- Tim DeChristopher
founder of the Climate Disobedience Center. He spent 21 months in federal custody for posing as a bidder in 2008 to prevent oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of public land in his home state of Utah. He is the subject of the documentary Bidder 70.
The armed occupation of a federally owned wildlife outpost in remote Oregon has entered its second week. A self-styled right-wing antigovernment militia calling itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in support of two ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fires that burned federal land. Leaders of the occupation include Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees, prompting a standoff with federal rangers in 2014 in Nevada, during which an armed militia rallied to his support. A recent piece by the website Waging Nonviolence compares the federal government’s handling of the Bundy case and that of Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who spent 21 months in federal custody for posing as a bidder in 2008 to prevent oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management in his home state of Utah. DeChristopher joins us to discuss.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The armed occupation of a federally owned wildlife outpost in remote Oregon has entered its second week. A self-styled right-wing antigovernment militia calling itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a week ago Saturday in support of two ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fires that burned federal land. Leaders of the occupation include Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees, prompting a standoff with federal rangers in 2014 in Nevada, during which an armed militia rallied to his support.
The occupied wildlife refuge in Oregon is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM. The website Waging Nonviolence recently published a piece titled “Why was a climate activist persecuted, but the Bundy militia shown patience?” The piece compares the federal government’s handling of the Bundy case and that of Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who spent 21 months in federal custody for posing as a bidder in 2008 to prevent oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management in his home state of Utah.
Tim DeChristopher, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about how you view this Oregon standoff, how this militia is being treated, and how you were treated?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, I really see them as totally separate situations, that, you know, other than the fact that the BLM is involved with both, I don’t see them as being very similar or having much overlap. You know, a lot of people have made a big deal out of the fact that I was punished for my acts of civil disobedience, which were entirely nonviolent, and the Bundy clan, even almost two years now after pointing their weapons at federal agents, have had no consequences. And, you know, I think the—part of the reason for that is that I think civil disobedience is actually more threatening to the authority of government than armed action is. I mean, part of the reason that I do civil disobedience is that I think it’s actually stronger than violent resistance. I think it’s more effective. I think it’s more powerful. And I think our government realizes that, which is why they’re often more willing to punish nonviolent civil disobedience activists than they are to punish folks like the Bundys, that just flash weapons but don’t really undermine the moral authority of our government. In fact, they reinforce it by spreading fear in our society and lifting up the government as an institution that is somehow keeping us safe from people like that.
AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted—
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Um, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted, “The Bundy Klan pointed loaded weapons at gov officials … and faced no consequences.” Explain—
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what they did. And then explain what you did in 2008 back in Utah.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, so it was almost two years ago that the Bureau of Land Management came to round up some of the cattle of Cliven Bundy after he had been not paying his grazing fees for decades, just basically being a freeloader on public lands, and owed nearly a million dollars to the government, to the taxpayers. And, you know, rather than face the consequences of his irresponsibility, he called up all of his buddies with guns, and they basically threatened all the federal agents who were there and forced them to back down. And, you know, I think that that decision of not having another Ruby Ridge kind of blowout at the time was probably pretty reasonable on behalf of the government, but the fact that then they didn’t do anything afterwards—they knew who all the people involved were, and they still haven’t had any level of accountability for those people, who, you know, were pictured on the front of newspapers across the country, pointing their assault rifles at federal agents, which is a pretty serious crime. You know, so I think it’s a little ironic that myself, as a convicted felon for doing a nonviolent civil disobedience action, is never allowed to touch a gun for the rest of my life. I’m never allowed to touch a firearm. But the Bundys, who actually committed a felony with a firearm, are still able to flash their guns and kind of get whatever they want.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you did back in 2008. In Christmas, you just finished a final exam at the University of Utah, right, and went over to this protest outside of a—outside of—well, explain what the auction was.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, so it was an auction of public lands. They were—they were Bureau of Land Management lands. They were being auctioned off to the oil and gas industry. It was at the very end of the Bush administration, so this was sort of the last big giveaway to the oil and gas industry before Bush left office. And they were lands right outside of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. And so I went there and ended up getting signed up to be a bidder, and outbid all of the oil companies. And, you know, the only weapon that I had was a bid card for that, that had the number 70 on it. And, you know, I was completely civil the entire time and completely open throughout the whole process, you know, and said exactly what I was doing and why, and ended up being prosecuted for that and convicted of two felonies and served 21 months in federal prison for that.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were trying to save this public land from being drilled. And in the end, interestingly, though you went to prison for, what, almost two years, a judge ruled that some of that land around Arches National Park would remain public. So, in a sense, you actually did succeed in your goal.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. You know, the first thing that happened was, as soon as the new administration came in, the new secretary of interior, Ken Salazar, invalidated that auction, admitted that they weren’t following their own rules in the first place, and so most of those parcels were taken off of the auction block and rescinded. And then that kicked off a very long process which is still going on today, deciding what the ultimate fate of those parcels are. That began a new master leasing program for that whole district of the Bureau of Land Management, in which they have thoroughly evaluated which of these parcels might be appropriate for drilling, because they’re in existing oil fields, and which ones should be made off-limits. So a lot of the parcels that I bid on are now in the process of being made permanently off-limits to drilling.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to turn to a clip from the Oregon occupation, which also stems from a fight over public lands in the West. The two ranchers whose cause the Bundys have embraced, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, turned themselves over to federal authorities in California for setting a series of fires on federal land, including one allegedly intended to cover up evidence of deer poaching. At a news conference, Ammon Bundy spoke out in defense of the Hammonds.
AMMON BUNDY: As you may know, Dwight and Steven Hammond are being forced to report to prison today for a crime they did not commit and they’ve been put twice in jeopardy for. They’ve already served prison time for this already, and now they’re being forced to go back again. … Myself and many, many, many others, for weeks on end, put all the energy we possibly could to try to keep them from having to go into this prison, and we feel that we have exhausted all prudent measures and have been ignored. And it has been left to us to decide whether we allow these things to go on or whether we make a stand so they will not happen to other people across this country, so they will not come into our homes and take away our rights, and they will not come into our children’s home and take away their rights.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the Hammonds were served something like a year and three months for previous arsons. You served close to two years in prison as you tried to defend the public land. Your final comments on what you feel should be understood about public land and how nonviolent protesters are treated?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, well, I—you know, I really don’t believe that the occupation by the Bundys has all that much to do with the case of the Hammonds. You know, I’m certainly sympathetic to the injustices within our criminal justice system and the problem with mandatory minimums and things like that. I really don’t hear that being articulated by the Bundys as a critique of what they’re doing. And their action doesn’t seem to be very connected. You know, their action seems to grow more out of the wise use movement, which has been mostly sponsored and driven by the fossil fuel industry to try to—to get these lands out of the public hands and into their private hands, so they can exploit them. That seems to be the real motivation here. And I think we need to be paying more attention to that. You know, if the Bundys wanted to make a clear critique of mandatory minimums and, you know, wanted to stand in front of the courthouse or blockade the front of the jail, I would be entirely supportive of that. You know, I think attacking the concept of a national wildlife refuge doesn’t really make sense in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you and others have set up the Climate Disobedience Center, Tim DeChristopher. Explain what you hope it will accomplish.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, the Climate Disobedience Center was formed as the climate movement is increasingly turning towards civil disobedience, because our government is not doing what’s necessary to meet the climate crisis, and most of the attempts of working within the system that the climate movement has tried for decades have not been working. And so, we are increasingly turning toward civil disobedience, and our center is trying to tap the full potential of that civil disobedience to really tell a better story and shift the public narrative and also establish some legal precedence with the use of the necessity defense and other ways to really tap that full potential of what has always been one of the most powerful tools for social change in our history.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the necessity defense?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: The necessity defense is the argument that an activist had to act out of necessity to prevent a greater harm. So, you know, a lot of us in the climate movement, when we’re being charged with crimes, we’re being charged with trespass or obstructing a train or things like that, you know, that certainly didn’t hurt anyone, might have been a little inconvenience for a corporation, and we’re doing it to prevent the harm of climate change that really threatens to collapse our entire civilization and cause massive refugees, cause massive starvation and a huge list of extremely serious impacts that we’re trying to stop. So it’s truly a necessity to take that kind of action to stand up to the fossil fuel industry when our government fails to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, I want to thank you very much for being with us, climate activist and founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, spent 21 months in federal custody, in prison, for posing as a bidder in 2008 to prevent oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of public land in his home state of Utah. He’s subject of the documentary Bidder 70. He is in Seattle right now in defense of the Delta 5, a group of environmentalists, climate activists, who are going on trial this week, as they tried to protest and stop a mile-long oil train, what many call bomb trains, trying to challenge it, using the necessity defense around the issue of climate change. This is Democracy Now!
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And critically, critically, Amy, those activists that I’m here defending didn’t need AR-15s or assault rifles in order to do civil disobedience, because the two can’t really go together.
AMY GOODMAN: Instead, what they had was?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Instead, they had courage and a willingness to put their own bodies on the line. And that’s really the heart of civil disobedience. And that’s not what’s happening with the Bundy occupation, but it’s what’s increasingly happening in the climate movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, thanks so much.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.