Across the world, civil disobedience is the hot topic of the moment. Citizens disturbed by the actions of their government are shaking things up, from Egypt’s ouster of its thirty-year President to China’s slowly-growing ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ Here in America, Wisconsin is in the spotlight as protesters continue to occupy Madison’s Capitol Building, in the face of police threats to remove them. But in Salt Lake City, Utah, a man is going on trial today for a lone act of civil disobedience committed in late 2008. If convicted, he faces ten years in prison.
Tim DeChristopher, known in environmental circles as “Bidder 70,” faces two felony charges after derailing a Bureau of Land Management auction, which planned to sell oil leases on public land to private oil and gas companies. He believed that the auctions were both immoral and illegal, having been put through without required checks on the environmental impact of drilling in the area. While environmentalists protested outside, the 27-year-old college student DeChristopher snuck in and bid up the price of the land, eventually winning 22,500 acres (which, of course, he had no intention of paying for). Although the government has retroactively canceled the auctions (a judge halted the sales, and the Obama administration, once it came into the White House, agreed with DeChristopher), the charge of defrauding the government is still standing.
So today, environmentalists are again flocking to Salt Lake City, this time to rally outside the courthouse. The protest is pretty organized, with celebrities like Daryl Hannah and Peter Yarrow joining in (apparently Yarrow will be helping to provide some protest songs). Anticipating police interference, its leaders recommended bringing a government-issued ID and a phone number for an attorney (and urge protesters not to “come under the influence”). It’s a good example of activism begetting more activism.
For his part, DeChristopher has refused any kind of a plea bargain. He actually wants to go to trial, although he expects to be convicted. He explains on his blog:
I don't think it's inappropriate that I'm facing serious consequences in this trial. I think part of the power of civil disobedience is that an injustice has to be serious enough that someone is willing to risk serious consequences if his or her fellow citizens don't agree that standing in the way of the law was justified. When someone suffers consequences such as a prison sentence for resisting injustice, the imprisonment is not the root of the injustice or the suffering. The prison sentence simply makes the existing injustice and suffering more tangible to a different class of people. In my case, the real injustice is that my generation is being condemned to an unlivable future.
Whether or not you agree with DeChristopher’s beliefs, and whatever you think of his actions, this is a powerful example of individual activism. Even now, when citizens of the entire world are taking action, it’s a good reminder of the ability of one person to force the conversation, right here in America.