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Are You Willing to Go to Jail for What You Believe In?

Tim DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison for an environmental action, and he believes others will have to risk the same to protect the planet.

The words sent shivers down my spine. Last Thursday Tim DeChristopher stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City and told a large group of supporters: "We know that now I'll have to go to prison ... That's just the job that I have to do. ... Many before me have gone to jail for justice and if we are going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well."

In case you've missed the Tim DeChristopher saga, here's some quick background: In December 2008, DeChristopher, then a 27-year-old economics student at University of Utah, attended an auction hosted by the Bureau of Land Management to sell off oil and gas drilling rights on public lands. The leases up for auction were especially controversial since they were right near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. While a small group of protesters chanted outside, DeChristopher decided to go inside the auction, where he grabbed bidder's paddle number 70. In just a short time he snapped up 13 leases on 22,000 acres of land -- and "spent" $1.79 million he didn't have. When the carbon barons realized that the young man with the quick bidder's panel wasn't, in fact, an aspiring oil tycoon, the auction was shut down ... and Tim DeChristopher was arrested.

Last week, a jury of eight men and four women found him guilty of two felonies: making false statements and violating the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. DeChristopher now faces up to 10 years in federal prison and as much as $750,000 in fines. Given that the judge in the case, George H.W. Bush-appointee Dee Benson, has appeared unsympathetic to DeChristopher (the judge, for instance, wouldn't allow the jury to learn that Obama's Interior Department later invalidated the auction as an overreach by the outgoing Bush administration), it seems likely that DeChristopher will spend many years behind bars.

DeChristopher's creative courage in monkeywrenching the auction and his grace during the trial have galvanized environmentalists. Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, called DeChristopher "a hero in the long American tradition of the original Tea Party, the Underground Railroad, and the civil rights movement of breaking a law to highlight the fact that some laws fly in the face of a higher, shared moral principle."

In a statement released after the verdict, Rebecca Tarbotton, head of Rainforest Action Network, said: "If the government or the oil and gas industry think that today's verdict has intimidated or will silence people of conscience, they can think again."

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, wrote that actions like DeChristopher's are "what we need more of. More willingness to ... do civil disobedience on a mass scale, and I think we're going to have to."

The way in which DeChristopher has ignited inspiration among greens is impressive. But the enthusiasm leaves a crucial question hanging over the environmental movement: What would such mass civil disobedience look like? Or, more to the point: How many people are willing to follow DeChristopher to jail?

Such questions, it seems to me, are especially timely given the recent demonstrations of people-power in the Middle East and Wisconsin. The massive protests in Cairo and the marches in Madison have reminded the world that nonviolent civil disobedience works. Direct action can, at the very least, draw attention to an injustice; at its most powerful, it can topple governments. So what would it take to see that same kind of people-power translated to environmental concerns?

Comparing environmental activism with the pro-democracy wave in the Middle East or the populist revolt in the Midwest might be a stretch. In Cairo, people were willing to face down the truncheons of Mubarak's thugs because they were tired of their lives being controlled by a corrupt dictator. In Madison, the 24-hour vigils at the statehouse have been fueled by people's righteous indignation over the attack on their livelihoods and basic rights. For many, saving the polar bears doesn't exactly match up.

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