Posts Tagged ‘Civil Disobedience’

That endangered breed of courage

In Excerpts, Thoughts on February 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm

In 1849, the above man wrote:

“I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and bones, to be locked up.”

More than 150 years later, the man below faces an even more severe sentence for an act of civil disobedience.

This is Tim DeChristopher, a 28-year-old economics student now known as Bidder 70. He faces not one night, but up to ten years in prison. His offense: bidding in an auction. The auction which would’ve turned hundreds of thousands of acres from the US government over to oil and gas companies in southern Utah. DeChristopher describes why he disrupted the auction:

“…There was a lot of objection to it on a lot of grounds. One, that it was for lands right outside of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Another big objection was that the Bureau of Land Management wasn’t following their own rules. They hadn’t done an adequate environmental impact statement, they hadn’t talked to other environmental agencies like the National Park Service.”

DeChristopher walked in, started driving up the prices, and eventually began winning parcels. By the time they stopped the auction and federal agents approached him, he’d won 14 parcels for $1.8 million. Now, facing up to 10 years in prison on two felony charges, his trial is set for February 28—two weeks from tomorrow, Valentine’s Day. GOOD Magazine reports that he won’t go in alone.

Friends and supporters of Bidder 70’s cause will be gathering in Salt Lake City on the day the trial begins to show solidarity for his peaceful act of civil disobedience and call attention to the greater injustices of climate change and fossil fuel extraction. Dr. James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Robert Redford, and Terry Tempest Williams co-wrote a letter calling for all concerned citizens to “stand with” Bidder 70.

Civil disobedience is a rare breed of courage, its consequences real and often elongated. With Egypt in the foreground of today’s contemplations, I wonder what form, aside from DeChristopher’s bid-skewing, civil disobedience can take in the US. Henry David Thoreau, more than 150 years ago, knew that there would be moments, perhaps lifetimes, where such actions would need to be taken.

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

It seems unlikely that DeChristopher will not prevail at the trial, given the weight of his supporters and the subsequent overturning of the leases in question:

“The irony is that when the new administration took over, the new head of the Interior [Ken Salazar] overturned all the leases—not just the leases that I won, but all the others from that auction as well. He’s made it very clear that the auction itself was illegal, and that the whole process was corrupt. He’s used very bold language to describe it.”

While trust in government is hard to have, and perhaps nearly always foolhardy, it is nice to know that, in this case, official, government-sanctioned justice came on the heels of DeChristopher’s bold statement. I have little hope this will happen often, but we need such models to even begin imagining any regularity to such outcomes.