The Commodification of Tim DeChristopher
by Gregory Vickrey
Tim DeChristopher, otherwise known as “Bidder 70” and any number of other marketable terms, was recently sentenced to two years in prison and required to pay a large sum in fines as retribution for his actions at an auction for 130,000 or so acres of land in Utah slated as near give-aways to oil and gas conglomerates.
Tim DeChristopher, in his own words, acknowledges quite specifically the reasons for his actions, and what he would like climate activists to do to support him and his effort that day in the auction house. It is essentially a two-word suggestion: join him.
Tim stood up that day to disrupt the system. Not to rant at it. Not to wave signs at it. Not to sing songs in front of a static building waiting for the police to politely escort him away.
Tim stood up that day to disrupt the system.
And prior to, during, and after the sentencing of Tim DeChristopher, what pitifully stands for a climate movement today did one thing in response. It commodified Tim DeChristopher, morphing him into nothing more than a cheerleader for various parades in front of the White House in DC; a fundraising campaign for those that seek to exploit the passion of those that care about the state of the world; a symbol for the cautious and weak approach to civil disobedience that always allows for a pat on the back, but never makes a dent in the system.
This is not new.
The commodification of real and actual heroes occurs on a regular basis in the environmental and civil justice movements. One can look to The Nature Conservancy, Alaska Wilderness League, Trout Unlimited, and The Wilderness Society and watch as they sketch plans to exploit Native Alaska communities (heroes) in order to produce nominal results in DC, all the while raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate foundations and unknowing supporters and members.
Al Gore did it and continues to do it through the various incarnations of Re-Power America (has or had at least three other names, to date) by lifting up the home-grown hero who managed to put up a windmill in one rural backyard or another – all the while ignoring just how dirty his hands are from the sweatshops throughout Southeast Asia that have an Apple stamped on their product.
One can also look at all the fundraising and email pleas and letter writing campaigns for Bradley Manning, and how much traction those efforts have maintained. They raised money, sure. They generated letters, yes. And then what?
They moved on.
To the next protest.
The next big thing.
The coolest fad in print.
The next commodifiable hero.
Tim DeChristopher has not moved. He is still in jail.
Native Alaskans have not moved. Their way of life is still being raped and pillaged.
Bradley Manning has not moved. He is still in solitary.
Martin. Malcolm. Che.
One can not really call him DeChristopher anymore. He is McChristopher ™ – commodified for the whorish efforts – fundraising and otherwise — of the greenwashing cabal, led by 350.org, Greenpeace, Global Exchange, Progressive Democrats of America, Rainforest Action Network (RAN)…
Did they avail him a contract before placing the Ronald suit on him?
Organizations, environmental or otherwise, should have focused on the action of disruption Tim employed, and called upon their minions to repeat it in substance and form. For example, activist Keith Farnish raised this with 350.org, suggesting they simply utilize their massive resources to post and share information on upcoming lease and land auctions, encouraging their thousands of supporters to jump in. Creativity, of course, can take the activists elsewhere, and into other disruptive realms. But this simple mechanism employs what Tim bravely did, en masse.
Of course, 350.org ignores this sort of potential. As does RAN. As does Greenpeace. As does any organization mentioned above (implicitly or explicitly), and then some. They prefer sanitized ‘action’ and fundraising campaigns – emotional appeals and sign-holding over disruption of the actual system. As they operate colloquially within the system, and directly benefit from it with foundational riches galore, one should not really expect them to powerfully respond to Tim’s call.
It is simply a matter of perpetuating the self for these entities.
September and October of 2011 include plans to prop up various heroes through the mechanism of commodification for several causes, marches, protests, and vigils. Old tactics to raise money and attention will be employed on the backs of these individual acts of strength with only the occasional symbolic gesture to disrupt the system in coordinated fashion. An insignificant number of arrests will be arranged. “Success” will be re-defined and diluted again, and again, and again.
And no one will have the guts to stand up and say, “Sorry, Tim. We are too afraid, too comfortable, and too embedded to join you.”
Gregory Vickrey is a consultant in the nonprofit and political arenas and may be reached at gregory.