Tim DeChristopher was a 27-year-old University of Utah economics student who’d spent five years teaching at-risk kids and was just beginning to get involved in activism around climate change when he found himself at a Bureau of Land Management land sale bidding on $1.8 million in leases. The BLM was auctioning 150,000 acres of southern Utah wilderness areas for oil and gas development, and during the auction, DeChristopher turned around and saw a fellow environmental activist crying. Compelled to overcome the “palpable feeling of helplessness,” he started bidding, and won nearly a dozen bids in a row — some for parcels of land that were adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. He walked out knowing that these fake bids would be enough to get him imprisoned, but it was, he says, an act of civil disobedience.
DeChrisopher had been looking for a leader in the environmental movement. What he’d just done was about to propel him into that seat — and the film, Bidder 70, by Beth and George Gage, charts his progress from an unknown guy who happened to get an auction paddle in his hand to a man who regularly spoke to thousands of activists while the courts postponed his trial again and again.
It was December 2008 when he participated in that auction — participation for which he was convicted of two felonies and faced up to 10 years in prison — and his trial didn’t begin until February 2011, ending in his March 2011 incarceration.
George and Beth Gage, Telluride residents, filmmakers since 1993 and creators of American Outrage, picked up on his story from the first news reports after the auction. The pair met DeChristopher just a few weeks later at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival.
For years after that meeting, the Gages followed him, documenting his growing presence in the environmental movement, including as a founding member of Peaceful Uprising, an activist organization that works to empower people to fight climate change.
Although DeChristopher is certainly the film’s central character, to say that it’s solely about him would be to sell it short. What his story relays is also the growth and change in the environmental movement around the country, a movement that, as DeChristopher says, will either have to start producing results, or quit because it’s too late.
“Tim’s idea of this movie is, ‘We’re going to string a lot of my speeches together and we’re going to get my message across,’” George Gage says, “And Beth kept saying, ‘Tim, we want to spend personal time with you. We want the audience to get to know you not only as an activist, not only as a speaker, but as a human being.’”
“One of the things that was sort of difficult, especially in the beginning of the film, was Tim never was just bidding because he cared about the land,” Beth Gage says. “He definitely cares about the land and that was very important to him, but it was always much more about global warming, climate change, climate justice, all of those issues.”
DeChristopher was offered plea deals that would have kept him out of jail, but declined to take them. That he was willing to serve time for his act of civil disobedience adds veracity to his principles, says Beth Gage.
“One of the things in Tim’s message is everybody’s got to look inside his soul and say, ‘How far am I willing to go?’” George Gage says. “And I would like to think that Tim has inspired — not thousands of people to get arrested — but thousands and thousands of people to go that one step further, to go a little bit outside their comfort zone and go a little bit further to stand up for what they think is right in this country.”
At the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the Gages were asked if they thought climate change is a human rights issue.
“They said, ‘We really loved your film and we’ve been grappling with the idea, is climate change a human rights issue?’ and they’ve come to the conclusion that it is. And that’s the same conclusion that Tim has come to,” Beth Gage says. “He calls it climate justice because the people who are the most severely impacted by climate change around the world are the people who have the least responsibility for climate change.”
DeChristopher had stepped away from his leadership role at Peaceful Uprising before his trial and sentencing, but the group continued to organize and gathered 800 to 1,000 people to attend a march the day his trial started, according to Henia Belalia, current director of Peaceful Uprising.
“He knew that he was facing jail time and was very intentional about leaving a space of leadership for other people, because we knew that no matter what happened to Tim, knowing that the prosecution was asking for a harsh prison sentence in order to deter other activists and to essentially intimidate us, that even if he went to prison, the work had to keep going,” Belalia says. “Peaceful Uprising, from its inception until when he went to prison, sure, a lot of its focus was around Tim and his story and really pushing that story on a national scale, and empowering other people, and making sure that his story brought people from awareness into action, but that no matter what, it couldn’t be a movement based on one single person.”
The day of his sentencing — after which he was treated as a flight risk and immediately incarcerated rather than being allowed to self-report after a few weeks so he could finish preparing for his time in jail — people took action and got arrested “in solidarity with him and in outrage with the sentence that he’d received,” Belalia says.
After 18 months in jail, DeChristopher was released to a halfway house in Salt Lake City, and works days at a rare book store. In April, he’ll be freed, just in time for an Earth Day screening of Bidder 70 in Salt Lake City and coordinated screenings, along with a Skype-broadcast Q&A, across the country.
In addition to the year and a half in jail, and the three years prior to that waiting for a trial and sentencing, he’ll face another three years of probation.
The land he bid on has never been re-auctioned — the Obama administration invalidated the auction and shelved 77 contested lease parcels before DeChristopher was even sentenced to serve time.
Bidder 70 will play at 5 p.m. Feb. 15 at the First United Methodist Church. See www.biff1.com for more information.
This story is part of our complete coverage of BIFF 2013.