At the Unitarian Universalist church in Park Forest, every month there is a movie night, where there is a movie chosen from various topics such as environmental issues, food and nutrition, or political issues both internal and global.
One of the last movies to be shown for 2013 was shown in October and that was Bidder 70. Federal land was essentially being gifted to energy and mining industries by the Bush Administration without any appropriate environmental impact study. A college student named Tim DeChristopher went to the essentially illegal auction of federal land in 2008 and decided to be a cog in the wheel by bidding $1.7 million for a parcel of 22,000 acres on which he had no intention to drill, and of course no intention of paying for. It was an act of civil disobedience for which he ended up going to federal prison for which he ended up serving 21 months in federal prison.
The purpose of the film was to explain Tim DeChristopher’s motivations for doing what he did, and to show this act of civil disobedience not only affected others, but how it affected his own life’s journey after he left prison.
1. Environmental awareness
Tim DeChristopher went to school in Utah, but grew up in West Virginia, where he saw his hometown and others like it destroyed by mountaintop removal mining. This led him to be aware of the government’s role, not in protecting the welfare of all its citizens, but in protecting the interests of corporations in the extractive industries of coal, oil, and natural gas extraction.
My own personal view is that the government does a role in protecting certain rights of corporations, such as property rights, but when the government takes resources from the public commonwealth and then gives them over to corporations without sufficient compensation for a) the value of those resources or b) the costs borne by the commonwealth due to the environmental impact of extracting, refining, or (in the case of greenhouse gases) of consuming those resources, then the government is no longer taking a neutral, balanced role but is forming a partnership with those corporations at the expense of the commonwealth.
In the case of the illegal auction cited above, it had become common practice for the Bureau of Land Management to take volunteers from the oil and gas industry to process those permits for land going to auction. When Tim DeChristopher tried to introduce a “necessity defense” at his trial, the Judge refused to let the jury know that the reason he did the illegal act of fraud was to expose a bidding process which was itself illegal.
2. The Accidental Activist
One thing I learned in the film that was not reported in the media coverage at the time was the fact that Tim had no intention of going to the auction to participate in it illegally. What happened was, he went to attend the auction as a spectator, but someone who was organizing the auction apparently thought from his short haircut that he was one of the bidders, and they just assumed that he was a bidder, and was designated “Bidder 70”, which is where the title of the film comes from. He then had to think on the spot and decided to go along with the ruse. When he saw that parcels of land were being given over for much less than they were worth, he made the next leap of faith and decided to bid on them in an attempt to prevent their sale.
So in terms of the outward unfolding of events, it appears he was an “accidental activist,” but when you listen to Tim DeChristopher’s story, it was as if his whole life had been leading up to that point. In any case, when it came to light that he was not in fact a legitimate bidder, he was arrested for fraud.
3. The Aftermath
The real world result, however, was that because of DeChristopher’s actions, national attention was paid to the illegal government auction of public land leases in a “fire sale” during the last days of the Busy administration. According to the 02/05/2009 article in the New York Times, this led to the cancellation of the leases for drilling on 77 parcels of public land in Utah.
4. The Trial
According to Tim DeChristopher, it was important for him to highlight the fact that what he did, at least in his own mind, was an act of civil disobedience that drew attention to legalized injustice being done by the Bush Administration. In his closing statement, he said, “You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine alone.” I think Henry Thoreau would have been proud.
5. The Transformation
After leaving federal prison in April 2013, Tim DeChristopher stated his intention to enter Harvard Divinity School and become … a Unitarian Universalist minister. That was particularly poignant for us sitting there at a Unitarian Universalist church watching the film.
The film to me showed what motivates someone to do something which is technically illegal, but which serves a just cause. Who decides what is just and what is legal? “Just” is a conviction based on personal principles but “legal” is a concept that is constructed by the society at large. The larger principle of the American Revolution that the government was created with the consent of the governed justified, for those participating in it, the fact that it was, from the standpoint of the British government, tantamount to treasonous rebellion.
If our government has forgotten its own rebellious beginnings, let them remember the words of John Adams, who wrote in a letter dated 10/12/1755 to his classmate Nathan Webb: “If we look into history, we shall find some nations rising from contemptible beginnings and spreading their influence, until the whole globe is subjected to their ways. When they have reached the summit of grandeur, some minute and unsuspected cause commonly affects their ruin, and the empire of the world is transferred to some other place.”