Environmental and climate change activist Tim DeChristopher was released on April 21 from a federal half-way house after 21 months of incarceration.
At his release party the following day – Earth Day – a sold-out crowd at the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City watched the documentary “Bidder 70”, after which DeChristopher did a one-hour question and answer session.
“Bidder 70”, made by filmmakers Beth and George Gage, detailed DeChristopher’s actions at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil and gas lease auction in December of 2008. Those actions led to DeChristopher’s imprisonment and notoriety.
“I think it was the first time he actually saw the film,” said Kate Finneran, the co-director of Before it Starts, a Moab based non-profit fighting tar sands and oil shale development.
The film was released after DeChristopher was sent to prison.
The 2008 auction in Salt Lake City came at the end of the Bush presidency and was seen by many in the environmentalist community as an illegal, last ditch attempt to auction oil and gas parcels in Utah before Obama’s inauguration, said Julianne Waters, the co-founder of Peaceful Uprising. Peaceful Uprising was created by DeChristopher, Waters, and Ashley Anderson after the auction.
DeChristopher, who had just finished an economics exam at the University of Utah, went to the protest outside of Utah’s BLM office, where the auction was taking place. He managed to get inside the building and was invited by a desk clerk to enter the auction as Bidder No. 70.
He began bidding, drove up prices, and won 14 parcels worth $1.8 million. Most of the parcels were near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Because he had no experts or diagrams with him, his behavior aroused suspicion and he was taken from the auction and questioned. When asked, he acknowledged that he was not a real bidder.
After the land auction Waters and Anderson helped DeChristopher raise money for his legal defense and to pay for the parcels that he had won.
“We didn’t create Peaceful Uprising until two or three weeks after the auction,” Waters said. “It was born out of the action. Our long term vision is working for a more sustainable and just world.”
Thousands of people came out to support DeChristopher and enough money was raised to pay for the parcels that he had won, Waters said.
But the BLM refused to accept DeChristopher’s payment, saying that he was not a normal bidder.
“We said (to the BLM) ‘here we’ve got the money’ and it was within the allotted time. They refused it. They wanted to make an example of him,” Waters said.
At his trial, months later, DeChristopher and his attorneys were forbidden from mentioning this fact or the motives behind his actions. They were also forbidden from informing the jury that the lease auction had been deemed unlawful. After rejecting plea bargains for as little as 30 days in jail, DeChristopher was indicted by a federal grand jury.
The 21 months that DeChristopher served (20 days of which were in solitary confinement for using the word “threaten” in an e-mail) did not break him, as his lawyers had warned him it might.
“There wasn’t a lot I could control, so there wasn’t a lot to worry about,” DeChristopher said of the minimum-security prisons that he was incarcerated in three states. “If not a vacation, it was a retreat — like a monastery.”
DeChristopher’s actions at the auction have demonstrated a rift between the tactics of more mainstream environmental groups and the direct action advocated by groups like Peaceful Uprising.
“A lot of folks said, “This is bad. He shouldn’t have done it. We get labeled,'” said Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, who won’t take a position on “that whole crazy thing.”
Wagner does, however, applaud DeChristopher for standing up for his beliefs and paying the price.
“It’s a tragedy, the fact he spent nearly two years in jail when white-collar crime goes unpunished in this country,” Wagner said.
Waters feels that there are situations, like the 2008 auction, when approved methods of activism are outdated and ineffectual.
“They (another environmental group) filed a motion at the 11th hour the night before the auction. Did that stop the auction? No,” she said. “Do you know what stopped the auction? A young man who held up a paddle and said, ‘I’ll take that. I’ll take that.’ That stopped the auction. It takes a diversity of tactics.”
That difference in approach brought attention to resource management practices on federal lands.
“Tim DeChristopher’s case has helped raise national awareness about many of the issues facing Greater Canyonlands and Southern Utah, including plans for oil and gas drilling that conflict with people’s expectations for how lands surrounding our national parks should be managed,” said Mathew Gross, the media director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).
DeChristopher is about to embark on a speaking tour across the U.S. for the coming summer. In the fall he will be matriculating at the Harvard Divinity School, a nonsectarian institution for aspiring religious leaders.
And though he still very much supports the work of Peaceful Uprising, DeChristopher will not be involved in the day-to-day running of the organization, said Waters.
DeChristopher’s message of individuals doing what they feel needs to be done and not waiting for someone else to take care of it is something that Anderson believes is needed now more than ever. Anderson is the co-founder of Peaceful Uprising and now co-directs Before it Starts here in Moab.
“People feel passionate about wanting to stop tar sands and oil shale mining and they don’t know exactly what to do. But they are in the same boat as Tim was when he went into the auction,” he said. “Doing your first bold action and making a sacrifice is never convenient but it has to happen.”
Finneran, Anderson’s partner and co-director at Before it Starts, agreed.
“(DeChristopher’s actions) gave people a sense of their own power, that they could change things,” she said. “Not just going to a march or a rally or sending letters. That they could interrupt something bad that was happening and change it.”