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Released from Prison, Climate Activist Tim DeChristopher on Civil Disobedience & Building Movements

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We turn now to climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher, who was released last month after 21 months in federal custody. 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 by posing as a bidder. He is the subject of the new documentary, “Bidder 70.” “We need to be building power as a social movement. One of the weaknesses for the climate movement,” DeChristopher explains, is that “we still have this huge divide between the political side of the movement that focuses on Washington and the grassroots side of the movement that’s been building real power.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Arise” by Bryan Cahall, who played outside the rally of our next guest’s sentencing hearing. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher, who was released last month after 21 months in federal custody. 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 exploration rights in Utah, where he was a student at the time. DeChristopher 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.

AMY GOODMAN: The auction itself was later overturned and declared illegal, a fact that DeChristopher’s defense attorneys were prevented from telling the jury. They were also barred from informing jurors that Tim DeChristopher 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 new documentary called Bidder 70. It’s opening in New York City today. Let’s go to a trailer from Bidder 70.

AUCTIONEER: Two and a quarter in the back, and now to two and a half. Two and a half—

BIDDER: Twenty-two.

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: That’s the trailer for Bidder 70, that’s B-I-D-D-E-R 70, directed by Beth and George Gage.

Well, we’re joined by Tim DeChristopher, who’s in New York for the film’s release at the QUAD theater starting tonight. Tim is an activist and founder of the climate justice group Peaceful Uprising.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tim.

Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: How did prison change you?

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I think it deepened my perspectives on social justice. I think it matured me, to some degree, you know, because it was two years that I spent with really one of the most oppressed populations in our society, and I saw the people who were struggling with that. I lived with those people for two years. And so, I think that really broadened my perspectives on a lot of things. And I think it will influence my activism, moving forward. You know, I don’t have any intention of slowing down or backing down at this point, but, you know, I see myself as much more than a climate activist. And I think I’ll be involved in a lot of different issues, moving forward now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve talked not only about the inmates you met, but also the correction officers you had to deal with, as well, and what you learned during your 21 months.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and that was a learning experience, as well. I mean, I’d say, in the time that I was locked up, I probably met maybe 50 people that should be locked up, that just really shouldn’t be on the street. And of those, about five were inmates. The rest were all guards. You know, and I think there’s many roles that our prison system serves, at this point, that further those in power. And one of those roles, I think, is an employment service for military veterans who are too psychologically damaged to work in the private sector. So, that was also an eye-opener for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that, because you take someone like Graner, the prison guard from Pennsylvania, who was in Abu Mumia-Jamal’s prison. He had been involved with assaulting his wife, and he ultimately was sent to Iraq. And there, he was involved with—well, he’s part of the story of the Abu Ghraib photos.


AMY GOODMAN: So, going one way and going the other. I wanted to turn to a clip from the documentary Bidder 70 that’s being released today.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Pretty much every Democrat or progressive in Utah is pretty fed up with our congressman, Jim Matheson, who calls himself a Democrat, but he’s more conservative than most Republicans. Pretty much all he cares about is just protecting corporate profits.

REP. JIM MATHESON: I’m the guy at the table who makes that happen.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And so, somewhat out of frustration, I put a “help wanted” ad on Craigslist: “Progressive congressional representative wanted to represent the people of Utah’s 2nd District in the United States House of Representatives. Must have solid moral values and resistance to selling out to corporate interests.” And that kind of started to take on a life of its own. I started to get applicants, people sending in their résumés, and it started to go viral on Twitter and Facebook. And so I pulled together all these progressive groups and said, “You know, we’ve got this opportunity to wage a real campaign here, and to do it in a completely different way that gets people’s attention and reminds us of what our role is supposed to be in a democracy, that we’re supposed to hire a representative who actually represents us.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Tim DeChristopher in the film Bidder 70. Congressman Matheson is still there.


AMY GOODMAN: This was right before you went to jail. You were trying to organize to get someone to run against him. Do you believe political organizing, elections are the way to go?

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I don’t think it’s the way to go, but I think it has to be part of social movement strategy. I think we need to be building power as a social movement. And, you know, I think one of the weaknesses for the climate movement, even though we’ve made a huge amount of progress in the past few years in building a stronger movement, we still have this huge divide between the political side of the movement, that focuses on Washington, and the grassroots side of the movement, that’s been building real power in front line communities in places like West Virginia and places like that. And they don’t really talk to each other. And I think that’s why we end up with things like, you know, the Waxman-Markey bill, that the big Green side of the movement focused on Washington, you know, thinks is the answer, and there’s no support behind it whatsoever, because all the grassroots people in the movement aren’t behind them. So I think there has to be that connection there to make both sides of that more powerful. And I think that’s the next step for the—one of the next steps for the climate movement.

And, you know, what we did there in Utah against Jim Matheson, that was—that was an experiment. We were just trying to engage with the political system in a different way. And, you know, that’s something that I hope we have more of, just that creativity and experimentation. You know, I think there’s been really two progressive approaches to electoral politics over the past generation, and that’s either voting for the lesser of two evils or not voting. Like, both of those strategies have been pursued pretty seriously, and they’ve both been disasters. But I think that’s—those two represent a pretty small range of what’s possible, the possible ways to engage with the political system—not that a Craigslist “help wanted” ad is the answer, but it got people to think about it and engage with the system in a different way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk about how you initially got involved in the climate movement in Utah and what drew you to it, and also what you see are some of the challenges for that grassroots movement to move forward now in this—in the age of Obama.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: You know, I’d been kind of loosely involved as an armchair activist in the environmental movement for a while. And over the course of 2007 and 2008, I was becoming more and more concerned about climate change. And that was kind of, you know, a step behind when the scientific community was realizing that most of their worst-case-scenario projections for climate change were in fact overly optimistic. And so, that was kind of sinking into me a step later. And at the same time, I was studying economics, and I was lucky enough to be involved in a progressive economics program that was studying things like corporate personhood and how change really happens in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: At the University of Utah?

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Ironically, the University of Utah has one of the more progressive economics programs in the country. And I was also studying social movement history and learning how change has happened historically in this country and realizing that civil disobedience and tactics like that have always been an important part of diverse movements, and that it took those kind of sacrifices in order for people outside of the official power structure to create change. And so, I was building up that kind of commitment over the course of 2008 to take that kind of action and just looking for an opportunity, and didn’t know what that might be. And then this auction rolled around, and it turned out to be a way that I could actually have an influence.

AMY GOODMAN: So you disrupt the auction. You—by just putting up your bidder paddle.


AMY GOODMAN: You buy, like all the oil and gas guys there are buying. And then they arrest you. I wanted to ask you about what Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Huber said during your sentencing. He said, quote, “The rule of law is the bedrock of our civilized society, not acts of '[civil] disobedience' committed in the name of the cause of the day.” Tim DeChristopher, as you’ve just come out of 21 months in prison, your response?

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, you know, I thought that was kind of an overly simplistic view, because if the rule of law is the bedrock of our society, then we have to understand that the bedrock of the rule of law is our shared moral values as a citizenry. And throughout our history, it’s been civil disobedience that has aligned the two whenever they grow apart. And especially in this country, civil disobedience is part of why we have the rule of law today. You know, even the revolutionaries who instituted our system had previously been engaged in civil disobedience. And they set up this legal system where the core part of our legal system, the foundation of it, was jury trials.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds. Are you sorry you did what you did?

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: No, not at all. It’s worked out better than I ever expected, and the consequences were something that I could deal with, and they weren’t as bad as I had been afraid of.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, released last month after 21 months in prison for bidding in a public auction of oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of public land in his home state of Utah.

That does it for the show. I’ll be speaking—I’ll be giving the commencement address at Hampshire College tomorrow in Massachusetts. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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