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Posted on Jun 22, 2011
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This week on Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: Kids have a right to mock their teachers; Apple may be launching a preemptive strike against free speech; and the general’s son, Miko Peled, says Israelis and Palestinians must accept a one-state solution. Also, Tim DeChristopher, the hero who didn’t stand a chance.
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Peter Scheer: In 2008 the Bureau of Land Management under the Bush administration put public land up for auction to the oil and gas industry. Activist Tim DeChristopher went to that auction knowing only that he had to do something. He bid on and won a dozen of the leases, and for that act of civil disobedience he was convicted and now faces up to 10 years in prison. He joins us now from Salt Lake City. Tim, what exactly did you do, and why is that criminal?
Tim DeChristopher: Well, I went to the auction in December of 2008 and was asked if I wanted to be a bidder, and so I signed up there and then, once I got inside, proceeded to start outbidding the oil companies. And then, once I was asked why I was there and what I was doing, I made it very clear that I was there as an act of civil disobedience to try to stand in the way of this unjust auction. And it took the government awhile to figure out exactly how that was a crime. It took them three and a half months to indict me on any charges. And one of the charges was violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, which no one had actually been prosecuted for before. So there was a little bit of a question throughout the trial of what that law really said; there was a difference in what was in the indictment and what was in the actual law. And that was really what the trial was about: whether or not what I did was in fact a crime. And we were certainly severely restricted during the trial about what we could say and what information we could share with the jury.
Peter Scheer: That’s right. It says in this—you were interviewed by Chris Hedges for Truthdig—and it says in that column that you were not allowed to tell the jury that the auction was eventually ruled illegal, or that you managed to raise money to pay for one of the leases.
Narda Zacchino: Also, Tim, you were not allowed to—the judge limited the discussion of federal energy policies and climate change. And the issue of your intent was sort of critical to the case, and if you weren’t allowed to discuss all that—I mean, you know, it would have been hard—the outcome was sort of preordained, yes?
Tim DeChristopher: Yeah. And that’s something that is a growing trend in our legal justice system. That juries are given a very restricted role to play in our modern system, which is vastly different than the way our legal system originally functioned and was designed to function by our founding fathers, who called juries “the conscience of the community.” Now, juries are regularly told that they’re not allowed to use their conscience, as was the case in my trial.
Narda Zacchino: One of the things that some people think … you can’t connect the dots on, is that the Obama—this was done by the Bush administration just before he left office. So it was sort of seen as a gift to his friends in the oil and gas industry. And you, of course, did disrupt that in a civil disobedient way. And the Obama administration, when it came into office, then did invalidate some of the leases, and yet it was the Obama Justice Department that prosecuted you. So that sort of is a disconnect for a lot of people. Did they ever explain that, or were you surprised when they finally brought charges?
Tim DeChristopher: Not particularly. Once they did rule that the auction was illegal to begin with, I thought there was a chance they might not bring charges, but I still saw that the Obama administration is still beholden to the same corporate interests that the Bush administration was. You know, the way that I found out that I was going to get indicted was the day before it happened, one of my attorneys got a call from an Associated Press reporter, who said I just want to let you know that tomorrow Tim is going to get indicted, and this is what the charges are going to be. And he’d gotten that information two weeks earlier from an oil lobbyist. So the same corporations that were running the show with the Bush industry are still calling the shots at every level of our government today. So it’s not really surprising that the Obama administration has been taking this course of action.
Peter Scheer: Can I just ask you—you seem remarkably calm and collected. I mean, I read your interview with Chris, and I just—my blood boiled. And you’re facing real jail time. How are you dealing with this?
Tim DeChristopher: Well, I mean, I certainly have been scared for my future and angry about the direction of our country for a long time. And I think a lot of—I’m actually much calmer today than I was before any of this happened. And I think part of that emotion I was feeling before was really frustration with my actions not lining up with my sentiment. Knowing that my future was critically threatened because of the climate crisis, and knowing that our government was acting in a fundamentally unjust way, and yet going along with that, still participating in that society and not doing everything that I could to resist. That was frustration, and that was a lot of internal turmoil that was coming from that. And once I threw myself into the most serious resistance that I could heft, it’s been a lot easier to stay calm in the face of that. I mean, I’m certainly scared about going to prison, but I think it’s less scary than staying on the path that we’re on now.
Narda Zacchino: I was going to ask you about the issue of jury nullification, because, and I wondered if that was grounds for an appeal, because when—just as the trial was starting, your supporters passed out a pamphlet which basically told the jurors that they could go with their conscience. And the judge then called them each into his chambers and told them that they couldn’t do that. And jury nullification, of course, is a practice that some juries employ, which allows them to vote for their conscience and not do what the judge wants them to do. And have your lawyers said anything about that being a grounds for appeal, or do you have any grounds for appeal?
Tim DeChristopher: We do think we have grounds for appeal. The restrictions on juries is something that there’s a growing amount of precedent for; it’s the common trend in our legal system, that even though juries clearly, absolutely, unquestionably have the right to nullify a prosecution and to acquit for whatever reason they want, the precedent that’s been established in our legal system is that the court can do everything in their power to prevent and discourage that from happening with the jury—including lying to a jury about what their rights really are. And that’s a precedent that has unfortunately been reinforced by the Supreme Court. And our courts have been moving more and more in the direction of restricting the rights of juries and concentrating power into the hands of judges, and our Supreme Court today is really no exception to that. I think constitutionally there’s certainly grounds for appeal on that. But in terms of appealing to our current Supreme Court, they’re functioning today as a means of reinforcing our current power structure.
Peter Scheer: There’s this terrible theme throughout your story in this, which is people denying their conscience for rules, arbitrary rules which seem to really just benefit, as you say, corporations. And here you had the Bush administration essentially transferring public land to oil and gas companies. You acted on your conscience, but most people don’t, even if they find it horrifying. And then the jury doesn’t. And, you know, what is the future of America going to be like if people just compartmentalize their outrage and do the wrong thing? I mean, it’s horrifying.
Tim DeChristopher: Well, I mean, it’s certainly a scary thing to consider, especially as a climate activist who’s been paying attention to where we’ve been going in terms of the climate crisis, and seeing that over the last few years we’ve passed up a lot of our best opportunities to turn things around. And that at this point, it looks like it’s probably too late for any amount of emissions reductions to prevent some sort of collapse. Which means that we are headed towards a period of really intense change, a period of desperation in which those in power are probably going to do increasingly desperate things to hold onto that power in the name of maintaining order and security. The defining question there is how are we going to respond to that? I think those means of control have been getting more offensive in recent years; those attacks on rights have been getting more offensive. And there are more and more people that are starting to rebel against that. But I think it is going to be one of the defining questions of this century, of whether or not we’re going to be obedient and do what we’re told, even when we think it’s morally unjust, or whether we’re going to stand up against that kind of power and really steer society in the direction that we want it to go.
Narda Zacchino: I’d like to ask a personal question. You were an undergrad in economics in 2008, when this occurred, at the University of Utah; is that correct?
Tim DeChristopher: Yes.
Narda Zacchino: Were you an environmental activist before you, when you went to school there, or did you just fall in love with the beautiful surroundings, or how did your activism develop?
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