Illustration by Mr. Fish
Tim DeChristopher is scheduled to be sentenced in a Salt Lake City courtroom by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson on July 26. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine for fraudulently bidding in December 2008 on parcels of land, including areas around eastern Utah's national parks, which were being sold off by the Bush administration to the oil and natural gas industry. As Bidder No. 70, he drove up the prices of some of the bids and won more than a dozen other parcels for $1.8 million. The government is asking Judge Benson to send DeChristopher to prison for four and a half years.
His prosecution is evidence that our moral order has been turned upside down. The bankers and swindlers who trashed the global economy and wiped out some $40 trillion in wealth amass obscene amounts of money, much of it provided by taxpayers. They do not go to jail. Regulatory agencies, compliant to the demands of corporations, refuse to impede the destruction unleashed by the coal, oil and natural gas companies as they turn the planet into a hothouse of pollutants, poisoned water, fouled air and contaminated soil in the frenzied quest for greater and greater profits. Those who manage to make fortunes from pre-emptive wars, embrace torture, carry out extrajudicial assassinations, deny habeas corpus and run up the largest deficits in human history are feted as patriots. But when a courageous citizen such as DeChristopher peacefully derails the corporate and governmental destruction of the ecosystem, he is sent to jail.
"The rules are written by those who profit from the status quo," DeChristopher said when I reached him by phone this weekend in Minneapolis. "If we want to change that status quo we have to step outside of those rules. We have to put pressure on those within the political system to choose one side or another."
DeChristopher, whose defense is being assisted by the website Peaceful Uprising, knew the government would be auctioning off public land in a sale in Salt Lake City, where he had gone to college. He knew it was wrong. He knew he had to do something. But he did not know what. So he did what all of us should begin to do. He showed up.
"I went there with the intention of standing in the way of the auction," he told me. "I had no idea what that would look like. I thought I might give a speech or yell something. It was right after the guy threw a shoe at Bush. That was on my mind. I went there and at the front desk they said, 'Would you like to be a bidder?' I said, 'Yes, I would.' I was still thinking when I signed up, 'OK, I'll sign up to be a bidder so I can get inside and make a speech.' It wasn't until I got inside the auction room that I saw I had a huge opportunity to stand in the way of the auction. I had been preparing myself over the course of 2008 in a general way to take that level of action. I had been building up that commitment. I was looking for the opportunity at that point. I was ready to capitalize on it. I had prepared myself for it."
But what he had not prepared himself for was the way the justice system would be stacked against him. It became clear during the selection of the jury that he did not stand a chance. As the prospective jurors entered the court, activists handed them a pamphlet printed by the Fully Informed Jury Association. It said that jurors had a right to come to any decision based on the evidence and their consciences.
"When the judge and the prosecutor found that out, the prosecutor, especially, flipped his sh*t," DeChristopher said. "He insisted that the judge tell the jurors that this information was not true. The judge pulled most of the jurors in[to] the chambers and questioned them one at a time. He talked about what was in the pamphlet. He said that regardless of what the pamphlet said it was not their job to decide if this is right or wrong, but to listen to what he said was the law and follow that even if they thought it was morally unjust. They were not allowed to use [their] conscience. They were told they would be violating their oath if they decided this on conscience rather than the evidence that he told them to listen to. I was sitting in that chamber and could see one person after another accept this notion. I could see it in their faces, that they had to do what they were told even if they thought it was morally unjust. That is a scary thing to witness in another human being. I saw it in one person after another brought in the courtroom, sitting at the end of a long table in front of the paternalistic figure of [the] judge with all the majesty around him. They accepted it. They did not question it. It gave me a really good understanding of how some of the great human atrocities happened with the consent of the population, that people can accept what is happening, that it is not their job to question whether any of this is right or wrong."
As the trial began, the judge refused to let DeChristopher's defense team inform the jury that the auction was later overturned and declared illegal. The judge also refused to let the defense team inform the jury that DeChristopher had raised the money for the initial payment and offered it to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which then refused to accept it.
"We weren't able to tell the jury either of those things," he said. "They never knew that the auction was overturned. They never knew I offered the BLM the money. They were told over and over by the judge they were not allowed to use their conscience. When the verdict came it was not a surprise."
"When our Founding Fathers created the jury system they called it the best defense against legislative tyranny," he said. "They expected that if the government was passing laws that were out of line with the values of the community, then people would break those laws and take their case before a jury of their peers who would decide whether or not that person's actions were justified. That was the system our country was founded upon. That shifted radically as the role of the jury has been minimized in our criminal justice system. Juries are no longer given the opportunity to weigh all the factors of a case and are specifically told they are not allowed to use their conscience. It is not their job to decide if things are right or wrong. This is a drastic departure from the system that was originally created in this country."
When I asked DeChristopher why he did not work within the system, perhaps by backing a progressive Democrat, he answered that "if there was such a thing I might consider it."
"I don't see anyone in our political system advocating for significant change," he said. "I haven't ignored the political system. I paid attention when the Waxman-Markey [cap and trade] bill was being debated. I saw that there was a Republican amendment that if energy prices in any region of the country ever go up by more than 10 percent the whole bill is null and void. In other words, if the survival of our children ever costs more than about $300 a year per household, we are going to stop and give up. Both sides debated for over an hour whether it would or not ever cost $300. But there was no one who ever stood up and said maybe the cost was worth it, maybe that was too low a price to put on the heads of your children, maybe it was immoral to put any price on the heads of our children. There was no one standing up and addressing the severity of climate change."
DeChristopher helped organize a grass-roots campaign in an unsuccessful effort to unseat five-term U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah.
"I saw after the experience with the Waxman-Markey bill that our Blue Dog Democrats in Utah had to go," he said. He worked for candidate Claudia Wright in a campaign that split the delegate vote and forced a runoff primary.
"There is value in working within the democratic system, but first we need to create a democratic system," he said. "When we ran Claudia Wright it started with a Craig's List 'help wanted' ad for a 'Courageous Congressperson.' We pulled together a panel of longtime activists who were well respected in Utah representing various issues, from environmental issues to peace and justice to LGBT rights, labor, immigration rights and health care. That panel held public interviews at the Salt Lake City Library with all the people who had applied to the Craig's List ad. Everybody from the district was invited and got to vote in instant runoff voting. That is how we came up with that candidate. We started from scratch."
"If we were going to have a democracy, what would it look like? That was one experiment," he said. "Craig's List is probably not the ultimate answer. But we started from the acknowledgement that if we want to work within the democratic process we had to build it first."