More Powerful Than We Know: Interview with Tim DeChristopher

Facing jail time for civil disobedience, Tim DeChristopher on why “we have more than enough power” to stop the fossil fuel industry.
Tim DeChristopher by barn, photo by Daphne Hougard

Photo by Daphne Hougard

I knew I would probably go to jail, but my mindset was: “It’s worth it to keep this oil in the ground.”
—Tim DeChristopher

UPDATE: On March 3, Tim DeChristopher was found guilty on both charges.

Two years ago, in the waning days of the Bush administration, Tim DeChristopher was a 27-year-old college student who went to a protest. The rights to extract oil and gas from public lands in Utah were being auctioned off, and DeChristopher, concerned about the eventual impact of those fossil fuels on climate change, was determined to stop the auction. Someone mistook him for a bidder and offered him an auction paddle. He began bidding on land parcels, eventually winning 22,500 acres (for a total bid of $1.8 million, which he had no means to pay) and calling attention to what the Department of the Interior later determined was an illegitimate auction.

On Monday, a federal court will convene to decide if DeChristopher is guilty of two felonies for his actions that day, charges that could land him in prison for up to 10 years and lead to fines of $750,000. You might think that kind of consequence would dampen someone's resolve, but DeChristopher is more convinced than ever that ordinary people have the power to stop even the most entrenched interests—provided we recognize that power.

[For more detail on the upcoming trial—and how the U.S. tries cases of civil disobedience—click here for the rest of the interview.]

Brooke Jarvis: From to to , this is certainly a time when the power of people’s movements is evident—and particularly as the success of one movement inspires another to begin. What can we learn from the uprisings of recent weeks?

Tim DeChristopher: Throughout the few weeks of the uprising in Egypt, there was never really any doubt that the protesters would eventually take out Mubarak. It was totally clear: They knew they had this level of power and were committed to exercising it. What we're missing is that commitment to exercising the citizen power that we already have. In Egypt, once they made the decision that they were going to be a powerful force, there was no stopping them.

Brooke Jarvis: Thinking back to that morning of the auction, when you made the on-the-spot decision to start bidding—if you knew then where all of this would lead, would it have influenced your decision at all?

Tim DeChristopher: I would do it again in a heartbeat. In a general way I'd actually been preparing for this for a long time, building up the general commitment to take this level of risk, to be ready when the time came. I knew I would probably go to jail for it, but my mindset was: “It’s worth it to keep this oil in the ground.” Which happened. But what I didn’t expect was what it's meant for other people or the activism and opportunities that have arisen from it. I feel like I've already gotten far more out of it than I anticipated, and the costs are at least as worth it now as they've ever been.

Brooke Jarvis: I’m interested in the question of how one prepares for decisions like this. For example, many people think Rosa Parks was a woman who just didn't feel like getting out of her seat, rather than someone who had been part of the civil rights movement for more than a decade, who had been involved with the NAACP and the Highlander Center, and who knew quite well what her decision could mean. 

In Egypt, once they made the decision that they were going to be a powerful force, there was no stopping them.

Tim DeChristopher: I’d certainly been involved in activism for a while, but unlike Rosa Parks I don’t know that I really had built up the skills I needed beforehand—in that sense I jumped off the cliff and built my wings on the way down. For me, the more important preparation was making the commitment that I was going to take this level of action and that I was going to be an effective agent of change. That's why I was ready to see the opportunity. You know, there were other activists at the auction who, I think, would have been willing to take the same risk had they seen the opportunity, but they didn't. I think that had to do with my intention: I was there to stop that auction. Even though I didn't have a specific plan, I felt that I could be powerful enough to stop it. And I think that mindset was what allowed me to stop it.

Václav Havel, a leader of the revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, spoke about how the first and most important thing they did in overcoming the tyrannical regime was to just start acting as if they lived in a free and democratic society. They basically started pretending that they had that kind of democratic power, and that started to make it true. I think the same thing is true on a level of personal activism: when we make that commitment to be a powerful agent of change, we make it true.

Brooke Jarvis: How does that idea apply to the ?

Tim DeChristopher: One of the dominant characteristics of the climate movement is a sense of disempowerment. We’re fighting against these entrenched interests, against the richest and most powerful corporations in the world, often in collusion with our federal or state government. We think that they’re big and powerful and we’re small and weak, so we’re just not going to be effective at overcoming them.

Glenn Beck thinks the spread of  protests is a little too convenient. But this is what happens when ordinary people discover their power.

I think that's why we see a lot of the spineless strategies of the climate movement, like trying to appeal to corporations for small changes, or drafting bills like Waxman-Markey. We start with these sell-out compromises because we believe that we’re small and weak.

From a disempowered perspective, we look at opinion polls and we think, “Oh, only so much of the population agrees with us and only 10 or 15 percent really understand the urgency of the issue. We need to get the majority on our side, to appeal to them in whatever way we can.” I think that’s a losing strategy. We’re missing out on the fact that even if 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population really get the issue of climate change, that’s 30 or 40 million people. That’s more than enough to bring the fossil fuel industry to its knees. If even a tenth of those people were willing to engage in significant nonviolent civil disobedience, that’s an incredible force. To begin with, there’s no way they could all be arrested—that would double the population of prisoners we currently have in this country, and we . They wouldn’t know what to do with us. And that’s with just a tenth of people who really understand the problem.

We start with these sell-out compromises because we believe that we’re small and weak, but we're not.

We think we have no power when in fact we have more than enough power. Right now, we have a big enough movement to win this battle; we just need to start acting like it. That’s the message that the climate movement really needs to internalize. On an individual level, it means making the commitment that we're going to be powerful and effective agents of change; on the movement level, it’s about making the decision that we're really going to win this battle.

Brooke Jarvis: What does that look like, more specifically? What are the pressure points where activists can be most effective?

Tim DeChristopher: Mountaintop removal sites in Appalachia are a key point. If we as a movement , we could do it this year. With just a fraction of the total members of, say, the Sierra Club, we could send several hundred people a day over the line at these sites, and shut them down—every day, over and over and over.

Poet Wendell Berry talks civil disobedience during a sit-in in at the Kentucky governor's office.

Or if we picked the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants on the south side of Chicago—they’re in poor minority neighborhoods where people are mounting a grassroots resistance. As a movement, if we decided we wanted , we could do that. We could rally the resources from that region and send dozens or hundreds of people a day to blockade the gates—every day, over and over. We’ve got plenty of manpower, we've got plenty of resources.

Or we could pick Congress as a strategic site. Just with the number of students who showed up at two years ago, we could have hundreds of students every day of the year standing up in sessions of Congress and speaking truth to power, reminding them that it's our future that's being sacrificed when they're selling out to the fossil fuel industry. We could have people doing that over and over and over, making it absolutely clear that our status quo energy policy is a war against the young.

There are lots of possibilities. We just have to make the commitment that we are part of a movement powerful enough to accomplish our goals.


  • : "If the government passed a bill out of line with the values of the community, people were expected to break that law and then take their case before a jury of their peers, which could then decide whether or not that person's actions were justified."

  • Making nice doesn't work. It's time to try something else.

  • It took a while, but protests in Wisconsin show that poor and middle class Americans are ready to push back against the policies that hurt them most. Madison may be only the beginning.