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Our House Is On Fire
Story donated by Reverend Billy Talen
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Our House Is On Fire
By Reverend Billy Talen
I was in a two-seater airplane with my father piloting. I wasn’t a teenager yet. We were flying way up for such little plane, maybe 10,000 feet, and we were flying West from our home in Watertown South Dakota over the green prairie below us. The prairie went on forever and the plane felt so tiny, like we were just vibrating in this tin box, getting pulled across all this space by a lawnmower engine….
Then a strange black line appeared in front of us, dividing the prairie and the sky in two. I told father that I thought it looked like a blacktop road going up to outer space. He smiled good-naturedly, “Yes, maybe that’s what it is Billy……. Let’s go down and see where the blacktop road starts.”
We came down out of our altitude and suddenly saw a fire. A whole ranch-house was in flames on this sunny, blue-sky day. It looked strange. There was a mom and dad and kids standing in the yard as their house went down in ball of fire, and dogs barking, and a horse and some goats in the corral nearby by staring at it.
Dad said, “So your road in the sky is smoke, and these people….look at them….watching their home burn up.”
Half century later
On Tuesday March 21st, 2023, about 350 of us gathered at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations, a couple days after the publication of the IPCC report. Hundreds of natural scientists from around the world stated in unison that all sectors of society, but especially big fossil fuel industries, need to make plans to stop using gas and oil. They called for a drastic action.
We shouted one thing on Tuesday: “OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE!” It’s a way to make the emergency more direct and personal, not so abstract.
This crowd was full of climate elders who have been shouting “FIRE!” for many years. That day, they were formalizing a group around Bill McKibbon for older activists, called Third Act. Their opening campaign - already very successful - was to get everybody to pull their savings out of the dirtiest big four banks, Chase, Citi, BofA and Wells Fargo.
We were all dancing like we wanted Emma Goldman to join our revolution! The Stop Shopping Choir; Batala, the Brazilian drummers; the XR theater troupe; the Climate Clock; and Ayisha Siddiqa a newly minted Influential Young Woman, featured in Time Magazine.
We worked up such a fury we couldn’t help but march straight West on 47th Street toward the front door of JPMorgan Chase, home of the Al Capone of the Apocalypse, he of the $100k per day, – yes, the top polluter in the world. Are you in your office today, Jamie Dimon?
We had so much propulsion that we tried to get inside the bank through the wall of police waiting for us, and then we lay down in the doorways as the bankers tried to leave for lunch dates.
Soon we were the chanting theme of the Weelaunee forest and the memory of Tortuguita, the young activist murdered there by police financed by Chase and Wells Fargo. Soon, the hands on and current politics of Atlanta’s militarism was mixed with more general messages like: “You are funding the end of the world!”
Less courteously, people started shouting “Get a real job. You could be in health care helping people, you could be a school teacher, you could be a mechanic or a hair dresser…. ANYTHING BUT A CHASE BANKER.”
The bankers stepping over the pile of bodies in the doorway were, in some cases, executives with their tailored suits. But this was also the all-peoples doorway of the bank: computer programmers and sales people and receptionists mingled with the upper class investor types.
Savitri D decided to drape her body across this threshold, forcing the bankers to step over her, but soon the other Stop Shoppers joined in the body-flop. The police, obviously directed not to make us martyrs, tried to find pathways through our splayed arms and legs.
I thought our activism was effective that day. We are in the bankers’ memory, those who had to negotiate their footwork to get in and out of the criminal bank. Our bold dance moves and verbal admonitions must have stuck.
The bowstring was pulled back and we arrived with a penetrating brazenness. We came down out of our altitude and saw the people standing there, watching the gas fire. We crashed through the barrier of capital, the great silencer, the separator that keeps us isolated in markets, only talking to each other through acts of consumerism.
We got into their dreams that day. And ultimately we will have to find our way into the 100,000 workers who make their living at Chase. Somehow, our virulence and sense of breaking into public space, crashing the silence of capital, will come up again and again, and it will be there to help on the day they decide to listen to the scientists.
We will have to invent a new activism. Sometimes dancing in their windows and body-blocking the way to work are inspired - but we will have to descend from our flying and join the people standing there. Because the house on fire belongs to all of us.
Reverend Billy Talen is the preacher of the climate apocalypse. He’s the director of the Stop Shopping Choir, a radical performance community based in New York City.
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