Tim DeChristopher’s 2008 protest at a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction has been labelled a“a Rosa Parks moment” for the climate justice movement. DeChristopher’s spontaneous act of civil disobedience resulted in 21 months in a federal prison, part of that time in isolation. It was a ridiculous sentence in light of the government’s later ruling that the auction itself was illegal. At DeChristopher’s sentencing hearing he said: “At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
On September 27, 2013 DeChristopher appeared in Chicago with Terry Tempest Williams at the Chicago History Museum. The event was sponsored by the Lannan Foundation and Haymarket Books and about four hundred people attended. 1 In this essay I will briefly summarize the substance of that inspiring meeting and intersperse a few related references. I will withhold elaborating on DeChristopher’s talk except to say that it was one of those rare experiences where I found myself in complete agreement with everything I heard. My amens were muffled only because of the venue in spite of my whole hearted affirmation.
Terry Tempest Williams introduced DeChristopher and began by describing her visit to the Art Institute that afternoon and her abiding fascination with Georgia O’Keefe’s painting “Sky Above Clouds”. Lying down on her back under the painting (and eventually being rebuked by the Art Institute security!) she began to see the clouds as melting pieces of ice. Her perception shifted and she noted that when we look at things from a different perspective “everything takes on a different resonance.” She compared this to DeChristopher’s statement to the judge at his sentencing that his actions represented “what love looks like.”
Williams read from a letter that DeChristopher had written her in February, 2010 noting the inspiration that the 1961 Freedom Rides had been for him. The climate movement has been missing this type of radical commitment. This is why the movement has failed. “Liberals are cowards” and the “rich make terrible activists” DeChristopher wrote. In concluding her introduction Williams recalled the words of Thoreau to “cast your whole vote.” 2
DeChristopher spoke for 45 minutes without notes and without the slick polish of canned TED presentation. He was passionate, intense, and without any rhetorical manipulation uncommonly inspiring.
DeChristopher began by narrating the shift in the climate change movement since 2009. The Big Green Groups have long employed a strategy of appeasement focused upon corporate alliances, leveraging inherited privilege and wealth, and lobbying those in power. DeChristopher emphasized that the confines of class have siloed the environmental movement from its natural allies. DeChristopher may have been informed by Naomi Klein who in a recent essay argued that the Big Green Groups are “more damaging than the climate deniers.” DeChristopher found that initially his own actions were unsupported by traditional environmentalists who saw him as a “turd in the punch bowl.”
The catastrophic failure of appeasement has liberated the climate justice movement for new theories of change. There is a paradigm shift happening and climate activists are currently in between the “privileged movement” of the last few decades and a new more confrontational paradigm. Today even the Sierra Club embraces the necessity of civil disobedience. The new paradigm is sober and focused with a deep understanding that stopping climate change is unrealistic. What is the goal?
DeChristopher believes that our understanding of civil disobedience must be deepened. It has to expand beyond mere pressure upon perceived power and invest in the education needed to build a movement. DeChristopher discovered that acts of civil disobedience are not simply protests but teachable moments which build bridges to undiscovered allies and establish dialogue with opponents. Conservatives in Utah could respect DeChristopher courage and commitment even when they disagreed with his politics. The human interest (why would someone do that?) opened up channels for communication that were not there before. DeChristopher’s action also called forth allies who gathered to support him and organize around him.
DeChristopher strongly underlined that “perceived risk” does not create a movement. There has to be real risk, real confrontation. Movements are build out of intentional vulnerability. “Photo op style civil disobedience” where we show up and perform some action in order to be photographed fund raising appeals is not going to build a movement. This was the m.o. of the Big Green Groups who have always been willing to feature activists in their publicity and use them in their fund raising, but have rarely supported them through their trials and sentencing.
DeChristopher emphasized that movements are built by holding on to people. He encouraged activists to refuse plea bargains and take every opportunity to go to trial calling this “carrying civil disobedience all the way through”. But he also called for activist organizations to support people through this commitment and not exploit them for their own needs. DeChristopher charged that the legacy of the recent decades is one of short term focus and organizational interest, driven by campaigns and expediency. We are now stumbling into a new confrontational paradigm empowered by an “unreasonable morality.” People and relationships are of primary importance.
The Occupy Movement emphasis upon building community is exactly what we need. DeChristopher talked about the 20,000 Occupiers on the ground when Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City. FEMA and Red Cross were more effective there than they had been in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina because the Occupy network was already in place and able to direct aid to the areas of greatest need. Bill McKibben says the same thing in his new book Oil and Honey, underlining the necessity of building community as our best response to the climate crisis.
DeChristopher concluded his talk by asserting that this is an exciting time to be an activist and that we should be actively engaged and hopeful for the future. The status quo can’t hold and there are now multiple opportunities to create a new world. The choice before us is what kind of new world will that be? Will it be a new world created by inaction and yielding to corporate power? Or will it be a new world created through active engagement and “unreasonable morality”?
CONVERSATION with TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
In the “conversation” after DeChristopher’s talk Terry Tempest Williams asked him about civil disobedience as a spiritual practice. DeChristopher compared it to athletic training which required an internal preparation that helps you decide ahead of time how to react in a crisis. We need community level preparation. In 2008 DeChristopher had been sharing his despair with a small group of others (only five people) who supported him in his action and remained supportive through the entire process. DeChristopher noted our unhealthy obsession with numbers. Community does not have to be large to be real, significant, and effective.
Williams then asked him about his enrollment in Harvard Divinity School where he will spend his three years on parole. DeChristopher said he realized in prison that what he was engaged in was spiritual work: navigating our humanity and connecting with out values, learning to articulate a vision for a healthy and just world as the work of spirit. He hopes what he learns at Harvard will help him facilitate dialogue these values and this vision. If the weapon of the institutions and corporations we are opposing is to oppress and weaken us through a strategy of alienation, then we need spiritual weapons, spiritual resistance, the tools of community, connection, and love to counter that alienation.
Williams asked about DeChristopher’s connection with wilderness and how it informs his activism. He told about his two years in the Red Rock Wilderness in western Utah working with teenagers. The most important thing he learned there was the liberation and empowerment of feeling small. We fill our natural spaces with things so that we feel as if we fit. But in the desert you realize you are very small; yet as small as we are our actions make an impact upon this very big world.
DeChristopher concluded by describing the trial instructions given by the judge to the jurors. The judge told them to only obey the law. A trial was not about conscience or their own sense of right and wrong. When he asked each one of them “will you do that?” each one responded “yes, we will”. DeChristopher noted how frightening it was to ponder an entire society and world repeating this interaction and abandoning their own moral authority, thereby losing their ability to withstand injustice. A key question for DeChristopher as he enters Divinity School is about the origins of that moral authority and how it can be strengthened and formed in community.
- The video posted by the Lannan Foundation is from a later presentation in the same series but is substantially identical to the presentation in Chicago. ↩
- Thoreau wrote in his Essay on Nonviolence: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” ↩