HERE under the harsh blue lights, in a cavernous ballroom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., people are celebrating the clean-energy revolution with their hips. It’s April 16, 2011, the second night of Power Shift, a biennial climate conference best described as a sort of TED summit for young climate activists. Whether you’re a Greenpeace organizer or a recruiter for an environmental master’s program, Power Shift is the place to trade ideas and phone numbers. Many of the attendees are undergrads, few are older than 30, and all are shaking it to a soundtrack of electro-pop and Ryan Adams. A lot of them wear their beliefs on their chests. One T-shirt reads iMATTER. Some are more colloquial: FUCK COAL, FUCK STRIP MINING.
Stage lights cue the next speaker. He’s big—35 pounds heavier than the first time I saw him talk, about a year ago—and he wears an odd piece of flair: a small orange scarf. His shaved head gleams under the lights. The crowd erupts; he smiles and speaks softly.
“Thank you for that very nice welcome,” he says. “I wish I could give you an equally nice speech. I wish I could say something really nice today that would make everyone feel really good. But sometimes the truth isn’t very nice, and it needs to be said anyway. … The truth that our movement has not been willing to talk about is that it’s probably too late for any amount of emissions reductions to prevent the collapse of our industrial civilization.”
Silence. The revolution has been paused.
Tim DeChristopher, 30, is one of Power Shift’s keynote speakers, following the author Bill McKibben; Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Van Jones, President Obama’s deposed green-jobs guru, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Josh Fox, the director of the Emmy-winning documentary Gasland, an investigation into the impacts of natural-gas drilling; and Al Gore. DeChristopher has not written any bestselling books, he doesn’t have a Nobel Prize, and he sure doesn’t have a government job. What he has is a B.S. in economics from the University of Utah, a nice garden in Salt Lake City, and a freshly minted criminal record.
In December 2008, DeChristopher shot to fame as Bidder 70 when he entered a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil- and gas-lease auction in Utah, posed as a buyer, and laid claim to 22,500 acres of wilderness worth nearly $1.8 million. His comeuppance, handed down in early March, a month before Power Shift, was a federal conviction on two felony counts: making false statements and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. Together they carry a maximum sentence of $750,000 in fines and up to ten years in prison—a prospect that explains why he’s been packing on the muscle.
DeChristopher’s reward, however, has been a rapid rise to folk-hero status. I’ve spent the past two days wandering the convention center trying to speak with him, which can be tricky since he’s surrounded at all times by an entourage of about 15 people, members of Peaceful Uprising, the Salt Lake City–based activist group he founded. Just now they’re clustered in the front of the ballroom, watching his speech, all sporting identical orange sashes on their wrists and necks, articles of solidarity they started wearing at his trial.
After chastising the crowd, DeChristopher switches gears. His message is simple: he wants to end mountaintop-removal coal mining in his native West Virginia. “With just these people right here,” he says into the microphone, “we could send 30 people onto a mountaintop-removal site, shut it down temporarily, cost them a lot of money, start to clog up the court systems of West Virginia. And we could send 30 people the day after that, the day after that, and the day after that”—here the crowd rumbles—“every day for a year.”
He points at his audience, voice rising. They roar back, feeding off words that fall like blows. “Long before we got to the end of that year, Barack Obama would be forced into a choice between ending the war against Appalachia or bringing in federal troops to continue it. And for all my disgust and disappointment with Barack Obama, I don’t think he would bring in federal troops to defend the mountaintop-removal sites!”
The more antagonistic his rhetoric becomes, the louder his listeners cheer, self-flagellating young men and women reveling in temporary proximity to danger, to absolute commitment. “Until we force Obama into that choice between ending the war against the young, ending the war against the living, or waging it openly, then it’s our fault! Then we condone it!”
DeChristopher stares into the harsh stage lights, heaving from his gut. I can feel the crowd noise in my skull. He raises a fist and walks off. Backstage, he breathes deeply through his nose.
Do you feel good? I ask.
“Yeah,” he says softly. “A little nauseous.” He often feels nauseous after speeches.
Josh Fox, who is featuring DeChristopher in his forthcoming sequel to Gasland, approaches. He looks as though he might cry. “Tim,” he says. “Oh, Tim.” I leave them and find DeChristopher’s crew. One young woman turns to another. “We are no longer protesters,” she declares. “We are now soldiers of the resistance!”
The crowd empties into the night, hunting parties. Meanwhile, DeChristopher is still backstage, steadying himself. His sentencing is three months away, and he knows that the things he’s just said will likely extend his time in prison.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER feels no qualms about suggesting that 18-year-olds stand on mountaintops and risk arrest. He frequently points to the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, who literally signed their wills before boarding buses, and likes to sing protest songs like “We Shall Overcome.” In person, he’s thoughtful, respectful, and funny. He can also be cantankerous, or, in the words of his friend David Holbrooke, the festival director at Mountainfilm in Telluride, “a pain in the ass.” He rarely returns phone calls and occasionally falls asleep in the middle of the day while sitting. He has a sharp, dark wit that can seem at odds with his earnest idealism. In a small public forum, he can come across awkwardly, but when he gets rolling he’s a terrific speaker, channeling his anger to remarkable effect. He’s committed to nonviolence and prefers dark beer—“man beer,” he calls it. He’s a member of the First Unitarian Church and a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He’s been called a hero, a punk, a sacrificial lamb, and, above all, a martyr. To hear him tell it, it’s not a role he sought out.
On December 19, 2008, DeChristopher, then a 27-year-old undergrad at the University of Utah, finished a final exam and rode a train to the regional BLM office in downtown Salt Lake City, intending to join a protest against the leasing of 77 parcels of land totaling 150,000 acres, some of it near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. The general terms of these leases grant companies the right to extract oil or gas almost indefinitely. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which organized the demonstration, had filed a lawsuit against the BLM on the grounds that the agency had failed to analyze the impacts of air pollution on nearby national parks, calling the auction “the Bush administration’s last great gift to the oil-and-gas industry.”
When DeChristopher arrived, a woman asked if he was there for the auction, and he instinctively said yes. She asked if he was a bidder. Again he said yes. He signed a registration form and was handed a paddle bearing the number 70. He and a friend rode an elevator to the fifth floor and sat near the front of the auction room. The leases were cheap, considering their proximity to national parks. One parcel sold for $2 an acre.
For 30 minutes, DeChristopher merely watched. Then, in one small moment, he raised his paddle. Another bidder went higher, taking the parcel. DeChristopher kept doing this: driving up the prices, forcing buyers to pay a little more. Then, by accident, he won, when his rival dropped out after DeChristopher had bid $250. His brow furrowed. He huddled with his friend, whispering, and then a calm expression came over his face. The auctioneer started the bidding on the next parcel. DeChristopher raised his paddle: $23,628. He won again: $7,200. And again: $239,460.
By the time BLM special agent Dan Love pulled him aside, DeChristopher had won 14 parcels. Love asked whether he planned to pay. No, said DeChristopher, he did not. Love pulled him into a side room, read him his rights, and questioned him for more than two hours. DeChristopher, ever frank, told Love that he was interfering with an illegitimate auction that threatened his future, adding that oil-shale extraction—a carbon-intensive process that involves strip-mining shale rock and then heating it to separate the crude—was “a death sentence” for his generation. He repeated under oath that he had no intention of paying.
This is where a plan might have been useful. Had DeChristopher remained silent or called a lawyer, the government may not have had a case, because 35 other bidders in the past five years weren’t able to pay for their parcels either, a practice the BLM refers to as bid walking. But it was too late: he had told a federal agent that he’d purposefully interrupted a government auction. Love temporarily released DeChristopher—who would be indicted four months later, in April 2009—and the activist walked out to face the cameras that had gathered.
“I think it’s fair to say you would be unrepentant,” prompted one TV reporter.
“Yes,” said DeChristopher. “I think that would be fair to say.”
CLIMATE ACTIVISTS like to invoke Thomas Jefferson’s line that “Every generation needs a new revolution.” Every revolution might also need a martyr, and that’s the role DeChristopher has fallen into. At first, most environmentalists saw his protest as a smart practical joke—“an inspired piece of theater,” in the words of McKibben, “and act of great courage.” Within a month of the auction, McKibben, Amy Goodman of public radio’s Democracy Now, and prominent Utah author Terry Tempest Williams had all announced their support of DeChristopher. Robert Redford, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would soon follow. Two documentary filmmakers from Colorado, Beth and George Gage, began tailing him. And DeChristopher also attracted a top lawyer: Patrick Shea, a leading Salt Lake City attorney and the former director of the BLM under President Clinton, took on his case pro bono and quickly helped him raise $81,000—enough for a down payment on the leases—from his newfound followers. (The BLM rejected the money.)
A month after the auction, DeChristopher founded Peaceful Uprising with a friend from Salt Lake City, 32-year-old former river guide and fellow student Ashley Anderson. The idea was to encourage civil disobedience as a tool in the climate movement. “We started with the somewhat vague goal of encouraging this sort of thing to fill a gap,” says DeChristopher. “It was becoming evident that the climate movement wasn’t working.”
He isn’t the only activist who feels that way. When DeChristopher raised his paddle, President Obama was riding into office on the promise that we would all look back on his election as the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow.” But the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen failed to produce any agreements on carbon reductions; the 2010 Cancún edition also gained little traction; and Obama seemed to check out on environmental issues. Faced with a recession and an antagonistic Congress, the president sat and watched as domestic oil drilling jumped 60 percent, to levels not seen since 1987, and then punted on a pledge to enforce tougher emissions regulations; by this fall, he seemed ready to endorse the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would run 1,661 miles from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to refineries in Texas. Environmentalists have gone from feeling hopeful to feeling betrayed.
“As a movement,” DeChristopher told me, “we’ve shied away from those emotions: anger, outrage, fear. But the fact is, we evolved with those emotions for a reason. All of our ancestors that didn’t feel outrage when their children were threatened, they all died off. And now that we’re all critically threatened and our children are threatened, if we don’t acknowledge that fear and find a constructive way to act upon it, then we should expect to meet the same fate.”
Even more than DeChristopher, the person who’s been most vocal in trying to alert the public is McKibben, a longtime Outside contributor and author best known for his 1989 book The End of Nature. McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, and since 2008 he’s been organizing demonstrations through a nonprofit he and his students founded called 350.org, named for the amount of carbon in parts per million that most scientists believe is the upper limit of what the atmosphere can safely hold. (The current figure is 392 ppm.)
Many of 350’s members are former students of McKibben’s. (Full disclosure: So am I. He was my first journalism professor, and I’m friendly with some of 350.org’s organizers.) Over the past few years, I’ve watched as 350 has staged more and more frequent and fervent demonstrations. In October 2009, the group orchestrated some 5,000 simultaneous political actions in 181 countries, and last fall it put together a dozen art installations in seven countries that were photographed from space. The organizers play nice by design, and the actions are usually friendly affairs: kayakers spelling out the number 350, or 10,000 schoolchildren marching with signs in Ethiopia. CNN called the October 2009 event “the biggest political action in the history of the planet.” Since then, though, the media hasn’t paid much attention, focusing its protest coverage on the Tea Party movement.
“The press has certain stereotypes: protesters come from the left, not the right,” says McKibben. “Therefore the Tea Party seems more novel. But we’re up against the most profitable, powerful industry in the world. You have to be clever, and you can’t complain.” Still, he stresses, “We’ve won the intellectual battle. Polling shows that most Americans know there’s a problem with climate change. They’re just not actively ready to go out and do something.”
That’s where DeChristopher comes in. Whereas McKibben is professorial and strategic, DeChristopher is willing to go to the mat. If McKibben is the movement’s conscience, DeChristopher has become its instigator. “Tim didn’t want to hear that people weren’t ready,” says 27-year-old Jamie Henn, one of 350’s organizers. “With him it was all about civil disobedience. Every time we talked, it was, ‘Are you going to do it?’ What he was good at was making us face the truth that we were losing, and losing badly. That if we were serious, we needed to change tactics and move faster.” Recently, 350 has indeed shifted toward direct action, organizing a two-week sit-in at the White House this fall to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The issue here is less the possibility of spills than emissions: Alberta’s tar sands are the planet’s third-largest deposit of oil, and fully exploiting them, says NASA scientist James Hansen, could mean “game over” for the climate.
DeChristopher certainly has the charisma to be a leader, and there’s no doubt that he has managed to galvanize a dedicated choir to sing louder. But it’s an open question whether a more aggressive stance will produce sufficient political pressure to influence the mainstream. He told me multiple times that his incarceration will be effective if, and only if, others follow him into civil disobedience—and, possibly, prison. So far, though, he is the only climate activist to stand trial.
Until his sentencing, DeChristopher’s voice-mail message said: “I either can’t answer the phone right now or I’m just avoiding your call.” I got used to hearing it over the months I spent following him around. He knows media exposure helps his cause, but he’s ambivalent about the attention. He’ll answer any question with the candor of someone who believes absolutely in his principles, if only you can get him to show up. One night in June, we finally met for a long dinner in Salt Lake City, sitting down for burgers and beers at Squatters Brewery, a downtown joint frequented by professionals in collared shirts and laughing girls in flowing skirts. DeChristopher’s new biceps threatened to rupture his Che Guevara tee.
DeChristopher was raised in Lost Creek, West Virginia, the youngest child of Jeff DeChristopher, a retired natural-gas engineer, and Christine, an accountant. It would be easy though incorrect to cast his activism as a reaction to his dad’s work. Christine cofounded the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and hosted meetings at their house, which sat on a dirt road. Jeff, too, is a lifelong environmentalist.
His dad’s job, DeChristopher told me, was “never something that bothered me. If he was a lobbyist for the natural-gas industry, that would be different. But being an engineer—I don’t have a problem with that at all. I don’t think there’s anything immoral about working in those industries. I think the immoral part is when the executives of those industries think they should be able to control our political system.”
But aren’t natural-gas engineers part of the system he wants to topple? “They’re complicit with it and subservient to it,” he responded when I posed the question, “in the same way that a slave that eats the food their master provides. That doesn’t mean they’re accepting their situation. It means they’re still in a position of servitude. That’s the situation most of us are in today.”
High school was spent reading Edward Abbey and punishing himself on a football field. After a brief stint at Arizona State University, DeChristopher dropped out to lead outdoor trips for teenagers in Missouri. He lived in a cabin, making $40 per day, and after three years signed on with a similar program for troubled teens in central Utah, where he lived under a tarp. His worldview began to coalesce in Utah’s canyons. “Most of those kids were really good kids, and they were all deeply disgruntled about the world,” he told me. “Eventually, I started feeling like I was helping them adjust to something that shouldn’t be adjusted to.”
In 2005, DeChristopher moved to Salt Lake City. He enrolled at the University of Utah and began attending the First Unitarian Church, a liberal congregation with an environmental ministry. In March 2008, his growing disaffection reached a breaking point when he attended a speech by Stanford biology professor Terry Root, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her work co-authoring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth report. Root argued that many of the worst effects of global warming—drought, food shortages, extinction—were already unavoidable. Afterward, DeChristopher asked if there was anything to be done. “I’m sorry,” Root said. “That was the straw,” he told me.
DeChristopher isn’t a lightbulbs guy; he isn’t interested in driving hybrids or going vegan. He believes that mankind is lurching toward a radically simpler future that will start with a global economic collapse in the next few decades. “Not like 2008,” he said. “Like done.” He sees no point in pushing corporations to be greener. “The climate-justice movement is not looking for Wal-Mart to be a friendlier corporate master,” he said. “They want to overthrow Wal-Mart.”
I asked him to describe the best-case scenario for his activism. “If the climate-justice movement decided to shut down mountaintop removal this year, had waves of people occupying sites every day, it would fire up a lot of people,” he said. “Forcing Obama onto our side would create a big political shift next year, and I think in 2013 we could have a carbon tax and end subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry. That’s perhaps not likely, but I think it’s achievable.”
His intransigence on these matters makes DeChristopher utterly polarizing. “I look at him as a truth teller for our age,” says Mountainfilm’s Holbrooke, who has compared him to Rosa Parks. So has the folk singer Peter Yarrow. Ditto Rolling Stone.
Not everyone agrees. “If the general public sees climate-protection advocates as young, impetuous people who engage in fraud without really knowing what they’re doing, then claiming that they shouldn’t be held accountable under the law, I fear he’s set us back,” says Rocky Anderson, a former Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City who runs the nonprofit High Road for Human Rights. “Tim’s actions were dishonest and incoherent.”
DeChristopher’s father, who declined to speak with me and who, according to Christine, “believes strongly in the rule of law,” thinks Tim was misguided. The two haven’t discussed his action since Christmas 2008. His mother and sister attended his trial. His father did not.
Toward the end of our dinner, DeChristopher told me a story about his dad. “Last fall we were hiking in Colorado, near where my parents now live,” he said. “My dad mentioned that a community group he was a part of had borrowed a piece of equipment from the prison in their town. He had to go drop it off. When he went in, they shut the gate behind him. He said, ‘That sound—it’s a very real thing when that gate shuts behind you.’ We left it at that and kept hiking.”
Do you hope to reconcile? I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, with a sigh that ended the conversation. “Definitely.”
DECHRISTOPHER’S TRIAL was delayed nine times over two years. The government never offered a reason, apart from standard scheduling conflicts for U.S. District Judge Dee Benson. Peaceful Uprising repeatedly claimed that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was trying to defuse whatever protest it might organize, and DeChristopher’s attorney was equally frustrated. “Three or four delays would have been understandable,” says Shea. “Nine seemed to be tipping credibility sideways.”
Shea’s opinion is that DeChristopher embarrassed appointed officials, who proceeded to act “like a wounded bear.” At first, though, the government’s reaction was bewilderment. Jim Caswell, the last BLM director under President Bush, was in his car when he got a call about DeChristopher’s action. “My reaction was, ‘Say what?’” Caswell recalls. “How could we allow in a bidder who had no way of qualifying for the leases, didn’t have the proper paperwork, and wasn’t able to operate on the lease?”
The answer, according to a 2009 investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office, is that “prior to the Utah incident, the BLM did not have adequate measures to deter bid walkers from disrupting oil and gas lease auctions.” In fact, access to auctions was a priority under Bush. Interior Secretary Gale Norton oversaw vast increases in leasing permits by the BLM, which manages one-ninth of America’s land mass, most of its wilderness, and 42 percent of Utah. By the time Bush left office, he’d opened up 12 million more acres of federal lands to drilling.
Wilderness advocates rejoiced when, on February 4, 2009, Ken Salazar, Obama’s new Interior secretary, temporarily suspended the 77 leases from the December 2008 auction and ordered an investigation into disposition of the parcels.1 But new administrations don’t like being seen as soft on crime, so the DeChristopher case chugged along. In March 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City approached his lawyers about a bargain. If he pleaded guilty and apologized, he would serve only 30 days in jail. He refused. Several weeks later, Shea heard from a reporter—who’d been tipped off by an oil lobbyist—that DeChristopher would be indicted. He was, on April 1.2 “Business as usual in the Potomac village,” Shea says of the leak. “It made me realize that we were going to be in for a criminal trial and probably imprisonment.”
No current Interior or BLM officials would comment on the case, citing DeChristopher’s ongoing appeal to the Tenth Circuit in Denver, which Shea filed on grounds of selective prosecution. But some agency veterans wonder why the government put so much emphasis on his case. “He brought attention to what really is a broken system,” says Daniel Patterson, a former BLM natural-resource specialist who’s now an Arizona state representative and the Southwest director of the whistleblower advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The agency is giving away valuable resources on public lands at an extremely low cost. The feeling I’ve gotten from conversations with people in the BLM is that management wanted to make an example of him because they don’t want people messing with these insider auctions.”
I spoke with a BLM ranger in Utah who seconded that characterization of the auctions. “It’s a very small group of people that do it,” said the ranger, who asked not to be named. “Most of us in the BLM don’t take part, and until [DeChristopher’s action] we’d hear about it but didn’t know exactly how it worked. He invaded other people’s turf, and they hope to get the land rather economically. My opinion is he shouldn’t be in jail.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has begun to capitulate on the issue of public lands. In June, former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt publicly criticized Obama for failing to defend the Wilderness Act and the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to designate national monuments, from attacks by Congress. And those 77 leases? Interior’s investigators recommended that eight be removed permanently, but that hasn’t happened. In fact, they’re all theoretically eligible to be put back up for sale.
WHEN DECHRISTOPHER’S CASE finally went to court last March, 2,000 protesters showed up. So did the Salt Lake police department, federal marshals, and Homeland Security agents. The trial lasted three days, with Judge Benson making a few things clear up front. First, DeChristopher’s attorneys wouldn’t be allowed to use a necessity defense—the argument that he had to disrupt the auction because of his beliefs about climate change. Second, the defense couldn’t bring up the fact that DeChristopher had actually raised money to buy the land; the court’s view was that, by then, the fraud had been committed. Third, the fact that Salazar had removed the leases from auction wasn’t admissible. Finally, the defense could not inform the jury that past bidders had not been able to pay for their parcels either. Shea and DeChristopher’s other attorney, Ronald Yengich, were left to argue that their client had acted on impulse and hadn’t intended to disrupt the auction. The prosecution didn’t have much trouble refuting this, given DeChristopher’s public statements, and it came as little surprise when, on March 4, DeChristopher was convicted of both felony charges.
As sentencing time approached, the mood at Peaceful Uprising vacillated between sadness and excitement for the coming protest. In early June, I visited the group’s headquarters, a garage space behind a used-car lot and across the street from the Salt Lake Bees minor league ballpark and the Mexican consulate. The place was full of protest art: papier-mâché politicians wearing Exxon-Mobil badges and a four-foot-tall unicorn with the words CLEAN COAL painted on the side.
Three members of the group were in the office: Steve Wood, one of DeChristopher’s roommates; Jake Hansen, a 24-year-old Web designer; and Henia Belalia, 27, who worked in Greenpeace’s San Francisco office before moving to Utah. Hansen was raised Mormon but left the church. Belalia met DeChristopher at a film festival in California last January, and they soon began seeing each other. She came to his trial, and after he was convicted she flew home, packed, and moved to Salt Lake. Such uprooting is not uncommon within the group. Another member, 31-year-old Steve Liptay, was volunteering to clean up the Gulf oil spill when he decided to attend DeChristopher’s trial. He just stayed in Utah.
Peaceful Uprising (a.k.a. PeaceUp) has coordinated some significant actions. In 2010, DeChristopher put out a Craigslist ad for a “Courageous Congressperson” to run against Utah’s pro-industry Democrat Jim Matheson, recruiting a teacher, organizing a campaign, and forcing Matheson into a runoff. After Power Shift, they led an occupation of the Interior Department’s lobby to protest hydrofracking and coal development in Wyoming. Four members of the group were among the 21 arrested. (DeChristopher didn’t risk it; he stood on the steps with a megaphone, screaming, “This is our house!”)
But it can sometimes seem that this is a group devoted to one cause: DeChristopher. One former member, Jessi Carrier, who also briefly dated him, described PeaceUp as a “cult of personality.” “Where he went, they went,” she told me. “If you disagreed with Tim, you didn’t have a place in the group.”
PeaceUp’s members are aware of this perception. When I asked Anderson, the cofounder, what his post-sentencing plan was, he got a little defensive. “People wonder if it will fade after Tim goes to prison,” he said. “I’m surprised by that. Peaceful Uprising is set up in a way that it can continue functioning if someone goes to jail.”
Others consider this optimistic at best. “My hunch is that, without Tim, PeaceUp will probably just dissolve,” Carrier told me. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing. Everybody in that group has had some amazing experiences, and their perspective has been changed. I’m better for the experiences I had with them.”
And where does that leave Tim?
“I feel sad about this, but it’s happened with other activists,” she said. “I think about the anti-logging movement. Those people are constantly getting arrested and sent to prison for years, and then they’re forgotten.”
WHEN JULY 26, the day of DeChristopher’s sentencing, came, a couple hundred protesters stood outside. His supporters packed the courtroom. Everyone expected a prison term, but DeChristopher’s camp thought he’d be allowed to report to jail on his own, giving him time to say goodbye. His family had stayed home in Colorado.
Normally, the convict speaks last during these procedures, but DeChristopher asked to go first. He thanked Judge Benson for the opportunity to address the court and then made it clear that he would not end his activism. “My future will likely involve civil disobedience,” he said. “Nothing that happens here today will change that. I don’t mean that to disrespect you, but I’m saying you don’t have that authority. You have authority over my life, but not my principles.”
DeChristopher asked Benson to “join me in valuing this country’s history of nonviolent civil disobedience.” He suggested that if the judge wanted to discourage other activists, he should “lock me away for an extended period.” He concluded by saying, “This is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like.”
Benson showed him what a prison cell looks like. The judge made it clear that he wasn’t simply punishing DeChristopher for his act, which he called “not that bad.” Instead, he sentenced him for his incendiary public words—his “continuing trail of statements.” Terry Tempest Williams, among others, would later suggest that DeChristopher was sentenced for exercising his First Amendment rights. Legally, those rights do apply differently once a citizen has been convicted of a crime—lack of repentance can be factored into sentencing—but some experts still found Benson’s rationale questionable. “It is to me highly suspect that the judge would enhance the sentence based on what appears to be First Amendment–protected speech,” says Jane Kirtley, a professor of media law at the University of Minnesota.
Benson said that civil disobedience “can’t be the order of the day.” He speculated about what might happen if oil and gas companies were to exercise their own form of protest by drilling wherever they wished—a strange analogy, since drilling isn’t a form of speech—and then handed down the sentence: two years, a $10,000 fine, and three years’ probation. The crowd gasped audibly. Benson then refused DeChristopher’s request to self-report to prison. DeChristopher stood up calmly and followed a U.S. marshal out of the room. One member of PeaceUp stood and yelled, “This court is broken!” A marshal grabbed her. Anderson, the cofounder of PeaceUp, yelled, “Whose court is this?”
“Our court!” the crowd responded.
Outside, Belalia wandered aimlessly, weeping. Anderson stood on the courthouse steps, yelling, “Tim’s gone, he’s gone and he’s not coming back for two years!” His face was bloodless, entirely drained of color.
His hands and feet shackled, DeChristopher didn’t look at the cameras as he ducked into a waiting van. Anderson and 25 other supporters walked into the street, sat down, and blocked traffic until the police arrested them. That night, the members of PeaceUp who weren’t in jail gathered at the First Unitarian Church for a potluck that had all the cheer of a wake. Shea brought DeChristopher’s coat and tie from the courthouse. DeChristopher’s parents, who had followed the sentencing online, were devastated.
ON AUGUST 23, DeChristopher was transferred from Utah’s Davis County Jail to a holding facility in Pahrump, Nevada, where he lived in a cell with 95 other inmates. The place was, in his words, “a shithole.” He kept his mood up by watching the news. Peaceful Uprising hadn’t dissolved; its members were in Washington, helping 350.org organize its two-week sit-in to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. On the night of August 19, McKibben read a letter he’d received from DeChristopher to fire up the crowd. The next day, he and 69 others walked to the front lawn of the White House, sat down, and were arrested. Some 1,200 would follow.
In terms of sheer number of arrests, it was the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of the environmental movement. NPR, CNN, and Keith Olbermann picked up the story. The New York Times published an editorial opposing Keystone XL; The Wall Street Journal ran one in support. The leaders of the NRDC, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and six other environmental groups wrote a letter to Obama demanding that he stop the pipeline. The Dalai Lama and eight other Nobel laureates sent a similar message. The State Department issued an environmental-impact statement endorsing Keystone XL, concluding that the pipeline, which would transport crude bitumen across an aquifer that supplies drinking water to two million people, would have “no significant impact.” Obama, who has said he’ll reach a decision by the end of the year, didn’t acknowledge the demonstrators. Still, McKibben and company kept the pressure on, writing op-eds, joining the Occupy Wall Street protests that mushroomed in early October, and planning to encircle the White House on November 6, one year before the presidential election.
DeChristopher’s name appears on a letter inviting demonstrators to the November action. He approved the invite from his new home, a shared room in the minimum-security camp at Herlong Federal Correctional Institute in California, just across the Nevada state line and within view of the Sierra foothills. His fellow inmates are in for nonviolent crimes: fraud, drugs. There’s a half-mile dirt track, which he walks at sunrise and sunset. “Overall, I’m feeling really good,” he wrote me in September. “I’m still taking a lot of time to mentally catch up on everything that I didn’t have time to fully process on the outside, which feels very cathartic.” He was fired up about the tar-sands action. “It was definitely exciting to see that it was getting so much mainstream coverage,” he wrote. “I think it’s a great time to keep the pressure on.” His sense of humor remained wry. “Stop by for a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.”
DeChristopher wasn’t surprised to hear that the property he’d bid on was back on the block. In August, the BLM issued a memo that 14 parcels of land in central Utah, including six from the December 2008 auction, would be put up for lease. SUWA filed a protest with the BLM, and a couple of lawsuits could block the leasing. If not, however, the parcels will be sold November 15 in Salt Lake City. Prospective bidders need only to present a photo ID. The minimum bid is $2 per acre. It’s a pretty good deal, as far as land near a national park goes.
1. The question of whether DeChristopher’s action influenced Salazar has been much debated. Government officials, including one of the case’s prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber, have stated that what DeChristopher did had no influence on Salazar and that the Interior Secretary suspended the sale of the parcels solely in response to SUWA’s lawsuit. Judge Benson later went out of his way to reiterate this point during DeChristopher’s sentencing. DeChristopher’s supporters, on the other hand, have rallied around the idea that the activist stopped the auction; the symbolic victory became central to his folk-hero narrative. E-mails from public officials obtained under the Freedom of Information of Act after this article went to press show that the government was extremely concerned about public perception of DeChristopher’s influence. On April 1, 2009, the day DeChristopher was indicted, BLM special agent Dan Love e-mailed other BLM officials, “Holy crap did you see channel 2, wow, not good.” In a follow-up e-mail to BLM officials, including former Utah State Director Selma Sierra, Love wrote, “2 stated Salazar took advantage of DeChristopher’s illegal actions to base his position to withdraw parcels.” For more on these e-mails, see Backlash: The BLM's Response to Tim Dechristopher (Click on the back arrow above to return to your spot in the text.)
2. E-mails between former and current officials in the BLM and the U.S. Attorney’s office obtained under the Freedom of Information Act after this story went to press support the notion that the government was eager to prosecute DeChristopher and was concerned about news of the indictment leaking. For more on these e-mails, see Backlash: The BLM's Response to Tim Dechristopher (Click on the back arrow above to return to your spot in the text.)