Should Utah student activist Tim DeChristopher go to jail for nonviolent monkey-wrench tactics?

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On Friday December 19, 2008, University of Utah economics student and environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, 27, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to disrupt a controversial Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil lease auction by bidding on parcels of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, bidding on land he knew he could not afford, driving up prices, and winning about 22,500 acres worth $1.8 million.  He was summarily arrested for this monkey-wrench variety of civil disobedience and has said he is willing to risk jail time as a result of his actions.  One of the Obama administration’s first actions was to cancel the questionable sale, making his purchases moot, but now DeChristopher has been indicted on two felony counts and faces up to 10 years in prison.  Will justice be served by turning DeChristopher into a criminal? 

post by Anne Polansky

Non-violent civil disobedience (NVCD) is gaining in popularity as a tool for challenging our heavy reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, and helping to slow greenhouse gas emissions.  Climate change icons Al Gore and Dr. Jim Hansen have publicly supported the use of NVCD as a tactic to address the global warming crisis, and Hansen personally participated in a protest action on March 2 at a coal-fired power plant on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and made a plea on YouTube for others to join him.  This write-up focuses on one creative act of protest by just one person, in one afternoon.  We share the story of his actions, and what might be some serious consequences for this person, because as the scientific and tangible evidence of a true “climate crisis” mounts, society will be increasingly faced with a set of moral and ethical questions relating to whether and how we rise to meet the threat.  Many experts, including those at the National Academy of Sciences, have called for much more attention and research on the “human dimensions” of climate change and a larger role for the social sciences.  How will human beings respond in a climate-disrupted world?  This story, offering just one real-life example, captured our interest.

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On November 9, 2008, Election Day, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it would be auctioning off roughly 360,000 acres in eastern Utah on December 19, in an area near some of our nation’s most spectacular national parks and monuments known for ancient rocks and stunning views. 

At the time, the New York Times reported that the National Park Service was literally taken aback, as standard time periods for review and comment were collapsed in an apparent effort by the Bush administration to push through the sale before their term expired on January 20, 2009.  Michael Snyder, a Denver-based Park Service regional director, was quoted in the article:  “This is the first time where we have not had sufficient opportunity to comment.” 

The announcement of the sale was met with opposition by a coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice, and the Wilderness Society, concerned that oil and gas development in these areas would mar pristine views, pollute the air, and further exacerbate global climate disruption.  In December, the coalition filed suit to stop the leasing. 

Sundance ski resort owner, Utah resident, NRDC board member, and actor Robert Redford chastised the sale calling it “morally criminal” in an informative interview posted on YouTube

Then in January, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with these leases, an albeit tentative victory claimed by the coalition.

Enter Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old economics student who moved from Pittsburgh, PA to attend the University of Utah.  Anyone who has ever been privileged to visit the stunning redrocks area of Utah can relate to his sentiments toward the landscape:  “There’s a lot of scenes that just make your jaw drop. It’s really not like any other place in the world.” (interview with Bill Whitaker on CBS Evening News)

When auction day arrived, DeChristopher headed over to protest the sale with a fellow student who shared his convictions; they were acting on their own, neither was associated with any particular environmental organization.  Later relating that he was worried his protests outside the auction were too ineffective, he entered the auction room, and found himself responding in the affirmative when asked if he was there to bid.  Handed a paddle with the number 70 on it, DeChristopher was suddenly armed with a more effective tool for disrupting the sale, and without much forethought, began to bid on parcels of land.  When the auction was over, he had won about a dozen parcels, driven up the bid price of many others, and, in the process, had raised suspicions and ire among the other bidders.  One account in Forbes.com conveys the harsh reaction in the room that day:   

At the time, some bidders were so angry they asked officials if they could take DeChristopher out a back door to settle things their way. Instead, he was held for questioning and then escorted out the front door.  On Tuesday, consulting geologist John Adamson joked that he should have brought a baseball bat to the auction hall for use if anybody else offered false bids.

When it became clear that DeChristopher was not offering his bids in good faith and was there merely to thwart the sales, he was arrested, though it was not entirely clear to him at the time what he was being charged with. 

Three days later, in a December 22, 2008 exclusive interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! following his arrest, DeChristopher recounted his actions: 

I started off, actually, at a final exam at the university and went straight from there down to the BLM office. And I saw some protesters walking back and forth outside, and I knew that I wanted to do more than that and that this kind of injustice demanded a higher level of disruption. And so, I just decided that I wanted to go inside and cause a bigger disruption.

And from there, I found it really easy to get inside and become a bidder, and went inside and was in the auction room.  And once I was in there, I realized that any kind of speech or disruption or something like that wasn’t going to be very effective, but I saw pretty quickly that I could have a pretty major impact on the way this worked. And it just took me a little bit of time to build up the courage to do that, knowing what the consequences would be. And so, I started bidding and started driving up the prices for some of the oil companies. And throughout that time, I knew that I could be doing more and could really set aside some acres to really be protected. And so, then I started winning bids and disrupting it as clearly as I could.

In a press statement (reprinted here) , DeChristopher further explained his motives:

What I did no doubt puts me at significant risk, including prison.  But my future was already at significant risk.  As we get closer and closer to the point of too late, we have less and less to lose from resisting. Accepting the true depth of the climate crisis is extremely scary, but the purpose of fear is to motivate us to action.  Many of us have sat around countless times saying how much we needed someone to do something. If I am not willing to take a stand for my generation, then who will?  This year I have come to terms with the idea that I might be my own best hope to defend my future. Hopefully all of us will realize that we are the ones we have been waiting for.

DeChristopher was formally charged with two crimes:  making a false statement to the government, and violating provisions of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act that establishes a competitive bidding process for oil and gas leases.

Meanwhile, the entire set of oil and gas lease sales were themselves on trial. The tide began to turn when U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina halted the sale in January, ruling that BLM had failed to obey federal law when it allowed the lease sale to go forward (source article).  Then, just two weeks after President Obama took office, newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on February 4 shelved 77 leases that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation and historic preservation organizations had sued to remove from the BLM lease list, questioning the validity of the long-range plans the BLM relied on when setting up the lease sale.  A full list of the canceled sales, including DeChristopher’s purchases, is posted on BLM’s website.  Sec. Salazar’s press release said:

In its last weeks in office, the Bush Administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes in Utah. We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes and cultural resources in places like Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon, for future generations. I have directed Bureau of Land Management not to accept the bids on 77 parcels from the Dec. 19 lease sale and which are in close proximity to these national parks, monuments, and sensitive landscapes. We will take a fresh look at these 77 parcels and at the adequacy of the environmental review and analysis that led to their being offered for oil and gas development. I am also concerned that there was inadequate consultation with other agencies, including the National Park Service.

One might reasonably conclude that DeChristopher’s legal troubles would at least be ameliorated by this decision, if not dropped altogether.  But on April 3, a grand jury charged DeChristopher with one count of interfering with a federal auction and one count of making false representations at an auction, carrying up to 10 years in prison (five years for each count), and a $750,000 fine, according to the Associated Press.

The legal actions against DeChristopher are being spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, a holdover from the Bush administration. One editorial claims his actions are a likely ploy to stay in his job, or at least delay being replaced, because of his involvement in a high-profile case.  Tolman has publicly blustered that DeChristopher could serve up to 10 years in prison, and, in the same breath, indicated he’d welcome a plea bargain.  DeChristopher is apparently not interested:

“I think he probably expected throwing out the idea of a 10-year sentence would scare me—and it does.  But I think he thought I would shut my mouth and beg for a plea deal. I won’t.”

One of DeChristopher’s attorneys, Patrick Shea, headed the BLM during the Clinton administration.  Shea apparently welcomes an opportunity to shine light on the questionable bidding procedures used by BLM in the last days of the Bush administration, viewed by many as a last-ditch attempt to hand out last-minute favors to the oil and gas industry.  To Tolman’s rhetoric, Shea has retorted, “Having a trial where we can educate people about the illegitimacy of the process is very attractive.”

Indeed, BLM’s overall practices with respect to the extraction of fossil fuels needs to be reevaluated in light of the climate threat, in our view.

Again, DeChristopher was interviewed by Amy Goodman; when asked if he was surprised by the charges, he responded:

I was somewhat surprised by that. We didn’t really see it coming, and we thought that—that since the Salazar decision had pretty much decided that this was an unjust and inappropriate auction, that they weren’t following their own rules, we had figured that they would probably just want to sweep this case away rather than have us kind of discover all the rules that weren’t followed in this case and all the corruption and manipulation involved in this auction. And so, I was pretty surprised that the US attorney’s office moved on this case and is now pushing it to trial.

DeChristopher had just returned from attending an event marking the twentieth anniversary of the death of Edward Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, a virtual bible among environmental activists interested in NVCD. 

Then just last week, on April 8, DeChristopher received a “demand letter” from the BLM, through the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City (Tolman) for $81,238.50—an administrative procedure that follows from the auction, according to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune. The letter says, in part: “You have lost the opportunity to obtain these lease parcels. Regardless, the amounts specified above are still required to be remitted.  We are initiating the BLM collection process and you will receive a bill and demand letter under separate cover.”  These charges, apparently, still stand even though the sales were canceled. 

An initial legal defense fund established after the arrest yielded tens of thousands of dollars and additional promises to help pay for the purchased parcels to set them aside as protected areas.  But when Sec. Salazar canceled the Utah parcel sales pending further investigation, he began returning the money.  Now there is a new legal defense fund, and a new website, www.bidder70.org, where those sympathetic with DeChristopher’s plight can show their support and donate to help offset his legal expenses. 

In anticipation of his April 28 arraignment date, DeChristopher is making another request, this one for more public protest.  On bidder70.org, it reads:

Tim DeChristopher’s arraignment on federal felony charges is on April 28th.  He faces a possible 10 years in prison for his actions to disrupt the faudulent BLM oil and gas auction last December.

We need as many supporters as possible to show up at the Frank E. Moss federal courthouse in Salt Lake City to show their support.

Please come dressed respectfully and act the same way.

The arraignment is at 9:00 am before Judge David Nuffer.

 

DeChristopher’s local paper, the Salt Lake City Tribune, is rife with commentary on this story.  One essay by Rev. Tom Goldsmith, pastor of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, struck us as poignant enough to reprint here in its entirety: 

Laws have always governed our nation, but the laws have been elastic enough to yield to an evolving awareness and consciousness. Historically society has always moved progressively to provide greater inclusivity among those outside protective laws.

Obvious examples include abolitionists who had to break the laws to bring the disgrace of slavery to the fore; women suffragists who defiantly opposed the law to bring the basic right to vote under the umbrella of our democracy. Laws against miscegenation, sodomy and now the current struggle for marriage equality reveal that one of the blessings of living in America is that our laws recognize that new awareness of injustice must be remedied, thereby making no law sacrosanct.

I am proud to observe that in the evolution of time, our nation keeps casting an ever-widening net to make justice more available.

Civil disobedience has provided the crucial impetus to bring needed change to our culture. A new awareness of injustice precedes the movement that results in fairer laws. When Tim DeChristopher speaks to us of civil disobedience, we ought to be less judgmental about questionable laws that were broken and more alert to a new awareness that he has introduced through his courageous action to avert oil and gas companies from gobbling up leases adjacent to prime red rock country including our national parks.

Tim revealed through his civil disobedience that we are poor custodians of God’s creation. This message runs parallel not only with scientists around the world alarmed by global warming and our failure to act responsibly, but also with the recent Stegner Symposium in Salt Lake City that spelled out a desperate need to forge a relationship of awe and reverence with the unique natural setting and wilderness in the West. Stewardship has evolved as the pivotal point in moving us to a new consciousness that cries out for sustaining our planet. Rather than doctrines of ownership that give us access to exploit wilderness, a new ideal of maintenance must take hold of our society presently if there is to be a planet for our children and the generations to come.

The new thinking, wrought by acts of civil disobedience, demonstrates that nature is worthy of ethical considerations similar to those we expect in human interactions. Hostile acts against nature, the rape of wilderness for personal gain, must be viewed as a crime and new laws inserted to protect our natural habitat. The environment has been too vulnerable to corporate greed and must be protected by laws.

Any elementary book of ethics will begin with the premise that there are right and wrong ways of treating people. The same line of thinking now applies to our relationship with the natural world. Violence against nature will eventually be treated as a crime, but only because we have been made aware by acts of civil disobedience.

Breaking laws is not inherently evil. It is what has always made us a great nation by moving us forward as a more compassionate people, sensitive to a greater need for justice. DeChristopher risked much because of his concern for the future of our planet and the future of wilderness. He broke ground in making us aware that laws need to change, attitudes need to change, and a new spirit of stewardship must become the way of our culture.

Just as civil disobedience during the Civil Rights movement awakened inert white suburbanites to the reality of injustice, civil disobedience in the environmental movement will hopefully arouse us from our current apathy to extend laws of eco-justice.

We will be certain to pass on to our readers just how Judge Nuffer decides to proceed, and will be following with no small interest just what is in store for this young man. 

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