied, but they didn’t quite understand how we both have trained voices,” he said.
Talen soon made them understand. Then he was arrested.
The police do not dispute Talen’s version of events (after all, a video of the dispute is available on YouTube). But the NYPD had a different slant on the incident.
“The police moved from their spot where they were conducting a meeting [to avoid the noise],” said Lt. Pete Martin, a department spokesman. “They moved from three different spots away from him, but he followed them with a megaphone — one of those professional cheerleader megaphones. It was deafening.”
The police warned Talen that he could be arrested for harassment, and shortly thereafter, was.
Talen has enlisted First Amendment lawyer Norman Siegel, who contends that the arrest itself was “illegal.”
“The elements of harassment in the second degree were not met by Rev. Billy doing what he did in Union Square Park,” said Siegel. “Rev. Billy has a First Amendment right to cite the First Amendment.”
Siegel will defend Talen during Rev. Billy’s appearance in criminal court on Aug. 6.