A college student who derailed a federal auction of oil and gas leases to protest drilling near national parks in the western U.S. state of Utah, as well as the larger issue of reliance on fossil fuels, has reignited debate over the legitimacy of civil disobedience in addressing profound global problems like climate change.
In December 2008, the twilight of the George W. Bush administration, Tim DeChristopher attended the auction, held by the Bureau of Land Management, and bid 1.8 million dollars on parcels he never intended to actually buy. BLM agents caught on to the ruse fairly quickly, and DeChristopher was detained and then charged with making a false statement to the government and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.
The young activist, then an economics student at the University of Utah, organised a fundraising drive and "in less than a week, he had more than enough money to pay for the auction," his lawyer Patrick Shea told IPS. But "it was rejected [by] the Bush-Cheney administration [since] they did not want to make accommodation to the environmental actors."
The Barack Obama administration later invalidated the auction, shelving 77 contested lease parcels - including ones DeChristopher had bid on. However, it continued with criminal charges against the 28-year-old.
After a week-long trial earlier this month, he was convicted of two felonies and now faces up to 10 years in prison.
Critics note that the jurors did not hear all the facts, particularly that DeChristopher's actions were driven by moral imperatives and deep concern about the impacts of climate change.
Judge Dee Benson of U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City ruled that jurors would not be told about the subsequent invalidation of the auction or the refusal to accept late payment because that would touch on DeChristopher's political motives.
"In my judgement, what happened was the oil industry put enormous pressure on the U.S. attorney's office and other organisations to prosecute him," Shea told IPS, adding "even though, for instance, no one on Wall Street has gone to jail for the financial meltdown, which has harmed many more people than anybody that might have been harmed by Tim's act."
According to Shea, his ultimate sentence is likely to be less than 10 years. "The prosecutor has indicated that he would seek 41 months, which is a long time for an action that harmed no one and corrected the system in a way that America has always had this system corrected - by civil disobedience," he said.
In an article published in 1999, noted U.S. historian Howard Zinn discusses the "long and honourable tradition in the U.S. of citizen actions of civil disobedience - that is, of technical violations of law to serve important social values."
Three of the country's biggest environmental groups - Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and 350.org – also condemned the judgement in a Mar. 7 open letter.
"There have been a growing number of inspiring examples of civil disobedience across the United States to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that we depend on," the letter reads.
Blogging on Mar. 4, Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, declared that "just as racists should have been on trial in the Civil Rights Movement and the British during the Boston Tea Party, it is the oil and coal industries and their friends in Congress who pursue power and profit over the health of our children who should be in jail, not Tim."
"The guilty sentence that Tim is facing is a radical, disproportionate overreach to his action," Radford said. "DeChristopher stood up to protect our future from carbon pollution and the reckless hands of Big Oil."
Likewise, 350.org founder Bill McKibben affirmed in a statement on Mar. 3 that, "Tim has shown the power of civil disobedience to shine a light - the government should be giving him a medal, not a sentence, and in time this will be recalled as a key early battle in the century's long fight for a liveable climate."
In their Mar. 7 letter, the heads of the three environmental groups also declare that "just in case the federal government thinks that it's intimidating people into silence with this kind of prosecution, think again." According to them, it is more likely to energise the movement, since "in fact, this is precisely the sort of event that reminds us just why we need creative, nonviolent protests and mass mobilizations."
Scott Parkin, a campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network, told IPS that "non-violent civil disobedience is one of the best strategies we have." Indeed, "people have long been doing legal acts [of protest] and haven't really moved anything," he said, adding, "We [now] need to escalate."
Parkin pointed out that DeChristopher's case has garnered wide support, with protests in Salt Lake City drawing people from different communities, many with no history of political or environmental activism.
His sentence will be handed down in June. Shea is now trying to get DeChristopher community service instead of jail time.
Following his conviction, DeChristopher told Grist, "Climate change is a war against people and especially young people. People's lives are being traded for the profit of others. That's a war. And yet it doesn't look that way, it doesn't feel that way to most people. It just looks like businessmen making a profit. It looks like congressmen not doing their jobs very well."
"So when we make ourselves vulnerable and invite that reaction against ourselves, whether it's a physical reaction or a reaction of the legal system, it starts to reframe that perspective for people."