For more than a decade, Reverend Billy, along with his Church of Stop Shopping, has preached fiery sermons against recreational consumerism — and more recently, against climate disaster. You can often find them greeting the crush of shoppers at Macy’s in New York City on Black Friday. That may not be the case this year. That is because in September, Rev. Billy was arrested after staging a 15-minute musical protest at a JPMorgan Chase bank in Manhattan to highlight the bank’s environmental record and the extinction of a Central American golden toad. He now faces a year in prison for misdemeanor charges of riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly and two counts of disorderly conduct. Despite this, he and The Stop Shopping Choir are performing in New York City every Sunday through December 22. Rev. Billy is also featured in the film "What Would Jesus Buy?" and in the book of the same name.
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NERMEEN SHAIKH: As the Northeast braces for a major holiday storm, we turn to a story about a prominent New York performance artist and activist who faces a possible jail sentence for preaching about climate change and the fossil fuel industry. For more than a decade, Bill Talen, who goes by the name Reverend Billy, has preached fiery sermons against recreational consumerism and, more recently, against climate disaster. You can often find Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping greeting the crush of shoppers at Macy’s here in New York on Black Friday. That may not be the case this year. That’s because in September Reverend Billy was arrested after staging a 15-minute musical protest at a JPMorgan Chase bank in Manhattan. This is part of a video made at a similar protest in June in a JPMorgan Chase bank lobby.
REVEREND BILLY: We are in the midst of a mass extinction at this time. I ask you to think of your own children. I am a father of a three-year-old, and I’m worried about the kind of world that my daughter will inherit. Please, protect life. Protect the Earth. Take your money out of JPMorgan Chase or work inside the bank to change the values system of this bank. It’s the largest bank in the United States by assets, but it is also the top bank in the world for financing industrial projects which poison the atmosphere with CO2 emissions. Who caused Hurricane Sandy? Chase Bank did, if anybody did. Rise up against the corporations that are poisoning the atmosphere. It’s up to you and to me. Only we can do it. Somebody give me "Changellujah!"
STOP SHOPPING CHOIR: Changellujah!
REVEREND BILLY: Somebody give me an "Earthellujah!"
STOP SHOPPING CHOIR: Earthellujah!
REVEREND BILLY: Somebody give me a "Lifellujah!"
STOP SHOPPING CHOIR: Lifellujah!
AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, you can see in the video that protesters are wearing yellow frog masks. Well, for protesting JPMorgan Chase, Reverend Billy now faces a year in prison for misdemeanor charges of riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly and two counts of disorderly conduct. Despite this, he and The Stop Shopping Choir are performing at Joe’s Pub here in New York every Sunday through December 22nd. Reverend Billy is also featured in the film What Would Jesus Buy? and the book of the same name. His most recent book is The End of the World. He’s joining us here in our New York studio.
It’s great to have you back, Billy.
REVEREND BILLY: Glad to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that action that you engaged in.
REVEREND BILLY: It was a different action for us. Going back across the years, all of our performances inside banks—UBS, Deutsche Bank, World Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Bank of America and many Chase Banks—this one was unusual in that we, on purpose, chose an uptown Manhattan bank that we knew to be frequented by people from Wall Street, wealthy people. It’s called a "wealth management bank." And it had a design where the escalator shot up to the third floor, so our 14 toad—singing toad actors could go right into the center of what we call "white people land," where all these people are having hushed conversations about their stock portfolios.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, explain the significance of the golden toad.
REVEREND BILLY: The golden toad was driven into extinction 30 years ago in Central America in the mountains. Cloud forest ponds were its habitat. It’s a beautiful, a luminescent forest creature called the "allelujah toad" by the indigenous peoples there. And the United Nations and—there’s a consensus among natural scientists that this is one of the first prominent species to be killed by climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Democracy Now! was just broadcasting from Warsaw all last week at the United Nations climate change summit. One of the most powerful leaders there is Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. She’s from Costa Rica. She recently told KQED the disappearance of the golden toad from Costa Rica had a lasting impression on her. She said, quote, "I was about 12 or 13 and my parents took me to a rainforest in Costa Rica where there was an endemic golden frog that was a beautiful species. By the time I was married and had children, the species of frog had disappeared because of the increasing temperatures [caused by climate change]. The fact that I have seen the disappearance of a species in my lifetime has left me marked. I now realize that the planet I’m leaving to my children is visibly diminished from the planet I inherited." Your thoughts, Reverend Billy?
REVEREND BILLY: I’m listening to you, and I’m hoping that there’s a way that we can be marked by the extinction in the world. The extinction wave is real, and the financing of the extinction wave by people who profit from it is real. But we don’t—we’re so consumerized. Something is wrong with us. We don’t have any fight or flight. We’re not responding. The natural scientists have a consensus. They’re telling us we’re in grave danger. When other life dies, we die, as well. I think we’re taught by, I don’t know, the Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment, capitalism—we’re taught that the human species can exist alone. But Dr. E.O. Wilson, kind of the leader of the extinction experts in the world, a biology teacher up at Harvard, I mean, they all say, "No, that’s not possible." If the biosphere becomes damaged on a certain level, we suffer damage, too.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what is it—how is it that JPMorgan Chase, the bank that you targeted, how is it that they’re involved in climate change, exacerbating climate change?
REVEREND BILLY: Our research has it that JPMorgan Chase is the top financier of climate change in the world. Its investments put more CO2 and nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere than any other single investor. Of course, they’re traditionally a fossil fuel bank. They come to us from Standard Oil. They’ve always been a fossil fuel bank. The trouble is they continue to be. But now, like all the corporations, they pour hundreds of millions of dollars into green-washing advertising, and we’re led to believe that they have a neutral carbon footprint and that they’re—you know, we’re subject to their propaganda.
AMY GOODMAN: This year Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club, BankTrack released their fourth annual coal report card, which evaluates the largest U.S. banks and their financing of coal, the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The report found, quote, "U.S. banks financed a combined $20.8 billion for the worst-of-the-worst companies in the coal industry in 2012. Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase had the most exposure to coal among the U.S. banks in 2012, financing $3 billion, $2.75 billion, and $2.17 billion respectively in loan and underwriting transactions with companies that engage in mountaintop removal, coal mining or electrical utilities that are expanding or extending the lives of their coal-fired power plant fleets." The report gave JPMorgan a D+ for policies on mountaintop removal and a D for financing of coal-fired power plants. Reverend Billy, in the last minute we have with you, if you could share with us a pre-Thanksgiving sermon in this period where, well, it will soon be decided whether or not you go to jail.
REVEREND BILLY: I just want to ask, this thing that we share here at this table, with the people in the studio audience, the people watching us right now, we share this amazing, unexplained thing called life. I just want to pray to life. Lifellujah. May we respect the life in others. May we respect life in the species, the plants, the animals that we share this beautiful planet with. May we respect the lives of the workers who are serving us with this strange convenience, these products that we’re addicted to, this Black Friday weekend. We can’t afford to force life into an other category anymore. We’re all life together. Earthellujah.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Billy, I want to thank you for being with us. Your final thoughts, 15 seconds, on—quick question: Would Jesus go to jail?
REVEREND BILLY: Well, Jesus taught us—I mean, there’s lots of things about Jesus that we can’t listen to, right? But one thing he did teach us is, if you can’t afford a press person, get arrested quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Billy, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
REVEREND BILLY: Amen.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Billy, performance artist, arrested September after staging a 15-minute musical protest at Chase Manhattan. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. When we come back, a film about Hannah Arendt. Stay with us.