SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – A federal judge sentenced eco-activist Tim DeChristopher, known as “Bidder 70,” to 2 years in prison for disrupting a federal energy lease auction. Emotions ran high as DeChristopher’s supporters took to downtown streets during rush hour, blocking mass transit.
Jurors found the 29-year-old climate activist guilty in March of two felonies – making a false statement and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act – in connection to his actions at a 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction.
DeChristopher formally registered for the auction, was assigned the number 70 and secured about 22,000 acres away from private oil and gas developers during the final days of the George W. Bush administration.
Since DeChristopher lacked the $1.7 million necessary to pay for the land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, however, the government said he was not a “bona fide bidder.”
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, appointed by President Obama, ruled the lease sale improper and cancelled it in 2009.
About 100 protestors – joined by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame – donned bright-orange scarves and sang “The Times They Are A-Changing” and other songs on the steps of Frank E. Moss Courthouse and an adjacent park in the hours leading up to the sentencing on Tuesday.
Facing a maximum 10-year sentence, DeChristopher spoke before a full room inside the courthouse for about half an hour on the environmental threats of climate change.
“You can put me in prison, but it will not deter my future of civil disobedience and it won’t deter others who are willing to fight to defend a livable future,” DeChristopher said.
He cited undue restrictions during the proceedings against him, noting that U.S. District Judge Dee Benson refused to let him explain his motives.
“When a corrupted government is no longer willing to uphold the rule of law, I advocate that citizens step up to that responsibility,” DeChristopher said.
“This is really the heart of what this case is about,” he continued. “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.”
Claiming that his actions were justified by a “rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience,” DeChristopher suggested that Benson sentence him to community service – counseling troubled teens, helping disadvantaged communities or working to “pull weeds for the BLM.”
“The question of whether civil disobedience is good for the public is a matter of perspective,” he said. “Civil disobedience is inherently an attempt at change. Those in power, whom Mr. Huber [prosecuting attorney] represents, are those for whom the status quo is working, so they always see civil disobedience as a bad thing. The decision you are making today, your honor, is what segment of the public you are meant to protect.”
“I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me,” he added. “If you side with Mr. Huber [the assistant U.S. attorney of Utah] and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false.”
Benson said DeChristopher’s refusal to show remorse justified jail time. He also imposed a $10,000 fine and three years probation.
“This is not a case of Rosa Parks,” Benson said. “I am at a loss to see how we are going to govern ourselves if it is by personal point of view.”
“I’m not saying there isn’t a place for civil disobedience, but it can’t be the order of the day,” he added. “Otherwise, we don’t have a society, we have an anarchy.”
Protestors in the courtroom cried and shouted following the judgment. Ashley Anderson, director of Peaceful Uprising, a group co-founded by DeChristopher, yelled, “This court has proven itself incapable of justice, so the people will take it back – it is now our court.”
Outside, protestors linked wrists with plastic zip ties to form a human chain and blocked two courthouse entrances. They then moved to a crowded nearby intersection along Main Street and sat in front of a light rail train and rush-hour traffic. Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said that officers, who looked on for much of the protest, arrested 26 for refusing to disperse.
DeChristopher was taken directly into custody and assigned to the Davis County Jail until his federal prison assignment is ordered.