Tim DeChristopher: The trials and tribulations of climate activism

(Originally posted at Mother Nature Network)

I started writing a blog post about a topic close to my heart. I tapped out 800 words, read and reread them, determined them to be totally decent and publishable, and stuffed them into the recycle bin on my desktop. When it comes to this particular topic, I’m tired of my own objectivity. It’s time to come clean.

On Monday, Feb. 28, a close friend of mine, a young man quite dear to my heart, is going to trial for doing the right thing. The federal government wants to make an example of him, to deter other ordinary citizens from taking similar action in similar circumstances. It’s possible that he will spend 10 years — the remainder of his 20s and the majority of his 30s — in federal prison. On Monday, Feb. 28, I will stand with him. My organization, Peaceful Uprising, will stand with him. Our neighbors, friends, colleagues and like-minded people from all over the country will stand with him. Our job is to show the prosecution that we will not be intimidated. That we will not blindly obey an unjust, broken system. That no matter what happens to our friend after he takes the stand in that courtroom, we will continue to fight for climate justice, regardless of how many of us they choose to push into America’s overcrowded prisons. We will stand together, and we will sing together. Together, we will demonstrate our support for every brave and selfless person standing on the front lines in the fight for climate justice.

I’ll try to keep the background brief. In December 2008, Tim DeChristopher rescued thousands of acres of pristine Utah land from being auctioned at fire-sale prices as a source of dirty energy. Tim shut down a BLM auction that included parcels — with prices starting at $2 an acre — including land adjacent to Utah’s national parks and monuments. The auction was so shady that it was later dismissed by the current administration after a lawsuit by local environmental groups called it into question. But that lawsuit wasn’t enough to stop the outgoing administration from dealing out last-minute favors to cronies in the fossil fuel industry. That’s why DeChristopher stepped in. He took the protest outside the auction house one step further: he went inside, registered as bidder 70, and started pushing up prices and winning parcels, well aware that this degree of fraud was criminal. After he racked up a price tag of nearly $1.8 million and caught the attention of the authorities, the auction was shut down. He was indicted with two felonies for his actions, and on Feb. 28, after six delays by the prosecution, he finally goes to trial.

When I joined Peaceful Uprising in February 2009, I hardly knew who Tim DeChristopher was; it seems unlikely, but it’s true. Since he and I were colleagues, I maintained a professional distance for more than a year while working with Peaceful Uprising. But spend enough time talking and working with a person — especially on a heavy, heartbreaking issue like the climate crisis — and it’s impossible not to get to know one another.

I now consider Tim a very close friend. It’s hard for me to objectively write about his upcoming trial without allowing emotion to color my prose. On the other hand, maybe it’s high time I let my guard down and share a personal perspective.

I spend some time and energy every day pitching the bidder 70 story to strangers who don’t give a damn. It’s easy to do; DeChristopher’s actions were creative, selfless and enormously effective. He acted on behalf of all who cherish Utah’s red rock wilderness, and on behalf of the voiceless millions already suffering the early effects of the climate crisis.

The controversy of the auction was well-established; a coalition of motivated, informed environmental organizations had already put together the lawsuit which, in concert with DeChristopher’s disruption of the auction, would result in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dismissing the vast majority of the leases and safeguarding Utah’s natural national treasures from the fossil fuel industry. Tim’s actions were a case of cut-and-dried excellence; a perfect example of how nonviolent civil disobedience can further and enforce the cause of justice.

What I never tell most people is that Tim is not merely a hero for the climate movement; he is more than a symbolic icon of our cause. More importantly to me, he’s a good guy. He’s the kind of person who will pitch in without being asked; who genuinely enjoys hard work. He gives every person the benefit of the doubt, regardless of background, reputation or politics. He is kind. He’s great with animals and children, and he’s respectful and courteous — a charmer you could comfortably invite to dinner with your grandparents or your in-laws. He’s a friend who I know I can call for backup or an escape route if I get in a serious bind. Tim is the kind of guy you want in your corner, if and when the proverbial sh*t hits the proverbial fan.

In short, he is a genuinely good person. He’s a regular kid who did a brave and extraordinary thing, and as a result, he might spend the best years of his youth in a prison cell.

The climate movement has been warned against expressing anger and outrage, lest we be dismissed by a mainstream audience as just another shrieking teakettle of ticked-off, histrionic environmentalists. We work hard to push feelings of resentment, frustration, fear and even despair onto the back burner. We find new ways to bring joy and whimsy to our tactics and our strategies; we urge recognition of the positive aspects of our solutions; we ignore the rhetorical bait from our ruthless opposition, who have no obligation to honesty, transparency, or integrity and are thus free to make baseless accusations and call us ugly names. We take the high road, and we usually suffer as a result. Most of the time, the fight for climate justice is a thankless fight.

But not always.

Last night, I stood in a circle with about 35 folks — men and women of myriad ethnicities and every class, with ages ranging from 4 to 80 years old. We stood in the middle of Elliott Hall at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, and we sang together. Peaceful Uprising hosts bimonthly informal workshops to share and practice revolutionary songs, and we ask anyone inclined to share their experiences with the songs we sing.

After we finished the last ringing chord of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a silver-haired man raised his hand and offered a story. He described attending the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Atlanta in 1968. Part of a procession that was half a million people wide, he marched alongside New York Mayor John Lindsay and actress and singer Eartha Kitt. As they marched, they filled the streets with song. Their mourning and their pain was eclipsed their resolve, as they demonstrated their undeterred commitment to honor King’s vision of justice and continue to fight for his dream.

At our gatherings at the church, we sometimes tailor borrowed music to the movement we represent by penning new lines for old classics. To “We Shall Not Be Moved,” we added these:

We’re fighting for our children; we shall not be moved, and, to follow up, we’re fighting for their future; we shall not be moved.

I have heard those words countless times. As an active part of this movement, I have grown near-immune to its lingo. But, throw a simple, sweet melody line behind them and bring in a couple of lovely, off-the-cuff contralto harmonies, and you have a recipe for full-body goose bumps.

Last night, all those faces full of simultaneous sheer, fearless joy and firm resolve brought something into my heart I hadn’t felt in quite some time: hope. Real hope — not the “hope” peddled by the current administration, with its half-truths, evasions and pseudo-solutions for the crisis that is already robbing my generation of its future. Singing those bold words with those good folks, I could see what a peaceful uprising really might look like: generation upon generation; gender, class and ethnicity irrelevant; hand in hand for a healthy and just world, lifting their voices to the light. I heard a roomful of people calling out to the lost and hopeless to bind together, and find a way to pull away from despair and nihilistic resignation, and push forward to create a world we can proudly leave to our children and their children.

On Feb. 28, I hope to cancel out the hard, sad nature of the day by burning an image into my mind to revisit during tough times in the years ahead. I hope the streets in front of the Salt Lake City courthouse fill up with song. I hope to hear the voices of impassioned, resolute people — people working for any and every just cause, singing in solidarity with a brave, good young man who sacrificed his own freedom on behalf of the voiceless and the powerless. I hope those voices weave together in a fabric that can’t be torn; a harmonious antithesis to the silence so vital to the success of those who pursue profit over people; a statement that we are steadfast in the fight for our future, and will never stop sharing the truth about our cause that everyone deserves and so urgently needs to hear.

And finally, wherever you are and however you can, I hope you join us on Feb. 28. If you can’t make it out to Salt Lake City, do me a favor: get in touch with some people who believe in justice, like you do, and celebrate one another. Sing some songs together. Support each other, stand together, and keep carrying that fire.