After 21 months in custody, Tim DeChristopher will exit federal incarceration Sunday, just in time to allow the climate activist to resume speaking out for social justice and against the nation's addiction to fossil fuels on Earth Day.
The one-time University of Utah student found himself in the criminal justice system's cross hairs in December 2008 after entering bogus bids at a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction, ultimately winning 14 leases on public lands with no intention of paying for them. His prosecution pushed him onto the national stage, but it also cost him his freedom and the Utah environmental community a powerful voice.
DeChristopher knew the legal risks of his actions, which he took because conventional protesting was having no effect on illegitimate leasing on public land, supporters say.
"They were seeking a severe punishment to deter others. Our response to this would be joy and resolve. There was a lot of heartbreak when Tim went to prison," said Henia Belalia, executive director of Peaceful Uprising, a social justice group DeChristopher co-founded. Prosecutors sought a sentence of four to seven years in prison, far longer than the two years that U.S. District Judge Dee Benson imposed.
"Tim was very intentional in not organizing in the last few months before prison. He was creating space for other leaders to emerge," Belalia said. "The work had to carry on no matter what happened to Tim, so it wouldn't come as a sudden void when he left."
DeChristopher begins three years' probation Monday, which is Earth Day, and is expected to head to Harvard Divinity School this fall to pursue a new path as a Unitarian minister. He is declining interview requests until after his release Sunday, but he is expected to answer questions Monday evening after a screening at the Tower Theater of "Bidder 70," an award-winning documentary about his case.
Event organizers say dozens of locations throughout the U.S. will screen the film simultaneously and the Q&A with DeChristopher will be live-streamed to those sites.
Many regard DeChristopher as a prisoner of conscience whose punishment came in response to his steady criticism of the nation's energy and climate policies after his conviction and his utter lack of remorse for his illegal actions. Even though federal officials later invalidated the monkey-wrenched leases, a jury convicted the man known as "Bidder 70" of two felonies.
Benson barred his lawyers from framing DeChristopher's conduct as civil disobedience justified in the face of a growing climate emergency.
In a blog post, DeChristopher argued his prosecution was fixated on "technicalities" at the expense of true justice.
"Throughout every stage of this legal process, it has been a predetermined conclusion that I should be punished for standing up to the collusion between government and corporations," he wrote. "Any potential discussion of ethics, justice or the role of citizens has been banished from the court."
Since October, DeChristopher has been living in a Salt Lake City halfway house and working at Ken Sanders Rare Books. During his partial freedom, DeChristopher has remained quiet, in marked contrast to his profile before his July 2011 sentencing and first several months of custody in a minimum-security prison in Herlong, Calif. Last year he was transferred to another federal prison, Englewood, near Denver.
"The sentence was as much punishing him for his use of the First Amendment than Tim's act," said George Gage, the Telluride, Colo.-based filmmaker who produced "Bidder 70" with his wife, Beth.
"His going to prison has strengthened the environmental community. He has more impact," said Gage, who will attend the Monday screening. "Tim DeChristopher in the future will have more people listening to him and his voice will be stronger because of this experience."
firstname.lastname@example.org Bidder 70 speaks
Tim DeChristopher's first public appearance since being ordered to prison is Monday at a screening of the award-winning documentary "Bidder 70," chronicling his climate activism and prosecution for disrupting a 2008 oil-and-gas auction. DeChristopher will speak after the screening at Salt Lake City's Tower Theater, 876 E. 900 South. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available online at https://gathr.us/screening/reserve/2367.