Full Show: Going to Jail for Justice
May 24, 2013
In December 2008, during the closing weeks of the Bush White House, 27-year-old environmental activist Tim DeChristopher went to protest the auction of gas and oil drilling rights to more than 150,000 acres of publicly owned Utah wilderness. But instead of yelling slogans or waving a sign, DeChristopher disrupted the proceedings by starting to bid. Given an auction paddle designating him “Bidder 70”, DeChristopher won a dozen land leases worth nearly two million dollars. He was arrested for criminal fraud, found guilty, and sentenced to two years in federal prison — even though the new Obama Administration had since declared the oil and gas auction null and void.
DeChristopher — who was released less than a month ago — joins Bill to talk about the necessity of civil disobedience in the fight for justice, how his jury was ordered to place the strict letter of the law over moral conscience, and the future of the environmental movement. Bidder 70, a new documentary chronicling DeChristopher’s legal battle and activism, opened May 17. DeChristopher is co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Peaceful Uprising.
BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: I would like to know if Apple’s lobbyists had anything to do creating the loopholes and rules they’re now benefiting from.
BILL MOYERS: And…
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Civil disobedience is always a criticism of the existing power structure. And it’s always been that way. That’s the role of civil disobedience; it’s a role of dissent.
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BILL MOYERS: So if we now have representative government in name only, and are governed instead by corporations and their lobbyists, what’s to be done? Tim DeChristopher wrestled with that reality and decided what he would do.
As a result, he spent almost two years in prison. He’s out now, and you can learn the whole story in the new documentary, Bidder 70.
In December 2008, as the Bush administration was coming to an end, this environmental activist, then 27 years old, went to an auction of gas and oil drilling rights on more than 150,000 acres of Utah wilderness, all of it public land. It was a sale DeChristopher believed to be illegal.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: Instead of getting dragged out they said “Hi. Are you here for the auction?”
And I said, “Yes, I am.” And they said, “Are you here to be a bidder?” And I said, “Well, yes, I am”.
AUCTIONEER in BIDDER 70: I have two and a quarter in the back and now to two and a half…
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: I saw right away with that bid card they’d given me, I could really disrupt this process. I had all these visions of my future and all the catastrophic effects of climate change, but if I start to bid on this there’s a decent chance I could go to prison. Could I live with that? And I thought, well, yeah. It’d suck, but I could live with it.
AUCTIONEER in BIDDER 70: Three fifths and four and five…
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: And I finally took that step, and jumped all the way in and started winning parcels. I started winning all the parcels.
AUCTIONEER in BIDDER 70: And five, are you all in? Are you all done? At fifty dollars, sold fifty dollars to Bidder number 70, Bidder 70[…]
REPORTER 1 in BIDDER 70: An environmentalist threw a controversial oil and gas lease auction into turmoil today.
REPORTER 2 in BIDDER 70: Well Tim DeChristopher says he’s willing to go to jail, and it’s possible that’s where he’ll wind up.
REPORTER 3 in BIDDER 70: A college student may face federal criminal charges for disrupting that auction with bogus bids.
BILL MOYERS: The federal government indicted Tim DeChristopher on two felony counts, even though the oil and gas auction had been quickly declared null and void by the new Obama administration and its Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
KEN SALAZAR in BIDDER 70: Because of the need to review these parcels, and because of their proximity to landscapes of national significance, I have directed the Bureau of Land Management not to accept the bids on the 77 parcels.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: To see this land and this view, there’s no way that I could ever regret what I did. To see that the land looks like this, that it’s this beautiful, and to know it’s going to keep looking like this, it’s still going to look this way, and there’s not going to be an oil rig in the way. There’s not going to be a road cut right through the middle of it. That’s really reaffirming, and I think really justifies my actions.
BILL MOYERS: The legal process dragged on. Tim DeChristopher held out for a trial by jury, despite government attempts to make a deal.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: I’ve been offered a couple informal plea bargains. The one formal one was for as little as thirty days in jail. My lawyers said they do really want you to serve some time to set an example that discourages other people from doing this and I said that’s exactly why I’m not going to take this deal, because I have the opposite motivation, and it’s really rubbed me the wrong way about any kind of solution that doesn’t involve a jury.
BILL MOYERS: The jury was instructed by the judge to rule only on the strict letter of the law and not to make any moral judgments. They found Tim DeChristopher guilty, and he was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
Outside the courtroom, activists from Peaceful Uprising, the grassroots environmental group DeChristopher co-founded, protested the verdict. Twenty-six were arrested.
Now Tim DeChristopher is free and contemplating both his own future and that of the climate change movement in the name of which he said he picked up that bidder card with the number 70.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: You are free. Five years have passed, two of them in prison. Was it worth that much of your time?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, absolutely! I mean I think more so than I anticipated. You know, when I went into this, I was pretty focused on the direct impacts of my actions, keeping that oil in the ground under those parcels and stopping this particular auction. And that was mostly effective. That goal was met. And I think the impacts on myself and on the climate movement over the past few years and on the community of people that has grown up around that action, the group Peaceful Uprising that I helped start I think those impacts turned out to be much more important than just keeping that oil in the ground.
BILL MOYERS: So when did you know for sure that you were going to be convicted?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: During the jury selection of the trial! That was what really did it. There was a moment during the jury selection we had this huge jury pool because it was a high profile case. And there was a moment where the prosecution and the judge found out that most of that jury pool had gotten a pamphlet before they came in on the first day from the Fully Informed Jurors Association. And it was a pamphlet that didn’t say anything about my case, but it talked about jury’s rights. It talked about why we have juries. And it, you know, quoted the founders of the country on juries being the conscience of the community. And the prosecution flipped out over this. It was the only time I saw the prosecutor completely lose his cool during the whole process. And we went into the judge’s chambers and the prosecutor was screaming and saying, “We should have a mistrial here.” And he wanted to just throw the whole thing out.
BILL MOYERS: Because of this pamphlet that were—
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Right! Right! I mean, the prosecutor was almost spitting when he was reading from this and saying, “This notion of voting your conscience; it’s out in space.” And he was terrified. He was, he was really scared of what was on that pamphlet. And then rather than get rid of the whole jury pool, the judge called the jurors in one at a time to his chambers. And I was—
BILL MOYERS: Each one individually?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah!
BILL MOYERS: Privately?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah! And my legal team and I were on one side of the table. The prosecution was on the other side. The judge was at the head of the table and there was one juror at a time at the other end. And the judge would say, “You understand it’s not your job to decide what’s right or wrong here. Your job is to listen to what I say the law says, and you have to enforce it, even if you think it’s morally wrong. Can you do that? Can you follow my instructions, even if you think they’re morally wrong?”
Tabacco: American Justice!
And unless they said yes, they weren’t on the jury. And I was sitting in the seat closest to the juror. And I watched one person after another say, “Yes, your Honor, I’ll do whatever you tell me to do, even if I think it’s morally wrong.” And they meant it. And that’s when I knew that I was going to be convicted.
BILL MOYERS: Because they were going to decide if the law had been broken, not if it was a good law?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah! Yeah! And the judge would define for them what the boundaries of that law was. And, you know, so basically it was if he committed this action, then he’s guilty, and you have to convict him.
BILL MOYERS: Had you thought about whether it’s the duty of a jury to decide that an act is morally right or wrong, or to decide in fact if in the law has been broken?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Not before I started the legal process. You know, leading up to my trial I was reading up about jury rights and jury nullification and the history of juries. And why the founding fathers thought it was so important to have jury trials.
Because, you know, they saw this system where if the government was passing laws that were out of line with the conscience of most of our society, people would refuse to follow that law. Take their case before a jury of their peers, who would decide whether or not that law was, you know, in accordance with their shared values and the conscience of our community.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And that’s been part of the evolution of our legal system over the past 200 years, as we’ve evolved from a people who set up a government afraid of the power of government, afraid of the concentration of power and wanting to keep power in the hands of people. And now we have a government that wants to concentrate as much power as they can and is afraid of the people.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re saying that the jury that convicted you and sent you to prison failed to act as “The conscience of the community”?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, and there was a tremendous amount of pressure on them to do that. You know, I mean, these are people who have no experience who have, you know, probably never been on jury duty before because it’s a rare thing. Even though we’re locking up unprecedented numbers of people, we have very few jury trials. So they don’t have that kind of experience.
And they come into this huge courthouse, go through two different metal detectors and security screenings, come into this, you know, majestic courtroom, with the judge sitting up above them, speaking to them in this very patriarchal kind of way. And with all this authority behind them and saying, “It’s not your job to do what’s right or wrong.” And people believed that. And, you know, watching that happen, it, I’d say it was the first time I really understood how some of the great atrocities in history could happen, where you’d have an entire population that, you know, plays out the plans of a tyrannical dictator, how things like genocide could happen when people are willing to let go of their own moral agency and say, “Well, it’s not my job to decide what’s right or wrong.”
BILL MOYERS: But in a country as large and diverse as this, how can we know that 12 people, much less one person, represent the conscience of the community.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well—
BILL MOYERS: A big community, a lot of different opinions, beliefs, moral values, religious convictions.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And you’re certainly not going to get the same kind of answer every time. And that’s why, you know, civil disobedience is always a risky thing. It does always involve that risk of taking your case before a jury of 12 random people. And it should. You know, to break an existing law, you should have to feel that strongly about it.
You should have to be that confident that this law’s out of line with the values of our community. And be that willing to make that sacrifice. You know, I don’t think it should be an easy or convenient thing. There should be that kind of risk involved in civil disobedience. But by the same token, those citizens, those 12 citizens on the jury, should be empowered and fully informed to make whatever kind of ruling they see is appropriate.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see any irony in the sentence you received, up to two years in prison, compared to what happened to BP when that oil spill killed 11 workers, injured 17 and wreaked havoc with the environment along the Gulf Coast. Yet no one from the company went to jail. They paid a big fine, but no one went to jail.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly irony there, but I also think that the law is the tool of those in power. And you know, it’s corporations like BP that are in power right now. I mean Glenn Greenwald wrote a great book called “With Liberty and Justice for Some” about how we have a two-tiered justice system in this country.
BILL MOYERS: That reminds me of a scene from the film. Take a look!
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: There’s been a lot of historical influences from civil disobedience that have influenced me, and you know, most of them were preaching non-violence and this idea of non-violence not meaning being soft. Kind of a strong peaceful resistance, and that power that comes through love!
JOHN SCHUCHARDT in BIDDER 70: It doesn’t start so much as with a movement of thinking as a movement of the heart. The young people who saw segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960; those four students ignited a movement that ultimately involved hundreds and thousands of people, because that movement of the heart touched the hearts of others.
DAVID HARRIS in BIDDER 70: The initial preface of that revolution has to be a simple one.
The civil rights movement kind of introduced the whole notion of the possibility of making social change happen.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: I think that’s part of what my generation lacks, is that we haven’t had these tangible examples of what it looks like when people take power and are committed to changing the system.
JOHN SCHUCHART in BIDDER 70: Dr. King said if I can get five percent, I can change the situation. I only need five percent. It’s never a matter of the majority. It’s always a matter of conscience, and conscience only operates through an individual.
BILL MOYERS: I was impressed with the statement you made in your hearing, your sentencing hearing. You said, “I say this”, what you just talked about, the conscience of the community and why you were doing what you were doing. “I say this not because I want your mercy, but because I want you to join me.” Is there evidence that people are signing up in sufficient numbers for similar acts of civil disobedience to reach some kind of critical mass?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I think the numbers that it takes for civil disobedience, if people are actually committed to it, are not overwhelming majority numbers. I mean, you know, for years there have been all these polls that say, you know, only half of Americans are, you know, believe climate change is happening or, you know, only a third of them actually understand what climate change really is. Those sorts of polls happen all the time.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see that cover of The Nation magazine recently? “It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying”, referring to the earth. Do you agree with that, that it’s more than global warming? It’s actually an existential threat to the planet?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Not really. I mean, I think it’s an existential threat to our industrial civilization. It’s a threat to the kind of planet that we have evolved on, the kind of planet that we’ve always lived on. But I think both the planet and human beings are resilient. And I think there will be some kind of survival. The thing that scares me is what we will have to do in order to survive.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
And I think those are those are the challenges that we now face as a climate movement as it’s in all likelihood too late for any amount of emissions reductions to stop runaway climate change, which means that we are on this path of rapid change. We know we’re going down this path of unprecedented change. And so it’s really important who is calling the shots during that time. The collapse of industrial civilization with an ignorant, apathetic citizenry that’s afraid of their own government and feels like they have to accept what corporations want to do, that’s really scary. That’s really ugly! And that’s, I think, the big challenge that we face now.
BILL MOYERS: You were quoted somewhere saying, quote, “The climate justice movement is not looking for Wal-Mart to be a friendlier corporate master. They want to overthrow Wal-Mart.” Can you help us understand what this means?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: We don’t want Wal-Mart to be a greener, corporate citizen. We want Wal-Mart to be subservient to human interests. We don’t think corporations should be masters of men. And you know, that’s really, that’s the difference between the climate justice movement and the environmental movement, in my opinion.
Or the big green side of the environmental movement! That we’re not looking for a cleaner, greener version of the world that we have now. We’re looking for a genuinely healthy and just world.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, people are driving hybrids and they are urging businesses to go green. And they’re trying to save energy here and there. But yet, there’s a recent poll that shows people do not think about the environment in the terms they did the day after Earth Day back in 1971. They’re not as concerned about it.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. And, you know, I think one of the weaknesses of the environmental movement and parts of the climate movement is that it’s always encouraged people to think as consumers, to think about what they can do in their consumer purchases to drive in a hybrid of, you know, buy the right light bulbs and that sort of thing.
And I think that’s understandable because we have so many reminders of our role as a consumer. You know, we see, like, 3,000 advertisements a day that all remind us you’re a consumer. That’s who you are. And we don’t have nearly as many reminders that we’re also citizens of what was once the greatest democracy in the world.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: The way the environmental movement has been for the past thirty years, it’s like a football game. And there are some players on the field that are fighting it out, but most of the people in the stadium are up in the stands. Most of them just paid their money at the door, and now they’re just yelling and screaming, and it’s not working. Our team is getting slaughtered. The refs have been paid off, and the other side is playing with dirty tricks. And so it’s no longer acceptable for us to stay in the stands. It’s time to rush the field, and it’s time to stop the game.
ASHLEY ANDERSON in BIDDER 70: When you’re occupying the Department of the Interior saying, “You’re perpetuating climate change, destroying lives around the world. We’re not going to take that anymore, and we’re going to risk arrest.”
CORI REDSTONE in BIDDER 70: Much of what prepared me to be arrested in D.C. was the background and training I received through Peaceful Uprising, and I was ready. I was ready to get arrested.
JOAN GREGORY in BIDDER 70: In all my fifty-eight years I have never taken that bold a stand. Tim has helped me to find my own strengths.
And I think, you know, not everyone has to go to prison. But I think everyone has to feel empowered to take strong actions. And, you know, no one can say, “This is the kind of action that we need right now” because nobody knows. Nobody has the answers. You know, nobody has ever stopped a climate crisis before.
You know, so nobody can say, “This is what’s definitely going to work.” And, you know, that’s what’s limited us in the past in the movement, is when we’ve had one element that said, “You know, listen, we know how change happens in Washington. We know how to do things. You know, this is what’s politically feasible and you have to do it our way.” You know, up until 2009 with the Waxman-Markey Bill, that really held back the movement.
BILL MOYERS: And that bill did what?
BILL MOYERS: You say it was a dividing line in the story?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Yeah. I think that that bill was really the turning point for the climate movement because up until that point, the groups with so much money and access in Washington, you know, held everybody unchecked basically. Their rhetoric about, “This is what’s politically feasible,” that held sway with so many other folks in the movement who said, “Okay, well, I guess we’ll do it your way even though this bill doesn’t really make sense and doesn’t seem to do anything worthwhile. We’ll do it your way.”
It turns out they didn’t even know what was politically feasible. And so then, you know, the rest of the movement afterwards said, “Well, we tried it your way and it didn’t work.
BILL MOYERS: Well I think you know that the president of the Sierra Club Michael Brune got himself arrested recently in a protest outside the White House over the Keystone pipeline.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: The change in the Sierra Club has been a tremendous shift over the past few years. You know, when we look at the challenge that we have right now of creating that drastic shift from where we are right now where, you know, we have one party that doesn’t believe in climate change and one party that provides empty rhetoric and no action, that’s a dramatic shift that we need to get to actual appropriate response to the climate crisis. You know, to get us to that point it’s going to take really confrontational actions.
I don’t look at the political spectrum as this straight line between left and right. And I think it’s more like a really steep pyramid. And I found that a lot of people on the bottom have far more in common with each other regardless of whether they’re on the left and the right than they do with anybody at the top of that pyramid.
BILL MOYERS: Let me double back to something you said a moment ago I let slip by because it scares people to hear you and anybody else talk this way. You said we have to overthrow the corporations. What do you mean when you say overthrow corporate power?
BILL MOYERS: They have a stake in policy.
And when I say overthrow I mean ending corporate personhood, I mean kicking them out of our government. And that will take a constitutional amendment to get that to happen. And I think that’ll be a dramatic shift. And I think it’ll it’s a huge battle. They’re not going to easily give that up.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re not talking about using force to overthrow anybody?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: No.
BILL MOYERS: But you are calling for a radical overhaul of how our society functions?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, yeah. But I think that’s an overhaul to bring us in alignment with our values, you know, which is why I think that this is a challenge that we can actually rise up to. I don’t think it’s an impossible challenge because it’s not primarily about changing people’s values.
I think most people regardless of where they are politically, if you get them in an honest moment to really talk about what they value they’re not going to talk about that they value their SUV or they value, you know, the extra few thousand square footage on their home.
They’re going to talk about human relationships. Almost everyone is going to be talking about their friends and their family and their communities as the things that they truly value. And you know, when we’re talking about that radical shift it’s about aligning our world with those values, not so much about changing them, which is why I think this is possible.
BILL MOYERS: So now that you’re a free man, are you a danger to society? There are people who say you are.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I, you know, I’m a danger to a certain part of society. I’m–
BILL MOYERS: Which part?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I’m a danger to the, to that part of the power structure that wants to concentrate power in the hands of the few. You know, I don’t think I’m a danger to the rest of society.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t you think the power structure in every age, in every time, in every place always sees civil disobedience as a threat?
BILL MOYERS: What’s next for you?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: In the fall I’ll be going to Harvard Divinity School to study to become a Unitarian minister.
BILL MOYERS: Not law school with your concern about juries and the founding fathers and civil disobedience.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: No, because I think a lot of what we’re facing is really spiritual struggles. I mean, you know, as I was saying I think we have enough people onboard, but not enough people who really have faith in their own power to make a difference. And that to me is an internal struggle, something that’s more on a spiritual level. And…
BILL MOYERS: Take me a little further.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: –and the point, well, the–
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean a spiritual?
And you know, he was a US attorney, he was the United States attorney, he represents the United States of America, he’s got the whole power of the United States government behind him and he was terrified. He felt vulnerable to the notion of citizens using their conscience in exercising their civic duties.
BILL MOYERS: In fairness to him I read his statement. He said, he said respect for the law is the bedrock of the civilized society.
BILL MOYERS: So what are the spiritual needs you think you would like to attempt to address?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, I think part of it is the empowerment that comes through connecting with the community. And I think that’s part of why churches and religious institutions have played such an important role in so many social movements throughout our history because there’s so much alienation, especially right now in our society and so much that encourages people to view themselves as an isolated individual.
And, as an isolated individual, people are weak and they look at the problems that we face, and even if they understand these issues they look at it and say, “You know, I’m just one person. What can I do against these corporations or this government? They’re so big and so powerful.” And that’s true. And you know, honestly as an isolated individual, I can’t make a difference in any of these issues. But people are not isolated individuals; they’re connected to something much bigger than themselves.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70:They tried to convince me that I was like a little finger out there on my own that could easily be broken. And 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 could unite as one fist, and that that fist could not 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 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’s 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.
BILL MOYERS: Tim DeChristopher, I’ve truly enjoyed this conversation and I wish you well.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, there’s a slide show of some of the other wilderness landscapes that have been threatened by the energy industry’s mines and drills. That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.
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