Menace or Martyr?

Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher (photo courtesy

Marina, California. If you haven’t been following the trial of Tim DeChristopher, it’s the case of an environmental activist who, through a clever prank, thwarted Big Oil over development of pristine Utah wilderness. With no intention or resources to pay, Mr. Christopher successfully bid on $1.7 million of parcels in a Bureau of Land Management auction. This auction, approved by Bush, was meant to give away 130,000 acres of wilderness for sale as oil and gas leases. The Bush leasing plan was latter found to be flawed and has been retracted. Nevertheless, Tim DeChristopher – our green prankster – received a verdict last week, sentencing him to two years in federal prison and $10,000 in fines.

By no means do I condone Tim’s willfully illegal actions in the name of conservation, but even less do I condone a corrupt government system that leaves activists few other reasonable lines of action to protect their lives, their environment and their families’ health. Even more so do I disdain the heavy-handed approach of the judicial system in dealing with Mr. Christopher’s crime. The $10,000 fine seems more than reasonable for disrupting a financial procedure, but two years in prison? Come on!? You are going to lock this guy up with rapists, drug lords and serial killers because he cared to extremes for the welfare of his loved ones and community? Incarceration should be a last resort measure in dealing with the criminally insane. But the America of today pops it like Prozac – as if it’s an easy fix for anything. No other country on Earth shares the magnitude of our prison population per capita. California – which has no room left in its prisons and has run out of budget to fund them – is the perfect example of this. Through our excessive use of incarceration, we’ve created an entire criminal class that need not exist.

Other than for the possible exception of professional writers, incarceration rarely has a positive effect on the prisoner or society. In this case, here’s a guy who’s smart and charismatic, a productive member of society who obviously wants to contribute to a better world. Sure, he showed extremely poor judgement and some punitive measure is thus appropriate. But to remove him from the society for which he cares so much for two years of his life? And in the interim expose him to cruelty and horror 24 hours a day, in the company of people who have nothing to teach him other than hopelessness, criminal cunning and hate? Even the most noble of prisoners are affected negatively by the experience of incarceration and the company of those with whom they’ve been forced to do time. It leaves a mark that we as society should not want on a man like Tim DeChristopher.

And if to imposter an agent of Big Oil is illegal, why isn’t it also illegal for oil companies to pose as being environmentally-friendly? These are the biggest polluters on the planet, and yet the public is forced to submit to a daily deluge of “green” and “sustainable” messaging coming from these giants – trying to make us believe they are the “good guys”. If they can do that, why can’t Tim pretend he’s a rich oil bidder? Seems like fair would be fair…

In seriousness though, although the cards often seem stacked against the environmental David’s of the world, there are other – legal – ways to go about raising awareness on environmental catastrophes and fighting for a healthier world. In our age of Internet and ever-present media, there’s a myriad of ways get the word out on government corruption and corporate polluters. Considering that the Bush leasing plan was eventually found to be flawed, one such way would have been to sue the federal government over the plan on behalf of the citizens of Utah. Perhaps not as glamorous as a prank, such lawsuits do make headlines and have the added benefit of occasionally resulting in pro-conservation verdicts and legislation. But, in the end, perhaps the big splash of media around the Tim DeChristopher case is exactly what Big Oil and government need to “keep honest”? If that’s the case, Tim is indeed a bit of a martyr. He’s sacrificed his personal freedom, future and well-being to send a strong message to Washington that – for a lot of us out here – the wanton destruction of our shared natural resources is just not OK.

NOTE: Tim DeChristopher recently made a statement in response to his verdict. Read it here.

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“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” – Ansel Adams

12 Responses to “Menace or Martyr?”

  1. Virginia says:

    Great post Arlo, right on! Sadly, the system is so messed up that we may need martyrs like Tim to “wake up”. The question is whether he is getting sympathy from the community he is trying to protect or will his sacrifice be futile in the eyes of the general public?

    Keep the great posts coming!

    Virginia W

    • Arlo Hemphill says:

      Virginia, the environmental community is certainly rallying around Tim. However, he is also being targeted as a green “terrorist” by the right. I wish they could see that despite their bias against the issue that Tim was standing up for, that his actions are not worthy of prolonged incarceration. This country needs to wake up and realize that if you support a system that throws people in prison so easily, that eventually you’re going to be the one behind bars…

  2. Rodolfo W says:

    yes, great post Arlo…it is important to raise awareness about cases such as this, in which good citizens are being trapped by a decadent judiciary system…especially in cases such as Tim’s case in which he is offering his freedon to protect a common good…this is really insane…thanks for highlighting this important case…I hope Tim’s community will act to help Tim avoiding ending up in jail.

    Rodolfo W

    • Arlo Hemphill says:

      Thanks Rodolfo! Unfortunately, I believe because Tim got a verdict that includes a 2 year prison sentence, that is where he is now. I do believe his lawyers are filing an appeal, but until this is overturned – he’ll remain behind bars. Such a waste of beautiful soul’s life.

  3. Mark Patton says:

    Great article Arlo. Great job looking into both sides of the story. I agree 2 years is way overboard when his crime really consists of nothing more than extra paperwork for someone working the auction. I’m surprised with the current administration though that someone would have to go to such extremes to thwart off big oil.

    • Arlo Hemphill says:

      The “crime” was actually committed under the Bush Administration, but was just finally tried…. And thanks Mark!

  4. Gianluca Serra says:

    sad story, this is fascism. same kinds of events are happening in italy and in europe. global market and economy big powers, supported by corrupted and weak governments, do not like to joke when it comes to their businesses. this is exposing a very worrying degradation of western countries democracy

    • Arlo Hemphill says:

      I think you’ve described this perfectly in saying “a very worrying degradation of western countries democracy”. This is indeed what we appear to be facing. A new fascism and tyranny shaped by corporate shareholders. We’ll never see true freedom again until the individual’s best interests precede those of corporations. And we must also begin recognizing prisons for what they are – instruments of cruel and unusual punishment. But as long as society is content in believing they house only “bad people”, I fear nothing will change. You often discover too late how easily the system can turn and be used against you…

  5. […] Leader Arlo Hemphill (Wildlife Advocate and Science Communicator), of a climate change advocate Tim DeChristopher who decided to protest the leasing of forested Federal Land in Utah, U.S.A. (that was going to be […]

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