“I thought of yelling something or throwing a shoe,” he said later. “What I did was far more effective than I could have been with a shoe.”
A BLM official asked perfunctorily if DeChristopher was there to bid on the parcels. Why not, he thought to himself, and was assigned bidder number 70. Whereupon he bid millions of dollars he didn’t have to secure the leases on thousands of wild acres near the borders of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Parcels that oil and gas companies wanted to drill for natural gas.
Eventually, the bureaucrats realized what was happening and spirited DeChristopher from the room, but not before he had sufficiently jiggered the proceedings so that the entire lease sale had to be tossed out.
DeChristopher is coming to Mountainfilm this weekend to talk about his act of civil disobedience, his impending trial, and Peaceful Uprising, the Salt Lake City-based group he founded after his arrest.
The charges against DeChristopher are not insubstantial: He faces two felony counts, one for violating the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, and another for making false statements to the government (filling out the form to get into the auction). If convicted he could get 10 years in jail and a fine of $750,000.
The incoming Obama administration recognized that the BLM lease process was dangerously, perhaps fraudulently, accelerated in the last days of the Bush term, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has since removed from the list many of the sensitive parcels DeChristopher bid on. However, the prosecution of Tim DeChristopher continues. Perhaps the government wants to make an example of him, to intimidate (or squelch outright) a climate movement intent on popularizing its cause through nonviolent direct action – taking as their examples Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Movement.
DeChristopher had wanted, once it was clear there would be a trial, to “put global warming on the stand.” But the judge in Salt Lake denied his “choice of evils” defense – his (and his lawyers’) claim that in monkeywrenching the sale he was in fact preventing a greater crime, the ongoing fossil-fuels climate catastrophe. They had hoped this argument would find at least one sympathetic ear on the jury.
Now that that defense is ruled out, it is unclear how the trial, currently scheduled to begin September 13, will go. Peaceful Uprising plans at any rate to stage a mock trial – “the real trial,” according to their website – on the courthouse steps, in which the defendant will not be Tim DeChristopher but “Business as Usual,” the business “that’s wrecking the earth.”
Meanwhile, DeChristopher’s impromptu act has spawned other, more deliberate progeny. Telluride filmmakers Beth and George Gage (Fire On The Mountain, American Outrage) are making a documentary about his case. (The Gage’s movie won’t be ready for this year’s Mountainfilm; the story is still unfolding.)
In Salt Lake, Peaceful Uprising has helped mount a remarkable challenge to incumbent U.S. Representative Jim Matheson. DeChristopher met with Matheson, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, hoping to find an ally for the climate movement. He found instead only resistance. And then Matheson voted against health insurance reform. Twice.
In frustration, DeChristopher placed a help-wanted ad on Craigslist to recruit someone to run against Matheson in a Democratic primary. The ad sought a “courageous
Congressperson,” someone with “a strong commitment to defending fundamental human rights over corporate rights.” To DeChristopher’s delight he got many serious responses. A Utah Citizens’ Candidate Initiative forum chose 61-year-old, openly gay, former history teacher Claudia Wright (whose own web page streams the U2 anthem “In God’s Country”). Wright then stunned party insiders by taking 45 percent of the caucus vote, forcing a runoff with Matheson June 22.
DeChristopher’s prime concern remains “the true cost of energy.” He has led a boycott of the Snowbird ski area, renaming it “Coalbird” after the announcement last year that principal owner Dick Bass was investing in an Alaskan strip mine. Peaceful Uprising sent (and secretly filmed the opening of) gift-wrapped lumps of coal to Snowbird employees last Christmas.
This is political theater of the most serious bent, and it presages, DeChristopher hopes, a new era of civil disobedience. As the New York Times wrote in a story about the oil-and-gas auction, “The niceties of debate and environmental lobbying were not getting the job done.”
In Telluride, DeChristopher will speak at two breakfast events, Sunday and Monday, both at Honga’s Lotus Petal. And he is slotted to speak at High Camp (Mountain Village Conference Center) Sunday morning at 9:30.
If I get a chance this weekend, I want to shake this young man’s hand.
Peter Shelton’s blog is: peterhshelton.wordpress.com