Truthdigger of the Week: Reverend Billy
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
Rev. Billy, real name Billy Talen, is the nationally recognized leader of an activist performance group known as the Church of Stop Shopping. In September, the reverend was arrested after he staged a 15-minute musical protest with members of the Stop Shopping Choir at a JPMorgan Chase bank in Manhattan. The group’s goal was to highlight the bank’s role as a primary driver of the catastrophic climate change that scientists are forecasting, namely by financing fossil fuel industries that pollute the atmosphere with carbon. It was not the first arrest for Rev. Billy, who developed his character after moving to New York City from San Francisco in the early 1990s.
Through a megaphone inside the bank, the reverend said during the protest:
“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 3-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 value system of this bank. It is the largest bank in the United States by assets, but it is also the top bank in the world for financing industrial projects which poisoned 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 is up to you and to me. Only we can do it. Somebody give me changellujah.”
Not yet in jail, Rev. Billy appeared on “Democracy Now!” this week to discuss the significance of his group, its protest and his upcoming trial. On the show, host Amy Goodman cited figures by activist groups that show JPMorgan Chase is among the chief drivers of global warming. In 2012, the organizations wrote in a report, U.S. banks put up $20.8 billion for the coal industry, with JPMorgan putting up $2.17 billion “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.”
Rev. Billy confirmed the assessment. “Our research has it that JPMorgan Chase is the top financier of climate change in the world,” he told Goodman and co-host Nermeen Shaikh. “Its investments put more CO2 and nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere than any other single investor. Of course they are traditionally a fossil fuel bank. They come to us from standard oil. They’ve also 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 are led to believe that they have a neutral carbon footprint and we’re subject to their propaganda.”
To represent the cause of the planet, the reverend’s fellow demonstrators wore hats shaped as the heads of yellow rainforest frogs. To explain the significance of the choice, Goodman quoted Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which concluded a two-week climate summit in Warsaw last week. Figueres recently told station KQED about the disappearance of the golden frog from her homeland of Costa Rica. “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 the planet I’m leaving to my children is visibly diminished from the planet I inherited.”
In response, Rev. Billy elegized about the fragility of human life and its necessary relationship to other forms of life. “I am listening to you and I am hoping that there is a way that we can be marked by the extinction of the world. The extinction wave is real and the financing of the extinction wave by people who profit from it is real,” he said. “But, don’t — we are 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 are telling us we are in grave danger. When other life dies, we die as well. I think we are taught by, I don’t know, the Industrial Revolution, enlightenment, capitalism, we are 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, they all say, that, that is not possible. If the biosphere becomes damaged on a certain level, we suffer damage too.”
After delivering a brief pre-Thanksgiving sermon on the program, the reverend commented on the importance of protest. Among the many things Jesus taught us, he said, is “if you can’t afford a press person, get arrested quickly.” With his absurd act, Talen is among a great unknown number of people relentlessly crying against the unnecessary inhumanities of the world by the means available to them. For being ludicrous and risking a year in prison in the name of justice, we honor Rev. Billy as our Truthdigger of the Week.
— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.