Activists rallying outside of monkeywrencher Tim DeChristopher’s sentencing hearing were jubilant but determined, singing songs and dancing. But when DeChristopher’s sentence was announced, ralliers blockaded the courtroom steps, declaring it now “the people’s court.”
From the view outside the courtroom, it was an emotional day for the 100-150 ralliers yesterday outside the Federal Courthouse. Leading up to the announcement, speakers gave talks over a megaphone and sang songs accompanied by guitar and drums. A more than 10-foot-tall paper sculpture of a sandhill crane overlooked the assembly, and members wore orange sashes and carried signs reading “Be Bidder 70” and “Injustice for One is Injustice for All”.
One member of Peaceful Uprising—the activist group co-founded by DeChristopher—came out to report from the proceedings inside, to note it was the first time DeChristopher had to meet his prosecution and to speak directly with a judge. She says he told him that it was not that he “does not respect the law, but that he has a higher respect for justice.” DeChristopher, inside the courtroom at sentencing, was allowed a final statement and the prosecutionalso got to offer a final statement to Judge Dee Benson.
DeChristopher had been found guilty of two felonies in March for disrupting an oil- and gas-lease auction in late 2008. DeChristopher had sneaked into the auction and won bids on $1.8 million worth of land parcels before he was stopped and arrested. By crossing the picket line then to disrupt a late Bush-era auction, DeChristopher threw himself into the spotlight to become a new rock star of the environmental movement. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar even decided to cancel the sales from the lease auction that DeChristopher had sabotaged. But yesterday, it seems DeChristopher also attained a certain level of martyrdom for his cause, being sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In a Salt Lake Tribune article, Judge Benson explained the sentencing by saying the offense itself wasn’t terrible, but that there was more to consider than just that. “I’m not saying there isn’t a place for civil disobedience,” Benson said, “but it can’t be the order of the day.” Outside the courtroom, the crowd struggled to hear activist Henia Bellalia announce the sentence as she fought back tears. The festive spirit of the crowd that had been dancing and shouting “We love Tim!” moments before became angry and emotional.
“Consider this your call to action,” Bellalia said. “Our hearts are broken today, our hearts are broken to see a charismatic, bright, concerned man who cares about the next generation being incarcerated and treated like a criminal. “But if there was ever a day, if there was ever a moment in history for us to stand up for climate justice, this is that moment. We will not stop, we will not be intimidated.”
No sooner had she said this than protesters began distributing zip-ties, and linking themselves together and blocking the courthouse steps. Ashley Anderson, a founding member of Peaceful Uprising blockaded the north entrance to the court, saying, “We are the justice system, as we should be. The court is not operating today.”
As many as 20 police officers and security personnel kept a tense eye on the situation but moved slowly in acting against the protesters, even after the throng moved from the steps to block the TRAX line at the intersection of 400 South and Main Street.
Activists on Twitter had rationalized the move, citing the light-rail as still being dependent on fossil fuel energy, while others questioned why environmental activists would block public transit.
The move did achieve the desired effect, causing a train to stop, police to secure the perimeter, and the media to swarm around the activists with cameras, microphones and even a helicopter overhead. It was also a diverse crowd of onlookers and supporters in attendance. Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott attended the rally. One man, who was later arrested, had driven down with four others from Telluride, Colo. A student from Rhode Island gave water to zip-tied protesters.
The protesters would later be arrested, some taken away singing; one woman carried away because she would not stand and walk for police. Still, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank felt the protest was dealt with appropriately. “It was the way an event like this should be handled,” Burbank said. “They got their message across; unfortunately, we had to make an arrest because we couldn’t allow them to block the intersection any longer.”
Ashley Sanders, an activist among the group, spoke moments before she and 25 others were arrested for failure to disperse, unlawful assembly, and blocking an intersection with their protest. She expected that arrests might happen but was surprised how many decided to join her and others in facing arrest to protest the sentencing -- proof, she says, that if DeChristopher’s harsh sentence were meant to deter future action, it failed.
“We we’re hoping that by coming out and imploring people and speaking to their consciences they would do what was right,” Sanders said. “So this is a testament to how many people think this is wrong.”