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


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.”

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.

For each person, assessing how to “leverage one’s privilege” (as the Quakers did) will look different. “Prison wasn’t bad for me—but it isn’t for everybody,” DeChristopher admits. “It isn’t for parents with young children, but it may be for retirees with comfortable incomes. It’s really individual and requires some soul searching.”

According to DeChristopher, the most vigorous opponents of civil disobedience have been the big environmental groups. Unlike the community-based grassroots advocacy groups against fracking and gas pipelines, “mainstream environmentalism became a professional movement of non-governmental organizations. It wasn’t based on relationships, networks, or community to function. It was detached from interpersonal work and community,” he says.

In the same way, the early news reporters covering climate change deserve thanks for getting the carbon numbers right. Yet all too often they clung to a scientific mandate so absolutist that they rejected people, human experience, and community action as messy intrusions on the sanctity of science. As a result they failed to engage the public by covering the human costs of climate change and extraction industries.

In contrast, DeChristopher defines interpersonal work and community building as core strategies for addressing climate change, as well as essential for long-term human resilience. “It’s probably too late to prevent catastrophic impacts,” he says. “We are on track for a period of rapid change. The challenge will be to maintain humanity while navigating this period of intense change. It will require people to live with one another and relate to each other in new, or rather old, ways.

“We are coming out of an historic anomaly, a time when people haven’t needed each other—and have substituted consumption of material resources for human engagement,” he says. “This was very harmful on the emotional level. A lot of needs were not really being met. That period is coming to a close, and we are entering a time when people and interrelationships are more important than ever before.”

DeChristopher also sees music as essential to successful organizing. “Getting people to sing takes time and practice. It builds connection and trust,” he says. “Empowered people feel part of something bigger. We didn’t evolve to feel empowered by ‘likes’ on a computer screen, but by the people we spend time with. Terry Tempest Williams got it right—the best response to intimidation is joy and resolve. The opposite of intimidation? People singing in the streets.”

Singing in the streets is exactly what people did at the Spectra protest following DeChristopher’s talk. Will such acts of civil disobedience help more of us to figure out which side we are on? Time will tell.

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