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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.

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Activists can take heart because successfully advancing new initiatives does not require a majority, he argues, but collective action. The Baby Boomer generation surged into mass activism. Later many retreated from it, claiming that activism wasn’t practical or didn’t work.

“Didn’t work? That generation launched one of the most successful movements in U.S. history,” DeChristopher says. “They helped to launch the civil rights movement ... and to stop the war in Vietnam. They gave elected officials the backing to fund the Environmental Protection Agency, Medicare, Medicaid and public broadcasting.”

Despite these successes, tear-gassed and intimidated by the police in Kent State, the Pentagon, and the Chicago Democratic Convention, many boomers withdrew. In place of naming the violence directed toward them, they turned the critique upon themselves and on activism, claiming that activists were “too angry.” Instead self-improvement was resurrected as the road to collective change. For DeChristopher, it’s clear that a more authentic spirituality is based on a group ethos. Espousing connection as a philosophy is not enough. Acting collectively for everyone’s sake is a must.

DeChristopher regards pioneering suffragette Alice Paul as a role model for more compelling strategies. During the women’s suffrage movement, the majority offered tepid support for women’s vote, but no mandate for immediate action— a stalemate similar to the current gradualist approach to climate change. Paul-style blockades and protests on the White House lawn were radical acts for women in that era. Seeing women go to prison, fast, and get force-fed provoked people to choose between immediate rights vs. current subjugation.

DeChristopher says, “They needed to raise tensions to force a choice. Those who saw a problem were willing to make the necessary sacrifice.” He sees those pioneers as enlivening models for today’s challenges.

And DeChristopher himself has become such a model.

“The writer Annie Dillard said that sometimes you jump over the cliff first and develop wings on the way down,” DeChristopher mused. “As an introvert, I saw myself as a wonky economist who always talks about the GDP. But the movement had a lot of wonky economists—so instead I ended up as the civil disobedience guy.”

Back in 2008, DeChristopher was struck by Bill McKibben’s similar reluctance to step out to action. “When people asked him, ‘Let us know when it’s time to take action,' McKibben replied, ‘I’m a writer, not an activist. That’s not my job,’” DeChristopher recalls. “But finally he set a date [for a White House protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline] and embraced that role.” The lesson? Do what’s needed.

DeChristopher is now studying at Harvard Divinity School. “I don’t believe in what mainstream Christianity espouses or tolerates so I hesitated to identify myself as a Christian. But then I asked, why do people who preach greed and hate and violence get to define Christianity?" Redefining things is one of DeChristopher’s fortes, fueled by his exploration of history’s lessons, as well as his own direct experience.

During his trial and imprisonment, a group called Peaceful Uprising sprang up to support him. DeChristopher characteristically tried to figure out why.

“What drove them was that I reminded them of their kids—and I needed help. When I lay myself down to block the path where we were headed, it translated abstract numbers of impacted people into a direct personal connection, and people responded."

Our current challenge is “about recognizing our privilege and using it where it counts,” says DeChristopher as he returns to another history lesson. “When Black Panthers met in Philadelphia in a Quaker Meeting House, the police rushed the building looking for a fight. After assuring that the Panthers remained inside, the Quakers, unarmed and peaceful, formed a human circle that surrounded the building.” Unwilling to fight the Quakers, the police retreated.

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