What a day to celebrate! If you don't know Tim's story yet, now is your chance. Movie screenings about Tim's action are scheduled all over the country in celebration of his release from prison.
It was early 2008 and the Bush Administration was ramroding the auction of Colorado land to oil and gas companies before the next election. The public was furious that the Administration was subverting the public oversight and commenting process, and staged several demonstrations. But the Bush Administration pushed on. On the day of the action, dozens of people showed up to protest, including a senior economics student at the University of Utah named Tim DeChristopher.
Tim decided that the protest needed to be moved from outside of the auction to inside, where the action was happening. With no prior plan of action, Tim entered the building where the auction was held and approached the registration desk. When asked if he was there to bid, Tim made a quick decision. He registered as Bidder 70 and entered the auction.
Tim intended to stand up and make a speech or create some other kind of disruption. Once inside, however, Tim recognized the opportunity to stop the auction in a more effective, enduring fashion. He sat quietly with his bidder paddle lowered, until he saw a friend from his church openly weeping at the sterile transfer of beloved red rock lands away from the public trust and into the hands of energy giants. It was then that Tim decided to act.
At first, Tim simply pushed up the parcels’ prices up. Once almost half of the parcels had been sold to oil and gas companies, Tim felt he could no longer bear to lose any more public lands. Tim bid on and won every subsequent parcel, until he was recognized as an outlier and escorted from the auction. Once it was revealed that Tim did not have the intent or the means to pay for the parcels he won, the auction was stopped. Because Tim won so many parcels and inflated the prices of so many others, the auction had to be shut down. Due to the requisite thirty-day period between a canceled auction and its rescheduled successor, the incoming Obama Administration took office before the auction could be rescheduled. Upon review of the parcels in question, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar dismissed the auction, declaring that the BLM had cut corners and broken many of its own rules, including a crucial statute requiring all federal agencies to take the impacts on our climate into account prior to auctioning off public lands for the purpose of energy development.
Despite the fact that the new administration declared that auction was illegal to begin and despite the fact that soon after the auction Tim was able to raise all the funds for the initial payments on the parcels, the Obama administration chose to prosecute him. Furthermore, the Judge kept this information from the jury and would not let Tim use the necessity defense to argue that illegally purchasing land to keep in the public trust was the lesser evil when compared with the damage the oil and gas companies would cause to the climate when they dug up and burned the lands.
On July 26th, 2011, Tim was sentenced to two years in federal prison. In the pre-sentencing report, the Prosecution openly admitted that Tim himself was not a threat to society or at risk to reoffend; the stated purpose of the sentence was to deter other activists from taking similar action to further the climate movement. In his final statement to the Judge, Tim said that he understood why the Prosecution saw him as a threat. “[My message] may indeed be threatening to the power structure,” he said. “The message is about recognizing our interconnectedness. The message is that when people stand together, they no longer have to be exploited. Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.” Tim’s conclusion to his final statement to the courtroom at his sentencing hearing crystallized his own personal stake in that commitment:
“You can steer my commitment to a healthy and just world if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
On September 28th 2012, Tim released this statement about his decision to no longer appeal his case despite the unjust ruling by Judge Benson. Tim's statement shows the injustice of the American justice system, which holds the interests of corporations and property over the interests of people and the planet their lives depend on. Now on Earth Day, the day after Tim's release from his two years of incarceration, his words serve as a reminder of what the climate movement is up against, and how now more than ever, we must work together to protect life and overcome the injustice that pursues profits at all costs.
After nearly four years in the criminal justice system and 14 months in prison, I have decided not to continue my appeal through the federal court system. I greatly appreciate the pro bono efforts of Ron Yengich, Liz Hunt and Pat Shea, who have defended me in the courts and articulated the issues of the case. I am also grateful for all the support I have received thoughout this process, especially from Peaceful Uprising and the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City.
Throughout every stage of this legal process, it has been a predetermined conclusion that I should be punished for standing up to the collusion between government and corporations. Any potential discussion of ethics, justice or the role of citizens has been banished from the court. The government insisted on this back in 2009 when they wrote that such discussions should be relegated to “the public square, not a court of law.” The first development in this case was a preemptive motion by the government to limit
our defense, setting the stage for the trivialities which followed. As a result, our defense team has been restricted to debating a narrow range of technicalities rather than the critical issues of the case.
When a conviction is overturned, it is often reported that the conviction was overturned “on a technicality.” Yet is almost never mentioned that every conviction is obtained and upheld on a technicality. Technicalities are the entire foundation of a legal system which has closed itself off to questions of morality and justice. Weighing these questions is the function of a jury, whose role as designed by our founding fathers is to protect fellow citizens from the government. But Judge Benson and the US Attorney’s Office insisted on preventing the jury from fulfilling their duty.
During the voir dire, the US Attorney’s Office was nearly apoplectic when it was suggested to potential jurors that they should use their conscience. After telling jurors that it was not their job to think about what is right or wrong, Judge Benson blocked evidence of government wrongdoing on the grounds that it would “confuse the jury.” That kind of contempt and fear of citizen participation in government is the hallmark of tyranny and the pathway to oppression.
To continue debating technicalities through further appeals would only serve as a distraction from the critical discussion of how citizens should hold their government accountable. If there is any hope of this country ever getting a justice system worthy of the name, that hope lies in fully informed juries of ordinary citizens, not in judges protecting the interests of the powerful.
Throughout my incarceration I have witnessed the direct personal impacts of a legal system obsessed with technicalities rather than justice. The prisons I have been in are filled with nonviolent inmates suffering from mandatory minimums and other policies which are completely detached from the best interests of the individual or society. The injustice on display in my case is truly systemic, and we will put our continuing efforts toward creating a system of genuine justice for all.