In my old hometown, Tim DeChristopher has been sentenced to two years in prison. DeChristopher is an environmental activist who, in the twilight of the last Bush administration, grew increasingly alarmed at the government's readiness to sell off public land to the diggers of fossil fuels. One day DeChristopher stepped into a Bureau of Land Management auction, signed himself up as a bidder, and kept on raising his number.
He cost oil and gas corporations hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. DeChristopher's bids raised the average price of land from about $12 and acre to about $125. While he had no money to pay for the bids he made, and initially intended only to embarrass and confound the government and the corporations (who were, he contended, acting in defiance of the law), he and sponsors later raised money for the down payment on his bids and made the offer--which was duly refused by the BLM.
The trial has been cause célèbre for all the right reasons. The auction at which DeChristopher made his fake bids was later declared illegal by a federal judge, partially vindicating DeChristopher's argument that he acted to prevent an illegal transfer of public lands into corporate hands. The informed jury movement got involved (absolutely rightly, by the way) to the great consternation of prosecutors. The courthouse has been the scene of ongoing demonstrations and on the day of DeChristopher's sentencing, over twenty other activists were arrested for civil disobedience.
Two years in prison may seem light or draconian, depending on your expectations. He could have faced up to ten years. On the other hand, it was certainly in the judge's power to assign only community service. To put it in perspective, Will Potter at Green is the New Red puts it like this:
DeChristopher’s two-year sentence is comparable to what members of underground groups have received for property destruction. The court has sent the message that public, aboveground activists, who use non-violent civil disobedience, will be treated on par with underground activists who use economic sabotage.There is no question that this is what motivated the sentence. U.S. District Judge Dee Benson generously conceded that "I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience. But it can't be the order of the day." The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber, had been adamant: "If a sentence was perceived as too light or inconsequential, it could be seen as a reasonable price to pay to grab the limelight or gain fame." In light of this it is clear that there was concern that civil disobedience not become the order of the day.
You may think DeChristopher misguided, dangerous, devoted to a lost cause, or the great green hope. Of this thing I am sure: he is a brave man and a principled one. As a philosopher, I will add this: I suspect that being backed into a corner, if it doesn't crush you, if you can rise above fight-or-flight, makes you free. It's not a state you can get to on purpose, but this is the secret of all the imponderable and existentially soul-pinning paradoxes from Socrates to Dōgen to Kierkegaard to Gurdieff, and sometimes it wakes you up in a way that makes all the difference in the world, even if it seems to leave things much as they were. I don't know whether Tim DeChristopher considers himself a philosopher or not, but clearly he has thought through where he stands and why. Nor is he cowed by the judicial system's ability to pass sentence. That's not the corner he's in. He believes we are all in a corner already, and most of us are too scared or too alienated to see it. He is right that his example can be enough to snap some people out of their own fear--"if he can do that, I can do something too"--and by the same token the government is right, by its lights, to want raise the cost of such freedom.
DeChristopher's courtroom statement to Judge Benson before sentencing was the only time he was able to make a declaration of his motivations and political positions during the trial (the prosecution had argued that he ought not be allowed to distract the court with these irrelevancies, though it was eager to use his public statements later to argue for a harsh sentence). While not quite the Letter from Birmingham Jail, it is still a noble contribution to the documents in great tradition of resistance to authority; moving, articulate, unapologetic, and damning:
[The prosecution] would lead you to believe that I’m either a dangerous criminal who holds the oil and gas industry in the palm of my hand, or I’m just an incompetent child who didn’t affect the outcome of anything.... they’re not quite sure which of those extreme caricatures I am, but they are certain that I am nothing in between....Go read it all.
[The prosecution] also makes grand assumptions about my level of respect for the rule of law.... The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law. Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law....
I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me....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 steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away.