“It’s been crazy, almost kind of surreal,” says DeChristopher, a 27-year old University of Utah student and anti-global-warming activist. When DeChristopher decided to take his protest of Moab-area oil and gas exploration to the next level by bidding on $1.8 million worth of leases, the left was ready to take full advantage. During the long, dark night of the Bush administration, progressive environmental activists in Moab and other environmental hot spots have been building communications networks, training in civil disobedience and learning how to work the media like Karl Rove. DeChristopher may be the leading edge of a new kind of media-savvy environmental protester ready to put serious pressure on established environmental organizations and the Democratic Party.
Salt Lake City activist Cliff Lyon, who runs the progressive blog OneUtah.org, was visiting in the Salt Lake City kitchen of global-warming activist Michael Mielke when DeChristopher telephoned for help. Lyon’s reaction was immediate, “Let’s post it on OneUtah right now.”
Lyon quickly created a separate Website dedicated to the student’s story. Bidder70.org is a visually appealing Web page that includes a message from DeChristopher posted beneath the image of Rosie the Riveter, a link for online donations and sponsored content. There’s even a message from Ken Sleight, the activist memorialized as Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang: “I’m with you, as I’m sure Abbey is also.”
Within days, Bidder70.org was linked to national lefty blogs. Daily Kos put a donation link on its site. At City Weekly’s press deadline, $60,000 had been raised towards keeping DeChristopher out of prison and, just maybe, keeping the oil-lease parcels he bought at auction out of the hands of the drillers.n
DeChristopher—described online as “An Environmental Hero” (High Country News), and “Hayduke Lives” (SolveClimate.com)—sounds tired but completely comfortable in the leading role. He comes off as genuine and humble but manages to get in the talking points.
DeChristopher is on the board of Post Carbon Salt Lake, an anti-global-warming group. He’s suspicious of establishment environmental lobbies, which he dismissively refers to as “Big Green,” and is convinced that global warming is an immediate disaster worth going to jail for.
“The environmental movement for quite a while has been dominated by big, national contributor-based organizations whose basic approach is, ‘Let the pros handle this,’” he says. “It’s been successful in getting those groups a seat at the table and having their little bit of influence,” but it created a pent-up desire to be involved among grass-roots environmentalists.
Celia Alerio, one of many activists who stepped in to help DeChristopher after the auction, says, “I really do believe Tim’s action is not unlike the Boston Tea Party or lunch-counter sit-ins in the ’60s. But this is not new and was not born with Tim. There has been a quiet movement locally and regionally for a clean energy future. That quiet movement is about to get a whole lot louder.”
Alerio, who is helping handle media relations for DeChristopher, has trained activists with a bent for civil disobedience on media strategy for years. Two years ago she moved her consulting company, PR for People and the Planet, to Moab where she helped organize against the BLM oil and gas lease auction. She was watching the auction when DeChristopher began winning every bid. “I ran back downstairs to the reporters and said, ‘Don’t pack up yet,’” she recalls.
DeChristopher’s story no doubt caught fire with the help of activists’ media savvy. But it also tapped into a feeling among activists that more needed to be done.
Julianne Fitzgerald, Utah’s national coordinator for an effort to create a U.S. Department of Peace and a volunteer DeChristopher spokeswoman, notes a perception that establishment environmental groups haven’t been able to stop the sell-off of the West by the Bush administration. A coalition of environmental groups sued over the BLM auction and managed to get 80 of the leases pulled off the block pending a court ruling, but many had hoped the sale could be stalled until the Obama administration took over.
“What [DeChristopher] did was more effective than anything we did until that point, and he did it in 10 minutes with a paddle,” Fitzgerald says. She was incensed when DeChristopher was bumped from a scheduled appearance on the MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show in favor of a spokesperson for the legal arm of the Sierra Club, who some DeChristopher supporters perceived as downplaying his action.
DeChristopher’s act of civil disobedience didn’t come out of nowhere. His rhetoric about what he did and why he did it—frustration with the effectiveness of environmental lobbying and a call for civil disobedience—happen to be exactly the same as the rhetoric used by organizers of “the largest mass civil disobedience to stop global warming in U.S. history” planned for March 2 at a Washington, D.C., power plant. DeChristopher isn’t wasting his celebrity. He now ends every one of his Internet messages with a call for fellow activists to join him at the Capitol Climate Action.