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This Hero Didn’t Stand a Chance
Posted on Jun 20, 2011
By Chris Hedges
Editor’s note: Chris Hedges is off this week while he works on his latest book. This Hedges column from June about the imprisonment of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher is worth rereading in light of the civil disobedience sweeping the country. DeChristopher is serving a two-year sentence, which he plans to appeal.
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 and 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 shit,” 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.
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