Guest post from Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air.
Yesterday, I took my two daughters, Sophia (7) and Ella (5) to the Salt Lake City Federal Court House to witness the sentencing of a young man for a federal crime he committed two years ago. Now, why would any mother take her two young daughters to witness a criminal sentencing? I wanted them to see what a hero stands for.
Tim DeChristopher, 29, made $1.8 million worth of bogus bids for 15 Utah oil and gas leases – and broke the law. Tim argues it was an act of civil disobedience, meant to bring attention to the contributions oil and gas make to global warming, to the way oil despoils precious land, and to the failure of our government to do anything about it. Ultimately, BLM officials suspended the auction.
As I explained it to my daughters, we must support Tim DeChristopher, whom they know, because he took a selfless stand for our planet, for Mama Earth. He wanted to protect the polar bears, the ring-tailed lemurs, the humming birds and the tigers, as well as our air, our water, our mountains, our deserts – and all of the children of our earth, including them.
“But why Mama,” they asked, “must he protect the polar bears and hummingbirds?” While choking back tears, I quickly thought how do I respond to a question that is both epic and heart-wrenching and is sure to impact their future, but in terms they can understand? The swarthy villains of Disney films popped into my mind. “Girls, you know how so many Disney films, such as Aladdin, have a villain that will do anything for power and riches? Well, there are real-life villains in the world, such as Big Oil, who will do nearly anything to maintain their power and wealth. The Big Oil people are so greedy they would rather harm you, the polar bears, the hummingbirds and the air we all need to breathe, than to understand the harm they are doing and change their ways. Tim was very, very brave and stood up to them and their minions and said “No, you will not do this anymore.” Consequently, they arrested him and threw him in jail.” (Yeah, I know this is an oversimplification and that to some degree we are all complicit, but please understand the sophistication of my audience!)
My girls looked at me wide-eyed with a tinge of fear and confusion and asked, “But, why Mama? Tim was only trying to protect Mama Earth!” And I responded, “Because, they can.” Unfortunately, I explained, the Big Oil people have gotten so powerful and so rich that they now make most of the rules, just like the Disney villains – and all too often those who challenge them, are thrown into jail.
The girls were silent as they digested this obvious injustice. In our silence, we gathered our glitter decorated protest signs and headed to the courthouse.
When we arrived, the crowd outside was buzzing with energy, waving banners, dancing with a larger-than-life monarch butterfly puppet and singing along with folksinger Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) as he belted out another round of “Going to Jail for Justice.”
Peter Yarrow calls Tim “the Rosa Parks” of the Climate Justice movement – and rightfully so. Tim’s action of throwing a proverbial wrench into the routine process of leasing public lands to oil and gas companies for rock bottom prices, in order to call the entire process into question, will arguably be another defining moment of civil disobedience in American – and World — history.
Fate has an interesting way of placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations where they must make choices.
As a fellow activist also challenging the status quo–fighting for clean air for our children by founding UTAH MOMS FOR CLEAN AIR and joining MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE, and confronting head-on one of the world’s largest mining companies, Rio Tinto–I consider Tim an inspiration.
At the sentencing yesterday, U.S. District Judge Dee Bensen cited Tim’s speech in March, following his conviction, in which he implored others to keep challenging the status quo. In this speech, Tim said he would again “confront the system that threatens our future” — after a prison term if necessary.”
If not for that “continuing trail of statements,” Benson said, DeChristopher might not have faced conviction, let alone prison. “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad,” Benson said.
Yet, he handed down a two-year sentence in federal prison, to which Tim replied: “You have authority over my life, but not over my principles.”
Inadvertently, Judge Benson admitted Tim is a political prisoner. Tim is not being imprisoned for breaking the law, he is being imprisoned for being a rebel with a cause.
If I were his mama, I would be so proud.