Crime, punishment, and protest

Tim DeChristopher has been sentenced to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine.  About 2 1/2 years ago, after Barack Obama had been elected president, partly by promising to protect the environment more aggressively than President George W. Bush had, DeChristopher accompanied a group of others intending to protest the auction of mineral and drilling rights for 149,000 acres of wilderness.  While the environmentalists went outside, DeChristopher went in, registered as a bidder, and participated in the auction.

He wielded paddle number 70 aggressively, bidding up prices on many lots; he also won the rights to drill on 13 parcels of land for nearly $1.8 million.  He was arrested when he explained that he didn’t have the money, and was convicted of two counts of felony fraud in a federal court in Salt Lake City.  He could have faced up to 10 years in prison, but people who can’t pay aren’t always prosecuted.  The auction itself was invalidated, and the Obama administration has pulled many of the parcels out of the process.

Environmental activists had been protesting against the auctions, but Tim DeChristopher went further, actually disrupting business as usual.  Partisans of direct action, often in violation of the law, call such efforts “monkey-wrenching,” in homage to Edward Abbey’s novel about a small band of environmentalists who committed small and large acts of sabotage to protect the land.  DeChristopher and his supporters call it civil disobedience.

In addition to the actual damage done to the auction and whatever financial costs DeChristopher imposed on other bidders–who actually wanted to drill–his efforts provided additional visibility for his cause and his allies.

Since he was charged, he and others have been organizing, giving interviews, and staging protests, talking about climate change, oil, and protecting the wilderness.

Peter, Paul and Mary sing for civil rights, 1963

Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary, held a benefit concert and published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.  (He’s been doing this sort of thing for fifty years!)  Activists staged protests at his trial, and 26 were arrested for blocking the courthouse yesterday when he was sentenced.

DeChristopher says that his decision to participate in the bidding was spontaneous, but once the legal proceedings started, he was determined to use everything associated with the trial to build the movement and support for his cause.

He acknowledged deliberately disrupting the auction, and asked to present his reasons for doing so to the jury.  His argument was that the environmental threat he was addressing was so great that his actions were justifiable.  Sometimes called “competing harms,” this necessity defense has a long history in common law and in America.  [The earliest citation I could find was to Ploof v. Putnam (Vermont, 1906), the case of a man who tied his boat to someone else’s dock during a storm.]

Activists who break the law try to use the defense, to make their case to a jury (the “conscience of the community”), and to project their concerns to a broader audience.  Federal District Judge Dee Benson ruled out the defense, limiting the trial to DeChristopher’s actions, rather than his motivations, and noting that he had other ways to advocate for what he believed that didn’t involve a criminal offense.  Judges generally try to keep larger issues out of the courtroom.  [Think, for example, of Norway’s refusal to allow Anders Behring Brevik from publicly testifying about his vision of the threat to Christian culture new immigrants to Europe represent; then think about the difference between disrupting an auction and mass murder.]

Up until the trial, Tim DeChristopher has been speaking on climate change, and on the history of political movements and civil disobedience in the United States, testimony that didn’t appear in the courtroom.  He won the active support of environmentalists across the United States, including James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Robert Redford, and Terry Tempest Williams, who all signed a letter of support:

Tim’s action drew national attention to the fact that the Bush Administration spent its dying days in office handing out a last round of favors to the oil and gas industry. After investigating irregularities in the auction, the Obama Administration took many of the leases off the table, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar criticizing the process as “a headlong rush.” And yet that same Administration is choosing to prosecute the young man who blew the whistle on this corrupt process.

We cannot let this stand. When Tim disrupted the auction, he did so in the fine tradition of non-violent civil disobedience that changed so many unjust laws in this country’s past.

Meanwhile, DeChristopher’s lawyers have filed an appeal, challenging the severity of the sentence and the judge’s decision to exclude them from putting forward their best defense.

Whatever happens in the courtroom, much will be happening outside.  Here’s DeChristopher’s speech to Judge Benson prior to sentencing:

…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.  He wrote that “The rule of law is the bedrock of our civilized society, not acts of ‘civil disobedience’ committed in the name of the cause of the day.”  That’s an especially ironic statement when he is representing the United States of America, a place where the rule of law was created through acts of civil disobedience.  Since those bedrock acts of civil disobedience by our founding fathers, the rule of law in this country has continued to grow closer to our shared higher moral code through the civil disobedience that drew attention to legalized injustice.  The authority of the government exists to the degree that the rule of law reflects the higher moral code of the citizens, and throughout American history, it has been civil disobedience that has bound them together….

I do not want mercy, Tim DeChristopher says, I want you to join me.

By breaking the law and going to trial, he’s given supporters across the country the chance to do so.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Crime, punishment, and protest

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading | Historically Speaking…

  2. kathleen clark says:

    Rule of law or rule by individual zealotry? If McGraw disrupted this auction on a lark, no one would blink an eye at the sentence. So what that he did it based on his personal view of what’s moral and just relative to oil — with which, by the way, a lot of people disagree. Protesters have to be willing to pay the price if they choose unlawful methods of protest and should realize their penance could add some power to their movement. Otherwise, what is being proposed is anarchy.

  3. Thanks for the critical point. It’s clearly a moral and political error to excuse the wrongs of law-breakers when they agree with us. The idea of a jury of one’s peers, however, is that the conscience of the community gets to decide on justification. I buy into this–at least mostly.

  4. Pingback: Occupation Nation? Si, se puede! / Waging Nonviolence - People-Powered News and Analysis

  5. Pingback: Occupation Nation? | Change-Links

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