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A Letter From Prison: Tim DeChristopher Speaks Out August 31, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Environment.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

By Brad Johnson  on Jul 27, 2011 at 8:00 am, www.thinkprogress.org

In the waning days of the Bush presidency, an auction of 130,000 acres of
pristine Utah lands near national parks was organized by the Bureau of
Land Management as a last-minute gift to the oil and gas industry. The
auction was disrupted by climate activist Tim DeChristopher,
then a 27-year-old economics student, who successfully bid for $1.7
million in parcels.  Although the Bush leasing plan was found in court
to be flawed and has been withdrawn, today DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison, fined $10,000 for his act of civil disobedience, and taken immediately into custody.

At the sentencing, DeChristopher — a native of West Virginia, where coal companies rule supreme — explained why he was willing to take on the government and the fossil fuel industry, risking a prison sentence that could have been as long as ten years:

I actually have great respect for the rule of
law, because I see what happens when it doesn’t exist, as is the case
with the fossil fuel industry.

The federal prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber, sought a
stiff sentence against DeChristopher “‘to afford adequate deterrence to
criminal conduct’ by others,” because “the rule of law is the bedrock of
our civilized society, not acts of ‘civil disobedience’ committed in
the name of the cause of the day.” 

“The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future
will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here
today,” DeChristopher responded in his 35-minute address. “And neither
will I.”


/ By Tim

“What one person can do is to plant the seeds of love and
outrage in the hearts of a movement,” writes DeChristopher.
August 30, 2011  |


The following text appeared in a
handwritten letter from Tim DeChristopher addressed to Grist’s Jennifer

If I had ever doubted the power of words,
Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month.
When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he
admitted my offense “wasn’t too bad.” The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my
“continuing trail of statements” and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he
really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been
avoided. In fact, Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political
statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is
generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the
government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and
express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection
is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that’s why most
activist cases end in a plea bargain.

Since that seems like such a good deal, some
people are asking why I wasn’t willing to shut my mouth and take it. But perhaps
we should be asking why the government is willing to make such a deal. The most
recent plea bargain they offered me was for as little as 30 days in jail. (I’m
writing this on my 28th day.) So if they wanted to lock me up for two years, why
would they let me walk for an apology and keeping my mouth shut for a while? On
the other hand, if they wanted to sweep this under the rug, why would they cause
such a stir by locking me up? Why do my words make that much of a

With all criminal cases, of which 85 percent
end in a plea bargain, the government has a strong incentive to avoid a trial:
In addition to cutting the expense of a trial, a plea bargain helps concentrate
power in the hands of government officials.

The revolutionaries who founded this country
were deeply distrustful of a concentration of power, so among other precautions,
they established citizen juries as the most important part of our legal system
and insisted upon constitutional right to a jury trial. To avoid this
inconvenience, those seeking concentrated power free from revolutionaries have
minimized the role of citizens in our legal system. They have accomplished this
by restricting what juries can hear, what they can decide upon, and most
importantly, by avoiding jury trials all together. It is now accepted as a basic
fact of our criminal justice system that a defendant who exercises his or her
right to a jury trial will be punished at sentencing for doing so. Transferring
power from citizens to government happens when the role of citizens gets
eliminated in the process.

With civil disobedience cases, however, the
government puts an extra value on an apology. By its very nature, civil
disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not
the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens
recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we
invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of
the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens
issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant
or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no
matter how small. To regain that tiny piece of authority, the government either
has to respond to the activist’s demands, or get the activist to back down with
a public statement of regret. Otherwise, those little challenges to the moral
authority of government start to add up.

Over the last couple hundred years of
quelling dissent, the government has learned a few things about maintaining
power. Sometimes it seems that the government has learned more from our social
movement history than we as activists have. Their willingness to let a direct
action off with a slap on the wrist while handing out two years for political
statements comes from their understanding of the power of an individual. They
know that one person, or even a small group, cannot have enough of a direct
impact on our corporate giants to really alter things in our economy. They know
that a single person can’t have a meaningful direct impact on our political
system. But our modern government is dismantling the First Amendment because
they understand the very same thing our founding fathers did when they wrote it:
What one person can do is to plant the seeds of love and outrage in the hearts
of a movement. And if those hearts are fertile ground, those seeds of love and
outrage will grow into a revolution.



1. 47whitebuffalo - September 1, 2011

Hello, I read DeChristopher’s letter via Grist. It’s great. Thank you for posting it here.
Found your blog via a quest through wp “environment” tag in search of like minded blogcasas.
Nice to meet you.

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