This Hero Didn't Stand a Chance
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.“We weren’t able to tell the jury either of those things,” he said. “They never knew that the auction was overturned. They never knew I offered the BLM the money. They were told over and over by the judge they were not allowed to use their conscience. When the verdict came it was not a surprise.”
“When our Founding Fathers created the jury system they called it the best defense against legislative tyranny,” he said. “They expected that if the government was passing laws that were out of line with the values of the community, then people would break those laws and take their case before a jury of their peers who would decide whether or not that person’s actions were justified. That was the system our country was founded upon. That shifted radically as the role of the jury has been minimized in our criminal justice system. Juries are no longer given the opportunity to weigh all the factors of a case and are specifically told they are not allowed to use their conscience. It is not their job to decide if things are right or wrong. This is a drastic departure from the system that was originally created in this country.”
When I asked DeChristopher why he did not work within the system, perhaps by backing a progressive Democrat, he answered that “if there was such a thing I might consider it.”
“I don’t see anyone in our political system advocating for significant change,” he said. “I haven’t ignored the political system. I paid attention when the Waxman-Markey [cap and trade] bill was being debated. I saw that there was a Republican amendment that if energy prices in any region of the country ever go up by more than 10 percent the whole bill is null and void. In other words, if the survival of our children ever costs more than about $300 a year per household, we are going to stop and give up. Both sides debated for over an hour whether it would or not ever cost $300. But there was no one who ever stood up and said maybe the cost was worth it, maybe that was too low a price to put on the heads of your children, maybe it was immoral to put any price on the heads of our children. There was no one standing up and addressing the severity of climate change.”
DeChristopher helped organize a grass-roots campaign in an unsuccessful effort to unseat five-term U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah.
“I saw after the experience with the Waxman-Markey bill that our Blue Dog Democrats in Utah had to go,” he said. He worked for candidate Claudia Wright in a campaign that split the delegate vote and forced a runoff primary.
“There is value in working within the democratic system, but first we need to create a democratic system,” he said. “When we ran Claudia Wright it started with a Craig’s List ‘help wanted’ ad for a ‘Courageous Congressperson.’ We pulled together a panel of longtime activists who were well respected in Utah representing various issues, from environmental issues to peace and justice to LGBT rights, labor, immigration rights and health care. That panel held public interviews at the Salt Lake City Library with all the people who had applied to the Craig’s List ad. Everybody from the district was invited and got to vote in instant runoff voting. That is how we came up with that candidate. We started from scratch.”
“If we were going to have a democracy, what would it look like? That was one experiment,” he said. “Craig’s List is probably not the ultimate answer. But we started from the acknowledgement that if we want to work within the democratic process we had to build it first.”
DeChristopher, who is 29, admits he was “cautiously optimistic” during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I saw that nothing Obama was saying was actually good enough in terms of the climate crisis,” he said. “There was a faint hope in me that perhaps he was saying what he needed to say to get elected and then he would turn out to actually be a progressive.”
He heard Naomi Klein give a talk shortly before the election. She told her listeners that if Barack Obama was a centrist and the center was not good enough to defend our survival then our job was to move the center.
“That resonated with me,” DeChristopher said. “That was where my thinking at the time was. We as a movement had to move the center. That is another reason I turned to civil disobedience. I was looking to do something beyond what was considered acceptable to shift those boundaries, to create more space where people could be more aggressive without being on the radical edge.”
“The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said what we do in the next two or three years will determine our future, and he said that in 2007 and we didn’t do anything,” he said. “A lot of folks like Jim Hansen admit it off the record, but won’t say it publicly, that it is actually too late for any amount of emission reductions to prevent some sort of collapse of our industrial civilization. That certainly doesn’t mean all is lost. It means we are in a position where we are definitely going to be navigating the most intense period of change humanity has ever seen. What that means for us is that it really matters who is in charge during that intense period of change. It means that things are going to be desperate.”“Generally in desperate times those in power do desperate things to hold on to their power in the name of order and security,” he went on. “That is when things have gotten really ugly in the localized examples of collapse that we have in history, whether they were economically induced as in Germany in the 1930s or environmentally induced as in Darfur. Rather than an opportunity for mass reflection, which it could be, where we could say we had this coming because of fundamental flaws in the way we structured our society, that maybe greed and competition were not the best values to base everything off of, rather than doing that, it is much more common in those historical examples to say, ‘Oh, it was because of those people.’ A class of people was scapegoated. The powerful said, ‘Those are the people who are causing our problems and if we take it out on them we can maintain order and security for the rest of us.’ That is when things get really ugly and dehumanizing.”
“We are starting to see hints of that already with the rather minor ripples that we have been having in the past few years with the economic situation,” he said. “Rather than admit the fundamental flaws, many of those in power have said, ‘Oh, it is because of those immigrants that are taking people’s jobs, or those Arabs, or those unions, whoever the scapegoat is, to try and vilify someone. What we are on track for are much larger ripples than we have had in the past couple years with the economic problems. If we go into that collapse with our current power structure and a world run by corporations, where we have ignorant and apathetic people who are afraid of their own government and think their job is to do what they are told, even if they think it is immoral, that is when things can get really ugly. If we go into that collapse with an awakened and educated population that views it as their role to create the society they want and hold their government accountable then we have the opportunity, whatever hardships we might face, to actually build a better world on the ashes of this one.”
“Our strategies must be to not only change our energy system and food system, but to change our power structures,” he said. “We shouldn’t be looking for the big corporations running the show to become a little greener and cleaner. We should be overthrowing those corporations running our government. Our job as a movement is not just to reduce emissions; while we still need to do that, we also have this other challenge of maintaining our humanity through whatever challenges lie ahead. This is much more abstract and foreign to this movement.”
“Civil disobedience puts us in a vulnerable position,” DeChristopher said. “It puts us in a position where we are refusing to be obedient to injustice. Civil disobedience puts us in a position where we are making a risk and possibly making a sacrifice to stand up against that injustice. It also puts us in a position where with that vulnerability we see how much we need other people. This is something I have experienced over the past few years as people have come out of nowhere to support me, to make actions more powerful and to help me personally get through this experience and grow from it. Appreciating these connections is one of the most important parts of resiliency. A lot of the unwillingness to take bold action is coming from a disempowerment that comes from a lack of connection. When we view ourselves as isolated individuals it does not make sense to stand up to a big powerful institution like a big corporation or big government. It is not until we gain the understanding that we are part of something much bigger that we feel empowered to take those necessary actions. This is a self-reinforcing cycle. The more we stick our neck out the more connected we become and the more empowered we become to do it again.”
DeChristopher, who attends a Unitarian church in Salt Lake City, comes out of the religious left. This left, defined by Christian anarchists such as Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan and his brother Father Daniel Berrigan, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, takes a moral stance not because it is always effective but because it is right, because to live the moral life means that there is no alternative. This life demands a commitment to justice no matter how bleak the future appears. And what sustains DeChristopher is what sustained the religious radicals who went before him — faith.
“The connection to a religious community for me is a big part of the empowerment,” he said. “From talking with a lot of the old Freedom Riders and other folks in the civil rights movement, it was in the church community that people found the strength and the faith that, no matter what happened to them when they sat at that lunch counter or got on that bus, there would be another wave of people coming behind them to take their place and another wave behind that and behind that. And that is part of what is missing from the progressive community today. Part of my belief system is an appreciation of our connectedness to the natural world, the interconnected web of life of which I am a part. I am not an isolated individual, and this understanding is what empowers me, but also in a more direct way in that I am connected to the church community who I knew would support me. Sitting in that auction when I was deciding to do this I was thinking about whether anyone would support me. The people I knew would have my back were in the church. That helped drive me to action.” And because of that he understands that any resistance can never succumb to the temptation of violence.
“Violence is the realm our current power structure is really good at,” he said. “They are eager to play that game. Any opportunity we give them [to use violence], they will win. That is the game they win at. The history of social movements in this country shows that we are far more powerful with nonviolent civil disobedience than we are with what our audience considers to be violence.”
“Once our actions are deemed to be violent then that justifies repressive tactics on the part of the government,” he said. “With a nonviolent movement we are still inviting a strong reaction from the government or ruling authorities. We are inviting a powerful reaction against ourselves. But it undermines the moral legitimacy of our current government. That is the path we need to pursue. Rather than reinforcing their legitimacy we need to undermine their legitimacy.”
Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His most recently published book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”