Today in Salt Lake City, climate activist Tim DeChristopher (aka Bidder 70) finally gets his day in court after waiting almost 2 years since his original indictment for disrupting an illegal auction of oil and gas leases that would have opened pristine public lands in Utah to drilling. The district attorney has delayed the trial as many as 6 times as the government hoped DeChristopher would succumb to a plea bargain, but DeChristopher’s legal team has stood firm in demanding a public trial by a jury of his peers so that the public might hear the truth about the original BLM auction, which was a last-minute parting gift to the oil and gas industry from outgoing President George W. Bush.
Back in December 2008, DeChristopher showed up at a controversial oil and gas auction in Utah that was offering leases to companies to drill on environmentally-sensitive public lands, including Nine Mile Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument. An economics student at the time, DeChristopher was troubled by the Bush Administration’s efforts to skirt around required environmental assessments, essentially making the auction illegal in the first place.
Although he originally planned to protest the auction, when DeChristopher walked into the room, he was surprised to find a greeter offering him a paddle to bid. Seizing the opportunity, he went on to buy 116 parcels of land totaling over 148,598 acres. With no intention of actually paying the more than $1.7 million price tag, the auction was shut down and DeChristopher was taken into custody by federal agents. The auction was later canceled when the Obama Administration took office and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew the leases.
But it isn’t the Bush administration that stands trial today for the real crime. Instead, Tim DeChristopher is going to trial facing two felony counts that could land him 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
DeChristopher has been working with climate justice action group Peaceful Uprising in an effort to stand up to the government’s bullying:
“The federal government admitted that the auction [DeChristopher] disrupted was illegal,” states Dillon Hase, a board member of Peaceful Uprising. “As soon as Obama took office, Salazar dismissed nearly all the leases, and now they’re putting Tim on trial to scare off other people who are fed up enough with government inaction on the climate crisis to try civil disobedience.”
Indeed, the case has already been knocked down before reaching the courtroom. DeChristopher was going to use the “Necessity Defense” to claim that his actions were the lesser of two evils. However, the judge has put the kibosh on this strategy, which would have allowed DeChristopher to relay his motivations and facts about the auction’s illegality. Denying the ability to state his rationale makes it slightly harder for the jury to decide whether his actions were justified or not. Yet Judge Dee Benson decided his courtroom was not to be a battlefield for “a lengthy hearing on global warming and environmental concerns.” Not too surprising considering the raging bunch of Republicans residing in Utah that put their anti-climate stance into an official bill in 2010.
Working together, DeChristopher and Peaceful Uprising hope to ultimately put an end to the type of federal intimidation tactics he experienced, and to let a jury decide who are the real criminals. Americans have long used civil disobedience to rise up and push for justice and social change. Yet here again the government’s response has been to sue and threaten stiff jail time and fines, hoping that the populace might be scared back to complacency.
One brave young man stood up and said enough is enough. Had it not been for Tim DeChristopher’s actions as ‘Bidder 70,’ there would likely be drilling rigs tearing up these nationally treasured lands and threatening the climate with more fossil fuel pollution.
Hundreds of supporters have held vigils for DeChristopher and are gathered around the courthouse right now, hoping that the jury recognizes DeChristopher’s heroic act as anything but a crime. The trial is expected to last through Wednesday. Stay tuned for more trial coverage and reports from the rallies.