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Tim DeChristopher Is a Free Man: 'We Need a Movement That Gets a Little Bit Out of Control'

The climate activist on his prison stay and the future of the fight

Tim DeChristopher as he arrived at Salt Lake City's Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in 2011.
Jim Urquhart/AP
April 22, 2013 4:35 PM ET

There are worse ways for a climate activist to celebrate getting out of jail than speaking to a packed theater of comrades and supporters. Tonight, that's how Tim DeChristopher will publically mark his release from two years of state custody, spread over four states and five institutions – from the isolation wings of federal prisons to the halfway house he left yesterday. Following an address that will represent DeChristopher's public return to grassroots climate activism, Salt Lake City's Tower Theater will screen Bidder 70, a documentary about his 2009 trial. Both the talk and the screening will be live-streamed to 50 theaters around the country.  

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It's a happy coincidence that the event is taking place on Earth Day – but there was never any question it would be in Salt Lake City. It was there, in December 2008, that DeChristopher disrupted a federal Bureau of Land Management auction by submitting nearly $2 million in bids on oil and gas concessions. For the crime of what the prosecution called "obstruct[ing] lawful government proceedings," DeChristopher was whisked from the courthouse following his sentencing to begin his term, which ended yesterday. The 31-year-old activist talked to Rolling Stone about his time served and the future of the climate movement.

What are your immediate plans now that you're out?

I'll be traveling around a bit over the summer. Then in the fall, I start Harvard Divinity School. I see divinity school and the ministry as an extension of my activism, not as a new direction. It's probably the best outlet for the skills I've built so far. I take inspiration from the activist leaders of the past, whether it's the [antiwar activist] Berrigan brothers, or Martin Luther King, or many ministry leaders that have also been at the front of social movements throughout American history.

Will you keep up an activist's schedule when you start school?

Obviously I won't be able to do quite as much. I expect divinity school to be pretty demanding, so I won't be keeping up the full-time schedule that I had when I was a full-time activist. But I will still be doing certain speaking events and stuff like that.

Are you prepared to return to prison in the future?

Definitely. Especially having experienced it and knowing that I can handle it. If the opportunity comes up again to do something impactful, then I'd have to take that opportunity.

A lot of famous activists over the years have spoken about the benefits of prison time. Did you find that to be the case?

There are certainly upsides. They call it "doing time" for a reason. You just have a lot of time on your hands. So I read a lot. A lot of my day consisted of exercising and walking and reading. It was a very reflective environment and very low-stress environment. It kind of naturally lent itself to introspection.

Did you have a lot of conversations about climate and energy issues with other inmates?

I had a lot of conversations more about general social justice issues, about corporate control of our government, how the criminal justice system works.

Looking ahead, it seems activism around climate and energy is moving into a more militant posture. For example, the anti-fracking leader Sandra Steingraber and some of her colleagues in the so-called "Seneca Lake 12" went to jail in New York just as you were being released.

I certainly think the climate movement is going to get more aggressive. There's been a tremendous amount of movement in the past few years. And with changes like the Sierra Club completely overhauling the way they were operating [in terms of civil disobedience] – that's a massive shift, and I think those changes will continue. And I think there will also be more kind of bottom-up actions in the future. More things like the tar sands blockade in Texas, things that are not necessarily done by big organizations saying, "This is what you need to do and this is how you're going to do it." The grassroots side of the movement is really stepping up in a big way, and that's been the big shift since 2009. The grassroots side is no longer willing to limit themselves to the directions given by the big green groups and the Washington-centric side of the movement. The big green groups failed horribly in 2009 with the Waxman-Markey bill. Up until that time, they kind of kept everyone in check by saying, "We know how change happens, we know how to do things in Washington. This is what's politically feasible." And they fell on their face. Now a lot of folks are saying, "Well, we tried it your way. Now we're going to do it our way."

And your group, Peaceful Uprising, was part of that shift.

Yeah, Peaceful Uprising was forming during that time, largely out of an awareness that what the climate movement was doing wasn't working and we needed to do something else. It was started largely for the purpose of experimenting, and simply trying something new. Not saying this is the one right way. But saying we need a new way of doing things. And hopefully there will be more experimenting in the climate movement. A movement that gets a little bit out of control – that's what we need. One that's more spontaneous, trying more things and is more willing to do things even if it's not the exact right thing to do, but just because we need to move forward.

Will you stay involved with Peaceful Uprising?

I handed over the reins when I was convicted. I was pretty much out of the picture once I was incarcerated. I am not really in a leadership position there anymore.

Because of the publicity around your trial and incarceration, and now with the documentary, you have achieved a national profile and will be seen as a sort of spokesperson for the movement. Are you comfortable with this new level of fame? 

As far as being seen as a speaker and that sort of thing, that's a role that I'm willing to serve. I kind of ended up in the role as the guy who always talked about civil disobedience just because that was the opening that the movement had in 2008 and 2009. So I sort of ended up in that role by default. Now I'll try and fill whatever role is needed. And I feel like I naturally look at things from a holistic perspective. I tend to be good at articulating a vision of where we need to go. I feel like I'm well suited for the role that I'm in right now.

Bidder 70 opens for a limited run on May 17th at New York's Quad Cinema.

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