From Climate Hacker to Hero: An Interview With Tim DeChristopher

(Update: This interview has been syndicated at Bright Lights Film and HuffPo.)

An environmental idealist stops an illegal oil and gas auction by bidding for parcels he can’t possibly afford. Savaged by an exponentially accelerating climate crisis, a once-proud nation rewards him…by throwing him into a hole.

Along the vertiginous fall, he tumbles through a dystopia that denies his rights, then creates a case against him out of thin air. He fumbles through a prison complex way too in love with mind-raping solitary confinement. Eventually, he emerges a free man, resolved to wreak electoral vengeance against those who sold him out. Good thing the cameras were rolling.

But the bizarre arc of Tim DeChristopher‘s life — documented in Bidder 70, opening Friday in New York and parts outward, often with him in attendance — is sadly far from singular. Pop-cultural analogues can be found from Carroll to Kafka to Hitchcock (especially North By Northwest‘s hacked auction) and beyond. But back here in our far more surreal Reality, there are too many compromised political prisoners to count.

“One of the things I found out while I was locked up was that the injustice involved in my case was not unusual,” DeChristopher told me by phone after wrapping up a two-year sentence last month. “By any means. In fact, it’s the status quo for how our legal system works.”

But the status quo must go, or we will. DeChristopher’s climate activism has only been energized by the tumultuous experiences chronicled by Bidder 70, because he knows the environmental verdict is in: With CO2’s preventable 400 ppm limit now fading in the rearview mirror, runaway climate change is more ready than ever to put the war in global warming.

We need each other now, to save us from each other tomorrow.

“Going down a path of extremely rapid change with an ignorant, apathetic citizenry afraid of its own government, which is under the thumb of corporate power, is terrifying to me,” DeChristopher said. “That is a very dark future. However, going down that path with an educated and engaged citizenry, unafraid to hold its government accountable and corporations subservient to the will of humanity? Well, that has a lot of opportunity. That is a much brighter future.”

To achieve this ideal citizenry — argues the environmental idealist, who has likely served more time than you for his faith — environmentalists need to starting taking down our own. Republicans are a dead brand, mostly stuffed with cowards and lunatics. That leaves what’s left of the sellout Democrats and Big Green groups that thought environmentalists would chill while Exxon scored another record-breaking quarter or President Barack Obama signed off on Keystone XL.

“If we want lasting change, we have to start taking people out of office,” DeChristopher explained. “And with the power we have right now, that means Democrats.”

I spoke at length with DeChristopher about hacking the Democratic party, arcane but vulnerable processes like elections and auctions, why Americans really should spend more time in prison, and other tragicomic matters of consequence. Read up, plug in, turn out.

“I think more and more climate activists will face prison time like I did, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.”

Morphizm: Following your case over the years has been a sanity test. So how have you managed to stay sane?

Tim DeChristopher: [Laughs] Well, one of the things I found out while I was locked up was that the injustice involved in my case was not unusual. By any means. In fact, I found it’s the status quo for how our legal system works. Pretty much everyone I met had a case that, while different in detail, had similar levels of injustice.

Morphizm: Bidder 70 well documents that legal injustice, which as you say is standard operating procedure. How would you advise climate activists about what they’re up against if they take on the status quo?

Tim DeChristopher: The legal system is a tool of those in power, which is what I found in my case. They basically invented a charge to lock me up for something that had never been done before. The main charge used against me had never been used before. It was a brand new charge, with no case history. So they essentially defined the law around what I had done, because they couldn’t find a law that fit what I did. Even the judge was instructing the jury around the facts of my case, rather than what the law said. He had shaped and interpreted the law to fit what I had done.

Morphizm: Are you concerned that climate activists will be increasingly targeted by these precedent-free, precrime stratagems as the climate crisis worsens, before they even put their bodies on the line?

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, I think more and more climate activists will face prison time like I did, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. One thing I learned was that prison wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I think more will go to prison, but I also think they can handle it. Also, it was effective: The fact that I went to prison exposed so many people paying attention to my case to the realities of our justice system, which helps to undermine the authority of our government, and its status quo. That’s why pretty much every social movement that has created major change in American history has included civil disobedience, because it undermines government authority. Ultimately, I think that — throughout my whole legal process and time in prison — I hurt the government worse than they hurt me.

Morphizm: Americans seem loathe to take to the streets the way they did last century, when socioeconomic and racial disparities were much more visible. Do you have a sense that is changing with the climate crisis?

Tim DeChristopher: We’re seeing that throughout my generation, and the climate movement. That’s been one of the big changes I’ve seen over the past few years, and one I’m encouraged by. When I first started talking about civil disobedience in 2008 and 2009, most professional activists and environmentalists looked at me like a turd in a punchbowl. [Laughs] You know? Like I was speaking out of turn or something. But now, civil disobedience is really accepted by most as an essential part of a diverse movement. It’s now a mainstream position, which is a tremendous shift.

Morphizm: Do you think that shift has become more established because mainstream activists and environmentalists finally have a clearer picture of what they’re up against, or whether they actually believed civil disobedience wouldn’t have any effect and have now suddenly changed their minds?

Tim DeChristopher: I think the main reason is the big D.C.-centric green groups completely failed. Through 2009, that part of the movement kept everyone in check by saying, “Listen, we know how to create change. We know how things work in Washington. This is what is politically feasible. You have to do it our way.” And they failed, largely because they didn’t have a movement behind them. They completely fell on their face without even accomplishing the false solution they were putting forward. That created a lot of space for the grassroots to step up and say, “OK, we tried it your way. Now we’re going to do it our way. We’re going to start with what actually needs to be done, rather than what is politically feasible.” That empowered the grassroots part of the movement that had long been repressed, because it’s much less connected to the status quo and much more willing to make sacrifices. And that’s why we see an increasing willingness to engage in civil disobedience, takes risks and push boundaries. The driving force behind the environmental movement now is no longer those big green groups with multimillion dollar budgets.

Morphizm: The increasing disillusionment with the Big Green is concurrent with increasing disillusionment with Democrats, and their promises to get serious about climate change. In a sense, you’re a bipartisan victim, given the roles that both the Bush and Obama administrations played in your Kafkaesque trial.

Tim DeChristopher: Well, it actually all happened under the Obama administration. The illegal auction happened under the Bush administration, but I wasn’t indicted until several months into Obama’s first term.

“There’s a growing awareness that our biggest obstacle for awhile has been comfortable liberals, especially those in power in the Democratic party.”

Morphizm: Right, so throw those compromised political and corporate operators together with sellout greens and it’s no wonder that grassroots environmentalists are taking matters into their own hands.

Tim DeChristopher: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a growing awareness that our biggest obstacle for awhile has been comfortable liberals, especially those in power in the Democratic party. If we’re serious about shifting our power dynamics and regaining democracy in this country, then the first thing we have to do is get rid of those obstacles in the Democratic party standing in the way of genuine progressive action.

Morphizm: You touched upon this in your statement from jail, that progressives need to play dirty with sellout Democrats who feel unanswerable to the base that got them into power.

Tim DeChristopher: I don’t think a lot of the climate movement, if not most social movements on the left, is very good at analysis of political power. When it comes to the political power of social movements, one of the core truths is that party allegiance is a contradiction. You can’t be loyal to both a political party and the political power of your movement. You have to be willing to challenge your party, or even turn against it, if you’re ever going to make progress. I think the climate movement has made a tremendous amount of progress with building real power in frontline communities, but we haven’t really tried political power. We haven’t gone down that road. But if we want lasting change, we have to start taking people out of office. And with the power we have right now, that means Democrats.

Morphizm: Yes, we take out right-leaning Democrats, embrace left-leaning Republicans and work on strengthening third parties. Right?

Tim DeChristopher: Well, I think that we need to get a lot more creative when it comes to our electoral politics. You know, when I was locked up, I got about a dozen magazines, from leftists like Mother Jones and The Nation to radicals like In These Times to mainstream publications like The Economist. But I never found a good article about electoral politics, even from magazines that I think have really good reporting and critical commentary on so many issues. But when it comes to electoral politics, they present the conventional wisdom without challenging it. So there’s a very narrow range of thinking on electoral politics, when it comes to the left, so they’ve embraced two strategies. One is voting for the lesser of two evils, the other is not voting, and both have turned out to be catastrophic. They’ve been huge failures because they represent too narrow a range of possibility. There are more approaches available, whether that’s primary challenges or third-party candidates, and we have to get creative about finding even more.

Morphizm: Like hacking arcane processes that few understand — say, illegal oil and gas auctions — for the better of the people and their body politic. Both electoral politics and illegal auctions are purposefully obscure, but also remarkably vulnerable.

Tim DeChristopher: There’s a lot of potential for us to take power in different ways, especially through the electoral process, which has to be connected to what we’re doing on the front lines with grassroots communities. There’s been a disconnect between the movement’s grassroots and political sides, but we need to connect them if we want lasting change, and leverage one against the other.