|Supporters at Tim DeChristopher's sentencing|
Tim DeChristopher seems to have grown up a lot in the last two years. That’s what you would expect, from a 29-year-old who spent his last years since college facing the possibility of a long prison term.
Days after foiling a government auction of oil and gas drilling rights in the closing days of the Bush administration, DeChristopher told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:
“I’ve seen the need for more serious action by the environmental movement and to protect a livable future for all of us. And frankly, I’ve been hoping that someone would step up and someone would come out and be the leader and someone would put themselves on the line and make the sacrifices necessary to get us on a path to a more livable future. And I guess I just couldn’t wait any longer for that someone to come out there and had to accept the fact that that someone might be me.”
At that time, I thought, Hey, hold on a minute. A lot of people have been doing a lot of environmental activism for a long time. You might not know about them, and obviously they weren’t there in the auction hall that day, but one bold action doesn’t make you the leader of the movement. I thought he was being awfully dismissive of people with good reasons not to risk spending years in prison, and was also ignoring the importance of collective action.
In his sentencing speech, he spoke more carefully, saying he was willing to go to prison if it inspires others to act. In a video made shortly before his last court date, he said others who have gone to prison for acts of conscience have told him that knowing you are there for what you believe in makes it easier to do the time. In that he is certainly right. During the month I spent in jail in Israel, I felt what a privilege it was to be in jail for doing something I wanted to do, that I was proud of doing.
DeChristopher has a lot to be proud of. He made a concrete difference, protecting at least 22,000 acres of land from drilling, much of it permanently. He has certainly motivated others to take actions they would not have taken otherwise – like the 26 people arrested outside the courthouse on Tuesday.
He also has a lot to think about. There is almost never a direct correlation between one person’s major sacrifice and the growth of a larger movement. I talked about that a few weeks ago, in my rundown of hunger strikes, some successful and others spectacularly not. Tim DeChristopher is going to jail for an impulsive act of courage. He did not plan it ahead of time; it’s not even clear he knew how big a risk he was taking.
For me there’s a deep irony in the timing of DeChristopher’s two-year sentence. Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer have been in prison in Iran for exactly two years this week. Josh and Shane too, are imprisoned for an impulsive act – the decision to go hiking on a certain trail in Iraqi Kurdistan, on a certain day, when they happened to be spotted by Iranian border guards who decided to make them political pawns. But unlike DeChristopher, they did not get to choose their battle. They are imprisoned for the crimes of the U.S. government, crimes they have spent their adult lives opposing.
Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with Shane and Josh, was released last September. I worked with Sarah on an action protesting five years of the Iraq War in 2008. Because I knew her slightly, I have been haunted by the plight of the hikers for two years. As I did when Lori Berenson was arrested in Peru, I constantly reflect that their fate could have been mine, if I’d been less lucky in a few situations. And I often think about how sad it is that three young lives have been interrupted for no good reason, that they do not have the comfort of knowing they are standing up for what’s right. They, like so many others in prisons all over the world, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I hope DeChristopher will be able to use his time in prison well and will come out convinced that what he did was right for him. To a great extent, whether he accomplishes what he wanted to – to spark a more militant movement, is now very much out of his hands. That’s one of the problems of acting on your own; you might find out that you were too far ahead of the people you wanted to lead. Certainly the prosecutors and the judge in his case intended, by imposing such a harsh sentence, to make sure that others don’t follow his example. The Daily Utah Chronicle reported,
“Inside the courtroom, prosecutors said DeChristopher’s sentence would act as a deterrence to others from conducting similar acts of civil disobedience.
‘Significant acts lead to significant consequences,’ prosecutors said.”
A spokeswoman for Peaceful Uprising, a group that DeChristopher helped to found, made this “official statement” as she left the courthouse:
“Consider this your call to action. Consider this the spark that will ignite this movement. Our hearts are broken today, because we see a charismatic, bright, concerned man who cares for the future of the next generation, be incarcerated in federal prison and treated like a criminal. If there was ever a day, if there was ever a moment in history for us to stand for climate justice, this is that moment. And we will not stop, we will not be intimidated…”
A thoughtful writer on the blog planetsave.com wonders whether people are really ready to take up the challenge DeChristopher threw down .
“Activists around the world, and DeChristopher especially, are saying that won’t silence us and will only trigger more and stronger action. The overall message and hope is that his 2-year sacrifice (which you really have to honor him for being willing to take) is going to stimulate more change and more success than would have occurred otherwise. My question is: will it, really?
“It’s easy for people to get up in arms at the news and say it will, but it’s going to be pretty darn hard to get people off their asses and doing anything comparable to what DeChristopher was willing to do.”
But one thing people should realize, and which hopefully DeChristopher now realizes, is that successful movements are composed of people willing and able to take different levels of risk. Not everyone who was inspired by the Freedom Riders became one. Some did, but others gave their Saturdays to picket at Woolworths, or traveled South for Wednesdays in Mississippi.
The other day, I heard Bay Area activist Brian Willson talking about his book, Blood on the Tracks. The title refers to an action he took in 1987, when he sat in front of a train carrying weapons from the Concord Naval Weapons Station to be shipped to Central America and elsewhere. The religious witness known as the Nuremberg Action Group had been blocking weapons trains for weeks, and every time, the train would stop and police would come and drag the people off the tracks. But this time the Naval Command decided to teach the protesters a lesson. They ordered the train crew not to stop. The other blockaders scrambled away, but Brian could not. He lost both legs.
I knew the story well – I was out of town when it happened but I had been very involved in organizing the campaign to stop weapons shipments from CNWS. I well remembered the action the next day, when thousands dismantled a section of the tracks, an action for which only one person was prosecuted. What he said that I didn’t remember was that it was only after he was injured that activists began a 24-hour-a-day peace camp there, escalating from blocking some of the trains to blocking every single one for months.
This week, Tim DeChristopher starts his prison term knowing he inspired several hundred people to come to court to support him, and 26 of them to get arrested for blocking the entrance to the courthouse. Hopefully when he is released, whether it’s in two years or sooner (he is planning to appeal), he will feel good about what came from his sacrifice.
Hopefully Josh and Shane will be released tomorrow or very soon thereafter – they are supposed to be brought to “trial,” and their lawyer thinks that even if convicted of being spies – which they definitely are not, they might be sentenced to time served. When they get home, hopefully they will be able to turn their ordeal into something they can be proud of.
Help free Shane and Josh.