I have been reading the impressive court statement made by American climate activist Tim DeChristopher before receiving a two-year jail sentence for making fake bids at an oil and gas lease auction of parcels of public land in Utah in December 2008. The sentence was harsh but evidently not because the offence was particularly heinous. ’The offence itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad,’ said the judge. No, the serious matter was DeChristopher’s ’continuing trail of statements’. The judge pointed to DeChristopher’s subsequent defiance and frequent assertions to reporters that civil disobedience is justified in fighting climate change. Previously the judge had refused to allow the trial defence that DeChristopher had been compelled to act, to prevent the greater evil of climate change. He also ruled out reference to the fact that most of the sales in the auction were later cancelled because of government doubts about the legality of the leasing plan.
However he did allow DeChristopher to make his statement prior to sentencing. It was dignified, restrained and thoughtful. I found it moving. It is well worth reading in full, but I’ll extract some particularly telling sentences from the concluding paragraphs. The first extract places his action in the context of the seriousness of the effects of climate change.
’Mr. Huber [the Federal prosecutor] wants you to weigh the loss for the corporations that expected to get public property for pennies on the dollar, but I believe the important factor is the loss to the public which I helped prevent. Again, we come back to this philosophical difference. From any perspective, this is a case about the right of citizens to challenge the government. The U.S. Attorney’s office makes clear that their interest is not only to punish me for doing so, but to discourage others from challenging the government, even when the government is acting inappropriately. Their memorandum states, ‘To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behaviour.’ The certainty of this statement not only ignores the history of political prisoners, it ignores the severity of the present situation. Those who are inspired to follow my actions are those who understand that we are on a path toward catastrophic consequences of climate change. They know their future, and the future of their loved ones, is on the line. And they know we are running out of time to turn things around. The closer we get to that point where it’s too late, the less people have to lose by fighting back.’
He drives home the message that civil disobedience is not going to go away, either as a repeat possibility in his own life or in the lives of others:
’The people who are committed to fighting for a liveable 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.’
He finally makes it clear that he does not want to go to prison. It’s a nuanced paragraph in which he invites the court to affirm the value of nonviolent civil disobedience but to show their disagreement with this particular exercise of it by sentencing him to community service efforts.
’I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with Mr. Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM (US Bureau of Land Management). You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.’
Tim DeChristopher is paying a high price for his principled disruptive action. Disgracefully high. I hope the wave of support he is receiving from a wide range of people will buoy him up during the tough time ahead. Nonviolent civil disobedience is likely to increase as the intransigence of governments in the pursuit of fossil fuels persists and as brave individuals decide that there is no other effective path open to them. I’ve written of civil disobedience several times in past posts (here, here, here and here) and I repeat here what I wrote in one of them indicating my own view:
’Nonviolent civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition back through Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Thoreau and many others. Thus far in relation to climate change it is sporadic but if governments continue to ignore their responsibility to drastically reduce emissions we may expect to see more of it. Understandably so. What else will serve to communicate the deep seriousness of the issue? The capacity of governments to blandly absorb the climate message, sometimes to acknowledge it, and then to carry on regardless is beginning to seem limitless. Civil disobedience puts a strain on the body politic which the kind of people who engage in it would normally seek to avoid. But there is much at stake.’
If DeChristopher’s sentence is any guide those undertaking acts of civil disobedience will have a harder time of it in the US than elsewhere in the western world. All the more honour to them. They occupy an important post in the continuing battle to persuade our governments to abandon the fossil fuel path which spells such danger for humanity.