Tim DeChristopher Sentenced — What’s Next for the Environmental Movement?

by Will Potter on July 27, 2011

in Activism & Activists' Response,Terrorism Court Cases

Environmentalist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for using non-violent civil disobedience to disrupt a sham oil and gas auction. He had been found guilty on two felony counts for making fake bids in the auction, costing corporations hundreds of thousands of dollars, and faced up to ten years.

He increased the bids on 22,000 acres of land in Utah national parks. A federal judge later ruled the auction was illegal.

DeChristopher’s case has attracted international attention, and he has become a spokesperson for the environmental movement. This case is much bigger than DeChristopher, though (as he has often said himself). We all need to be thinking: what’s next? How do we move forward?

Even if you do not consider yourself an environmentalist, or don’t agree with DeChristopher’s tactics, this case should raise serious questions about the misplaced priorities of our government and our entire culture. DeChristopher’s two-year sentence is comparable to what members of underground groups have received for property destruction. The court has sent the message that public, aboveground activists, who use non-violent civil disobedience, will be treated on par with underground activists who use economic sabotage.

More importantly, though, the government has sent the message that the people who step forward to stop ecological destruction will be met with harsh punishments, while those who responsible for this destruction, such as the oil and gas corporations bidding for public lands, will go about business as usual.

As the judge said during sentencing: “Civil disobedience can’t be the order of the day,” or it will lead to “chaos.”

But chaos for who? For the people? For the planet? Or for corporations?

This case, and the larger crackdown on the environmental movement, makes strikingly clear that the government is more concerned about the latter. As defense attorney Ron Yengich said: “We never impose the rule of law on people who steal from poor people, destroy the banking systems or destroy the earth.”

Moving forward, we need to remember one thing above all else: this is happening because DeChristopher was effective.

DeChristopher’s actions exposed what goes on inside sham corporate auctions, it cost corporations hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it galvanized the movement.

At sentencing, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said that DeChristopher’s leadership in the environmental movement, his “continuing trail of statements” for civil disobedience, and his speech outside the courthouse were the reasons he faced prison time.

The judge went so far as to take the unusual step of having DeChristopher taken into custody of the U.S. Marshalls until his prison sentence begins. In many other cases I have covered, including those of convicted arsonists, the prisoners were allowed to self-surrender. People are generally only taken directly into custody if they are a violent threat or a flight risk. Why was this different?

Because DeChristopher is inspirational, and he would clearly use his time before prison to organize.

“You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine,” DeChristopher said to the judge. “I’ll continue to confront the system that threatens our future.”

Others have vowed to do the same. Thousands will be in Washington, D.C. in August to protest the Keystone XL pipeline to the Tar Sands. They are planning mass non-violent civil disobedience.


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