Exclusive: Interview With Jailed Climate Activist Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher on life behind bars - and what environmentalists can learn from OWS

Tim DeChristopher, left and defense attorney Ron Yengich leave the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City on the opening day of his trial. Credit: AP Photo/Jim Urquhart

Lots of people talk about how committed they are to taking action to solve the climate crisis – but few people have as much skin in the game as Tim DeChristopher. Last July 26, DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison for disrupting a federal auction for oil and gas leases back in 2008.  He spent a few days in the county jail before being moved to a private prison in Nevada.  Now he’s doing time at Herlong Federal Correctional Institute, a medium-security prison in Northern California.  If all goes well, he will be released on April 21, 2013.  DeChristopher has limited access to the phone, but I was able to reach him the other night and talk with him about his life behind bars, as well as what the emergence of the Occupy protests mean for the climate and environmental movement.

How are you holding up?
I feel like I’m doing pretty well. I get a lot of time to just read and reflect and write letters, and I feel like I’m recharging myself, and refocusing.  I just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom.

What’s your living situation like?
It’s a big open room.   It’s like a cubicle instead of a cell, with seven-foot walls around it.  We have a desk, a chair, a couple of lockers. I have a job working in food service for breakfast and lunch – that takes up about two hours of my time each day. I’m finished with that shortly after breakfast, which is at 6 a.m. Then I usually walk a couple of miles as the sun is coming up. Then I read for a while. Lunch is at 10:30. In the afternoon, I work out. Then more reading and writing.  Then I take a walk again around sunset.  That's about it.

Are you able to keep up with the news from the outside world?
Yeah, they keep the TV news on here pretty often. And I’m able to get magazine subscriptions, and other folks here get the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, so I am able to read those.

What's your take on the Occupy Wall Street protests?
It’s been very exciting to watch.  It’s one of the most promising developments we’ve had in a long time in this country. Most of the things that activists have done for as long as I’ve been involved have been very contained, very controlled.  This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had protests that no one person or one group is really controlling or pulling the strings on – and that’s part of why the Establishment is so scared of it. 

Environmental and climate activists have tried to organize major protests that command people’s attention but have largely failed.  Why has Occupy Wall Street succeeded?
I haven’t seen the environmental movement try this kind of thing.  I’ve never seen an environmental group launch something that didn’t have an end-date or that they couldn’t completely control.  Nobody knows if anyone in the environmental moment could have done anything like this, because most of the leaders in the movement were too afraid to try.  That’s really a lot of what has defined the strategy of the environmental movement for the past decade or so – it’s the fear of making a mistake.

So what are lessons in this for the climate movement?
I think what’s important is that these protests are not one-day actions.  From the perspective of those in power, when there is a one-day action, no matter how big it is, no matter how many towns it’s in all across the country, those politicians or executives know that all they have to do is keep their head down for that one day and it will pass by, the news cycle will move on, and everyone will forget about it.  But this is something that’s not going away, and that’s also what’s inspiring people to join in.

It’s hard not to contrast the Occupy protests with the demonstrations in Washington D.C. against the Keystone pipeline last summer.  The Keystone action was very buttoned-down, very respectable.   That’s not at all what is happening here – there’s lots of anger on display.
That’s true – and it’s true about the Left in general. And I think it’s why the Tea Party had so much success – they were the only ones expressing outrage about where the country is heading. They didn’t have any intellectual argument to back it up, but they were the only ones who were expressing the way that people were actually feeling – which was pretty angry. So a lot of people followed them, not with their heads, but with their hearts. And I think that’s something that is often missing on the Left. 

So in your view, what does the climate movement need to do right now?
I don’t know – campaign for Jon Huntsman?  [laughs].  I actually think he would be far better on climate issues than Obama. (I don’t think I had hopes of radical change from Obama, but even so, he has been phenomenally disappointing, especially on climate change.)

But a big part of what the climate movement needs to do is get behind the Occupy protests.  Everybody in the activist world is looking for that soft-spot.  Everyone is charging the wall, and most people get repelled.  Most actions don’t really go anywhere because they run up against that hard wall. The Occupy protests have hit a soft spot. They have found that little crack. And now they are pushing, and they are making that crack grow. The rest of us need to keep pushing and break that hole in the wall. 

One of the things that’s been made clear in the last few years is that we’re not going to deal appropriately with the climate crisis under the system of corporate rule that we have right now. We can’t deal with the climate crisis without overthrowing that corporate rule – and hopefully the Occupy protests can hold out until we do that and establish a democratic government in this country.  Because that’s what it’s going to take, not just to deal with the climate crisis and reduce emissions, but also to try to prepare for the inevitable changes that we’re already on track for.  I think we have to return power to the citizens if we’re going to have any hope of holding on to our humanity through the rough period that is inevitably ahead. 

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