When Tim DeChristopher stepped out from the federal courthouse after hearing the guilty verdict against him, he walked among the crowd of supporters who had rallied around him since before his trial began. He raised his fist in the air, and they raised theirs.
They had just heard the news: The Salt Lake City jury found the climate activist guilty on two counts after he admittedly sought to disrupt a controversial oil and gas auction by posing as a bidder.
“Many before me have gone to jail for justice,” he told the crowd, “and if we are going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well.”
“I will,” someone in the crowd shouted.
It’s still not known how long DeChristopher will spend in jail. The charges carry a 10-year maximum. His sentencing is set for June 23. But while DeChristopher sits behind bars, he imagines a movement of civil disobedience rising, made of citizen activists like him willing to risk jail time.
“There will have to be real sacrifices,” DeChristopher told New West this week. “I think a lot of the environmental movement has approached it from the standpoint of, how can we have a sharp enough message that we can achieve this change without taking any personal risks or sacrifice?”
DeChristopher sees a growing rift between the traditional environmental movement, which he sees as becoming too cozy with the status quo, and a climate justice movement willing to challenge the system with more audacious actions.
“It’s evolved into this kind of one-click activism that tries to make it really easy for people,” he said. “The reality of the situation is, this isn’t going to be easy and there’s no witty message in the world that’s going to win this for us. We have very real opponents: the fossil fuels industry. They’re very powerful and they’re not going to give up.”
DeChristopher became a star among environmentalists when he disrupted an auction of oil and gas leases on Utah public lands, many of them close to national parks and pristine landscapes, by becoming a bidder.
He picked up the paddle for Bidder 70 and purchased 12 leases he had no intention of drilling on, worth about $1.8 million.
The Obama administration has since overturned the auction, saying many of the parcels never should have been put to bid in the first place, but it didn’t stop the administration from pursuing charges against DeChristopher. “He alone chose to cross the boundary of the rule of law and impact the lives of others and the government of the United States,” lead prosecutor John Huber would later tell jurors.
DeChristopher rejected plea deals, he said, to bring the case to light andput it in front of a jury. After a federal judge refused to allow him to make his case, that he was disrupting an auction that shouldn’t have been allowed in the first place, DeChristopher said, “I knew I was most likely going to be convicted.”
Two of DeChristopher’s key arguments, that the auction was later overturned and that he came up with the money to pay for the leases, were never heard.
“It was very frustrating to be in the courtroom because Tim and his attorneys were not really able to get his whole story out,” said Beth Gage, of Telluride, Colo., who with her husband George are making Bidder 70, a nonprofit documentary about DeChristopher’s story. They hope to screen the film at Utah’s Sundance film festival after a sneak peak at Telluride MountainFilm.
While George Gage was outside with the protesters, Beth Gage was inside the courtroom, feeling frustrated that jurors could learn little about the man she and her husband had spent more than two years following. They heard little about his environmental motivations.
“He was doing something that was fighting the greater atrocity, which was climate change and drilling around national parks,” Beth Gage said.
Outside, it was a different story. Supporters were singing protest songs and holding signs. Their songs turned to tears when word of DeChristopher’s verdict came out, George Gage said.
“If we can get this kind of movement in Salt Lake City, maybe we can start the same movement in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York,” he said. “If he gets an outrageous sentence, which I think is a very strong possibility, I think there will be outrage across the United States.”
Outrage is already growing. Supporter Robert Redford said DeChristopher’s prosecution “borders on absurd.” Another, author Bill McKibben, took the verdict as a call to action.
“If the feds think this prosecution/persecution will deter us from working for a livable planet, they couldn’t be more wrong,” he wrote. “Tim was brave and alone. We will be brave in quantity.”
That’s the sort of commitment DeChristopher says is needed.
His action, he said, has sent a message to his supporters that the system is broken and they can work to fix it. He plans to spend his last weeks of freedom on the activist trail.
“I think a lot of people have taken this as a reminder that we can be incredibly powerful in creating the world we want to see,” he said.