Tim DeChristopher is scheduled to appear Tuesday in a Salt Lake City federal courtroom to be sentenced but the sentence is clearly designed to send a message to anyone else who might be thinking of defying the government, even in the most peaceful and civil way.
It's easy to tell, because of the charges the feds decided to bring. DeChristopher's crime was disrupting a BLM auction of oil and gas leases. It was by absolutely every account a political act, part of the long tradition of civil disobedience in this country that stretches back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau, who spent a night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his taxes.
But that's not what the federal government went after DeChristopher for. Instead, they charged him with financial fraud, as if his goal had somehow been to make money from his actions. As a result he faces not a night in jail, but many years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines.
That's absurd. For one thing, this is the same federal government that, faced with the greatest financial fraud in the history of the world, one that nearly sank the whole world's economy, couldn't find a single banker to bring to justice. This is the kind of prosecutorial discretion that is supposed to make us feel better about Washington's power? It's the very definition of overreach.
I predict that that overreach will backfire if the prosecution and judge actually deliver a harsh verdict. In the weeks before the sentencing, for instance, more than a thousand people have signed up at tarsandsaction.org to risk arrest in Washington D.C. next month. This protest of the administration's plans to approve a new pipeline from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico looks like it will be the largest civil disobedience in the history of the climate change movement. It will draw energy from DeChristopher's sentencing, in the same way that punitive sentences always inspire others to take up the banner.
That's especially true in a year when we've come to understand just how right DeChristopher was. The last year was the warmest in human history. Just last week new studies showed that with that heat came the most extreme weather ever measured, a spate of floods and droughts biblical in scope and power. DeChristopher is proving prophetic, and sticking prophets in jail does not rob them of their power. Just the opposite.
Still, DeChristopher should not be shut away for years even if it will create a handy martyr for the cause. It's a violation of the basic decency that should mark our system of justice. Think about it: The southern legal system tried every trick it could think of to stop Martin Luther King, but even the sheriffs of Alabama and Mississippi didn't try to put him away for years on end.
It's as if King, who was DeChristopher's age when he launched the Montgomery bus boycott, had been charged with defrauding the bus company. Taking a young man and sticking him in a penitentiary for years because of an act of conscience is … unconscionable.
In a just world, the judge would sentence DeChristopher to a week in jail, or to probation. He technically violated the law, and civil disobedience should carry some price. But in a just world the judge would also thank him for having the courage of his convictions, and for showing the rest of us the way forward.
I suppose that's too much to ask, but setting aside vindictiveness should not be. The federal court may think it's passing judgment on Tim DeChristopher next week. But, in fact, by its actions it will reveal its own character.
Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature," the first book for a general audience about global warming, published in 1989. He is the founder of 350.org, a grassroots climate campaign operating in 189 countries. He lives in Vermont.