Bidder 70, a documentary about the inspiring act of civil disobedience undertaken by Tim DeChristopher to reduce climate change and save lives, is an engrossing, thoughtful film. It operates on many levels – including the revelation of the tarnished hypocrisy of justice under the Obama administration – but always returns to DeChristopher’s earnest commitment to act with courage and conviction, regardless of the legal consequences.
DeChristopher had the opportunity at a 2008 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction to enter false bids for oil and gas exploration parcels that were encroaching into what Robert Redford calls in the film some of the last great wilderness on earth (where DeChristopher would often camp and hike). In the last weeks of the Bush administration, the oil and gas companies were able to get the BLM to add parcels that violated departmental and regulatory standards, particularly as to their proximity to vulnerable areas.
Into this auction walked climate change activist DeChristopher, who – much to his surprise – was handed a paddle with a number, and became bidder 70. Within a short period of time, he bid more than $1 million and rescued at least 22,000 acres of irreplaceable Southwestern landscape. As a young college student at the University of Utah, he had neither the funds nor the intention of paying for the bids.
It is from this moment that producers and directors Beth and George Gage record DeChristopher’s journey from an act of civil disobedience to incarceration. Despite the jury verdict, which came after two years of unexplained delays in prosecution and inexplicable restrictions on what the defense could reveal, DeChristopher never wavers from his commitment to create communities that can change the course of climate change with “joy and resolve.”
The reflections DeChristopher shared with his lawyers and others, his appearances as a speaker at climate change events and the details of his prosecution make for a compelling story with his sincerity and moral compass as the guide.
To understand DeChristopher’s motivations, one needs to know that one of his favorite quotations is from Edward Paul Abbey, an American writer and environmentalist in the last century: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” This was and is DeChristopher’s North Star. He becomes energized in helping to activate others to stop the destruction of the earth’s climate, but he is also wary that those who are “bleacher activists” will not be sufficiently forceful to save us from climate destruction.
That DeChristopher spent 21 months in federal prison is an unconscionable act of injustice by the Obama Department of Justice. Shortly after Obama assumed the power of the presidency in 2008, his then secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, declared that the Bush administration’s last-minute adding of the parcels that DeChristopher particularly objected to, along with other procedures of the auction he participated in, were illegally offered. Salazar rescinded the sales.
In a tragic irony of injustice, the Obama DOJ decided to indict DeChristopher – regardless of the fact that the auction in question had been declared essentially illegal by the Obama Interior Department – on two federal counts that carried a potential sentence of up to ten years in prison as well as fines.
The US prosecutor for Utah stated, misleadingly, that DeChristopher had attempted to disrupt a legal auction, when in fact it had been declared illegal.
Furthermore, DeChristopher had the misfortune to have his case assigned to a judge who had a Scalia-esque interpretation of the law. US District Court Judge Dee Benson denied the defense the right to discuss many points of evidence that would have possibly resulted in an acquittal. Benson prohibited the defense from mentioning that: 1) the auction was reversed due to issues of illegal procedure on the part of the BLM; 2) at least 25 previous bidders had not paid for parcels they bought at auction and were not prosecuted (showing, in essence, that DeChristopher’s case was an example of selective prosecution); 3) climate change could not be discussed as a motive; 4) there could be no mention of a “lesser of two evil” defense. On top of these were other defense positions and facts that could not be presented to the jury.
In short, DeChristopher was prohibited from telling the jury that he was being charged with illegal bidding at an auction that was declared by the prosecuting administration to be illegal. He was convicted on the basis of Benson’s narrow technical instructions to the jury without any mention of context. He was just released from federal prison in April.
After the verdict, both Benson and the prosecution implied that DeChristopher’s bidding was really not a serious issue; it was his continuing advocacy that was the real crime to them.
In his eloquent sentencing statement, DeChristopher responded to the apparent reality that he was prosecuted for his continuing and prominent advocacy:
The reality is not that I lack respect for the law; it’s that I have greater respect for justice. Where there is a conflict between the law and the higher moral code that we all share, my loyalty is to that higher moral code …
The government’s memorandum states, “As opposed to preventing this particular defendant from committing further crimes, the sentence should be crafted ‘to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct’ by others.” Their concern is not the danger that I present, but the danger presented by my ideas and words that might lead others to action …
The things that I’ve been publicly saying may indeed be threatening to that power structure. There have been several references to the speech I gave after the conviction, but I’ve only ever seen half of one sentence of that speech quoted. In the government’s report, they actually had to add their own words to that one sentence to make it sound more threatening. But the speech was about empowerment. It was about recognizing our interconnectedness rather than viewing ourselves as isolated individuals. The message of the speech was that when people stand together, they no longer have to be exploited by powerful corporations. Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.
In short, Tim DeChristopher spent months in jail – a waste of taxpayer dollars – in order for the Obama administration to continue its policy of discouraging dissent through prosecutorial overreach along with its many other crackdowns on constitutional rights.
In the opening text, before Bidder 70 begins, a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (from his venerable “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) appears: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
In DeChristopher’s case, the government broke the law by allowing parcels out to bid at the BLM auction at which DeChristopher was bidder 70.
Ironically, DeChristopher’s pro bono legal counsel was a former head of the BLM under President Carter, Patrick Shea. Shea felt that the BLM has tipped over into becoming a captive of the oil and natural gas industry and that the prosecution of DeChristopher was a grave injustice.
His sentiments were echoed by a former manager at the BLM, who said that he was at meetings where oil and gas industry representatives wanted something done, and if BLM staff hesitated, the response was, to paraphrase, “Listen, we own the White House. Now get it done.”
DeChristopher remains optimistic that the awakening of communities bound together by advocacy, joy and resolve can arise – as he said after his conviction – like a mighty wave, and that at its peak, the wave, and we the people, can see the interconnectedness of the great sea of life that surrounds us.
This fall, DeChristopher will enter Harvard Divinity School, where he will take upon himself a larger mission.