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Subhankar Banerjee

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Who Is Tim DeChristopher? From Coal Belt, Through Mountain Trails, on Route to a Prison Cell

Posted: 06/16/11 01:30 PM ET

Often we focus on a single act -- more heroic the act is, more attention we pay. We also focus on a single result -- more it tends toward either end of a good-bad spectrum, more attention we pay. Along the way, we skip the journey that led to the act or realize that the result is only a small stop on a long journey. Such is the story of young climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher, who is without a doubt a lighting rod of his generation.

We've come to know Tim DeChristopher through his one courageous act of civil disobedience -- of disrupting an ill-conceived oil and gas auction on 150,000 acres of public lands in southern Utah that the George W. Bush administration pushed through fast track leasing during the last days of his presidency. The auction took place on December 17, 2008. That day, bidder-imposter Tim DeChristopher successfully bought (without any money) 22,000 acres of land near Moab and the Canyon Lands National Park and saved it from fossil fuel extraction. On March 3, 2011 he was convicted of 'fraud' and now he awaits sentencing to take place come Thursday on June 23rd -- up to ten years in federal prison plus a $750,000 fine to be handed to him by the Barack Obama administration.

Even though I wrote about Tim in March after his guilty verdict, I knew little about the person and have ever since been curious, "Who is Tim DeChristopher?"

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On Monday, June 13, Tim spoke in front of a capacity crowd at the University of Art & Design in Santa Fe. New Energy Economy (NEE), a Santa Fe-based organization brought Tim to our hometown. NEE has been leading a very effective campaign to move New Mexico beyond fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Monday's event opened with three young poets: Lisa Donahue, who teaches art and poetry at the Santa Fe Art Institute, followed by Nolan Eskeets from the Navajo Nation and Marty Frawa from the Jemez Pueblo -- they spoke with poetry and performance of struggles against pollution from nuclear, coal and oil. The theme for the evening was to make New Mexico coal-free. Mariel Nanasi, executive director of NEE, in her powerful introductory remarks said, "From infants and children to adults and our beloved elders... the litany of coal's negative health effects is brutal and it's growing... Asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, stomach cancer, heart disease, stroke, neurological damage and infant mortality. ... Of course, these terrible health threats from toxic pollution are not the whole sad story. Coal is also a primary driver of man-made climate change -- the defining moral and ethical environmental challenge of our age."

Tim began speaking. His honesty, directness, intelligence, empathy, strategic thinking for creative action and his no-nonsense commitment for climate justice, I found contagious. Following morning, I sat down for one-on-one conversation with him.

Here is a brief story of Tim DeChristopher's journey from the Appalachian coal belts, through mountain trails of east and the west, and now on his way to Obama's prison cell.

Reading Thoreau's Walden Along Otter Creek

Tim was born and raised in West Milford, West Virginia, a small town about 120 miles northeast of Charleston. According to a 2000 census, the town had a population of 651 people with a racial makeup of 99.54% White, and the rest Native American, Hispanic and other races. I did the math -- the remaining 0.46% of 651 is exactly 3 non-white people. As you'll see, all this has something to do with who he is today. His father worked in the Natural Gas fields. Tim recounts with great fondness that his mother was an activist and one of the founders of the West Virginia Sierra Club and fought against the Mountaintop coal mining in the Appalachia. It seems to me that his mom is perhaps the greatest inspiration of his life.

He was five years old when he did his first backpack trip. He remembers the only vacations the family took were in the wilderness.

When he got a bit older, the family moved to Pittsburgh. He remembers living in Pittsburgh was an eye opener for him. "When I was in West Virginia the only job potential people had was to work in coal mines, everyone's parents worked in coal mines," he says. "But in Pittsburgh people did a wide variety of things. Its not that people in Pittsburgh were smarter than people in West Virginia, it is just that they had so much more potential to do other things than work only in a coal mine."

When he was 16, his mother sent him back to West Virginia. He did a solo backpack trip -- walked for eight days through the Otter Creek Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest. He carried Henry Thoreau's Walden in his backpack and finished it by the end of the trip. He says that trip was a defining moment of his life, "I was free from other influences, including the media and cultural influences."

He continued to do outdoor trips. The following year he read Ed Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. But he said that he wanted to leave behind these readings and figure things out for himself -- a journey of one's own, you might say.

He moved west and enrolled at the Arizona State University in Phoenix. "I spent more time in the outdoors than in the classrooms," he says. After two years of college, he dropped out and moved to the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. There, he worked with kids for 3 1/2 years. Then he moved to Salt Lake City and worked for two years with youth, whom the society had labeled, in his words "troubled teens." He says, "They had fairly legitimate complaints against the injustices of the world. I was helping perfectly fine kids fit into a broken system." During that time he realized that much of the decisions societies make are based in economics and the economic system.

From Classroom to the Bidding Room

He enrolled at the University of Utah as an economics student. "They have one of the best progressive economics programs in the country," he says, "I was lucky." According to him, the mainstream economics education in the U.S. is deeply influenced by corporate America, but he found that the classes he began taking were an exception to that homogenous form of education. He recounts the teachings of some his professors with great admiration.

He told me that in one of his economics classes they discussed one particular oil and gas lease sale, the very same one that he ended up disrupting. In the final exam there was one crucial question he remembers, "If only oil and gas men were bidding on the lease sales to take place soon, will the final lease price reflect the true cost of developing oil and gas on public lands?" He figured the answer of course is a big NO, as taxpayers take care of the huge amounts of hidden costs that we do not see -- subsidies that the government grants to the oil companies.

He didn't know at the time that he could become a 'bidder from the outside.' In fact, he acknowledges that all he wished for when he walked into that auction room was to scream and shout at them and be kicked out. He wanted to protest this auction because he knew the Bush administration was trying to sale off these lands without appropriate review and through fast track sales during the 11th hour of his presidency. But to his great surprise, the gatekeeper looked at this 27-year-old well-dressed, stout, white man and asked, "would you like to be a bidder?" to which he responded with confidence "yes," and became the notorious "bidder 70."

On December 22, 2008 he did an interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now after he successfully secured the leases and disrupted the sale. Earlier this year, he talked about the guilty verdict with Umbra Fisk of Grist, and this week with Jason Mark of Earth Island Journal about how he is getting ready for his time in prison. Together these interviews give a good picture of what happened inside that auction room; his guilty verdict earlier this year and the legal system; the incredible support from his friends and fellow activists who had gathered outside the courthouse; and what has happened since then.

I won't repeat any of that, but instead focus on a few things he brought up in his talk and during our conversation that might shed some light on his ongoing journey.

From Love of Land To Justice and Equality

Talking with him, I realized that he has spent an enormous amount of time in the outdoors and he loves it, but when I asked him whether he did the bidding because he wanted to save these lands from exploitation by the oilers, he responded, "I wasn't motivated to protect land. I wouldn't go to jail to protect land. I'm primarily motivated to protect human beings. This is about climate justice. We must move away from fossil fuels and create a world with clean energy for sure, but not continue corporate exploitation through the banner of green energy, a world where people have the power, not corporations. It is about equality and justice."

I was fascinated that someone who loves walking in the wild is instead talking about justice.

The grandpa of the U.S. environmental movement, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, hiked incessantly and advocated for the protection of public lands from industrial exploitation. Yet at the same time, Muir was one of the strongest supporters of militarization of public lands -- the Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the U.S. He wanted the military to run these parks so that the vulnerable tourists would be protected from the dangerous Native Americans. As it happens the native communities had actively hunted in these regions, their homeland, from which they were then forcibly removed. All of this is written up in a magnificent book, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation, by historian Karl Jacoby. Justice? No, Muir could not care about justice, back then. Then Muir got older, went to Alaska, and wrote the book, Travels in Alaska. In this book, he wrote with great empathy about the native communities of Alaska who had provided him with home and food. Justice? Yes, of course, Muir certainly cared about justice, then.

You see, as long as we are willing to engage deeply, our life takes us to places we didn't know we would go. Tim's journey through lands and his work with kids and youth have brought him to a place now where he is fighting for justice and equality.

I asked if he is also fighting for birds and animals, to which he responded, "I don't think so, I'm fighting for fellow humans to have a just and equitable life." Then he paused and said rather tentatively, "all these things are connected." I joked with him that ten years from now, he'll also be fighting for birds and animals and Obama's prison would be a forgotten history. We both laughed.

At the Santa Fe event, there was a petition to President Obama to pardon Tim. But during the talk, Tim made it very clear he isn't begging anyone, nor is he looking for a pardon by Obama. In fact, he said that, "I'm sure they're monitoring all my moves, and everything I've been saying. And, I'm saying a lot of things, really strong things, and it could get reflected in their decision on how harsh a sentence they give me." Then he continued, "But you know, if I were a colored man, I'd be long behind bars, and no one would know what I'm trying to do. I'm a white man and I think I remind them of their son or something like that, so they let me do things that a non-white man wouldn't be allowed." I think his childhood certainly helps him to think about the non-white world. Today many of his friends are colored people with whom he discusses all these, and it is no surprise that he keeps talking about justice for others.

He also talks a lot about history and says that we spend so much time talking about science and so little about history. His knowledge of the history of social movements in the U.S. runs deep and he articulates these struggles as it may have implications for the climate justice movement quite profoundly. Today, when he is lending his voice to the struggle of Mountaintop coal removal in the Appalachia, it is a very genuine and heartfelt engagement that I'm sure brings him back to his childhood. I bet he talks to his mom who fought the same fight decades earlier and can only surmise that she is very proud of him.

Tim founded Peaceful Uprising. I asked why? He told me, "You know the Big Greens have failed my generation, they are about big money but not effective action, and they have been completely ineffective about climate change, the greatest threat to my generation. I realized there is a gap and we wanted to fill that gap." He talked about that gap, "We want more direct action, more civil disobedience, we want empowerment of communities and people, not governments and corporations, we want justice and equality and power back to the people." But he is not naive and realizes that it won't come easy and says, "We have to sacrifice. We have to let go. When I walked into that auction room, I had already let go of everything, there was nothing they could take away from me. At that moment, I felt powerful." Because he has worked with kids and teens, he understands their frustrations and says, "We live in a hyper individualized society. We feel isolated. I hope to make young people understand that they're part of a much larger community and we're in this struggle together. Climate change is something we're so deeply into that our only way out is by fighting. Peaceful Uprising is about giving voice to the youth, to let them know that there is a community out there who feel the same way they do. We will fight for climate justice."

Young people who are paying attention, like Tim, understand very well the severity of climate change on their generation. And, it is no surprise that they would be more willing to take action against destruction. If a Cree youth takes action against the destruction of her homeland by the tar sanders -- will we put her in prison? Yes, we will. If a Navajo youth takes action against the destruction of his homeland by coalers -- will we put him in prison? Yes, we will. If a Gwich'in youth takes action against the destruction of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by the oilers -- will we put her in prison? Yes, we will. If an Inupiat youth takes action against the destruction of their oceans by the oilers -- will we put him in prison? Yes, we will.

Tim told us, "Government's main motivation in sending me to prison is to intimidate others. They want to set an example with me."

This is a young man with full of empathy and tremendous potential to inspire his generation to fight for a healthy and just world. Yet, the Obama administration will put him behind bars -- a shame of astronomical magnitude. But it is understandable, Obama is in a reelection campaign right now and he has to raise a lot of money. The last people he wants to upset is the oil-and-coal lobby that'll help him get reelected, the same lobby that helped George W. Bush get elected and reelected. Our leaders, red and blue alike, are all part of a big happy fossil fuel family.

Whatever happens with the sentencing on June 23rd, one thing has become clear to me is that Tim DeChristopher's journey did not start with a single heroic act of disrupting an oil lease sale during the George W. Bush administration, nor will it end inside Barack Obama's prison cell. Let us stay engaged.

Subhankar Banerjee is currently editing an anthology titled, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (New York: Seven Stories Press, April 2012) and his photographs can be seen now in exhibitions Where I Live I Hope To Know a the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth through August 28, 2011 and in Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe through October 9, 2011. He has been appointed Director's Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for fall term 2011.

Copyright 2011 Subhankar Banerjee

Crossposted with ClimateStoryTellers.org