Climate Justice Activist Tim DeChristopher on Going to Prison for Disrupting Land Auction
Climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher, who was given a two-year sentence in prison for making fake bids in a Utah public land auction that later was found to be corrupt, is finally free. He appeared on “Democracy Now!” this morning to give his first interview since being released Sunday from the halfway house where he was finishing his sentence.
The bids he placed were for land that oil and gas companies wanted for exploitation of resources. The land he won was “right around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeastern Utah. A few of them that I won were in the Book Cliffs area in eastern Utah.” He adds, “They’re kind of the red rocks area that Utah is famous for around the world.”
…I was primarily motivated by the threat of climate change. I saw that what we were doing as a movement wasn’t working, and we needed to be taking more serious action. And I honestly can’t say that when I got into this in 2008 I understood everywhere that it would lead and the impact that it would have on me. And now, in retrospect, I’m even more glad that I did it. It’s been a more positive experience than I ever could have anticipated. And it’s been a great growth experience for me, including my time of incarceration…
DeChristopher had only intended to disrupt the auction by giving a speech, but when he was asked if he would like to be a bidder, he said, “yes,” because he saw an opportunity.
The action he took brought attention to the corruption of the land auction, however, the administration of President Barack Obama still had him indicted on felony charges.
DeChristopher had not planned to buy the land, but, weeks after, he raised enough money where he could purchase the land. He shares, “The Bureau of Land Management just decided not to accept my payment when I offered it to them a couple weeks after the auction. They said that I wasn’t a normal bidder, so they simply didn’t accept it.” During his trial, he was not allowed to tell this to the jury.
One might remember that there was an episode where DeChristopher was moved into solitary confinement because of an “unnamed Congress person.” [I covered this story as it developed in March 2012.]
With regards to this chapter in his incarceration, DeChristopher shares:
…I was asking a friend of mine—I had heard a rumor about a company that had supported my legal defense fund. I had heard a rumor that they were cutting all their U.S. manufacturing jobs and shipping those overseas. So I sent an email to a friend of mine asking her if she knew anything about that and asking her to look into it. And I said that I would write a letter to the owner of that company asking him if it was true. And also in the—I said, in the letter, “I’ll threaten to give the money away if this is in fact true.” And that word “threaten” set off some kind of red flag, and the lieutenants there at the prison said that they were getting requests from Washington to put me in isolation because I was making threats in an email.
He says a guard had a copy of the email and he told the guard, “You can see right there that I’m clearly not threatening anyone; I’m talking about giving away money that was given to me.” The guard said, “But you used the word ‘threaten.’” DeChristopher responded, “Well, I could have said there was a threat of rain; it doesn’t mean I’m going to hurt somebody.” To which the guard maintained, “Well, when I get these requests from Washington, I’ve got to do something about it to make it look like I’m responding to it, so I’ve got to lock you up.”
Thousands of phone calls came in and that made the bureaucracy nervous. He was returned to general population soon in the federal prison in Herlong, California.
…Once I got back into the general population of the prison, all the other inmates found out what happened, and their response was kind of like, “Wow! You can fight back against these people.” And so then I had a lot of inmates coming to me and saying, “Well, what do you think we can do about this? And how can we get more attention on these issues?”
DeChristopher suggests that prison officials were afraid he could develop into an organizer or leader so he was transferred to Englewood prison in Littlewood, Colorado.
The prison industrial-complex had an opportunity to make some money off him. He was imprisoned at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) facility in Pahrump, Nevada, after being transferred from Davis County jail. His incarceration in the CCA facility, DeChristopher says, was part of some “special deal” that CCA has with the Bureau of Prisons where “inmates in the west, when they’re being transferred from county jail to a federal facility, spend at least a few weeks in that private prison.”
Remarkably, when asked what he will do now that he has been released, he acknowledges that he has been isolated. “The Occupy movement didn’t exist when I got locked up. You know, the biggest social movement in this country in my lifetime happened when I was behind bars, and I only saw it on TV,” which makes it difficult for him to advise others in the country on what they should be doing now.
When asked about fighting climate change and what should be done now, he honestly states:
…I don’t think anybody knows what needs to be done now. And I think that’s something that we shouldn’t necessarily shy away from telling people, from telling other activists, and especially from telling young people, that, you know, there’s a lot of things that we’ve tried, and most of which hasn’t worked, especially on climate change, and especially on trying to get our government to do something about climate change…
The interview shows that the Obama Justice Department’s decision to go ahead and imprison him only made him a stronger activist and a more resolute person. He has no regrets about making the fake bids.
DeChristopher notes that professional activists told him that his act would not work or have a good effect. Professional environmental groups despised what he did. Yet, tonight, he will be doing a Q&A for a film about what he did, “Bidder 70,” and that will be livestreamed because he has developed much credibility in the climate justice movement.
When he was imprisoned, less than a month after people engaged in civil disobedience in front of the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline project. Many participants were inspired by him and the thousand or so arrests effectively called attention to the toxic pipeline and forced the Obama administration to delay approval for part of the project (which, unfortunately, now seems destined to be approved in its entirety).
Peter Yarrow of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary wrote in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, as DeChristopher was headed to prison, “There is a massive complicity in America today between the corporations that fund elections and the officeholders they elect. Actions like Tim’s are aimed at disrupting that complicity. For our children, for our country and for the world, we should honor his courage and self-sacrifice and pledge to follow in his footsteps, each in our own way.”
DeChristopher showed the possibility of what can happen if someone goes where they aren’t supposed to go, does what power will not permit citizens to do and says what the powerful do not want citizens to say. Individually, he is stronger today. As a movement, more are embracing civil disobedience to fight oil projects that will exacerbate climate change.
And, a key lesson from his act remains relevant: the more people who confront injustice, the more likely citizens are to be able to bring about change and prevent acts and developments, which will only worsen climate change.
Tim DeChristopher’s full interview on “Democracy Now!” this morning: