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  • Reverend Billy Goes to Main Street:Free Speech, Trespassing, and Activist Documentary Film
  • Karen E. Whedbee (bio)

on september 3, 2016, amy goodman (anchor and reporter for Democracy Now!) was the only reporter on site covering a protest action near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Native American protesters were attempting to stop bulldozers that were constructing the Bakken oil pipeline through privately owned ranch land. The protesters alleged that the land contained ancient cairns, sacred stone prayer rings, and burial markers. They also argued that a leak or spill in the pipeline would send oil into the tribe's main source of drinking water. When the protesters broke through a fence along a highway and attempted to stop construction, security personnel from the oil company physically assaulted them with pepper spray and attack dogs. Goodman and her camera crew followed the protesters across the fence line to record the conflict. Her report quickly went viral on Facebook (with over thirteen million views). It was also rebroadcast by CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and numerous international media outlets. Five days later, on September 8, an arrest warrant was issued against Goodman. Although she had not been notified that she was trespassing at the time of the original event, she was belatedly charged with criminal trespass and with riot.

Goodman is not alone among journalists or filmmakers who have found themselves pulled across property lines in pursuit of a story. In recent years, activist documentary filmmakers have become especially vulnerable to charges of trespass. For example, in February 2009, Chad Stevens was charged with criminal trespass while attempting to film an environmental protest action about mountaintop removal at a coal mine in Marsh Creek, West Virginia (Jones). In September 2009, Andy Bichlbaum was arrested and charged with trespassing when he and twenty-one "survivaballs" gathered on New York City's East River and announced they were going to invade the United Nations as part of a climate change protest stunt for their film The Yes Men Are Revolting (2014) (Villarreal). On October 11, 2016, filmmaker Deia Schlosberg was arrested in Walhalla, North Dakota, while documenting an act of civil disobedience committed by protesters at TransCanada's Keystone Pipeline (Visser). On that same day, Lindsey Grayzel and Carl Davis were arrested for filming the activities of a climate activist who was attempting to shut down a pipeline near Burlington, Washington (Levin).

The vulnerability of activist documentary filmmakers to the charge of trespass is significant. One of the defining traits of the genre is that it functions as a platform for exposing social problems and expressing perspectives that would otherwise be ignored by mainstream media. Giving priority to civic education and social justice over profit and popularity, the [End Page 30] activist documentary film functions as a high-tech version of a traditional political soapbox. Increasingly, however, the stories told by film-makers are not located in a traditional public forum. For those who advocate public accountability in an age of deregulation and privatization, trespassing onto private property has become a serious occupational hazard.1

To clarify the significance of trespassing to the production of activist documentary, an instructive case study is the 2007 film What Would Jesus Buy? In this film, director Rob VanAlkemade and his crew follow Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a Christmas road trip from New York City to California. Along the journey, the reverend and his choir provide a master class in political activism and the art of trespass. They perform outrageous pranks of culture jamming and political theater at such prestigious venues as Star-bucks, Walmart, and the Mall of America. Ultimately, they arrive at the epicenter of commercial culture—Disneyland—where they confront the devil himself: Mickey Mouse. By documenting Reverend Billy's road trip, VanAlkemade and his film crew provide useful insights into the legal and ethical challenges confronting any activist filmmaker who attempts to operate at the border between public property and private property.

After describing the activism of Reverend Billy and his church, I will use What Would Jesus Buy? as a springboard for examining three issues. First, because political activism that occurs on public property qualifies as protected...


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