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A Brilliant Activist Shows Us a Path to Real Change Through Civil Disobedience

Environmental activist DeChristopher talks about the future of activism and communities in a time of great change.

A human chain spanned Manhattan’s West Side Highway. The group carried a highway-wide yellow banner that proclaimed, “Stop the Pipeline” and sang the old civil rights anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

This act of peaceful civil disobedience last Saturday stopped traffic on the three-lane highway and resulted in 13 arrests, enacted in an orderly and non-violent fashion by both the protesters and the NYC police. A white-haired woman in a wheelchair was among those handcuffed and transported to a nearby police station for booking.

Many of those participating had hours earlier gathered at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn to listen to a conversation between Occupy Sandy organizer Jessica Roff and Tim DeChristopher. DeChristopher (profiled in the recent documentary, Bidder 70), famously bid on public lands in Utah to prevent their sale to gas and oil companies, and served two years in federal prison for his actions. His civil disobedience, though spontaneous, ultimately caused the cancellation of the auction sales.  

DeChristopher was there to talk about the role of peaceful civil disobedience to combat the development of extreme fossil fuels, which was of particular relevance to those who would engage in action themselves later in the day. The blockade of the West Side Highway was in opposition to the opening of the Spectra pipeline slated to snake through densely populated areas of downtown New York City.

New Yorkers have long fought the pipeline, a legacy of the outgoing Bloomberg administration and key link in the infrastructure conveying radon-saturated shale gas into New York City’s building heating systems and kitchen stoves. Despite the recent history of life-threatening pipeline explosions, lawsuits from an array of national and local environmental groups and nearly 5,000 public comments filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC approved the Spectra pipeline with construction commencing this week.

As DeChristopher views it, this decision can be seen as a form of violence against city neighborhoods, people’s lungs, health, and safety. But whether it’s climate change or a gas pipeline, DeChristopher says it’s critical to think strategically about what’s worked—and what hasn’t—in order to access lessons from history that can guide future steps.

“We’ve never stopped a climate crisis before,” DeChristopher says. But at least, the movement has learned “what doesn’t work—appeasing those in power.” DeChristopher points to what he characterizes as the failed strategy of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) founded in 2007 by a coalition of major environment groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council (partnering with major corporations such as BP America, Pacific Oil and Gas Company, Shell, and General Electric). Having spent more than $700 million on a comprehensive strategy, featuring cap and trade as a principle tactic for change, in 2009 this effort “fell on its face,” says DeChristopher because it was “built around how corporate lobbyists work.”

Well-directed activism can (and must) unmask the violence embedded in culturally condoned policies and infrastructures, DeChristopher believes. “When leaders don’t acknowledge and address climate change, this is violence against the young,” he says. DeChristopher urges giving a human face to the affliction and violence inherent in the current web of public policies and business practices.

He predicts that pressure rather than appeasement will deliver better results. “Appealing [to elected officials] isn’t enough.”

It’s not that DeChristopher counsels opting out of the political process. "Too many people compromise by voting for candidates they don’t really like, and too many more people don’t vote at all. We can do better than that,” DeChristopher contends. “Let’s look for more creative solutions.”

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