DeChristopher, who is 29, admits he was "cautiously optimistic" during the 2008 presidential campaign.
"I saw that nothing Obama was saying was actually good enough in terms of the climate crisis," he said. "There was a faint hope in me that perhaps he was saying what he needed to say to get elected and then he would turn out to actually be a progressive."
He heard Naomi Klein give a talk shortly before the election. She told her listeners that if Barack Obama was a centrist and the center was not good enough to defend our survival then our job was to move the center.
"That resonated with me," DeChristopher said. "That was where my thinking at the time was. We as a movement had to move the center. That is another reason I turned to civil disobedience. I was looking to do something beyond what was considered acceptable to shift those boundaries, to create more space where people could be more aggressive without being on the radical edge."
"The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said what we do in the next two or three years will determine our future, and he said that in 2007 and we didn't do anything," he said. "A lot of folks like Jim Hansen admit it off the record, but won't say it publicly, that it is actually too late for any amount of emission reductions to prevent some sort of collapse of our industrial civilization. That certainly doesn't mean all is lost. It means we are in a position where we are definitely going to be navigating the most intense period of change humanity has ever seen. What that means for us is that it really matters who is in charge during that intense period of change. It means that things are going to be desperate."
"Generally in desperate times those in power do desperate things to hold on to their power in the name of order and security," he went on. "That is when things have gotten really ugly in the localized examples of collapse that we have in history, whether they were economically induced as in Germany in the 1930s or environmentally induced as in Darfur. Rather than an opportunity for mass reflection, which it could be, where we could say we had this coming because of fundamental flaws in the way we structured our society, that maybe greed and competition were not the best values to base everything off of, rather than doing that, it is much more common in those historical examples to say, "Oh, it was because of those people.' A class of people was scapegoated. The powerful said, "Those are the people who are causing our problems and if we take it out on them we can maintain order and security for the rest of us.' That is when things get really ugly and dehumanizing."
"We are starting to see hints of that already with the rather minor ripples that we have been having in the past few years with the economic situation," he said. "Rather than admit the fundamental flaws, many of those in power have said, "Oh, it is because of those immigrants that are taking people's jobs, or those Arabs, or those unions, whoever the scapegoat is, to try and vilify someone. What we are on track for are much larger ripples than we have had in the past couple years with the economic problems. If we go into that collapse with our current power structure and a world run by corporations, where we have ignorant and apathetic people who are afraid of their own government and think their job is to do what they are told, even if they think it is immoral, that is when things can get really ugly. If we go into that collapse with an awakened and educated population that views it as their role to create the society they want and hold their government accountable then we have the opportunity, whatever hardships we might face, to actually build a better world on the ashes of this one."
"Our strategies must be to not only change our energy system and food system, but to change our power structures," he said. "We shouldn't be looking for the big corporations running the show to become a little greener and cleaner. We should be overthrowing those corporations running our government. Our job as a movement is not just to reduce emissions; while we still need to do that, we also have this other challenge of maintaining our humanity through whatever challenges lie ahead. This is much more abstract and foreign to this movement."
"Civil disobedience puts us in a vulnerable position," DeChristopher said. "It puts us in a position where we are refusing to be obedient to injustice. Civil disobedience puts us in a position where we are making a risk and possibly making a sacrifice to stand up against that injustice. It also puts us in a position where with that vulnerability we see how much we need other people. This is something I have experienced over the past few years as people have come out of nowhere to support me, to make actions more powerful and to help me personally get through this experience and grow from it. Appreciating these connections is one of the most important parts of resiliency. A lot of the unwillingness to take bold action is coming from a disempowerment that comes from a lack of connection. When we view ourselves as isolated individuals it does not make sense to stand up to a big powerful institution like a big corporation or big government. It is not until we gain the understanding that we are part of something much bigger that we feel empowered to take those necessary actions. This is a self-reinforcing cycle. The more we stick our neck out the more connected we become and the more empowered we become to do it again."
DeChristopher, who attends a Unitarian church in Salt Lake City, comes out of the religious left. This left, defined by Christian anarchists such as Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan and his brother Father Daniel Berrigan, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, takes a moral stance not because it is always effective but because it is right, because to live the moral life means that there is no alternative. This life demands a commitment to justice no matter how bleak the future appears. And what sustains DeChristopher is what sustained the religious radicals who went before him -- faith.
"The connection to a religious community for me is a big part of the empowerment," he said. "From talking with a lot of the old Freedom Riders and other folks in the civil rights movement, it was in the church community that people found the strength and the faith that, no matter what happened to them when they sat at that lunch counter or got on that bus, there would be another wave of people coming behind them to take their place and another wave behind that and behind that. And that is part of what is missing from the progressive community today. Part of my belief system is an appreciation of our connectedness to the natural world, the interconnected web of life of which I am a part. I am not an isolated individual, and this understanding is what empowers me, but also in a more direct way in that I am connected to the church community who I knew would support me. Sitting in that auction when I was deciding to do this I was thinking about whether anyone would support me. The people I knew would have my back were in the church. That helped drive me to action."
And because of that he understands that any resistance can never succumb to the temptation of violence.
"Violence is the realm our current power structure is really good at," he said. "They are eager to play that game. Any opportunity we give them [to use violence], they will win. That is the game they win at. The history of social movements in this country shows that we are far more powerful with nonviolent civil disobedience than we are with what our audience considers to be violence."
"Once our actions are deemed to be violent then that justifies repressive tactics on the part of the government," he said. "With a nonviolent movement we are still inviting a strong reaction from the government or ruling authorities. We are inviting a powerful reaction against ourselves. But it undermines the moral legitimacy of our current government. That is the path we need to pursue. Rather than reinforcing their legitimacy we need to undermine their legitimacy."
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