This week, the saga of Bidder 70 reached a climax when activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for his interference with a government land auction. The direct action has made him a hero of the environmental justice movement and a target of the federal government.
On December 18, 2008, Tim DeChristopher, an economics student at the University of Utah, showed up at a federal land auction in Salt Lake City. As a parting gift to the fossil fuel industry, the Bush Administration was leasing hundreds of thousands of acres in Utah for oil and gas drilling.
DeChristopher walked in planning to protest the auction and get thrown out by security. He walked out as Bidder 70, the winner of nearly $1.8 million dollars of oil and gas leases. And under arrest.
It didn’t matter that the land auction was invalid from the beginning. Or that the Obama Administration later cancelled most of the leases. DeChristopher’s goal in delaying and drawing attention to the auction had been realized, but he still owed the Bureau of Land Management almost $2 million.
With the help of Patrick Shea, who directed the BLM under Clinton, Tim raised the necessary funds much faster than he had expected. But the BLM refused his payment.
DeChristopher was charged with one count of False Statement and one count of violating the Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. From the beginning the prosecutors’ goal was to make an example of him. Their reports insisted that the sentence should “effectively communicate that similar acts will have definite consequences.”
As the trial progressed, it became clear that a guilty verdict was inevitable, maybe even predetermined. The prosecution claimed that DeChristopher had “obstructed lawful government proceedings,” but the defense was forbidden to point out that the auction was not a lawful proceeding. DeChristopher was not allowed to mention that he had offered an initial payment to the BLM. Nor was he allowed to explain the moral motivations behind his action, including climate change.
I was able to talk about what my intent was there at the auction… But I wasn’t able to introduce any evidence that supported what I was thinking. I wasn’t able to introduce anything that happened before December 19th, about the corruption within the Department of the Interior in the Bush administration, or anything that happened after December 19th…So, I was only able to throw my views out there as unsubstantiated claims of what I was thinking.
In short, the government prevented DeChristopher from saying anything that would have made his actions appear justified. And the only truly neutral party, the jury, never heard the whole story.
Legal details aside, there’s an infuriating irony in Tim DeChristopher’s conviction. If he had killed 29 people by letting a coal mine explode, or buried a river in toxic chemicals, or somehow given thousands of people cancer, then it would make sense for him to be going to jail.
If Tim DeChristopher’s negligence had helped cause the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, wrecking the lives of countless people, a prison term would be justified. If he had poisoned an Amazon community with oil drilling waste, or conspired to blow up hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, we’d be screaming for his head.
But in reality, DeChristopher is going to prison for bidding in an auction and starting a book club, among other atrocities. Meanwhile, the people (remember, corporations count as people now) who do the things listed above carry on with an encouraging nod from the authorities.
Of course, we know the real reason for Tim’s sentence. The prosecutors told us, “To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior.” That “criminal behavior” is also known as civil disobedience, and the government’s response has been known by another name: intimidation.
If you read DeChristopher’s speech from the sentencing (and you definitely should), you’ll see that his political stance was central to the trial:
The reality is not that I lack respect for the law; it’s that I have greater respect for justice. Where there is a conflict between the law and the higher moral code that we all share, my loyalty is to that higher moral code. I know Mr. Huber [the prosecutor] disagrees with me on this….
This philosophical difference is serious enough that Mr. Huber thinks I should be imprisoned to discourage the spread of this idea.
When you read the rest of the speech and see the reactions from the groups that stood behind Tim, you will see the trial has not intimidated their movement, but galvanized it. The dozens of activists that protested at the sentencing, including the 26 that were arrested in Salt Lake City, were not intimidated. The folks signing up to resist the Keystone XL pipeline weren’t intimidated. Nor were the tree-sitters holding off blasting on Coal River Mountain.
And, if Tim DeChristopher himself, who will spend the next two years behind bars, was intimidated, he didn’t show 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.