Climate activist Tim DeChristopher & author Terry Tempest Williams

Climate activist Tim DeChristopher served twenty-one months in prison after disrupting a federal land auction that would have sold off the leasing rights to oil and gas companies. He stopped oil and gas companies from exploiting resources around the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeastern Utah and nearby the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah.

He had not planned to buy the land, but when he was asked at the auction if he was there to bid, he saw an opportunity and said yes. He was convicted of two felonies: violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making fraudulent statements. The government took the case to trial, even though Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar decided to cancel the sale of “77 environmentally sensitive parcels” of land in the auction

DeChristopher, now on parole for three years and attending Harvard Divinity School, came to Chicago for an event at the Chicago History Museum hosted by Haymarket Books and the Lannen Foundation. It was a conversation between DeChristopher and author Terry Tempest Williams.

The event not only offered a chance to hear from DeChristopher, as he provided further reflection on his time in prison and what he planned to do next in his life, but it offered an insightful analysis of the climate movement and movement building in general. It presented a wise perspective on the value of civil disobedience to the building of relationships in society.

I recorded audio of DeChristopher’s from my seat in the second row. The audio is good, although there is some background noise from people nearby talking and laughing. Also, WeAreMany.org recorded video, and I will share that video when it is up.

On Civil Disobedience

At the event, DeChristopher recalled, “I got a lot of great response from people who were not professional environmentalists.” However, “Professional environmentalists hated me at that point. They looked at me like I was a turd in the punch bowl trying to ruin the agenda they had been working on for years by talking about civil disobedience. And now there has been this tremendous shift just in the last few years where civil disobedience is embraced in the mainstream of the climate movement and even at the Sierra Club.”

He added this was a drastic shift form the days of former executive director Carl Pope traveling the country with the CEO of Chesapeake Energy to promote natural gas.

“I don’t think there’s been a deeper understanding of what civil disobedience is and what it is really valuable for,” DeChristopher explained. He continued, “There has to be actual risk, not just perceived risk.”

So much of what the current climate movement is doing is “photo-op style civil disobedience where everything is pre-arranged and the cops will draw a little box and they say, if you stand in this box, we’ll give you three warnings and we’ll take you to the station, process you and you’ll pay a $100 citation and you can go read about it in the newspapers the next day.”  The problem is, by “substituting perceived risk for actual risk and by doing that, we’ve missed out on part of the opportunity for education.”

From experience, DeChristopher described the power of civil disobedience to educate. In conservative areas of Utah, he had many people come to him wanting to talk about why he put himself in the position, where he faced time in jail. “They saw this person putting themselves in harm’s way” and had a “natural inclination to try and understand why.” They wanted to understand what he had done on an emotional level and that opened up space for a conversation about what led him to be concerned about climate change, which he might not have been able to discuss with that person if he had not taken action.

There also was a power to build the movement that DeChristopher experienced. As he faced the real possibility of doing time in prison, people flocked to support him. Many of them were women around his mother’s age, he said, and they saw that he was in trouble and vulnerable.
“We’ve underestimated that, that power of being needed to help someone out in this movement,” DeChristopher said. Being vulnerable gave DeChristopher the ability to draw people into the movement, who had not been organizing. “We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable,” he added.

The Political Choice to Not Take a Plea Bargain & How That Can Contribute to Movements

DeChristopher decided to go to trial and not take a plea bargain. He spoke about how this kind of decision could be used to build a movement as well.

He realized from his experience that plea bargains were a way to remove citizens from the legal process and concentrate “all the power in the hands of judges and prosecutors,” which was not what someone who wanted to encourage civic engagement could reasonably support. Plea bargains were also a way to solve the issue quietly and quickly out of view.

Once he went to prison, he further recognized that plea bargains were key in the mass incarceration of Americans in prisons. They were the “logistical means for locking up millions of people in this country. It would simply be logistically impossible and politically infeasible to have millions of jury trials each year.”

Plea bargains, he came to understand, were more than just a personal choice but a political choice. He highlighted his newfound understanding while highlighting activists from the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MICATS), who face felony charges for engaging in civil disobedience against Enbridge’s expansion of a pipeline. They plan to take their case to trial because they recognize that this could be an opportunity to grow the movement.

However, DeChristopher lamented that activists like those from MICATS had not received the kind of support they deserved from groups that put out calls, which inspired people to take bold action.

Christopher Wahmhoff of MICATS wedged himself into the Enbridge pipeline during a week of action in June that was promoted by a coalition of climate actions groups called Fearless Summer. Enbridge, as DeChristopher explained, had ” taken the opportunity after the oil spill into the Kalamazoo River to greatly expand and reroute their pipeline with no permits or environmental analysis under the guise of repairing their pipeline.” A month later, others locked themselves to construction equipment to shut down Enbridge operations again.

DeChristopher shared his disappointment with the movement for forgetting these activists. He said the movement has to learn how to “carry civil disobedience all the way through” and not leave people behind.

What Entered the Void After Hurricane Sandy: The Occupy Movement

In addition to what he had learned about the power of civil disobedience, he also spoke about the power of relationships in communities. The Occupy movement had been an exploration of new ways to relate with one another in society, he said.

One may have wondered what they were doing, spending so much time sitting around and talking, but it turned out “what they were doing was exploring new ways of relating to one another and preparing themselves for their future.” Why that was important was not clear until Hurricane Sandy.

DeChristopher gave a powerful comparison of what entered the voids after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.

The first thing to fill the void after Hurricane Katrina was military power and corporate power, he said. “The first thing to rush in was the military, chasing people through the streets breeding division, breeding fear. And then corporations rushed in to privatize public services, privatize schools, get rid of public housing and generally build corporate power. And part of the legacy of Hurricane Katrina was the increase of corporate power and the fracturing of communities, spreading people out, breeding division between people and government.”

In contrast, “When Sandy hit, the first thing to flow into that void was Occupy and the networks and relationships that had been built in the Occupy movement. They had been on the ground everywhere that hurricane hit.” He said tens of thousands of people had been on the ground providing relief as part of the Occupy movement and had been so well-organized that when FEMA and the Red Cross showed up Occupy leaders were contacted to help them figure out what areas needed supplies.

DeChristopher also told a story of an Occupy activist who had been shoveling out a basement when the homeowner came up to talk to him. The occupier immediately recognized the homeowner because he was the cop who beat him up in Zuccotti Park.

The occupier asked if the cop recognized him and the cop answered, no, I don’t. Should I? To which the occupier said he had been beaten up by him and had to go to the hospital. The cop said he was sorry and they began to talk. The cop wanted to understand why he was there shoveling out his basement and that gave the occupier an opportunity to share his vision for how people power could change the world and how citizens could take responsibility for their society.

“If we’re organized and empowered, if we have these relationships and these networks and feel like we can take ownership of our society,” DeChristopher stated, “we can respond to the inevitable struggles and hardship of climate change in a way that brings us closer together in a way that strengthens our communities and strengthens our spirits.”

We cannot hold on to the status quo, DeChristopher declared. A new world will either be created by our inactions, which allow a “dystopic world” to sprout where you have institutions of government and corporations capitalizing off human alienation to dominate and control society or through relationships built there could be a world that is profoundly different.

The Choice to Form Relationships Must Be Made Before Disasters

DeChristopher made the point, “When those disasters hit and it suddenly seems like our actions are relevant, that’s too late to be making that choice.” Occupy made “that choice of what kind of community was going to be there and how resilient it was going to be” over a year before Sandy struck areas of New York.

He suggested the climate movement is in the middle of transitioning into a movement that is more focused on building relationships. Up until 2009, it had not focused on relationships because it was not a social movement. It was a “collection of lobbying groups” with “mostly professionals.” It was not grassroots or volunteer-driven and so there were no relationships to worry about nurturing.

DeChristopher added it is “more difficult to have to nurture relationships than to just pay somebody to repeat your talking points.” The movement is realizing that those relationships are important.

The Legacy of DeChristopher’s Action

Williams and DeChristopher said down to have a freewheeling discussion after his forty-five minute speech. One part that stuck out was Williams’ question, “What are you afraid of?” His answer was that he was afraid his story would scare people into obedience. He was afraid “the legacy of his action would be one of fear.”

In retrospect, it seems his fear could not be more unfounded. Williams pointed out that one of the reasons why the judge felt he had to sentence him to jail was the fact that his action had given him such a voice. That voice has inspired thousands to engage in action they would not have taken if DeChristopher had not acted.

When you are in the presence of DeChristopher, you look inward. You confront yourself and find yourself asking what you are doing to make sacrifices for this world. What more could you be doing to bring about a world that is more humane and just?

He said, “We need an unreasonable morality.” Indeed, what am I doing to be unreasonably moral in the face of so much corruption and injustice fueled by indifference, apathy and a capitalist drive to make a dollar off anything no matter its effect on Planet Earth?

We do not need to rush into action or travel far for a moment to put our bodies on the line. There are opportunities right in our own communities. And DeChristopher teaches us that we should prepare ourselves for that moment when we can make an unreasonably moral choice like DeChristopher did. We should train themselves to be on the look out for these situations where we can make ourselves vulnerable and take risks.

If this isn’t the role that one wishes to play, DeChristopher’s example shows us that there is another role. Compassionate human beings are needed to take interest in those who have taken risks. The MICATS activists and others like them deserve attention and support, as they have chosen to make an ultimate sacrifice and risk time in jail to keep land from becoming more polluted by oil.

The power of DeChristopher’s words, however, are not limited to the climate movement. I’d apply them to individuals like Aaron Swartz, Private Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Each engaged in profound acts because they felt they needed to take a stand so citizens could have more access to knowledge (in Swartz’s case) and documents, which were being concealed to prevent citizens from knowing the truth about what their government was doing in wars and in expanding the country’s massive surveillance apparatus.

One could say those fighting climate change are making a greater contribution to humanity than those engaged in acts of forceable transparency like Swartz, Manning and Snowden. Issues of transparency and secrecy pale in comparison to the need to slow down climate change so life can continue on Earth. But it is also true that Manning revealed information on how the President Barack Obama’s administration conspired with China to undermine talks in Copenhagen on addressing climate change. It is true that Manning revealed information that showed countries were competing for licenses to land in the Arctic so they can drill for oil, which will be very dangerous for the planet. And it is true that Snowden showed the world the inner workings of a surveillance apparatus that the government could easily turn on environmental activists to suppress them if they felt the movement was close to overpowering their agenda of serving big energy corporations.

Perhaps, one of the most motivating aspects of DeChristopher’s speech was the idea that we cannot stop catastrophic climate change and disasters are inevitable, but we can choose to live in a world that makes it possible to survive disasters. We can also treat disasters as opportunity as corporations have. Which is why Occupy is a great example of the kind of movement humanity needs; it is one of the few forces in recent years that showed a promise of threatening corporate power (and, unfortunately, DeChristopher could not participate when it was growing because he was in prison).

Corporations openly exploit disasters to reorganize society for their benefit and politicians have sycophantically helped them (Naomi Klein calls this the “Shock Doctrine”). The movement could be ready to do the same but, instead of building up society to create avenues for profits, avenues for community would be strengthened instead.

Disasters may be one of the last best hopes for moving people to create a world that puts love of people before the love of money, not just because of some utopian ideals but because that is what may be in the best interests of the human species.