It's time to stick up for journalism.
On July 26, Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in a federal prison and three years probation by Judge Dee V. Benson in Salt Lake City. He was taken away in handcuffs, and so was any sense of justice in the United States of America.
Much has been written about the economics student from the University of Utah who walked inside the Bureau of Land Management auction on the snowy day of December 19, 2008, picked up a bidder’s paddle, and spontaneously began raising the prices of oil and gas leases on Utah public lands. Within minutes, DeChristopher found himself the winning bidder on fourteen parcels of land—many of them adjacent to Arches National Park—for a price tag of $1.8 million dollars.
He had successfully interrupted the auction (a sale later deemed illegal by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar). In a brave and imaginative act of civil disobedience, one young man with a love of wilderness and a message of how fossil fuels are contributing to climate change not only exposed the cozy relationship between industry and government, but challenged it.
On April Fool’s Day, 2009, Tim DeChristopher was indicted on two felony charges for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for making false statements. DeChristopher pleaded not guilty on both charges, and faced up to ten years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
Almost two years later, this March 4, DeChristopher was convicted of those charges. I witnessed that trial of four days inside Judge Benson’s courtroom.
It was a shattering display of politics on the bench, beginning with jury selection. The judge delivered a lengthy lecture on the importance of impartiality, after which he said to the entire jury pool, “And there should be no discussion between you and the ‘kumbaya’ crowd in the courtroom.”
I realized sitting through this painful display of partisanship day after day, where Tim was repeatedly silenced and the defense consistently overruled, that the only proper way to convey the trial proceedings would be to act out the transcript as though it were satirical theater.
Not only was Tim never allowed to tell his story or what his motivations were for committing civil disobedience, he was cast as an imposter, an anarchist, an ecoterrorist, and a danger to American democracy. The most surreal moment of the trial came in the closing arguments. Prosecutor Scott Romney (a cousin of mine) likened DeChristopher’s behavior to that of a customer pulling up to a fast food restaurant and ordering seventy hamburgers, throwing them in the trash, and then driving away without paying for them.
I didn’t understand the metaphor either, except that we were nearing lunchtime.
But the most egregious remarks were made by Judge Benson himself during the sentencing hearing.
He reprimanded DeChristopher for speaking out after his conviction in March. He stated that DeChristopher might not have faced prosecution, let alone prison, if it were not for that “continuing trail of statements.”
This “continuing trail of statements” is called freedom of speech, your honor, not “anarchy.” The criminal is not DeChristopher but our justice system.
Judge Benson actually stated during the sentencing hearing, “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad.”
On July 28, Pat Shea, DeChristopher’s defense attorney (former head of the Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton), filed documents to appeal Judge Benson’s edict. Meanwhile, Tim DeChristopher, twenty-nine years old, is serving time in the Davis County Jail before being transferred to a federal prison camp in Littleton, Colorado.
Tim is a friend, a good friend. We met over a cup of coffee and talked about our fathers, both of us emotional. His father has not understood his politics or his actions. Neither has mine. While in prison, DeChristopher plans on writing a book, Letters To My Father, perhaps trying to articulate on the page what he has not been able to articulate to his face, what we would all like to say to those we love who turn away. In the end, what matters most is our relationships, that those closest to us understand what truths live in our hearts.
I have saved an e-mail Tim sent me on the spring equinox this year, shortly after his conviction:
“Terry, I woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep because I realized that Judge Benson and I have never spoken. He has never asked me a question, and I have never asked him one. He has never looked me in the eye. In all the time I spent sitting across from him in the courtroom and in his chambers, he has never made eye contact. The only time I was allowed to speak was when he was sitting behind my right shoulder.
“I met with the sentencing officer at the courthouse last week. His name is Glen, and his office is actually across the street. The first thing he said when we sat down was, ‘Essentially, it’s my job to get to know you.’ The terrifying thing I realized this morning is that he is the only one who is expected to do so. He was the first person in the Department of Justice to look me in the eye or call me by my first name. After our morning together, he knows far more about me and what I’ve done than the judge or the prosecutor, but he has no authority to decide about my fate.
“This is what Americans need to know about our justice system. While decisions are made among the regalia of the courtroom, down the stairs and across the street there is a man whose job is to look me in the eye.”
To look another human being in the eye. It is such a simple thing: to be seen, to be heard; to feel the respect and regard of another. Democracy is a fraud without this kind of direct action. And that is what I have come to love most about Tim DeChristopher. He is a man of action. He will not avert his gaze, even in prison, especially in prison, for it is through our eyes being met that we remember what it means to be human.
If we fail in this century, it is because we are too timid.
If we lose our way in America, it is because we are too complacent.
And if we allow the law to dictate what is fair as in the case of putting Tim DeChristopher behind bars—for committing civil disobedience in the name of a livable future, for raising a paddle to expose corruption between industry and government—then we are not just prisoners but slaves to the corporations in bed with the courts.
This is an excerpt from Terry Tempest Williams's great column in the September issue. To read the whole column, and the entire issue, simply subscribe today for $14.97--that's 75% off the newsstand price! Just click here.