Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tim DeChristopher and Civil Disobedience

In January 2009, as the country struggled to get through the last weeks of the George W. Bush presidency, a young activist named Tim DeChristopher attended a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases in Utah. DeChristopher spontaneously began to bid on parcels, and by the end of the auction had “purchased” $1.8 million of leases on 14 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. DeChristopher was a 27-year-old economics student; he clearly had learned that money is the only language people in power understand.

The auction was Bush’s end-of-term gift to the oil and gas industry, and DeChristopher’s action not only disrupted the auction itself but brought national attention to the giveaway. The leasing plan was challenged in court and most of the proposed leases were ultimately withdrawn.

I wrote in my journal at the time:
Yesterday heard of young man bidding at BLM auctions in Utah preventing oil and gas leases from being sold and I was so excited because here was someone doing something. I went to the website an hour later and donated money for his legal fund, something I never do. I wrote on the site, “this is the most exciting thing I’ve heard in years, including Obama’s election. Someone taking direct action. That’s what we need to bring change, the people taking action (by implication, a leader can’t do it for us).”
Somehow I believed that with Barack Obama taking office a couple of weeks later, DeChristopher’s actions would not be prosecuted. How na├»ve of me.

In July DeChristopher was found guilty of interfering with a federal auction and sentenced to two years in federal prison and fined $10,000. He was immediately taken to a prison in California.

After his sentencing, DeChristopher sent an interesting letter to the website Grist.org about the modern plea-bargain system. We have been trained to think that it is a necessary expedient to speed up an overburdened court system, but after his courtroom experience DeChristopher has another take: it’s the eroding of our constitutional right to be judged by our peers. If a defendant doesn’t accept a plea-bargain and demands his right to a trial, but then loses, he’s punished with a worse sentence. In addition, there are all sorts of tricks the prosecutor can employ to keep the jury from hearing the whole story. In DeChristopher’s case, the jury could not hear why he bid on the parcels, which was central to everything he did. By preventing the defense from presenting DeChristopher’s motives, the government made a mockery of justice.

DeChristopher wrote:
If I had ever doubted the power of words, Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month. When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he admitted my offense "wasn't too bad." The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my "continuing trail of statements" and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been avoided. In fact, Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that's why most activist cases end in a plea bargain…

The revolutionaries who founded this country were deeply distrustful of a concentration of power, so among other precautions, they established citizen juries as the most important part of our legal system and insisted upon constitutional right to a jury trial. To avoid this inconvenience, those seeking concentrated power free from revolutionaries have minimized the role of citizens in our legal system. They have accomplished this by restricting what juries can hear, what they can decide upon, and most importantly, by avoiding jury trials all together. It is now accepted as a basic fact of our criminal justice system that a defendant who exercises his or her right to a jury trial will be punished at sentencing for doing so. Transferring power from citizens to government happens when the role of citizens gets eliminated in the process.

With civil disobedience cases, however, the government puts an extra value on an apology. By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no matter how small…

But our modern government is dismantling the First Amendment because they understand the very same thing our founding fathers did when they wrote it: What one person can do is to plant the seeds of love and outrage in the hearts of a movement. And if those hearts are fertile ground, those seeds of love and outrage will grow into a revolution.
You can stay connected to what’s happening to Tim DeChristopher on his Facebook page.


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