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Monday, 25 November 2013 16:13

Protesting Big Bank Financing of Toxic Industries May Get You a Year in Jail, While Execs Go Free

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bankgreed11 25On September 16, BuzzFlash at Truthout posted a commentary on how Rev. Billy Talen -- street theater minister for the anti-consumer movement -- and his choir leader were arrested for leading a performance art protest at a Chase bank branch in Manhattan.  The target of the theatrical presentation was how JP Morgan Chase is one of the key banks financing industries that are tumbling earth toward a climate implosion.  On December 9th, Talen and his choir master will appear in a NYC court and face the prosecution's charges that could result in up to a year in jail.

Meanwhile, Jamie Dimon, Washington D.C.'s made man on Wall Street and the don of JP Morgan Chase, has not faced a criminal investigation (that has been made public) or charges for his role in Wall Street's crash. Yes, JP Morgan Chase was recently fined $13 billion dollars, but that is largely -- as large as it may appear -- a public relations stunt on the part of the Department of Justice to make it appear that it is cracking down on errant banks.

Meanwhile, Jamie Dimon rakes in the millions and remains the talk of the town.  But Rev. Billy and his associate may go to jail for entertaining some Chase stuffed suits with their presentation on behalf of saving life on the planet.

The following is a commentary Rev. Billy wrote recently for BuzzFlash at Truthout about the tragic irony of his prosecution, in the face of Wall Street crooks being as untouchable as the mafia.

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And here then is Rev. Billy:

"Your honor, the people request one year in prison. The people request $30,000 bail."  What?  Our attorney Wylie Stecklow shouted, "But your honor this was a 15 minute long art piece about the environment!"  The lady from the District Attorney's office replied: "No, your honor this was a criminal stunt in a bank lobby."  Our atty:  "Art!"  DA:  "Crime!"  "Art!"  "Crime!" "Art!"

The charges laid before a preaching Elvis impersonator surrounded by dancing toads have stuck and here we are now in bizarro world.  So the writing of petition requests, asking for public interviews to discuss the matter - all the predictable work goes forward so that on December 9th the courts will understand that we are not isolated pranksters.

Then again, maybe this is exactly where we want to be.  Earth activists long to have an idea of what to do. It is amazing how hard it has been for the climate movement to find its Rosa Parks moment.  We have Wangari Maathi with her Kenyan trees.  And Tim DeChristopher's bids in Utah.  The Greenpeace 30.  To paraphrase William James, we need the moral equivalent of Hurricane Sandy.

Our activism in the Church of Stop Shopping is based on forcing two public secrets to co-exist.  The first secret is the phenomenon of mass extinction, the accelerating disappearance of life forms in the biosphere.  It is almost impossible for popular media to describe what this is.  It is a silence that is spreading.  An absence.  It won't be newsworthy until it is too late.  "Oh you say that extinction will involves human beings?  It has to?"

Because our species will not survive without other life.  How do we say this in public?  How to point out that the current release of methane from melting permafrost in the arctic closely matches the early development of the Permia Extinction of 260 million years ago, in which 95% of all life was wiped out.  

The second public secret is the fact that the disruption of the climate comes from decisions by executives of hedge funds and big banks.  No one seems to know that banks change the climate with their investments.  Their crucial role is demonstrated by the fact that the top 50 fracking companies in the world are all in debt.  Fossil fuel projects expand quickly and expensively and always need more cash.  The banks are essential business partners in the planet's destruction.  

These two apocalyptic facts -- the extinction and the money for that extinction -- must be revealed to the public somehow, as luridly and quickly as possible.  So you see our thinking with our Golden Toad vaudeville in the religiously hushed interior of big banks.  Getting media people to explain, "They are wearing big frog hats signifying the Golden Toad - because that animal was forced into extinction by climate change.  And the Golden Toads are in JPMorgan Chase because that bank pays for industries that put the CO2 in the air." 

Everytime this is repeated - that's good.  The comic resurrection of the toads inside the humorless vat of silence - the earth-killing bank.  Just get people to explain this over and over. That's our plan.

The emotions of climate change are starting to build up in us.  Yes the feeling of this tragedy somehow isn't unknown at all.  The apocalyptic-scale of it is carried by each of us inside our psyches, as we pursue an ordinary day.  It's a weight on us.  Especially parents of children will quickly admit that the earth's crisis is somewhere between annoying and terrifying.  So finding that direct action that can release the earth radical in everyday people?  We might be closer than we know to the release of some pent-up fury. 

Although over the years we have performed inside Bank of America, Citibank, UBS, Deutsche Bank, PNC and HSBC, we gravitate to Chase because the best research (Banktrack.Org, headquartered in the Netherlands) indicates that this bank, which began its destructive life with Standard Oil money, remains the top fossil fuel investor in the world.  This institution is responsible for more tons of CO2 escaping into the atmosphere than any other, with the possible exception of the Communist Party of China.  (Another research group, the World Development Movement in London, has HSBC outpacing the abominations of Chase.)

We've watched Jamie Dimon mount his defense of his empire, an odd mix of contrition and bravado.  He will pay penalties of over $13 billion, but then say he is "damn proud" of his bank.  But throughout the Chase saga, our two secrets persist.  Extinction is never linked to Chase' investments.  The social justice issue of mortgage fraud and eviction is addressed, as is misreporting financial instruments to customers, and investing with Bernie Madoff, and the student debt scams, and bribing the children the Chinese politicians….But the bank's investments in tar sands, mountaintop removal, hydrofracturing, deep sea drilling - not crime is seen.  Such earth destruction does not figure into the penalty the public is exacting.  Other life forms, even ones whose health indicates our own chances of survival, don't figure into the legal examination of this big rogue bank.

The Chase Bank at 56th St and 6th Ave was our performance venue on September 25th.  We liked this location because an escalator could take customers straight up to the third floor of this "Wealth Management" bank.  So we could hop up beyond the usual circle of low-paid security guys and tellers and bring our amphibian art to the hushed conversations of white people sitting at desks, putting millions into fossil fuels.  The toads took the escalator up, and we launched with missionary zeal into our preaching and toad dancing.  We sang "We Surround You" -- an angry song where the singers take the point of view of "frogs, wolverines, bats, aspens, and glory birds."

The religiosity of banks is so complete, the hush is so puritanically enforced - it felt like a solid mass.   We told them at the outset that it was a protest that would last a few minutes, but this violation of the high altar of finance immediately blew them away. 

billy11 25Of Chase, Rev. Billy Asks, "Was this our Orthodox Russian Church waiting for its Pussy Riot?" (Photo: Erik McGregor)

The bankers were utterly insulted that we would claim to speak for the Earth.  We felt like we're talking common sense based on good research, but we must have been breaking a very strong taboo, because everyone exploded around us.  Some people giggled, others clapped along with the song, and some were hysterical, calling 911 for the police.  The District Attorney adopted the hysterical response, with the charge that we committed "Riot" and were a "Menace" and that our toads gathered in "Unlawful Assembly."  We deserved to be in jail for a full twelve months, and held on $30,000 bail. We committed a sacrilege.  

Yes, we have blasphemed against our American fundamentalist religion.  All such faiths have their unrevealed secrets with-held from the poor sinning mass of souls.  We want to sing those secrets in your bank, Jamie Dimon!  Or rather, the earth wants to.  

About Rev. Billy Talen

"From sidewalk preaching in Times Square in 90's, Reverend Billy Talen has spent the last decade toggling between community activism and theatrical spectacle.  The 35 voice "Stop Shopping Choir" has grown up around him as the climate crisis has brought a crescendo to the "stop shopping" theme.  The shopping that matters most now is dirty coal, mountaintop removal, fracking and tar sands....The hush that has settled over the American landscape, as leader after leader cannot raise their voices - is answered by the preaching of tornados and fires and floods."

(Top Photo: SEIU International)