UU climate-change activist tells court: ‘I will continue this fight.’
DeChristopher, a member of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, was taken into custody at the close of the trial. His sentence sparked anger among his supporters, and 26 of them were arrested outside the courthouse. They tied themselves together with plastic ties, blocking the federal courthouse steps before moving into a street where they briefly blocked a commuter train. Police charged them with unlawful assembly, failure to disperse, and blocking a public way, all misdemeanors.
In 2008 DeChristopher posed as a bidder at a Bureau of Land Management auction in Salt Lake, winning some 14 leases in eastern Utah, some of them near Arches National Park.
A jury convicted DeChristopher on March 3 of two felony charges of misrepresenting himself and placing bogus bids at a federal lease auction. DeChristopher has said he placed the bids in an effort to fight climate change. He was not permitted to use that defense in court, however.
DeChristopher was sent to a county jail until a more permanent facility is recommended. He will also have to spend an additional three years on probation and pay a $10,000 fine.
His attorney, Ron Yengich, said during the trial that DeChristopher sought to give people hope in the face of climate change. Prosecutors had said they wouldn’t seek the maximum sentence—10 years—but they also filed a sentencing motion a few days before sentencing rejecting leniency.
They noted that DeChristopher has been defiant since his trial in March, including making statements on the courthouse steps advocating that others would have to follow him to prison “if we are to achieve our vision.”
Indeed, others have followed him. Five members of First Unitarian were arrested in Washington, D.C., in April—two for singing in protest from the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the others for refusing to leave the lobby of the U.S. Department of the Interior building. They were among thousands attending the Power Shift 2011 energy and climate conference.
Joan Gregory, First Unitarian’s environmental ministry coordinator, was one of those arrested in Washington. She was arrested again on Tuesday in Salt Lake. She said a day after her arrest, “We are now, every day, watching the climate system approach disastrous tipping points. Do we continue to allow the unfettered burning of all fossil fuels, handing our children and grandchildren assured climate chaos? Or do we intervene now?”
Steve Liptay is a First Unitarian member who was one of those arrested in April in Washington. In June, he took DeChristopher’s message with him when he joined with more than 500 people in a march across West Virginia to draw attention to the issue of mountaintop removal mining.
Among those arrested Tuesday was Vince Pawlowski, a board member of UU Ministry for Earth, an affiliate organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He described the scene in court: “Tim talked about doing what he did for future generations. It was apparent that the judge could not understand that. The judge talked of so-called environmentalism. That certainly put me in the mood to be arrested.”
Outside the courthouse, he said, there was a sense of outrage. The group tried unsuccessfully to be arrested on the courthouse steps, then moved into the street, where police were forced to arrest them. “It felt righteous,” said Pawlowski. “I felt like I was doing the right thing. There was a tremendous feeling of solidarity.”
DeChristopher addressed the court during his sentencing, reading a 35-minute statement, in which he said that the government had failed in its responsibility to protect future generations.
“If the government is going to refuse to step up to that responsibility to defend a livable future, I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and other citizens. My future, and the future of everyone I care about, is being traded for short-term profits. I take that very personally. Until our leaders take seriously their responsibility to pass on a healthy and just world to the next generation, I will continue this fight.”
He added, “The reality is not that I lack respect for the law; it’s that I have greater respect for justice.”
He told the court that whatever sentence it imposed, it will not deter others like him. “Those who are inspired to follow my actions are those who understand that we are on a path toward catastrophic consequences of climate change. They know their future, and the future of their loved ones, is on the line. And they know we’re running out of time to turn things around. The closer we get to that point where it’s too late, the less people have to lose by fighting back.
“The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people. The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel. The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today. And neither will I. I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future. Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience. Nothing that happens here today will change that. I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority. You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine alone.”
DeChristopher’s sentencing is being used to create support for an event in August that promises to be the next major venue for environmental activism. The organizations 350.org and Tar Sands Action are marshalling opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved by President Obama and built, would carry oil from the tar sands deposits of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico.
NASA scientist James Hansen has been quoted as saying that any substantial tapping of the tar sands would mean “it’s essentially game over for the climate,” since the sands are the second-largest pool of carbon in the world. An act of civil disobedience is being planned for August 20 to September 3 in front of the White House.
DeChristopher will appeal his conviction and two-year prison sentence to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in part because he was prevented from arguing the environmental necessity of his actions at trial.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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