“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
In December 2008, word got out about an illegal Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases for drilling near beautiful Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. The auction was Bush’s parting gift to his good friends in industry. Student Tim DeChristopher set out with the intention of physically disrupting the event, but as he walked through the door, he was taken by surprise when an attendant asked him if he was there to bid. “Why, yes, yes I am,” he answered, and the attendant gave Tim a paddle. In Tim’s words:
Once I was in there, I realized that any kind of speech or disruption wasn’t going to be very effective. But I saw pretty quickly how I could have a pretty major impact on the way this worked. It took me a little bit of time to build up my courage, knowing what the consequences would be —and then I started bidding and started driving up the prices. But I knew I could be doing more. So then I started winning bids, and disrupting it as clearly as I could.[ref]Democracy Now! “Posing as a bidder, Utah student disrupts government auction,” December 22, 2008.[/ref]
Tim won about a dozen lots in a row — until the auctioneer realized something was wrong, suspended the proceedings, and had Tim arrested.
After Obama took office, his administration investigated the auction for “irregularities,” and a federal judge cancelled the sales. Tim’s action — which singlehandedly saved many precious acres of Utah wilderness from destruction — stands out as one of the most inspired and successful acts of civil disobedience in recent history.
At his sentencing hearing, Tim addressed the presiding judge to explain his actions. He concluded his remarks with the following words:
I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing…You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.[ref]Tim DeChristopher, “I do not want mercy, I want you to join me,” Common Dreams, July 27, 2011.[/ref]
After reading his statement, Tim was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
Tim took bold and effective action, and then used the coverage and attention his act generated as a platform to both defend his action and call for bolder action by the climate movement in general. His closing statement to the judge, excerpted above, became a rallying cry for other organizing efforts — like the Tar Sands Action against the Keystone XL Pipeline later that year — and countless other acts of civil disobedience. Tim and his allies stood strong in defense of his actions, effectively demonstrating why civil disobedience was necessary to stop the climate crisis.
Tim intervened directly in the proceedings that would have sold off beloved public and to the oil companies. He hit upon an effective way to make sure the auction did not proceed (basically inventing a new kind of creative disruption on the spot), and then defended that action without compromise.
The case against Tim has provided him with a very large platform to call for further civil disobedience. Tim and his allies used every step of his case to attack the political system and economic interests that allow climate change to happen. His powerful final statement to the court, and the jail time he subsequently served, are the clearest examples of this.
Even when given the chance, Tim did not stand up and harangue the crowd of oil men, knowing such a crude disruption would be futile. Instead, he opted to do something seemingly compliant, but ultimately deeply disruptive: he played along with the bidding process until it became clear that he had no intention of paying for all the leases he’d won. Then he turned his attention to another, more dispersed audience: activists who would be inspired by his example, and the public whose sympathies could shift toward greater support for action on climate change see PRINCIPLE: Shift the spectrum of allies.