In December of 2008, during the final hours of the George W. Bush administration, the Bushies tried to give one final gift to their pals in the oil and gas industry by auctioning off drilling rights on thousands of acres of federal land in the west, including fragile wilderness areas near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.
On the day of the auction, environmentalists protested outside the federal building in Salt Lake City, where the event was held. But Tim DeChristopher, then a 27 year-old economics student and climate activist at the University of Utah, wanted to up the ante. "This auction was a perfect example of our 'drill now, think later' energy policy," DeChristopher says. "People weren't getting it. I went into the auction with the idea of creating a little disruption, maybe making a speech and getting myself arrested."
When DeChristopher entered the building in his Carhartts, however, the person at the sign-in desk took him for one of the industry guys. "Are you here to bid?" she asked. On the spur of the moment, DeChristopher said he was. He was given an auction paddle – "Bidder 70" – and despite not having any money, he proceeded to throw a monkey wrench into the entire auction, successfully bidding on more than 22,000 acres of land worth $1.8 million, until he was finally stopped by a federal official. For this prank, DeChristopher was charged with two felony counts: one for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act by "scheming to disrupt to the auction," a second for making false statements.
Not that his antics mattered much. In the following months, many of the leases up for auction were deemed illegitimate by the Obama administration, and most of the land remains under federal protection. But that didn’t help DeChristopher. Last March, after a trial that drew crowds of protestors, he was convicted on both counts. Sentencing is set for July 26th. DeChristopher could face up to ten years in federal prison.
I spoke to him this week by phone.
How does it feel to be a convicted felon waiting to go off to federal prison?
It’s something that I’ve been expecting and preparing for for a while, so it doesn’t feel very different than before the trial. And the more I whine about it the more realistic it gets, and the more I feel like it’s something I can handle.
Do you feel like you committed a crime you should go to jail for?
No. I feel like what I did was standing in the way of a crime and the government finally admitted that that’s basically true. But I do feel like what I did was a threat to the status quo, so I understand why those in power want to put me away.
"A threat to the status quo" – what exactly do you mean by that?
Well I’m a climate-justice activist, and I’m actively pushing for things, like a renewable-energy economy, that are a real threat to those in power today. I think we’ve tried to make our ideas palatable to those in power but it’s never really worked, because shifting away from fossil fuels is actually a threat to our current economic system and to our current political system.
What’s your view of where the climate movement is right now?
I think the climate movement is in a really important period of rebuilding and developing a new identity. One of the important things that’s happened in the past couple of years is that climate justice has emerged as a separate movement from the environmental movement, with different, and at times contradictory, goals. One of the defining goals of the environmental movement is a cleaner, greener version of the world that we have now. The climate justice movement has realized that that that would still be a world of injustice, based on exploitation, with people who are afraid of their own government. And that’s not really something worth fighting for. We want a radically different world. We want a healthy, just world. And the climate justice movement has stopped being dependent on the environmental movement; it has started to strike out on its own.
How do you build a movement that transforms our energy system the fundamental way you’re talking about?
Well, I mean there are some people experimenting with alternative models out there, focused more on community-based solutions, like the Solar Mosaic project, that Billy Parish and Dan Jones launched. That’s a different economic model based on local control.
But there are also huge roadblocks to that. If you look at what the folks in Coal River, West Virginia did, with the Coal River Wind project, where the locals in that area took the initiative to develop this wind project, did all the testing, got investment for it, showed that it would lead to big, long-term economic development, would create a lot of jobs in the area, all that stuff. It was a fantastic project, and Massey Energy came in and crushed it so they could blow the top off that mountain. And they pulled all their political strings to prevent that project from happening. So what we’re seeing in places like that is that that alternative model is ready to go, but first we need to get the fossil fuel industry out of the way. First we’ve got to overthrow that corporate power that is running our government in order for us to have the freedom to initiate those kind of local projects that we want to see. But I think it will involve confrontation and it will involve sacrifice.
It’s interesting that you bring up Appalachia, where there has been long history of bloody labor battles. How do you personally wrestle with these issues of how far to push direct action and how aggressive to get?
Well, I think that the nature of the crisis not only justifies but demands the strongest possible tactics. And when we look at U.S. history and how change has happened in this country, the strongest possible tactics mean non-violent resistance. I don’t see turning to violence as a step beyond civil disobedience. I think it’s a completely different path that never has been effective in this country, because violence is the game that our government is really, really good at. And if we wanna play their game, they’re always gonna win. That’s what they’ve always shown. And violence, or anything that’s perceived as violence on the part of activists, justifies harsh repression by the government, whereas non-violent resistance and civil disobedience tend to undermine the moral legitimacy of our government.
Speaking of sacrifice, do you think climate activists have put enough skin in the game?
No, not even close. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface. And I think part of that is we don’t study much history in this nation. We study a lot of science but not much history, so we end up with a movement that knows a lot about the technical problem, but not about how change happens in America. When we study history, we see that social movements in American history have sacrificed a lot. Look at the Freedom Riders. That first bus of Freedom Riders got blown up and they were beaten within an inch of their lives and put in a hospital. And then after seeing that a group of students from the University of Tennessee said we can’t let it end that way. They not only dropped out of school the week before finals and left their already-integrated city, Nashville, which didn’t have segregation, but they signed their last wills before they went on the bus. They knew exactly what they were getting into. And I don’t know of anyone in the climate movement that has met that level of sacrifice, myself included.
Where do you see this going, and what role do you see yourself having in the future of this movement?
I think one of the problems is that young people today haven’t seen a real example of people power until very recently. For those of us who were born since Reagan took office, it’s always been understood that corporations are powerful and people are weak; that’s the paradigm. We’re starting to see hints of that shifting, and once people realize that, I think we’re gonna have a whole wave of empowered young people really stepping up and taking a lot of action. And that can have big ripple effects.
In the movement, I think we need to show people, first, that sacrifice is necessary and effective, and second, that it’s something we can handle. And I see myself as being one of those examples – someone that pushes a littler farther than other folks have and engages in that sacrifice, but also shows how fulfilling and liberating it really is on a personal level. I hope that I can continue showing that while I’m serving my time.