A man with profound courage and great character, climate activist Tim DeChristopher, went to jail today for bidding on oil and gas leases on federal land when he didn’t have the money to pay for the bids he placed. Sentenced to two years and fined ten thousand dollars, DeChristopher was taken into custody immediately following his conviction of two felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction.
According to the Associated Press, DeChristopher is “the first person to be prosecuted for failing to make good on bids at a lease auction of Utah public lands.” DeChristopher was also given three years probation in addition to a two-year sentence in jail.
The activist, who has come to be known as Bidder #70, said in his sentencing statement it’s not that I don’t respect the law but that I have a higher respect for justice.”
I interviewed DeChristopher at Netroots Nation 2011 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. DeChristopher displayed a clear understanding of why he was a threat to power and why power in collusion with the big energy companies had to make an example out of him.
He explained that people like him who operate on a higher level of justice and morality are clear threats because they may take actions like this again. So, the government has to vilify people like him to reclaim authority. Or, they have to talk people like him into a plea bargain, where they are essentially made to admit they were wrong to challenge power.
DeChristopher had no interest in admitting that he was wrong to take on the oil and gas companies along with the federal government. And, why should he have confessed to a crime? The Obama Administration overturned the land auction he placed bids in, not because of his actions but because the Bureau of Land Management auction violated its own rules. Clearly, DeChristopher was putting his body on the line to prevent injustice and indeed he did.
The dismal reality in this country is that Massey Energy CEOs, as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. points out, get to walk free and continue to blow up mountains in Applachia and manipulate the judicial system in West Virginia and Kentucky while conscientious individuals like DeChristopher are vehemently pursued by government prosecutors and sent to jail.
This sentencing today is all about trying to convince citizens that they do not have the right to challenge their government when it is acting illegally. It is the continuation of a pursuit of activists that is a sad part of our nation’s history. Fortunately, most often, those who take actions like DeChristopher look better and better as time passes.
Truth is, DeChristopher’s sentencing has the potential to have the opposite impact than what the oil and gas industry desires. His sentencing could be a great catalyst. Since being arrested, DeChristopher has only grown more supportive of civil disobedience and direct action in the climate movement believing that this the only way humanity is going to save the environment and, ultimately, the Earth from capitalist destruction. The rallying cry of “joy and resolve” has been central to efforts to support him and so one should expect that his sentencing will bring about a new wave of civil disobedience and direct action that boldly takes action with joy and resolve.
In the courtroom, hours before going to jail, Dechristopher declared, “The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today.”
From August 20th to September 3rd, key supporters of DeChristopher are planning on mounting a major act of civil disobedience with “a wave of sustained sit-ins” that will hopefully escalate a movement to block the construction of a Keystone XL pipeline to the Canadian tar sands. DeChristopher’s sentencing is a gift to the organizers of this action, as many inspired by DeChristopher’s resolve in the face of prosecution by the government may now participate in the action.
As Peter Yarrow of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary wrote in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, “There is a massive complicity in America today between the corporations that fund elections and the officeholders they elect. Actions like Tim’s are aimed at disrupting that complicity. For our children, for our country and for the world, we should honor his courage and self-sacrifice and pledge to follow in his footsteps, each in our own way.”
That massive complicity can be overcome. The more people who challenge the injustice perpetrated by our government, the harder it is for the government to engage in acts of repression designed to prevent movements from impacting the established order of this country and engineered to protect industries that exploit and bring destruction to our environment.
Here’s my interview with DeChristopher at Netroots Nation 2011: