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Utah UU convicted for environmental activism

Federal jury faults Tim DeChristopher for blocking auction of oil and gases leases.
By Donald E. Skinner
3.7.11

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Tim DeChristopher

UU environmental activist Tim DeChristopher waved to supporters as he arrived for his trial Monday, Feb. 28, 2011, in Salt Lake City. DeChristopher was found guilty on March 3 of disrupting a 2008 oil-and-gas lease auction to bring attention to climate change. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, a member of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah, was convicted Thursday of two felony counts of disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases more than two years ago. He faces up to ten years in prison.

DeChristopher made false bids of close to $1.8 million for more than a dozen properties in Utah during a Dec. 19, 2008, Bureau of Land Management auction, in an effort to block development near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and bring attention to the global climate crisis.

The jury deliberated nearly five hours after the four-day trial. Sentencing is scheduled for June. Prosecutors said in a news conference they would not seek the maximum penalty.

DeChristopher’s supporters on Thursday worked to put the best possible face on the verdict. “This is a beginning, not the end,” said Joan Gregory, First Unitarian’s Environmental Ministry coordinator. “We are looking at this as a turning point in the fight for climate justice. This verdict will not stop us.”

She added, “Tim has taken bold and courageous action, and he did it from a place of deep concern for his future and everyone’s future. He saw how important it was to wake the world up. Now it’s up to the rest of us.”

Environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, who has long been an ally of the Unitarian Universalist Association in working on climate issues, predicted the verdict will come to be seen as the starting point for a “mass mobilization.” He wrote on the website of his environmental group 350.org, “Tim has shown the power of civil disobedience to shine a light—the government should be giving him a medal, not a sentence, and in time this will be recalled as a key early battle in the century’s long fight for a livable climate.”

More than 100 people gathered at First Unitarian Church Thursday night after the verdict to “share stories, laugh, cry, and plan for the future,” said Gregory. “We’re taking care of one another. And appreciating all the people who came to be a part of this.”

On Monday, Feb. 28, as the trial got underway, 300 to 400 people gathered outside the U.S. District Court building to support DeChristopher. Among them were environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams and actress-activist Daryl Hannah. The night before the trial started, singer-songwriter Peter Yarrow, best known for his 1960s’ folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and his daughter Bethany helped lead a midnight rally at the church.

Several dozen supporters gathered outside the courthouse each subsequent day. Many were from First Unitarian, said Gregory. “Every place I turned on Monday there were people from the church—from the choir, our environmental ministry, our youth, and the church in general.”

A mock “climate trial” was held across from the courthouse by a group DeChristopher founded after he was charged, Peaceful Uprising. The group’s website says it is committed to “defending a livable future through empowering nonviolent action.”

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian, estimated a third of the crowd on Monday were Unitarian Universalists. “I’m very proud of this congregation,” he said.

The week had its own theme song. “Tim had asked us to sing ‘Stand,’” by Unitarian Universalist songwriter Amy Carol Webb, said Gregory, “and that’s what we did.” There was an emotional scene on Thursday after the verdict as DeChristopher exited the building into the arms of his singing supporters.

In his testimony earlier in the week, DeChristopher told the court that he was at first only going to attend a protest outside the auction with other friends. But he quickly realized “the protest wasn’t really going to have much of an impact and this auction deserved more than just holding a sign. I wanted to go inside and take stronger action to really raise a red flag as to what was going on there.”

That’s when he entered the auction, declared himself a bidder, and quickly bought the rights to a parcel near Moab, Utah, for $2.25 an acre, a purchase totaling $500. He testified that he only started bidding in earnest when he saw a friend from church, Krista Bowers, softly crying at the back of the room. Bowers later told The Salt Lake Tribune that she attended the auction because “I wanted to see how cheaply my government would sell its soul. . . it was $2 an acre.”

Bowers told the paper she learned a few days later at church that her tears had moved DeChristopher. “She said, “It’s kind of a heavy responsibility to know that your friend is facing all this [prison] time because of something you did,” she said. But she also was proud that he felt such compassion and acted on it.

A month before the auction, DeChristopher had seen a video by environmental activist Naomi Klein at First Unitarian on the need to take decisive action to protect life on earth, he told UU World in November. “I came away from that evening believing you had to go to the edge and push, taking steps that some would consider unreasonable,” he said.

A month after the auction a federal judge temporarily halted the sale of many of the parcels, finding that the BLM had violated certain environmental protection laws pertaining to air quality and historic preservation. On Feb. 4, 2009, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar shelved the 77 contested lease parcels, including ones DeChristopher won.

Gregory said the church’s support of DeChristopher is continuing after the trial. “We’ll continue to support Tim in whatever ways he and his family members need and want to be supported.”

After the verdict, DeChristopher told his supporters, “We know that now I’ll have to go to prison. We know now that’s the reality, but that’s just the job I have to do. And many before me have gone to jail . . . If we’re going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well.”

Said Gregory, “What Tim wants, what we all want, is for everyone, wherever they live, to feel the urgency and be empowered by Tim’s actions and take actions in their own communities. This may have been a guilty verdict, but we have a very positive message to send out into the world. We need to take responsibility for change.”


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