On September 12 a faux televangelist and about a dozen performers dressed as golden toads zipped up the escalator of a Midtown office building and burst into the lobby of a private wealth management bank run by JPMorgan Chase.
After years of entering bank lobbies frequented by the 99% to sing and preach about destructive fossil fuel extraction projects funded by the likes of JPMorgan Chase, HSBC and Deutsche Bank, Reverend Billy Talen and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir had arrived at a nerve center of wealth and power.
“It was a cathedral of the 1%,” Reverend Billy later recalled. “Everyone was sitting at desks talking in hushed tones about their investments.”
The golden toad once inhabited the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. In the late 1980s, it became one of the first well-known species to go extinct. Now, the reincarnated amphibians sang and moved through the bank lobby, distributing leaflets to stunned customers detailing JPMorgan Chase’s bankrolling of coal mining projects that lead to the release of more greenhouse gases. A rapidly warming planet, Reverend Billy warned onlookers, is bad for golden toads and many other life forms.
The show was over in 15 minutes. For his impertinence, Reverend Billy was slapped by the Manhattan DA’s office with a slew of criminal charges that threatened to land him in jail for a year. The choir’s musical director Nehemiah Luckett was also charged and faced a year in jail.
Reverend Billy’s fans rallied to his support. An online petition calling for the charges against him and Luckett to be dropped has received more than 14,000 signatures. At a December 9 court hearing, the prosecution dropped the most serious charges, rioting in the second degree and menacing in the third degree. Upon further review, they informed the judge that the “riot” appeared to be a musical protest. They would now seek a plea bargain deal that would result in Reverend Billy and Luckett being sentenced to one day of community service on a single count of disorderly conduct.
Reverend Billy said he would continue to fight the case at his next court hearing on February 27. Meanwhile, he hasn’t stopped inveighing against JPMorgan Chase. His weekly Sunday afternoon performances at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater near Astor Place end with a march up Lafayette Street to a nearby Chase bank outlet. On one recent Sunday a crowd of more than 60 people carrying aloft photos of the golden toad crammed into the bank’s front foyer. Beneath the blinking blue lights of the Chase ATM machines, they sang, “Humanity we surround you, imagination we have found you!”
“You get the sensation,” Reverend Billy later reflected, “that just beyond the surface in front of us are the consequences of Chase’s bad investments over the years in fossil fuels.”
With humanity driving what scientists now consider to be the sixth mass extinction in the Earth’s history (the last one occurred 65 million years ago when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs), Reverend Billy told The Indypendent that his performance troupe will don a new animal totem in 2014, most likely the honeybee.
As pollinators, honeybees are essential to growing a wide array of foods. However, honeybee populations have been collapsing worldwide in recent years. Scientists blame a relatively new class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids that are now in widespread use. Research has shown that these chemicals suppress the honeybee’s immune system. European authorities have taken actions to ban or limit their use. No such thing has occurred in the U.S.
Billy said he wants to take aim at agribusiness giant Monsanto — which sells both genetically modified seeds and the pesticides that must be applied to their crops — and the banks that fund it.
“Big Agriculture is as much a part of the climate change problem as coal-fired power plants,” Billy noted, pointing to the clearing of forestland for industrial-scale monocultures and the intensive use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers that make such farming possible. “Drenching the Earth with chemicals to grow one plant is alarming,” he added.
For more information on banks that are financing climate change, see banktrack.org.
Our Planet in the Balance: The Warsaw Climate Talks, by Renée Feltz
Our Planet in the Balance: The World We Will Inherit, by Anjali Appadurai