Reality Killed the Reality Show
Reverend Billy

When you think about it, it just seems unbelievable. Hundreds of millions of people in this place called the United States were supposed to continue to live this way—for how long? until the destruction of the world? 

For white citizens in particular, middle class and up, our personalities are assigned the performance of distancing ourselves from the violence of our colonizing capitalism. It’s a strenuous job but a submerged one, deep inside us and out of reach of discretionary thought.   We’re exhausted by something we don’t straightforwardly face, but we catch a whiff of our own cruelty indirectly, in the pop echo-chamber. The emergence of the “Reality Show” at the turn of the 21st Century and the genre’s star child, Donald Trump, (“You’re fired! You failed! Get out of here!”) was only the media catching up to the soul-breaking adventure of living while killing. 

How did white people avoid all this for this long? Isn’t this hard work? To change the subject? Our slaughter of the people who lived here first. Our acceptance of slavery and its succeeding forms, Jim Crow, and the more recent camouflaged Libertarian and corporate racism…. 

Everyday life at the center of this colonial construction is supposed to be impact-free, at least to the extent that we can continue as functioning consumers. But the psychological cost of carrying around the old and new crimes has never really been measured or understood. This is a profits-driven amnesia, and the denial of racist and sexist crimes is no different than attempts to wish away COVID-19. 

Trump is a circus barker for capitalism operating without much of a mind. His thoughts are mostly neurotic impulses developed over his life by Pavlovian responses to money. Watching his magical thinking as the virus flooded our country is directly reminiscent of the science denial movement, and the long series of great silencings through our history which have been so dramatically acted out in response to everything from the warming climate to the mortality rates of transgender women of color. With the coronavirus pandemic and with Black Lives Matter, though, this time-honored self-censorship doesn’t work.


Large numbers of us can no longer live with this violence and cover-up in the United States. The quasi-religious transformation in our culture taking place in the summer of 2020 can hardly be exaggerated. How did this happen? The setups to this change were a series of unprecedented conditions: Trump, COVID-19, lock-down,masks, and distancing, and world-wide death. The incitement to clarity was the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis.

A son called out for his dead mother. He looked us in our eyes. Resistance rose up in each of us, brought to the surface by a level of anger that has surprised the establishment every day since. We plunged into the streets in great crowds, especially young people but every kind of person, braving COVID-19 and the police. All rallies and marches were Black-led, but then there was also a quality of leadership from a general intention, a flow and emotion—because the chant “George Floyd! Breonna Taylor! Ahmaud Arbrey!” was easy to find but a physical leader with a bullhorn might be lost in the crowd.

Sometimes there were scores of marches criss-crossing the city, meeting, waving, melting into each other. The 20,000-strong Black Trans Lives Matter march walked through the Caribbean Black Lives rally enroute from the Brooklyn Museum to downtown… sweeping socialist and anti-gentrification feeder marches along its path. On Juneteenth, there were about a hundred rallies and marches in the five boroughs.

In our family, we had three arrests and two nights in jail, but no illness that we know of came from our swimming in the crowds and cops. In the 40-singer Stop Shopping Choir community, we have had illnesses but no hospitalizations. By Pride weekend, a month after George Floyd’s murder, we were singing in the big roof garden of 388 Atlantic in downtown Brooklyn, singing through our masks. 1,200 nurses and doctors from local hospitals offered an unusual petition asking the public to endorse the street actions of Black Lives Matter, explaining that the brave protesters were right to take risk of illness and death from COVID-19 in order to stay in the streets to fight the fight against racism.

The coronavirus gave Black Lives Matter a life-and-death immediacy from a source other than police violence, and somehow this was not a confusing thing. Rather, the plague ambiance placed everyone in an uncannily revealing atmosphere, like an effective soundtrack in a film.  COVID-19 created humidity of fear for everyone who participated, one which for whites may have been a novelty, but which for Black communities simply added to the fears of living under a regime of persistent structural racism. And, as it turned out, the risk to stay outside worked. We didn’t get sick.

For many, whether watching on screens or on the streets, the fear of the coronavirus—it’s radical grip on society—also conveyed a kind of freedom. The source of the virus wasn’t a Chinese lab, but was more like a superstorm. It was an expression of the natural world in a time of extinction. The feeling of freedom came from the relationship of individuals and families to something more powerful than corporations and Trump. The virus was inevitable, a statement from a mysterious great power that death is a part of life. This is real. By contrast, the violence of police is like a reality show with real bullets.

Much of what happened in June and July of 2020 cannot be explained. Three out of four US people were now quick to acknowledge racism. More than 70% of the US people were telling pollsters that they are now undergoing a basic change in their assessment of the institutions they interact with. Black Lives Matter will be the most repeated phrase for a long time. White people are examining everything that we do that might permit violence against people of color. 

The sweeping wind of conscience has reached everyone in a way that is more all-at-once and more deeply felt than any cultural change in memory.


Reality killed the reality show, and brought us back to life. It has brought us back to a regard for the lives of others.

It is important in the consideration of the Black Lives Matter transformation to alloy together the move from wrong to right, with the move from the unreal to the real. Many of us talked about the vivid feeling. When you bring justice close, then sensations heighten. 

This is why the coronavirus, which brought death back into life—an honest move if there ever was one—is so important in this story. We had been living in an environment that we were led to believe was created democratically by us, but was a life of products, with each product that we experienced persuading us that it was a part of a system that was a promised land—prosperous, inevitable America. This is consumerism: the special effects replacement of our murders by entertainments of all kinds, including murders. We can’t keep track of how many professionals are falling down dead every day, hoping for applause. 

With such a comprehensive program of distraction and tortured memory, with living environments like crazy halls of mirrors at Coney Island, what chance do we have to tend to our personal gentleness? Fairness? Generosity to others? Well, we do have a chance when we demand it. But capitalism will not go gently.

In this consumerized life, which grew from centuries ago to finally immerse us completely, white people have bought our way into, with our gathering of products, a self-made construction that controlled our behaviors, our opinions, and our civic values. In this concocted world, we permitted the police murders of people of color to continue. As our empire’s history of aggression was folded into “war pictures” and “westerns,” we put more recent slaughters into pre-production—our lives were scheduled to be inside reality shows, continuously, again and again.

It will be a long fight to find our way. Discoveries are up ahead. Tearing down the Confederate flag and refusing the rituals of sentimental patriotism in professional sports—these are just the beginning. And returning to public space to tune up our 1st Amendment expressiveness, in those plazas and streets that the rich were systematically privatizing, we will keep our stage open and free. We will treasure the memory of the summer of 2020 and build on this. Yes? 


The character of Reverend Billy was developed in the mid 1990s by actor and playwright, William Talen. The Reverend Billy character isn’t so much a parody of a preacher, as a preacher motif used to blur the lines between performance and religious experience. The Reverend, along with the Church of Stop Shopping, have been referred to by academics as “performance activism,” “carnivalesque protest,” and “artivists.”