Catching up with Tim DeChristopher
Bidder 70 reflects on civil disobedience, life after prison and the fight against climate change
On the morning of December 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher woke up knowing he would somehow protest an auction of oil and gas leases on federal lands in Utah’s red rock country. How he would make his views known, though, was a mystery. When an official at the auction asked him if he was there to bid on land parcels, he agreed. That seemed like a good place to start.
At first, he bid on parcels to increase their prices—it didn’t seem right to him that the leases were going for as little as $2 an acre. But after more than half the leases had been acquired by oil and gas companies, he began bidding to win. He acquired the rights to 14 parcels—a total of 22,500 acres for $1.8 million—before he was escorted out of the auction, and held and questioned by federal officials.
His civil disobedience galvanized activists concerned about the climate crisis and the fate of public wilderness lands. Some, including members of his Unitarian Universalist Church, formed the climate justice action group Peaceful Uprising.
On April 1, 2009, DeChristopher was indicted on two felony counts: interfering with a federal oil and gas leasing auction and making false statements. He pled not guilty on both counts and rejected the offer of a plea bargain, so he faced 10 years in prison and a fine of $750,000. His supporters raised cash to cover the first payment on the leases he’d won. The auction of those lands—initiated under the Bush administration—was later ruled illegal and rescinded. But DeChristopher was found guilty. He served 21 months in prison and paid a fine of $10,000. He was released in April 2013 and is now attending Harvard Divinity School.
Tim DeChristopher was born in West Virginia, where his mother was an early opponent of mountaintop removal. He worked as a wilderness guide for at-risk youth and was studying economics at the University of Utah when he took part in the protest that made him famous.
Rolling Stone called DeChristopher “America’s most creative climate criminal.” He was nominated for the 2011 Utahn of the Year by The Salt Lake Tribune, named a 2011 Visionary of the Year by Utne Reader, and was one of the “YES! Breakthrough 15” in 2012. The documentary Bidder 70 features his story, and he’s been interviewed by, among many others, Bill Moyers, Amy Goodman, and David Letterman.
Sarah van Gelder: What was the moment like for you when you realized you were going to go to jail?
Tim DeChristopher: Once I decided to start winning parcels of land at the auction, I pretty much knew I was going to prison. That moment was extremely liberating. It was the first moment that I felt like my actions were finally in line with what I felt was the scale of the crisis.
van Gelder: I read that you decided to start bidding when you saw a friend burst into tears.
DeChristopher: That was one of the things that pushed me to the edge. I was feeling outraged that most of the parcels were going for $10 or $12 an acre. Some were going for as little as $2 an acre. And I saw toward the back of the room someone I knew from my church, and she started crying. I think what drove her to tears was watching the inhumanity of it and the coldness of it—that there was absolutely no respect for what was being lost. The depth of her emotion justified the depth of my emotion; it made me feel like I wasn’t crazy for feeling outraged.
van Gelder: Your description of a group of people calmly and bureaucratically proceeding to destroy something of immeasurable value reminds me of the phrase “the banality of evil.”
DeChristopher: That certainly would’ve fit the room.
That’s something that has always bothered me in the discourse around climate change; those who are choosing their own profits over people’s lives say, “Well, it’s just business.” They make it cold and calculating.
It’s only “just business” for the people making profits. For a young person looking at climate change, it is personal. It is an older generation trading our lives for their own short-term interests, whether that’s fossil fuel executives trading our lives for profit or whether that’s baby boomer liberals trading our lives for their own comfort and convenience because they don’t want to take the risk of fighting back.
van Gelder: That’s provocative! Do you want to expand on that?
DeChristopher: I’ve never seen a place in this movement or in the discourse around climate change where it’s considered appropriate for young people to express their anger at old people. But it’s just under the surface.
I don’t think we can have a healthy dialogue around climate change until young people are able to express that anger in an honest way, just like I don’t think we ever could have had really honest and productive dialogues around race without the expression of black rage. Certainly we need more than just rage, and on its own, it’s not productive. But if it’s not ever addressed, I think it’s hard to move forward in a trusting way.
van Gelder: What is it that enrages you?
DeChristopher: I’ve met very few baby boomer liberals who understand what it means to be a young person facing the reality of climate change. It means that we’re never going to have the opportunities that our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations had, and that we’ve got this massive burden weighing on our future.
We constantly hear baby boomers saying to young people: “Stopping climate change is going to be the challenge of your generation.”
Well, that’s not really true. We’ve known about climate change for 20 years, during the time when baby boomers were holding power in this country. Stopping climate change was the challenge of the baby boomer generation, and they failed because it would’ve meant making sacrifices and putting their children’s and grandchildren’s generations ahead of their own. They chose not to do that.
Certainly a lot of the blame falls on fossil fuel executives and politicians, but a lot of it falls on comfortable liberals who changed their light bulbs, bought organic, and sat back and patted themselves on the back. Young people don’t have the luxury of feeling like that’s enough—like they can go to their graves content that they drove a Prius and voted Democrat, so they don’t have to feel guilty about this catastrophe.
van Gelder: That may be objectively true, but if you look at most young people, they’re doing as little as the boomers did.
DeChristopher: If you look at the masses in the middle, that’s true. But the masses are never who change things. I think you have to look at the people who are engaged and paying attention to the world, which is a minority.
I don’t know that there are necessarily more young people who are more awake and engaged, but I think those who are awake and engaged are looking at things in a different way than generations before, realizing that changing our consumer habits is not enough. We are going to be making sacrifices, both now in fighting this injustice and throughout our lives in dealing with the impacts of it.
van Gelder: I’d like to go back to the moment when you stood in front of the judge and you said, “This is what love looks like.” Can you bring yourself back to that moment and recall what you were feeling then? Were you feeling love?
DeChristopher: To some extent, yeah. That was the first chance I had to speak freely in the court. And so I spoke for probably half an hour. That last line, “This is what love looks like,” is the line I stole from a speech Chris Hedges gave when he was getting arrested outside of the White House, in 2010, I think. He said, “This is what hope looks like.”
My speech was directed at the judge. I was saying, “I’m not looking for your mercy. I’m looking for you to join me.”
But in a way, the judge wasn’t really my audience. I was speaking to a much wider public about why I was there.
van Gelder: Were you trying to get through to the jurors?
DeChristopher: No, the jurors had been gone for months at that point. I was never allowed to speak freely to the jurors.
van Gelder: Do you think that if you’d had a chance to talk directly to the jurors you could have gotten through to them?
DeChristopher: Yeah, I think that’s a possibility.
van Gelder: What would you have told them if you’d had a chance?
DeChristopher: There are things about myself and my case I would’ve wanted them to know. The biggest one is that the auction was later overturned and ruled illegal. That was something we were absolutely not allowed to tell them.
Another was the fact that we offered to mail the Bureau of Land Management the money as a payment for the leases, and they wouldn’t take it.
And we weren’t allowed to talk about climate change.
Also, I would have liked to explain the reasons going through administrative channels for objecting to the auction felt futile. Two months before the auction, the House Resources Committee, chaired by Raul Grijalva, issued a report about how the BLM under the Bush administration was taking volunteers from the oil and gas industry to process the written objections to proposed leasing parcels.
van Gelder: And you felt that the jury had the right to choose what is called “jury nullification”—to actually go against the specifics of the law.
DeChristopher: And that would’ve been even more important: to remind the jury that their role is to protect our fellow citizens from the government.
Juries are not just there to take orders from the government and to do whatever the government wants. It’s the opposite. They were created because our founding fathers were leery of too much power in the hands of government officials. That’s why we have human beings, not computers, doing this job. We need jurors to use their conscience. That is the role of a citizen. A citizen should always use their conscience in all their civic duties.
One of the pivotal moments for me came during the jury selection when the judge called each juror, one at a time, into his chambers and asked them if they would do whatever he told them to do, even if it violated their conscience. And unless they said they were willing to do what they thought was morally wrong, they weren’t allowed on the jury.
That really clarified for me the power of conscience as one of those key factors that determines which road we’re going to go down—whether we respond to the climate crisis by turning against one another in fear or turning toward one another in love. I saw one juror after another say, “Yes, your honor, I’ll do whatever you tell me to do, even if I think it’s morally wrong.” And when I saw that, I saw how some of the great mass atrocities in history can happen.
But I also saw the prosecutor freak out. I saw him panicked and terrified at the notion of citizens using their conscience when they’re exercising their civic duties. And just as powerful as understanding how atrocities can happen was seeing a U.S. attorney, who has the full power of the United States government behind him, terrified at the power of conscience.
I saw that on the one hand if people let go of their moral authority, any atrocity is possible. But on the other hand, when people hold onto their conscience and the shared moral agency of their community, there’s no institution and no power that can’t be affected by that.
That’s part of why I’m going to divinity school. I see this question of whether or not we have faith in our own moral authority as a spiritual issue.
van Gelder: So how do you see your role? Once you’ve graduated, will you become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church? Do you see your role as helping people acquaint themselves with their own moral calling?
DeChristopher: I’m not sure. I think if I had those answers, I wouldn’t be in divinity school. I’d just go do it. I’m there because I have an understanding of what the challenge is, and I know that whatever my path is, it needs the kind of spiritual foundation that I’m getting in divinity school.
In terms of connecting people with their own moral authority, I think that’s deep, slow work that’s not done alone. I think that’s something that’s done in a community.
van Gelder: I grew up in the Quaker tradition, which asks that of each person. There’s no minister—no authority to turn to—so each person is expected to figure out for themselves what action to take within the context of a spiritual community. But it tends to be slow work. It took many Quakers years to decide that they were going to release the slaves they owned and oppose slavery overall. But once they figured that out, they became the backbone of the abolition movement. It’s a quandary. We don’t have a lot of time.
DeChristopher: We’re also not starting at the beginning—there is a strong critical mass of people who see the crisis that we’re in and are committed to resisting it and fighting for a healthy and just world. So that part of the choice has been made. It’s just building the discipline then of getting to the point where responding is automatic.
van Gelder: But do we want our responses to be simple and automatic? Our moral quandaries are quite complex. I’m reminded of Thoreau’s response when Emerson asked what he was doing in prison, and Thoreau answered: “The question is what are you doing out there?” Because we could all be in prison every single day of our lives for the atrocities we’re allowing to go by. Each one is a choice.
DeChristopher: True. And I think we need to spend more time understanding where that line is for us—what we’re going to tolerate and what we’re going to absolutely not accept. With a better idea of where that line is, we can respond more quickly, and our conscience can kick in faster.
van Gelder: You’re at Harvard. You’re at this center of power and the elite. And you’re at the divinity school there—a center of spiritual inquiry, which you mentioned is ecumenical. What is this like for you, coming right out of prison?
DeChristopher: The experience of the Harvard Divinity School is very different than the experience of Harvard. The experience of being at Harvard is just saturated with privilege in a really disgusting way.
van Gelder: What is that like for you?
DeChristopher: It’s disorienting.
I’m probably one of the few people at Harvard who has spent time being homeless and in prison, and to now be surrounded by that level of privilege at times makes me feel guilty and at times just feels like a heavy responsibility.
People refer to “Harvard Yard,” the old area of Harvard, and they’ll talk about a class in one of those buildings, and they’ll say, “It’s on the Yard.” And when I first started hearing that, I thought “Man, a year ago I was in prison, and when people would say ‘on the yard,’ that meant something very different.”
The divinity school has a very different feel than the rest of Harvard. It’s a far more humane place. In the rest of Harvard, knowledge is a commodity that can be used for our purposes, and used against others. Whereas in the divinity school, it feels like knowledge is a relationship; it is something that connects us to others.
van Gelder: I realize there’s a lot of uncertainty, but as you look ahead, what do you think you will be doing next?
DeChristopher: I’ve gotten involved with some folks from the Lakota Nation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to plan a unity concert in September in the Black Hills. This concert is an effort to try to create some trust across cultural divides in areas where trust has been repeatedly violated, so that we can unite to be more effective in the struggle for a healthy and just future.
Also, there’s a case coming up in May of Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward, who anchored a lobster boat in front of the Brayton Point coal plant south of Boston, blockading a coal shipment. They’re going to trial in May. They might actually have the opportunity to argue in court that they acted to prevent the greater harm of climate change.
I’ve also been in some conversation with Jonathan Moylan in Australia who did a Yes Men-style action there around a coal mine and issued a fake press release that caused a lot of bad PR for the coal company and the bank that was funding it. He is now facing 10 years in prison, and he’s going to trial in June. I don’t know the Australian legal system, but I do know a bit about using the trial as an organizing opportunity.
van Gelder: Looking ahead further, how do you think the climate crisis will affect our future?
DeChristopher: I think it’ll cause massive food shortages and disruptions of our agricultural system.
At the same time, we’re looking at an ever-increasing number of migrants whose homes are under water and who are moving into areas that are already stressed—because of droughts, because of food shortages, because of a generally unworkable economic model. These communities are already insecure, and they’ll have waves of other people coming in who are completely insecure themselves, and we can see the conflicts that can come out of that.
I think there’ll be plenty of opportunities for those in power to pit people at the bottom against one another, to say: All those hardships you’re facing, those are the people who are causing them—that group, whether it’s migrants, unions, religious groups, whatever it may be. And if we’re not ready for that as a society—if we’re not committed to a path of cooperation—then there’s a potential for us to create a really ugly society that could bring out the worst in us. People feeling insecure can be driven to do really ugly things to their fellow human beings.
I think there’s also the potential for the opposite to happen. People in times of hardship can turn toward one another, and hardship can bring out the best in people. And those hardships, those shortages, could be an opportunity to reflect on what’s really important to us and to create new bonds.
Look at the difference between the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and of Hurricane Sandy. After Katrina, what filled the void was militarism, police power, and violence. And immediately following that was corporate power and the privatization of public resources.
After Sandy, the first thing that filled the void was the people power of Occupy, and they were in every neighborhood. So people power created new bonds and even healed old wounds.
One of the stories that came out of Occupy Sandy was of a young guy in Occupy who shoveled out the basement of a guy who turned out to be the cop who had beaten him up in Zuccotti Park.
The cop was like, “Why would these horrible kids—these people we were told to beat up—why would they be shoveling out my basement?” It became an opportunity for a real connection: The kid could express his values and his worldview and the reasons why what they were doing in the park was the same thing as what they were doing shoveling out his basement.
I think a lot of people looked at Occupy and said, “Why are they spending so much time sitting around talking?” Completely unproductive, right? But they built networks. They built relationships. They spent a lot of time articulating their vision and values and being reminded that this is their community—this is their society. When Sandy happened, we realized, that’s what they were doing. They were getting ready for whatever lay ahead.
That’s why I think activism right now is so critical. The only thing inevitable about our future is that the status quo cannot continue. We know things are going to change. But we can go down very different roads from this point.
There’s an opportunity now to build a society in the ashes of this one that is much more in line with our values. There’s the opportunity for this disruption to be sort of a mass reflection where we realize that basing society on greed and competition was not the best way to go about things.
Maybe we can do better. But that’s not inevitable any more than the ugly path is inevitable, which to me is why our engagement now is really, really critical.