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A Rosa Parks Moment: Climate Activist Tim DeChristopher Sentenced to Prison

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Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher
Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher at the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah.
AP Photo/Jim Urquhart

Once in a while, the moral insanity of the world we live in reveals itself to anyone who cares to look. One such moment came yesterday afternoon, when 27-year-old Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases in 2008.  The U.S. Attorney's office went after DeChristopher because they wanted to make an example out of him, to show other activists what happens when you mess with the system.  But if federal prosecutors thought DeChristopher was a weak-kneed tree-hugger who would beg for forgiveness, they were wrong.  DeChristopher is not just a principled climate activist, he is also a deeply thoughtful human being.  And instead of underscoring the importance of the rule of law, the sentencing of DeChristopher reveals just how perverse and fossil fuel friendly our legal system really is.  For climate activists, this is a Rosa Parks moment.  Or should be.

DeChristopher himself played it cool.  In an interview a few weeks ago, he told me, "I've been preparing for this moment for a long time."  It showed.  Just before the sentencing, while about 100 protestors gathered outside the court house in Salt Lake City singing "The Times They Are A-Changing" (26 were arrested), DeChristopher stood before the judge and read aloud a long and powerful statement to explain his actions to the court.  "Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law," he said.  He went on to describe the hypocrisy of a legal system that locks away students for peaceful acts of civil disobedience while allowing coal barons like Don Blankenship, the former head of Massey Energy, which has been cited for more than 62,000 violations in the last ten years and was responsible for the deaths of 29 miners last year, to roam free and live like kings.  "When a corrupted government is no longer willing to uphold the rule of law, I advocate that citizens step up to the responsibility."

In the end, DeChristopher addressed the judge directly: "I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me.  If you side with [prosecuting attorney] 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 [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."

Related: America’s Most Creative Climate Criminal: Tim DeChristopher by Jeff Goodell

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