By Anonymous (not verified) on August 18, 2011

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.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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