Since he singlehandedly hijacked a government auction to lease oil and gas drilling rights on public lands next to the national parks in southern Utah, Tim DeChristopher has become one of the most electrifying figures in the environmental movement. His disruption of the auction — during which he grabbed a bidder’s paddle and claimed $1.79 million of leases without any intention of buying them — was brash and bold, a refreshingly unscripted act compared to the careful choreography of most political protests. His composure since he was charged with a pair of federal crimes has been a profile in courage. DeChristopher turned down a plea agreement with federal prosecutors then suffered through a number of unsympathetic rulings from a George W. Bush-appointed judge. On March 3, a jury of eight men and four women found him guilty of making false statements and violating the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.
Photo courtesy Mountainfilm
On June 23, DeChristopher will face sentencing — and he will almost certainly be ordered to serve time in federal prison. Last week I called him up and we spoke for half an hour about how he is preparing himself for jail and his thoughts on what it will take to spark more aggressive environmental activism. His gutsiness, his thoughtfulness, and his unwavering commitment to sustainability and social justice left me convinced that — from inside jail or after he gets out — Tim DeChristopher will be a powerful voice in the environmental movement for years to come.
Jason Mark: You face up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine for your disruption of an oil and gas lease auction in December of 2008. That’s hard time. Are you scared?
Tim DeChristopher: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. But, I mean, first off, it’s something that I’ve had two-and-a-half years to get ready for. I’ve known that this was the consequence that I was facing since I went into the auction and decided to do it. And I made the choice that it was worth it and it’s turned out to be more worth it than I ever expected.
Well, at the time I had the perspective that it was a very direct action kind of mindset. I was doing this to keep that particular amount of oil in the ground. And that part of it has been effective. The auction was cancelled, those parcels have been protected. The oil is still in the ground. But I have also seen that the indirect impacts have probably been even greater — the impacts on other people, of empowering other people to action and stimulating this public discourse about what our role as citizens should be.
And just for me personally, the positive consequences are something that I never really anticipated. Just the sense of empowerment that this has given me, and the places it has led with my own activism, was something I never really anticipated at the time. So all of that makes it as worth it as ever. And while the thought of going to prison is still scary, it’s also something that the closer I get to it, the less scary it is. Now I am at the point where I have a pretty good idea of where I am going to go, what facility I am going to be in. I even know what their daily schedule is and that sort of thing. So having that level of connection, that makes it very real, makes if feel like something that I can handle.
Whereas looking at the alternative, of being obedient to the system, and staying on the path that we are on now, that to me is a more terrifying situation. In part because there is so much uncertainty. There is no one who has ever been through that before, who can help to prepare us. And there’s no end to it.
I think the consequence of not fighting back is far scarier than the consequence of going to prison for a few years.
Where you ever offered a plea agreement, or a plea bargain?
And what was the deal that federal government offered you, and why did you turn it down?
It was for a short amount of prison time. There were several reasons that I turned it down. One, the government said, “We do need you to serve some time, not because we think you are a bad guy, but to set an example that discourages others.” And of course that is the exact opposite of my motivation. That’s the last thing that I want to do — is have my action be an example that instills fear in others, and encourages people to be obedient in the face of injustice. So that was one reason that I didn’t take it. I didn’t want them to be successful in that.
But as I was going through that process, I saw that juries in our country have been extremely disempowered. As citizens have been squeezed out of the political process in general, the role of citizens in our legal system has been minimized, and power has been concentrated into the hands of judges and into government officials. And so that was something that I wanted to consciously counteract. One of the ways that juries have been disempowered is that defendants are discouraged from taking their cases to juries. It’s just kind of accepted as a rule of thumb that defendants will be punished for taking their cases to trial. So that kind of squeezes the role of citizens out of the process. And I wanted to put the power in the hands of citizens rather in the hands of government officials.
And the final thing that I saw was that the government really wanted me to take a plea bargain, because they felt like they needed me to come before the court with my head bowed and say, “I apologize for my actions,” and that sort of thing. Because an act of civil disobedience is inherently a small threat to government authority. It’s a small statement that we don’t recognize the government as the sole moral authority on what’s right and wrong, and that we answer to a higher law, a higher law of morality. So I think to re-establish that moral authority in the public eye, the government and prosecutors generally look for activists to take a plea bargain. And of course I had the opposite goals there. I wanted to encourage people to exercise our power as citizens and to continue questioning our government.
What’s been the reaction of your family to all of this? Have they been supportive of you?
Um, yes, they’ve been supportive. But also very concerned and very worried about what’s going to happen to me. They have also been kind of coming along. During the trial, my mom and my sister were both here, and my mom was speaking to a friend of mine, and she said: “You know, seeing this reaction to everything and where it’s led, if this effort continues to have this impact, then I think it would be worth it for Tim to go to jail. Then I can see the value in it.” And that was the first time she said that. She certainly wasn’t there two years ago. It took a while for her to see that, as scary as it may be for her to see her son go to jail, it might actually be worth it. So it’s been that slow process of coming to terms with things.
On the day of your conviction, you told a reporter that, “I think a lot of the environmental movement has approached it from the standpoint of, how can we have a sharp enough message that we can achieve this change without taking any personal risks or sacrifice?” You said: “It’s evolved into this kind of one-click activism that tries to make it really easy for people. And the reality of the situation is, this isn’t going to be easy. And we’ve got very real opponents: the fossil fuels industry.” My question is: At this moment in time, what to you think are some the best strategies? If, as you point out, one-click activism and sound bites are insufficient, what are some of the challenges and opportunities for challenging the power of the fossil fuel industry?
I think confronting them directly through direct action and civil disobedience is a powerful way to bring attention to what they’re doing and put pressure on them at the same time. I think as a movement we need a strategy that attacks them through the system at the same time that we are putting pressure on them from outside the system. I think one of the ways in which my action can be a great example is that it did have a lasting example because there were people that were working within the system. There were the environmental groups that had filed a lawsuit against this auction at the same time that I was putting pressure from the outside and bringing a lot of attention and a different perspective as to what was going on. And with those two things combined, it brought enough attention to make their lawsuit successful, which created some lasting change that made my action more impactful. That’s the kind of inside-outside strategy that we need more of in the movement.
I think there are a lot of different tactics that fit into that strategy. But the strategy needs to be to overthrow the political power of the fossil fuel industry. I think that anything less than that is not having a lasting impact, it’s not having any serious enough change to actually make a difference. I think there are lots of tactics to chip away that power. The important thing is that they actually attack that power rather than try to reinforce that power, or try to win that power over, or appease that power structure just to make some short term gain. Or something trivial that they can tell their funders was a success.
You know, like the Waxman-Markey [comprehensive climate] bill. Pushing for that had no place in an inside-outside strategy. Because it actually reinforced the power of the fossil fuel industry. So I think it doesn’t necessarily matter what the tactics are, as long as they are pushing for serious, fundamental change.
Speaking of tactics, one of the things that I think was really exciting, or impressive, about your auction disruption was its spontaneity. From what I have read and heard, you didn’t really plan it. You were outside on the sidewalk protesting with a lot of other people and you just sort of went in and did it. And the next thing you know you are Bidder Number 70 and a couple of million dollars into buying up some parcels. In hindsight, do you think there are any lessons there for other environmental and social justice activists?
Yeah, you know, recently I had a meeting with a lot of the Greenpeace folks at their DC offices where they were bringing people in from their other offices, and I talked about the value in the somewhat impulsive nature of my action. How that was important to the story of it, to the narrative. My own kind of vulnerability — the fact that it was this very genuine reaction to what was going on. And I think that’s something that we lose in a lot of our overly planned actions. I think there’s a balance there. I also realized that I got extremely lucky in acting in that somewhat impulsive way, and having a lot of support materialize out of nowhere to make it effective afterwards. That doesn’t always happen, you know?
I think here needs to be a better balance between that genuine expression of people’s humanity that shows their vulnerability, shows their personal reaction to what’s going on, balanced with effective planning and strategy that’s going to make things worthwhile, and not just a blip on the radar. I think there’s gotta be more space for that in the movement. Because when things are overly planned, we substitute perceived risk for actual risk, and I think most people can tell the difference, the public can tell the difference. I think that’s why a lot of the direct actions that are happening in the movement don’t really get under people’s skin. They don’t rattle people awake because they see that there is not someone taking an actual risk, there is not someone making themselves really vulnerable. There’s just this kind of perceived risk in a rather sterile, overly planned way.
And I don’t have the answers for how to do that necessarily. I just think that’s it’s something that needs to be more of a consideration in our action planning and our action strategy.
On the day of your conviction, going back to the federal courthouse steps in Salt Lake City, you said that if we are going to achieve our vision, “many after me will have to join me as well.” Meaning that people will have to follow you to jail. And I think it’s fair to say that while a lot of people found inspiration in that, they might not have taken it as instruction. People aren’t exactly lining up to go to jail. So I’m wondering what you think needs to happen for more people to come to the idea that they are going to put their bodies on the line and do non-violent civil disobedience, or direct action?
I think people need to be more connected. I think people need to understand that they’re not alone in this movement, and that there will be enough people behind them when they take those actions to make it effective and lasting. Because I think that’s one of the big things that’s missing.
You know, on the day that the PowerShift conference started, there were nine young activists that stood up in the balcony of Congress and they started singing to disrupt Congress, they were singing about their right to a livable future. And they disrupted things for about half an hour. When those kids first started talking about doing that action, they were talking to me because I had written about something similar in a blog post earlier in the year. But what they were talking about early on — the scenario I presented in the blog post — was waves of people doing this every day. Starting with a handful of people, and more people the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. But that takes a lot of faith that there’s going to be people, that you’re going to actually inspire people to follow along behind you. That’s what they were originally looking at doing. But they could only find nine people that were definitely committed to taking that action, and they didn’t really trust that there would be others to come along behind them. So they waited until the very last day of the legislative session in April, when there was no opportunity for anyone to come behind them, and to put all their people in one day, rather than try to do a wave of actions. They didn’t have that trust. And I think it’s the big thing that’s missing.
That’s why during the PowerShift conference, when I got the opportunity to speak to all 10,000 people at once, I pointed out to them that they were in a room with 10,000 people that are all committed to the same cause, and that that’s extremely powerful. They have enough people there to have 30 people a day walk onto a mountaintop removal site every day for a year. They could really end it. They could have a major impact that way. I think it’s important for people to make those real world connections, to deeply internalize that support.
I had an opportunity last year to be on a panel with one of the Freedom Riders, Dr. Rick Patten. He was constantly talking about how strong their community was, and how they had so much trust for one another, because they’d be singing together every night at church, and that sort of thing. He said they all knew that no matter what happened to them when they got on that bus, there would always be another bus coming behind them. And no matter what happened when they sat at that lunch counter, there’d always be another wave of people coming in after them, and a wave after that, and a wave after that.
I think that’s one of the big things that’s missing in this movement. There’s far too many people looking at themselves as an isolated individual and saying, “Well, I’m just one person. What difference can I make?” If that were true, that people were isolated individuals, it would be true that there is nothing they can do. I mean, one person against a huge institution, a huge corporation, a huge government, isn’t going to be enough to make a difference. But the truth is, they are not isolated individuals. There’s no such thing. They are connected to something much bigger than themselves. And there are millions of people looking for those kinds of opportunities to take part in something like that. And the more we understand that as a movement, the more people are going to be willing to take really strong actions. And take some actual risks.
Because I don’t think there’s a shortage of people who understand the problem. And I don’t even think there is a shortage of people who are committed to solving it. I think there’s just a lack of empowerment among those people who get it and want to do something about it.
Talking about the waves of Freedom Riders, or the waves of people ready to sit down at the lunch counter: When you look around, and you maybe don’t see waves upon waves of people crashing against the MTR sites, how does that make you feel?
There are certainly times and days when I get discouraged about that. But I also do see a lot of people who are looking for that opportunity. Since I gave that speech, everywhere I have gone people have asked me how they can get involved, where do they sign up to be part of those waves of action. Talking with folks in West Virginia, a lot of the local activists I think are ready for that. And even logistically, they are getting ready to host those waves of action. I think we are very close to that point, as a movement, where that can be very realistic.
Back to PowerShift, I was watching your speech this morning, and you said that the challenge facing the climate justice movement is “to maintain our humanity during what lies ahead.” That’s especially poignant for you as you are on your way to prison. I’m wondering: What kind of personal or emotional or spiritual preparations are you making for living in jail?
I’ve spoken to a lot of folks who have been through that situation before, including folks who have been in there for political reasons or civil disobedience. One of the things that David Harris, who spent two years in jail for draft resistance, one of the things that he told me is that one of the worst things about prison for most people is the sense of the loss of control. You are no longer directing your life; you are just taking orders all the time. And he said if you can hold onto the reason that you are in there — and always remember that you made a conscious choice for this, that you decided it is worth it, this is where you need to be, this is the work you are doing right now for the movement — you can maintain that sense of direction in your life. And remember that it was within your control to be here. He said that makes it a lot easier to do the time.
So that’s been something I’ve been focusing myself on leading up to this, leading up to going to prison, is really internalizing that this was a conscious choice that I made. This is the direction I need to go. I’m making sure that I can really hold onto that sense while I’m inside.
I know you’re going to be doing some regular updates for Grist.org while in prison. I’m not trying to be flip, but I’m really curious: What does your reading list look like? What kind of other self-work are you hoping to do while you have, maybe not a lot of space, but plenty of time?
Yeah, you know, with Grist I am kind of tongue-in-cheek calling my incarceration “my government-sponsored writing retreat.” To some extent I am actually looking at it that way. I think it will be a good opportunity for me to write and to focus all of my thoughts, as well as to do a lot of reading, and a time for personal growth as well. That’s another piece of advice that people have given me. Ted Glick from Chesapeake Climate Action, he spent a year and a half in prison in the early seventies for burning draft cards. He said it was one of the most important growth experiences of his life, and helped to focus all of his political ideology ever since. He said it taught him a lot about social injustices in this country, and it was a big part of his education, the time that he spent in there.
Terry Tempest Williams told me that she would actually prepare a reading list for me and ensure that I got those books while I was inside. So I’m looking forward to that.
My last question is: Obviously you’ve inspired a lot of people. Who inspires you? Who are you keeping in mind as you’re going through this experience?
Um, I don’t necessarily have one particular person I look to. There’s a lot of folks that I’ve found inspiration in in social movement history in this country. Like Alice Ball in the women’s suffrage movement. I think she was a really visionary leader for them, who stepped in at exactly the right time. The Freedom Riders are one of my favorite examples from the Civil Rights movement, who I take a lot of inspiration from. And Bob Moses, as a kind of intellectual leader of the Civil Rights movement. I look at a lot of folks like that.
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