In a Democracy Now! exclusive on Earth Day, climate change activist Tim DeChristopher joins us for his first interview since being released from federal custody after serving 21 months in detention. DeChristopher was convicted of interfering with a 2008 public auction when he disrupted the Bush administration’s last-minute move to sell off oil and gas exploitation rights in Utah. He posed as a bidder and won drilling lease rights to 22,000 acres of land in an attempt to save the property from oil and gas extraction. The auction itself was later overturned and declared illegal, a fact that DeChristopher’s defense attorneys were prevented from telling the jury. His case is the subject of the documentary, "Bidder 70," which will screen all over the country today to mark his release and Earth Day. The founder of the climate justice group Peaceful Uprising, Tim DeChristopher joins us to discuss his ordeal, his newfound freedom, and his plans to continue his activism in the climate justice movement.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As the world marks Earth Day, we spend the rest of the hour with climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher, who has just been released after 21 months in federal custody. Tim DeChristopher was convicted of interfering with a public auction in 2008 when he disrupted the Bush administration’s last-minute move to auction off oil and gas exploitation rights in Utah, where he was a student at the time. DeChristopher posed as a bidder, won drilling lease rights to 22,000 acres of land in an attempt to save the property from oil and gas extraction.
The auction itself was later overturned and declared illegal, a fact that Tim’s defense attorneys were prevented from telling the jury. They were also barred from informing jurors that Tim had raised the money for the initial payment to the Bureau of Land Management, a payment the BLM refused to accept.
Tim DeChristopher’s case is the subject of a documentary called Bidder 70, which will screen all over the country today to mark his release as well as Earth Day. Tim DeChristopher will give his first public address tonight at the Salt Lake City screening, which will be streamed to theaters around the country. Let’s go to a trailer from the film, Bidder 70, which opens for a week run in New York on May 17th.
AUCTIONEER: Two and a quarter in the back, and now to two and a half. Two and a half—
AUCTIONEER: Thank you. Do I have three and a half?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: They said, "Hi. Are you here for the auction?" And I said, "Yes, I am." And they said, "Are you here to be a bidder?" And I said, "Well, yes, I am."
AUCTIONEER: Sold, $50 to bidder number 70.
REPORTER: An environmentalist threw a controversial oil and gas lease auction into turmoil today.
REPORTER: Well, Tim DeChristopher says he’s willing to go to jail, and it’s possible that’s where he’ll wind up.
I think it’s fair to say you are unrepentant.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yes, I think that would be fair to say.
This is the formal charges against me, United States of America v. Tim DeChristopher.
UNIDENTIFIED: Do you feel outnumbered?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: A little bit. Three hundred million to one.
ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: When you take a courageous action that’s based in heart and courage, as Tim did, you’ll have people stand with you and beside you and follow in your footsteps.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: This is not the first time that we’ve had 10,000 people in one room reminding us that we are not alone.
RON YENGICH: Twelve citizens, like you are I, ought to be able to hear what the evidence is, and then they make the decision as to whether or not he committed a violation of law or the government did at the time.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: To see this land and this view, and to know that there’s not going to be an oil rig in the way, there’s not going to be a road cut right through the middle of it, there’s no way that I could ever regret what I did.
UNIDENTIFIED: Civil disobedience is forever linked not to living one’s principles, but being willing to suffer for those principles.
UNIDENTIFIED: When they close that door behind you, they don’t open up ’til they decide to let you go.
ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: If there was ever a moment in history for us to stand for climate justice, this is that moment!
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: The way that the environmental movement has been, it’s like a football game. And our team is getting slaughtered. The refs have been paid off, and the other side is playing with dirty tricks. And so, it’s no longer acceptable for us to stay in the stands. It’s time to rush the field, and it’s time to stop the game.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Bidder 70, directed by Beth and George Gage.
We go now to Salt Lake City to talk to Tim DeChristopher in his first national TV, radio interview since he was released Sunday, after spending 21 months in prison in detention facilities from California to Colorado. Tim DeChristopher is an activist and founder of the climate justice group Peaceful Uprising.
Tim, it’s good to have you back on Democracy Now! Welcome. How does it feel to be free?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: It feels great. It’s something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim, can you talk about this journey you have taken? I mean, we described it, and folks heard it, watched it in the clip that we just played, but talk about what motivated you, what you did back in 2008, and how you feel about what you did, today, almost two years—after almost two years of incarceration.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Start with the day. Tell us what you did, and then take us through that period of incarceration.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, that day in 2008, I showed up at the auction and walked in and decided to do whatever I could to stand in the way of it and thought that might be, you know, making a speech or disrupting it somehow. But when I walked in, they asked me if I wanted to be a bidder. And so, I said, "Yes," and saw right away that there was an opportunity to have a serious impact on it. And so I took that opportunity and started bidding, started outbidding all the oil companies. And that caused enough of a delay then that it drew a lot of attention to the auction and to the laws that the government wasn’t following in holding that auction. So it was ultimately overturned by the new Obama administration. And then, a few months later, I was indicted on a couple of felony charges. And that led to a very long legal process and also my new role as an activist, traveling around the country and kind of developing a new skill set for myself. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Tim, a quick question: Since you were able to pay for the land, not that you had those finances yourself, but in raising money, why weren’t you able just to buy the land?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: 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. And that’s also something that I wasn’t able to tell the jury during the trial.
AMY GOODMAN: And the land that was being auctioned off, that was being bought by the oil and gas companies for drilling, what was it? Where was it?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Most of the parcels that I won were 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. They’re kind of the red rocks area that Utah is famous for around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: And in the end, this auction was invalidated, was—
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —considered, in fact, illegal? Is that right?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yes. It was overturned because they didn’t follow some of their own standards. The one thing that was never really looked into in the government’s own investigations of what was wrong with the auction was the fact that they never followed a secretarial order, a law that was passed in 2001, that was put into effect in 2001, requiring the BLM and other agencies of the Department of the Interior to weigh the impacts of climate change whenever making major decisions like this, particularly ones involving resource development. That law has been on the books since 2001, that every agency within the Department of the Interior has to weigh the impacts of climate change in making their decisions. And it’s been completely ignored ever since.
AMY GOODMAN: So you ended up in jail. Now, you were charged during the Bush years, but it was the Obama Justice Department that went after you, that ultimately tried you, Tim.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I was actually charged during the Obama years. I was charged in April of 2009.
AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested during the Bush era, the end of his term.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Right, I was arrested during the Bush years, and then the entire course of my legal process developed under the Obama administration.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you were convicted. Tell us where you were sent first and what this almost two years of imprisonment has meant for you. Describe the details of the jails and the prisons you were in and how you lived your life there.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, I was in five different institutions altogether. First I went to Davis County Jail, the day of my sentencing. I had been told that since I had spent two-and-a-half years on pretrial on personal recognizance with no bail and had no problems during that time, that I would probably be given a date to self-surrender to a prison. But the judge didn’t really like the things that I said in my sentencing hearing, so he took me into custody right there and sent me to county jail. And I sat there for a month. And then—
AMY GOODMAN: Tim, what did—what did you say?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: At my sentencing?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I spoke for about a half an hour at my sentencing. It was the first time that I was able to speak openly in a court, so I had a lot of things to say. And primarily, I told the judge why I did it and that I would do it again and that I had no regrets and that nothing he was going to do was going to change that. So, he certainly didn’t like that, took me into custody right there.
And then, after Davis County Jail, I was sent to a private prison in Pahrump, Nevada, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, and I spent a few weeks there, and then was sent to federal prison in Herlong, California, and was there until May of 2012, and then was sent to Englewood prison in Littleton, Colorado. And then, at the end of last October, I—
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t that where—isn’t that where the former Illinois governor is, Rod Blagojevich, and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yes, yes. Yeah, they were in a different facility there, because they both have longer sentences. So I was in the minimum security facility. They were in the low-security facility, because they both have over 10 years to serve. So, I never saw either of them. And then—
AMY GOODMAN: Why were you moved so much?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, the first couple of moves were simply because I was taken into custody before I was assigned to any prison. That’s the—that’s why most people who aren’t a danger to society are allowed to self-surrender directly to a prison, because it takes some time for the Bureau of Prisons to decide where they’re going to put somebody and to find an open spot for them. So, my time in Davis County and in the facility in Pahrump was just a holding pattern.
As far as why I was sent to Pahrump, Nevada, that’s a special deal that CCA has, the Corrections Corporation of America. All the 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. I couldn’t tell that there was any reason for anyone to be there, other than the fact for CCA to make some money off them for a few weeks.
And then, once I went to Herlong, I was sent to isolation for an email that I had sent to a friend of mine. And to get out of isolation, I had to let my friends know what was going on. And they organized a massive call-in to the Bureau of Prisons. They were calling the whole chain of command with thousands of phone calls asking why I was put in isolation. And so they had to release me, because they had to admit that I had done nothing wrong to be put into isolation.
AMY GOODMAN: Was it just sending the email or what you said in the email?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: It was the—what I said in the email. 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.
And the guard had the email, a copy of the email that I had sent, in his hands. And I said, "You can see right there that I’m clearly not threatening anyone; I’m talking about giving away money that was given to me." And he said, "But you used the word 'threaten.'" And I said, "Well, I could have said there was a threat of rain; it doesn’t mean I’m going to hurt somebody." And he said, "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."
And that was the end of it, until they started getting thousands of phone calls. But it definitely made them nervous once they got all those phone calls. I think the thing that worries bureaucrats like that most is that people are paying attention to them, and they didn’t like that attention. And then, also, 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?" And I don’t think the prison officials liked that, either. So, shortly after that, they transferred me to Colorado.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim, you have now been released. You left a halfway house yesterday. You’ll be speaking publicly in a big Q&A for the first time tonight after the showing of Bidder 70 in Salt Lake City. That will be live-streamed around the country. It’s Earth Day. What is your message? What is your message to someone who’s deeply concerned about climate change but is afraid, thinking perhaps they don’t have two years to spend in prison? Your thoughts about what needs to be done now, and what you plan to do?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, 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. So, you know, mostly we need people taking action, and nobody can really tell you what that action should be. You know, I think most professional activists and most experienced activists, if I had told them what I was going to do beforehand, they would have said, "No, that’s a bad idea." And, in fact, most professional activists told me afterwards that it was a bad idea. Most professional environmentalists reacted very negatively to what I did. And yet it had an impact and turned out to be a very positive experience for me. Despite the fact that I had to deal with some negative consequences, it’s something that was a great learning experience for me and something that I’m grateful for. And so, I think we need to take more of those risks and have more experimentation in this movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim, after being in the halfway house and coming out right now, Peaceful Uprising, your organization, where are you planning to go with it? Right now President Obama is in the midst of making a critical climate change decision. It’s around the Keystone XL pipeline. Will you be involved with that?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I’m trying to support Peaceful Uprising and other efforts in the movement in any way that I can. I’m just trying to plug in. You know, the climate movement, I think, has made a lot of progress in the past four years. I think we’re in a much better place now than we were in 2009 as a movement. I think we have a serious movement that’s not impeded nearly as much by the big green groups that are in the Washington bubble, which was our problem in 2009. And, you know, I’ve been relatively isolated for the past couple years, and a lot has happened during that time. I mean, 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, you know, so I can’t necessarily tell people exactly what to be doing right now, because I’ve kind of been on the outside—or on the inside, so to speak. But, you know, now I’m just kind of taking my cues from other folks and seeing where I can plug in and how I can support the activists that already have things in the works.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim, I want to—
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And I know there’s a lot of great stuff in the movement going on, like the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas. So, you know, I’m just trying to support those efforts.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you so much for being with us.