In July, Truthout ran an article on the committed, inspirational civil disobedience of Tim DeChristopher and his resultant (nearly two-year) federal conviction as depicted in the fascinating, galvanizing documentary Bidder 70.
DeChristopher himself is a stalwart model of principled action to save life on the planet.
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At that time, Truthout also conducted a phone interview with DeChristopher as he was driving to northern Minnesota to canoe in the wilderness. He was looking forward to learning skills and deepening his spiritual commitment as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School this fall.
The following, in its first posting, is an excerpted version of that interview:
MARK KARLIN: In your powerful sentencing statement, you said: “This is really the heart of what this case is about. The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law. Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law. … The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people. The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel. The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today. And neither will I. I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future. Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience. Nothing that happens here today will change that. I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority. You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine alone.” Can you comment more about the power of the Justice Department to take things away from people?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I think that the power of the Department of Justice is fear-based, to keep people in check. It could be someone’s liberty, someone’s property, someone’s reputation. It’s not really based on a shared value of justice or morality. It’s simply legal technicalities and the power of fear, and I think both in my case and what we are seeing more and more in the world is that we see that institutional power is slipping because people are realizing that they have very little to lose in fighting back. I think it is also happening as our industrial economy hits a lot of limits to growth. The Wall Street collapse and the Occupy Movement’s education have led the failing system to no longer have a grip on many people because it is no longer providing an incentive to stay obedient.
MARK KARLIN: What about the difference between achieving more true justice and so-called justice as determined by legal institutions that have shown bias in representing the interests of corporations? You were charged with disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction (conducted in 2008) through bidding without intention to purchase exploration rights at the end of the Bush administration. But the Obama administration later, through then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, determined that the auction that you were charged with illegally bidding at was itself basically illegally rushed together in the waning days of Bush’s presidency. In essence, the Bush administration violated the law according to the Obama administration, but you were the one charged with illegal actions by the Obama Department of Justice. How can that be justified?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: The presiding federal judge, [Dee V.] Benson, made that clear at my sentencing [in 2011] when he said this wasn’t about my actions; it was about my words. What I actually did was not that big of a deal, he admitted, but because I was continuing to speak out since the auction, criticizing the government and encouraging civil disobedience, that is why I needed to go to prison. The judge said very directly that if I hadn’t continued speaking out after the auction I wouldn’t have been prosecuted in the first place. And that’s something that’s been very much in line with the Obama administration in the way that they treat whistleblowers or anyone who speaks out against the government or embarrasses those in power. They have been more repressive against whistleblowers than any previous administration, and I think that my case just fits that pattern.
MARK KARLIN: Benson would be perceived as a hard-line judge who instructed the jury that only the charges brought by the US attorney in Utah could be considered and not the contextual issues. For instance, in an astonishing denial of your rights, your defense team was told it could not tell the jury that the auction itself was ruled illegal. He also prohibited the lesser-of-two-evil documents, selectivity of prosecution and other exonerating issues. But afterward, he was entirely hypocritical by declaring that what you did wasn’t that significant of a legal violation; it’s just that you were too loud in your advocacy in the long period between the indictment and the trial.
TIM DECHRISTOHER: After the trial, the prosecutor and judge switched from claiming that everything outside the technical issue of bidding without intent to purchase was irrelevant. They flipped 180 degrees. They essentially said that what the trial was about was my political beliefs. To me, it is a core issue that the government declared the auction illegal, but the judge wouldn’t rule that as admissible. He claimed that it would confuse the jury. This exemplified the disrespect the judge had for the role citizens play in the jury system. The jury is there to hold the government accountable, not to rubber-stamp the judge.
MARK KARLIN: The US attorney in Utah admitted, in fact boasted, after the trial that this was essentially a trial to send a message to other protesters, not about the seriousness or lack thereof of the charges.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: That’s pretty clear from the way that our legal system works in general, that it is a tool of those in power and it is used to suppress those who threaten to undermine that power and it is not used against those in the power structure regardless of what crimes they commit.
MARK KARLIN: You gave an extremely eloquent statement outside the courthouse after your conviction. Many of your supporters were demoralized and in tears, but you gave rousing, inspirational remarks about the power of resistance, mobilization and morally based change. Did the conviction strenghten your resolve? You seemed very much at peace with yourself at that moment.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I knew when I first took this action that I had a good chance of doing prison time, particularly when I wouldn’t accept any plea bargain. And it was pretty clear from the judge’s instructions that this wasn’t a case about what was morally right and his refusal to allow information about the auction to be presented to the trial that I was going to be convicted on narrow technical grounds. I was looking at the bigger struggle that we were facing, and they wanted me to use me to intimidate others. They had militarized the entire neighborhood [after the conviction]. I wanted to point out that there was a greater success, even if I was convicted, that was going on with the movement, with the people who were there exercising their rights, that the government had not succeeded in scaring others away.
MARK KARLIN: In Bidder 70, there is a statement repeated from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He believed that you only had to move 5 percent of the people inspirationally. That is all one needed to start real social change, to change the hearts and minds of a critical mass. In civil disobedience, when you are taking a moral stand, to make that change in society, politics as we know it has severe limits. Do we need to galvanize only a relatively small percentage of the population to become agents of change?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: People who understand the problem need to make a commitment to make real change. This has finally begun to happen in the climate change movement. Civil disobedience is becoming a mainstream strategy in climate change, and that moral position will help motivate that 5 percent. I’m very encouraged by that. The ignorance of others does not justify inaction on our part; those who do understand the problem need to do something about it. We just can’t argue with those who shill for the industries causing climate change. We need to take action.
Everything that went on inside that building tried to convince me that I was alone, and that I was weak. Inside that building, they tried to convince me that I was a little finger out there on my own that could easily be broken. All of you out here were the reminder, for all of us, that I wasn’t just a finger all alone in there, but that i was connected to a hand, with many fingers, that can unite as one fist, and that fist cannot be broken by the power that they have in there.
That fist is not a symbol of violence. That fist is a symbol that we will not be misled into thinking that we are alone. We will not be lied to and told we are weak. We will not be divided, and we will not back down. That fist is a symbol that we are connected, and that we are powerful. It is a symbol that we hold true to our vision of a healthy and just world and we are building the self-empowering movement to make it happen. All the authorities in there wanted me to think like a finger, but our children are calling to us to think like a fist. …
Every wave on the ocean that has ever risen up and refused to lay back down has been dashed upon the shore. But it’s the very purpose of a wave to rise up, because once it rises above the horizon, it finally has the perspective to see that it’s not just a wave but a part of a mighty ocean. The sharpest rocks on the wildest shore can never break that ocean apart. They can never wear that ocean down, because it’s the ocean that changes the shore.
That’s what we’re starting to do here today. That’s what we’re starting to do here this week, with wave after wave after wave, crashing against that shore. We shape it to our vision.