Climate activist Tim DeChristopher talks about his guilty verdict
Photo: (C) 2011 Daphne HougardDearest readers,
I had the good fortune of sitting down to chat by phone with climate activist Tim DeChristopher the other day. I wanted to hear how he’s doing and how he’s feeling about being sent to the clink.
Ever joyous in his resolve to stand up for what he believes in, Tim said, “I’m feeling surprisingly good for being a newly convicted felon.”
For those of you new to this story, Tim DeChristopher is one of my all-time heroes because of the creative, articulate actions he has taken to fight the political and economic forces behind climate change. He puts himself on the line for his beliefs.
He went to trial last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a unique direct action where he acted as a bidder at an oil and gas auction held at the end of the Bush administration.
Though the auction was later found to be fraudulent, DeChristopher was still held accountable. He was found guilty by a jury last week. He awaits sentencing by a judge, which will take place on June 23. DeChristopher now faces up to 10 years in prison. As Bill McKibben has so eloquently pointed out — and I’m paraphrasing here — why are we putting this guy in jail when all of these crooks from big banks are flying high with their bonuses and dancing around in their socks in private jets?
In our conversation, Tim talked about how he’s been feeling since the verdict, what upset him and what kept him positive during his trial, and how he plans to spend his “free” time until the June sentencing. He also talks about how you can stand up for climate justice yourself.
Peruse the transcript of our talk down below, readers. And let’s get cracking. It’s time we each get creative and muster up the cojones to go out and do something. I agree with McKibben, Phil Radford, and Rebecca Tarbotton — we need big, brash nonviolent protests.
As Victor Hugo said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” It is time, my friends. What creative direct action are you going to take?
Q. So, Tim DeChristopher, how are you feeling a few days after the verdict?
A. I’m feeling surprisingly good for being a newly convicted felon.
Q. You do sound good for a felon.
A. I’m feeling better than I expected, actually. I think I was preparing for all the different levels of this and now one of those levels is out of the way, and I’m on to the next one. It almost felt like a little bit of a relief when I got the verdict, or a little bit of a burden had been lifted off. I think I was totally prepared to get that verdict and to move on to sentencing. Now, the trial is kind of one less thing I have to deal with.
Q. What gave you that impression that there would be a guilty verdict, or at what point did you feel that that could be the case?
A. I pretty much felt that way all along, and especially as things were slowly developing in the legal case. The judge ruling that I wasn’t allowed to use the necessity defense, and things like that. Not giving us access to information about what role the oil industry played in the indictment. With those rulings, it made it more and more likely that I was going to get convicted.
During the course of the trial, if you had seen the way that the judge was talking to the jury, and really drilling into their heads that they were not allowed to use their own conscience, telling them that directly and they had to listen to everything that he said, they had to follow his instructions, and really bearing down on them with that kind of institutional authority, directing them that they were just there to play this role and that they weren’t to use their own conscience, that certainly made me feel that I was probably going to get convicted.
Then, by the end of the arguments, when we weren’t even able to tell the jury that the auction had been overturned anyway, because the government wasn’t following their own rules, we weren’t able to tell the jury that I had successfully raised the money for the initial payment, and that we had offered that to the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and they refused to accept it.
And, of course, the jury didn’t know anything about the prospective sentence that they were convicting me for. The fact that the jury went into deliberations not knowing any of that, to me, made the outcome pretty expected.
Q. Those are all critical linchpins. I’m just wondering, because you put a lot of stock in the idea of the jury, and spoke about that before your trial, just having an engaged jury — I’m curious how you feel about the system. Are you disappointed in the system? Does it work?
A. Well, what I was talking about juries beforehand was the fact that the system has been mutated from where it started. I think this trial was just further evidence of that, how handicapped juries really are, and how little of a role they play in our judicial system anymore, how far they’ve tripped it from what our founding fathers intended them to be. I think the trial illustrated all of that. But I still think it’s an extremely important discussion that we need to be having, about what role a jury should be playing, especially now that this trial has brought it into the forefront of some people’s minds. I think particularly the climate movement needs to be a part of that conversation about what role juries should be playing, because those of us paying attention in the climate movement know that we are going to have some very difficult, desperate times ahead.
Most of us know that we’ve probably passed the point where we can avoid the collapse of our industrial civilization, and when we look at prior examples of collapse, the greatest atrocities weren’t because of direct impacts, it was because of what those in power did to try to maintain that power as it started to fall away, and what they did in the name of restoring order and security. In Darfur, the greatest atrocity wasn’t the water and food shortage, it was what was done in response to that. In Germany in the 1930s, the biggest deal wasn’t the inflation — it was really a trigger of a lot of those problems — it was the laws that were passed in the name of restoring order and security.
I think as a climate movement, most of us should be aware that we can pretty well count on the fact that there will be some scapegoat chosen over the course of this century. Some laws that are passed that sacrifice one or several groups of people in the name of restoring order and security. The big question for us at this point is how we as citizens are going to respond to that, what we as citizens are going to be willing to do to our fellow human beings in the name of just following the law. When the government tells us that it’s not our job to question whether that law is right or wrong, as the judge did in this case to the jury, I think we need to be prepared for that moment, and make a more conscious decision of what we want our role to really be.
Q. When are you going to be sentenced? What will you do leading up to that? Are you planning to appeal?
A. As far as what I’ll do leading up to that, I’m not sure. There are certainly some events like Power Shift and things like that that are going on. The march on Blair Mountain in the beginning of June, I hope to be able to make it out there for that. I plan on basically continuing my activism until the day they lock me up.
As far as appeals, that’s something that is still yet to be decided. I haven’t really talked to my legal team too much about that. They said that appeals are something that will happen after sentencing. What I’ve expressed to them is that if it seems like we are going to have a good chance of success for appeals, especially if it’s something that will set a precedent and make it easier for other political dissidents to state their case before a jury, then I’d like to pursue that opportunity. But if it’s something that’s going to be a delay, or waste time, I’d rather just get it over with, and move on.
Q. Do you need help with your legal defense? Is there a way people can contribute to that?
A. Yes. Bidder70.org. There’s the donate button to the legal defense fund there. My main lawyers are donating their time, so the legal system fund is just going to all the other expenses of trial, and research, and also my own expenses during the course of the legal process.
Q. Apparently there was a Fox-13 news report. The DA announced that she would not be seeking the maximum penalty. Have you heard that? What are your thoughts on how your sentencing might go?
A. I’ve heard that as well, but I’ve kind of heard things all over the map about how sentencing might go, so I don’t really have any idea. I’ve also heard that as I keep speaking out and critiquing the system, that tends to piss the prosecutor and the judge off. So they might be seeking a stronger sentence.
Q. Did you get a sense from the judge that the judge was impartial?
A. The judge didn’t seem to have it out for me that much. He seemed somewhat fair. He was certainly denying us the ability to make much of a defense, but he didn’t seem especially hostile towards me on a personal level. Most of that was coming from the prosecutor. The main U.S. attorney that’s prosecuting me showed a lot of hostility, especially in the closing arguments, and was trying to ridicule me as much as possible. The prosecutor seemed pretty eager to engage in this political discourse that’s surrounding the trial. So he’s the one that I’m more worried about than the judge.
Q. What was one of the more difficult aspects of the trial?
A. I’d say one of the more difficult parts of the trial was the day of jury selection. A lot of that happened behind closed doors in the judge’s chambers, with both sides of the lawyers and the judge calling one juror at a time, to have them answer some personal questions.
One of the things that had happened leading up to this trial, there were some folks outside of the courthouse who were juror’s rights advocates, and they were handing out pamphlets to everyone on the sidewalk about the rights that a jury has, about jury nullification, voting your conscience, and things like that. It came out during the jury selection that most of the jury pool had received one of those pamphlets. The prosecutor got really enraged about that, and in the judge’s chambers, he was nearly spitting when he was talking about how these pamphlets talked about voting your conscience. “This notion of voting your conscience, it’s out in space!” He found that extremely threatening. He was really strongly urging the judge to come down hard on that information that the jurors had gotten. The judge did make it clear to all the jurors that they didn’t have that right. He said, you have to follow my instructions on the law. It’s not your job to question whether this is right or wrong, and if you have a problem with that, we need to know about it right now.
The discouraging thing was seeing the impact that had on the jurors, when they were brought in one at a time, seeing the majesty of the courtroom, the judge up above them in a very patriarchal kind of way. He had all this institutional authority, and you could see it kind of breaking the spirit of the jurors. You could see it in their minds when they made that switch of accepting the fact that they weren’t allowed to use their own conscience, and they had to make a certain choice, even if they thought it was immoral, and that’s a really dehumanizing thing.
It actually gave me a lot of sympathy for jurors to see that happening to them, and see that impact of all that institutional authority breaking their spirit and convincing them that they had to do something they thought was immoral.
Q. What did you experience that was remarkable? You had so many supporters there singing for you, and famous people, and supporters from all over the world. What got to you, what kept you afloat?
A. I’d say everything that was going on outside of the courthouse was certainly the most encouraging part. The first day when I walked out of the courthouse, there were a hundred or some people standing out there right at the steps of the courthouse, and they were singing. They were singing the song “Stand,” and that was incredibly powerful for me, to get that support. They were there all week long, every time that I’d walk in or walk out of that courthouse, there would always be people there singing. I think that commitment is what really kept me going throughout the week, and also, I think, inspired a lot of people in this movement, to see that all that power of intimidation that was happening inside the courtroom was met by that joy and resolve outside of the courtroom. Those people outside never backed down. I think that was certainly the most encouraging thing to see.
Q. Sounds like it was very emotional and moving. From the few people that I spoke to who were there, it sounded like it was a very profound experience of community. How did that ultimately feel for you?
A. To me, it felt like my actions were absolutely worth it, the fact that people could come together and take this stand. I think that really my biggest fear going into this was that the legacy of my action would be one that instilled fear into people. I think that was certainly the goal of the prosecution, to scare others off of the path of bold resistance. Seeing that committed force of people outside showed me that the prosecutors’ efforts had failed, and that the lasting legacy of this isn’t going to be fear, but it’s going to be one of empowerment. I think that’s really important.
Q. I feel like many people are feeling this call to action inspired by you. I’m wondering what you would say to those people, what you hope to have happen, and what they need to know to do the thing that you’ve done, or their own version.
A. I mean, there certainly have been a lot of people saying that this woke them up, or woke them up to two things — woke them up to the reality that our system is fundamentally broken and that we don’t have a fair and just system that is going to solve this problem for us, and also woke them up to the fact that we can be incredibly powerful in standing up to that system, and setting the course for a new path.
I think people have been, to some degree, woken up by that, and the thing now is to not go back to sleep — like the Rumi poem, “Don’t go back to sleep.” I think that is really where a lot of the movement is at right now. We’ve learned this lesson, we’ve seen this reality. Now the question is, what are we going to do about it? If we go back to our old strategies as a movement, we will have missed this opportunity; we’ll go back to sleep.
I think the opportunity that’s here is to build a real resistance movement — not just a lobby movement, but a resistance movement, that says this path that we’re on is absolutely unacceptable, and we’re going to use our power as citizens and as a movement to shut this system. I think that’s where we need to be right now, recognizing that this is not a matter of lobbying for trivial reforms, but we’re at a point where we need to make the path we’re on absolutely impossible to continue. Hopefully that’s the lesson that people are taking out of this.
Q. It seems like an interesting time in the world, where people are questioning authority. We’re seeing it happen in many countries, especially in the Middle East, and I’m wondering if you feel like there is a trend or some way in which all of the people that are fighting for freedom can support each other.
A. I think they’re absolutely connected. I think that’s why we saw so many movements spinning out of the 60s and 70s. The people who were at the core, or the beginning, of the antiwar movement, were people who got their experience in the civil rights movement, of learning that people can be powerful, and the same with the women’s rights movement. Most of the early leaders of that came out of the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement.
That lesson that people can be powerful, and that when they stand together, they can shape the course of their world, that’s a lesson that translates into all these different issues, and once people learn it, they can’t forget it. I think that’s why it’s such an important time right now, especially for young people, because, at least my generation had never seen that happen.
I was born the year that Ronald Reagan took office. The reality throughout my lifetime has been, corporations and governments are powerful, and people are weak, and there is nothing you can do to change that. Now that paradigm is starting to shift, and all of a sudden, the world is starting to believe in people power again.
We’re seeing that there is no force in the world that can stop an empowered and engaged citizenry. I think that makes it a really exciting time to be alive and awake.