In March, Tim DeChristopher was convicted of two felony counts for a nonviolent act of civil disobedience. Acting out of his deepest convictions and his abiding concern for the survival of humankind, Tim bid on oil and gas leases on federal land that he didn’t have the means to pay for. On Tuesday, he could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison for his actions.
The auction Tim disrupted was being conducted during the final weeks of the George W. Bush administration, in what many believed was a push to sell one last batch of public leases before President Obama took office. Tim’s intention at the December 2008 auction was to prevent the parcels, some of them on scenic land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, from going to oil and gas companies.
On the eve of Tim’s trial, I went to Salt Lake City to give a concert for his supporters at his church with my daughter, Bethany, and cellist Rufus Cappadocia. I will return to Salt Lake City to support him and his cause on Tuesday.
Tim is a hero to me, the kind of hero Peter, Paul and Mary stood up for consistently over the last 50 years. Throughout American history, acts of civil disobedience have led to change. Think about the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves to freedom, or about the courageous actions of people like Rosa Parks, who refused to stay in the back of the bus simply because of their skin color. Without this kind of defiance of unjust laws, our country would likely still be denying people of color basic freedoms.
Now Tim has taken a stand against federal energy policies and the way they further global warming. At our concert for him, Bethany and I sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the songs Peter, Paul and Mary sang at the 1963 March on Washington where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Why? Because Tim’s act of civil disobedience grew out of a long American tradition of conscience.
The judge should and will render his judgment in the case of DeChristopher, or “Bidder 70" as he was known at the auction. Part of committing an act of civil disobedience is facing the penalties. But because Tim’s act was part of an attempt to prevent greater harm to humankind, I hope the judge will be merciful and will give him a token or suspended sentence.
At his trial, Tim was prevented from explaining the ethical and moral motivation for his acts to the jury. It is appalling that both the judge and the government’s prosecution team have pursued Tim’s civil disobedience trial as if he were a simple criminal who broke the law without reason or conscience. Doing so deprived him of the opportunity to sway the jury with the moral force of his motive.
In their sentencing memo, the government’s attorneys wrote: “A significant prison term will promote respect for the law.... To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior.” The same might have been said of King, had our government been so odiously disrespectful of his moral courage at the time.
The prosecution has maintained that Tim’s actions cost the Bureau of Land Management — and hence taxpayers — hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, after the auction was concluded, an environmental group got an injunction against many of the leases on the grounds that the environmental consequences of drilling hadn’t been adequately considered. Subsequently, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pulled back the majority of them for further review. Eleven of the 14 auction parcels on which Tim made the highest bid later were pulled back by the government for reanalysis, so his action cost the government nothing on those. As to the remaining three parcels, if they are brought to auction again, they might well fetch more than Tim’s original bid. So how did this cost the government money?
It’s true that Tim entered the auction building with the intention of impeding its progress, but the specifics of his actions were not premeditated. He has said that the option of becoming a bidder didn’t enter his mind until he got to the registration desk, at which point he realized that registering as a bidder might be the best way to derail the auction, or at least to save some parcels of lands from despoliation.
His objective, of course, was to call the entire process into question and ignite public concern over the relationship between such auctions and global warming’s ominous shadow. I believe he achieved this mightily.
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.
Peter Yarrow, a member of the folk-singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary, is a lifelong activist.