One the eve of Obama’s inauguration in 2008, DeChristopher, a 27-year old economics student from Utah, entered an auction set up for oil and gas companies, became the top bidder, and won the lease rights. As he collected afterwards, he had come with protestors to demonstrate at the auction but stepping in to bid was a spur of the moment action – and as he began to bid, felt comfortable that he was doing the right thing. He had no intention of paying for the land. He was motivated by the desire to protect public land from destructive extraction.
A flawed auction
The auction apparently was the last spluttering of the George W. Bush administration and its efforts to help their friends in the oil and gas industry, attempting to railroad through auctions of land, most of which were subsequently found to have been illegal.
Despite the leasing plan being flawed and a move to revoke it, DeChristopher went to jail for two years, was given a $10,000 fine, and faces three years probation.
According to Jeff Goodell, writing in Rolling Stone, the U.S. Attorney’s office went after DeChristopher because they wanted to make an example out of him, to show other activists what happens when you mess with the system. “But if federal prosecutors thought DeChristopher was a weak-kneed tree-hugger who would beg for forgiveness, they were wrong,” wrote Goodell. “DeChristopher is not just a principled climate activist, he is also a deeply thoughtful human being. And instead of underscoring the importance of the rule of law, the sentencing of DeChristopher reveals just how perverse and fossil fuel friendly our legal system really is. For climate activists, this is a Rosa Parks moment. Or should be.”
Goodell touches on an important point. Individuals who take action against injustice can upturn the tables, their action eventually leading to real change.
‘The Times They Are A-Changing’
In an interview prior to the trial, DeChristopher told Goodell:”I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time.” It showed. Just before the sentencing, while about 100 protestors gathered outside the court house in Salt Lake City singing “The Times They Are A-Changing,” DeChristopher stood before the judge and read aloud a long statement to explain his actions to the court. “Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law,” he said in his speech.
He described the hypocrisy of a legal system that locks away students for peaceful acts of civil disobedience while allowing coal barons, one of whom has been cited for more than 62,000 violations in the last ten years and was responsible for the deaths of 29 miners last year, to roam free and live like kings. “When a corrupted government is no longer willing to uphold the rule of law, I advocate that citizens step up to the responsibility,” he said.
In his address to the judge, he said: “I am not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with [prosecuting attorney] Mr Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the [Bureau of Land Management]. You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
Two year’s jail for ‘doing what is right’
DeChristopher could have gone down for 10 years. In the end, he received two years in jail.
While he remains in jail, his supporters and the group he has created called Peaceful Uprising, are campaigning for his release, calling on U.S. President Barack Obama for a pardon.
Few observers imagine he will be pardoned. Despite the heady promises made when he campaigned for the presidency, Obama has shown that he is just as much dependent on major corporations for support as his predecessor.
Overview – Jail for stopping injustice?
Tim DeChristopher on his case
In this interview with Kevin Gosztola at Netroots Nation 2011, Peaceful Uprising’s Tim DeChristopher explains how environmental activists are using civil disobedience techniques learned from earlier American social movements to take bold action to resist the anti-environment status quo.
Tim DeChristopher speaks after the verdict