Let's start at the beginning.
November, 2008. Barack Obama has defeated John McCain, and George W. Bush's last, lame-duck weeks in office begin. Without the legally-required environmental reviews, Bush's Bureau of Land Management rushes out 116 leases on public land. This last-minute fire-sale of our shared natural resources is an obvious giveaway to the oil and natural gas industries, strong GOP supporters, and it was equally obviously illegal.
A student activist named Tim DeChristopher, outraged, decides to disrupt the auction by placing fake bids on 14 parcels, several of which were right next to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. (According to DeChristopher, the decision was made suddenly, when he realized the tactic might work.) He succeeds in buying some time, during which a mainstream environmental group gets an injunction against several of the leases. Indeed, 11 of the 14 leases DeChristopher bid on are later withdrawn by the Interior Department, since they had lacked proper environmental reviews. In the end, of the 116 leases, only 29 are found to be legal.
Now, DeChristopher's act was definitely a crime. A victimless crime, and an act of civil disobedience, but a crime nonetheless. The guilty verdict, delivered on March 3, was expected.
But the auction itself was also a crime. The Bureau of Land Management had ignored clear legal requirements for an environmental review. And such crimes are far from victimless: improper oil operations can have disastrous consequences. Earlier this month, an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled over 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, fouling the river for miles. It's not a far reach to speculate that DeChristopher's actions saved at least two national parks from similar kinds of pollution.
None of this was allowed at trial. The government painted DeChristopher out to be a financial criminal, as if he were trying not to stop a crime, but to make some money and maybe some mischief. The judge refused to allow him to mount a "necessity" defense that would have enabled jurors to hear about the context of his actions, i.e., the illegal leases. And today he was sentenced to two years in jail -- far short of the ten year maximum sentence, but far longer than all of us concerned about civil disobedience had hoped for.
Thus far, DeChristopher's strongest allies have been on the "dark green" Left -- folks who protest corporate power, the use of fossil fuels, and so on. It's easy to see why Dark Greens support DeChristopher, as well they should. To them, he is a hero.
But those of us of a more moderate bent should stand up and support DeChristopher as well. This is someone whose actions stopped an unlawful, unethical act from taking place. He deserved to be found guilty, but he also deserved a minimal sentence. His was not a crime of vandalism or violence -- only a commercial act which disrupted something which shouldn't have been going on anyway. It was, in many ways, a desperate act, but it was also an act of conscience. As Bill McKibben recently wrote,
It's as if [Martin Luther] 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.
Yet I doubt the DeChristopher verdict will galvanize many people outside the already-converted. The reason? Because somewhere along the way, a strange divorce has taken place among those of us concerned with "big government." The Tea Party has taken its place at the end of a long line of American populist movements, and its sense of outrage is palpable. Yet it has allied itself with the so-called Christian Right, which seeks massive government intervention in the private lives of Americans, and with corporate interests seeking not less government per se, but less government regulation of their profiteering. Meanwhile, anti-government folks on the Left have been demonized as radicals, terrorists, or worse.
Populism has always been an essentially conservative American ideology, in the age of Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann just as in that of William Jennings Bryan. But libertarians and ACLU-liberals used to at least find common cause: fighting punitive drug laws, for example, or ensuring that government police power is properly limited. Unfortunately, what the DeChristopher case shows us is that contemporary 'libertarianism' has been co-opted by old fashioned conservatism, the kind that favors Big Money and Big Oil over the common good. Heck, I bet many Tea Party activists would say that the government shouldn't be leasing out public land in the first place -- they should just sell it to the "private sector" and be done with it.
That leaves liberals. In the last decade, liberals have rightly rallied around the cause of Islamophobia, and we are now used to protesting the Peter Kings and Wall Street Journals of the world who see Muslims as enemies, and who, in the hours after the attacks in Norway, rushed to blame Muslim extremists for what turned to be an arch-conservative, anti-Muslim crime. It's good that liberals are fighting this fight.
But let's not forget the grimy, often-radical activists who may be to our left politically but who are, like other groups, unfairly targeted and indeed persecuted by the state. Of course, DeChristopher chose to engage in political activism in a way few Muslims choose their religious or ethnic backgrounds. But that doesn't mean that throwing the book at him is any less odious. Two years for rigging an auction? Come on -- not a single Wall Street banker has gone to jail for a day for the financial crisis, and they rigged entire markets. This kind of selective punishment is an affront to mainstream liberal values like equality and justice.
Mainstream liberals should take up the cause of Tim DeChristopher. His sentencing was a miscarriage of justice. We should join with those on the Left in condemning it, and reclaim the word "liberty" from the Right.