Let us begin at the most logical spot – the beginning.
For those of you, perhaps outside the state, who are unaware of the Tim DeChristopher case here is a brief recap – in December of 2008 DeChristopher, a college senior at the University of Utah, entered a Bureau of Land Management land auction for oil and gas companies. DeCristopher did not have an invitation to the private auction, and placed bids on parcels of land that he had no ability or intention of paying for with the expressed purpose of making land.
Some two years later, DeCristopher is now on trial, accused of the federal crime of purposefully bidding on parcels of land with no intention of paying for them.
Now, no one, on either side mind you, will dispute these facts; however, what I find troubling is how DeChristopher supporters are fighting for him to be free on the grounds that, somehow, his civil disobedience should excuse him from his actions.
At this point, I would like to remind you that I supported DeChristopher’s actions soon after the bidding took place, and I support them today.
However, my supporting of his actions does not mean that I don’t think he isn’t guilty of a crime. The facts are simple, DeChristopher broke the law, and he even admits to it – our justice system would require that he be found guilty, even if he had the noblest of causes in mind when he walked into that auction that cold winter day. Furthermore, the discussion regarding the fact that DeChristopher was at an illegally sponsored event is moot as the presence of one illegal act does not nullify another – someone may have run that red light and hit you, but you were still drunk driving. Also, a lack of awareness about the consequences is not an acceptable excuse either – ignorance of the law does not excuse one from the law.
But to say this is only half the issue. The real issue is that the environmental community needs DeChristopher to be found guilty.
Whether the environmental community wants to admit it or not, they are seen as more of a fringe in Utah, the West, and across the country. Most people do not associate environmentalism with recycling, energy independence, or more efficient homes – they associate it with people tying themselves to trees, protecting an owl over thousands of jobs, and hippies who don’t have a job and will protest anything that comes along. Are these fair accusations? No – but they are the perceptions people have of the movement.
Why is this? Well, it is because the measures that every American enjoys due to environmentalism are no long seen as environmental issues – they are just seen as common sense that, oh yeah, help the Earth. Indeed, “going green” is a buzzword that did not exist forty years ago when the movement started in earnest and the environmental movement has made many strides.
But, in many ways, the original movement has gone stale. What was easy to do has been done and the movement, to continue to be relevant, needs to continue to bring attention to the causes it feels are important.
Many have been shouting to “free Tim” but to do so would diminish his actions. An acquittal, in the eyes of most, will result in two things: first people will feel that DeChristopher got away with something (diminishing the impact of what he actually did) and second, they will promptly forget about the entire incident. Put simply, without a guilty verdict the issue is closed.
A guilty verdict, however, changes things. Suddenly a debate is solidified around his actions. Many won’t change their opinion of the issue of gas and oil sales (if they ever had any) but some will – people who have never considered the issue important enough to hit their radar until, quite by surprise, they realize that someone has gone to prison for questioning such land sales.
If actions take place without consequences, only those who are already aware of the situation will care about what is going on. Once someone is jailed for their actions, it forces the larger society to reflect on the true justice of the situation, as well as the overarching reasons why a person did what they did.
Will a guilty verdict cause people to suddenly wake up and vow never to use plastic again? Of course not, but what it will do is force a as yet untouched portion of the population to take a look in the mirror. Some may only take it so far as to question the sale of public lands, while others may fundamentally question the nature of growth versus the environment, subtlety but astoundingly affecting the actions in the future.
In the end, those participating in spectacle that has become the DeChristopher protests (shout out to my homies), need to stop and think about what an acquittal would actually result in. When you are inside the bubble, it is easy to see everything as unjust and your cause noble, but one should consider the possibility of letting a man go free really is. This isn’t about sacrificing someone to the mercy of the system, DeChristopher is guilty by his own admission according to the law, this is about showing the public that people are willing to fight for what they believe in and accept what may come. In the end we remember those who were willing to not only fight for their cause, but put a mirror to the society that judged them.