I don't suppose very many people outside of Utah have even heard the name Tim DeChristopher, so I'd better provide some back story before this evening's rant begins.
It all started in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, December 2008, when Dubya authorized the BLM to auction off millions of acres of public land leases here in Utah -- some of which were uncomfortably close to the scenic landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks -- for oil and gas exploration. Many people, myself included, feel like the Bushies were trying to pull a fast one, handing their friends in the energy industry some prime real estate at dirt-cheap (so to speak) prices in a hastily organized deal while the rest of the country was distracted by the approaching spectacle of Barack Obama's inauguration. But some people noticed. And on the day of the auction, one of these people -- a 27-year-old economics student from the University of Utah named Tim DeChristopher -- decided to do something about it. He somehow got inside the auction and started bidding on parcels of redrock country himself. He later said his goal was simply to drive up the prices and make life a little uncomfortable for the energy-industry representatives in the room, but in a quirk of fate, he actually started winning auctions that he had no intention of paying for. He instantly became a hero to the environmental movement for successfully "monkey-wrenching" the corporations, and he later saw some vindication when the auction was ruled illegal because the proper protocols had not been followed, and most of the leases that had been
sold were rescinded. But of course there was a price to pay for daring to cross the powerful people: he was charged with two felony crimes related to his disrupting the auction.
Because of the nature of this state -- vast tracts of undeveloped land that are breathtakingly beautiful, surprisingly fragile, and geologically rich, all at the same time -- Utah is often ground-zero for big environmental battles. Huge swaths of Utah's territory are owned by the federal government, which generates much resentment in a largely conservative state that, frankly, doesn't have a lot going for it aside from lots of open space. People in the outlying and very desolate parts of the state crave the jobs that oil and gas fields, as well as various types of mining operations, would bring. But naturally those very same regions are the unspoiled wild places that environmentalists want to ensure remain unspoiled, essentially locked away from the locals who would tear them up in search of something of more tangible value.
With those kinds of tensions percolating through the atmosphere, it probably goes without saying that DeChristopher's trial generated a lot of emotion, and a lot of theater. And as it happens, I've been a witness to much of it, due to the fact that I work right across the street from the federal courthouse. The plaza just west of my building has hosted a number of big -- well, big for Utah -- rallies in support of DeChristopher, attracting heavyweights lefties like Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary; the actress Daryl Hannah; and Utah's own Terry Tempest Williams, an acclaimed naturalist and writer. It was all rather entertaining during the trial itself. But the fun ended this week, following DeChristopher's sentencing. (There was never any question he would be convicted, of course, not in this state. He may have been on trial in a federal court, but it was a federal court in downtown Salt Lake City, under the auspices of a judge who was born and raised here. And in this state, you do not cross Big Business or interfere with the free market and win your case. A casual glance at the comments in the Salt Lake Tribune suggest a not-insignificant percentage of Utahns would like to see him tarred and feathered. Of course, an also not-insignificant number of people would like to nominate him for sainthood. Utah also happens to share a lot of history with Edward Abbey, whose novel The Monkey Wrench Gang is said to have inspired radical environmentalism in the first place... yet another of those diametrical contrasts that make life here so interesting.)
DeChristopher was sentenced Tuesday to two years in a federal minimum-security prison as well as a fine of $10,000, which is surprisingly light in my opinion. Not because I think he deserved more, but because I expected the judge to throw the book at him. (The maximum sentence could have been a full ten years in prison.) His supporters on the plaza disagreed, however. They apparently thought he should've gotten simple probation. I've also heard they were angry because the judge hadn't allowed him to explain the necessity of his actions in order to do something to limit climate change. Whatever was motivating them, they were getting ugly by the time I got off work. And this is where my rant begins.
When I stepped out of my office that night, there was obviously something big going on.
The thump-thump-thumping of helicopter blades was echoing off the sides of the twin
Boston and Newhouse Buildings and I could hear shouting and drums as I
walked across the now-deserted plaza toward Main Street. The commotion
was coming from the protesters, of course, who'd abandoned the plaza and the front
steps of the courthouse and moved a bit south, into the
intersection of 4th South and Main Street. I thought at first they were
just gathered at the street corners, and most of them were, but as I
approached I saw what was causing the ruckus: a number of them had zip-tied
themselves wrist-to-wrist with each other and were sitting in a big
circle, right in the middle of the intersection. There were already
police on the scene, of course, and automobile traffic was being
diverted around the block. But in addition to blocking cars, they'd also brought Salt Lake's light-rail train -- the train I rely on to get home after work -- to a standstill. The tracks going north and south run right through that very same intersection. I could see three trains already idled at the station to the south of where the protesters had parked their butts, unable to continue north into downtown to drop their passengers. And trains headed south toward the suburbs couldn't get through either, which meant I was stuck in town until the transit authority figured something out, or the cops managed to pull the bongo-beating hippies out of the street.
Naturally I was pissed at being inconvenienced -- as fate would have it, I'd just suffered through an insanely hectic day and wanted nothing more than to get home and sit in a nice quiet room with a cool glass of something -- but the whole scene was also so astoundingly dumb that it stoked my anger even more. Honestly, what the hell did these bozos think they were going to accomplish by doing that? The judge isn't going to revisit DeChristopher's sentence, and DeChristopher has said all along that he's willing to take his medicine for what he did, so why couldn't these protesters accept the situation as well? And what possible sense does it make for environmental activists to shut down public transit? Stopping car traffic on a busy street makes sense to me on a symbolic level. But stopping the most practical alternative to their hated automobiles? Effectively punishing people who are already behaving the way the protesters claim they want people to behave? Stupid, just plain stupid. Antithetical to your cause, if not downright hypocritical. And ultimately self-defeating as well... this is no way to convert average citizens to your cause. In fact it's a good way to alienate people, like myself, who are basically sympathetic to your ideas but really don't need a ration of bullshit at the end of their long work days. I'm concerned about climate change and our nation's dependence on oil, too, and I frankly loathe the attitude, so common in this state, that basically says there's nothing wrong with raping the land every way to Sunday because, hell, it's ours to do with as we please, right? But let me tell you, faced with spending an indefinite amount of time stuck downtown after work, listening to your damn headache-inducing bongos and your chanting and your pointless exercises in grand futility... well, at that moment, I wished I'd driven to work that day so I could get away from you and get myself home in quick, carbon-spewing convenience and comfort. And I didn't feel the slightest bit of remorse about it either.
The truth is, these circus-like gatherings with the signs and effigies and costumes and outrageous stunts don't work. I didn't believe they worked even when I an impressionable college student younger than Tim DeChripstopher was when he walked into that auction. Somebody name me one protest since the early '70s that's accomplished anything; the media always covers them as if they're quaint little anachronisms, like a Renaissance Faire or something; passersby usually either just smile and keep walking, or they speed up to avoid having any contact with the protesters. Once in a while, someone will stop and pick a fight. But have protests in recent decades led to any mass movements? Did they manage to stop the Iraq War or the Gulf War before it or the invasions of Panama and Grenada before that? Have they prevented the continued erosion of our civil rights or environmental protections? No? So tell me whose minds are being changed or opened with all the silly hippie stuff. Sit-ins may have worked in the civil-rights days, but sometime during the Vietnam and Watergate days, I think the protest changed into something that was less about the issues and more about the protesters themselves. They're now about being seen and not being heard, about people having a tribe to affiliate themselves with, not about finding a way to genuine sway people's opinions about important issues.
As it turned out, I was only delayed a half-hour or so before the transit authority figured out they could just reverse the trains that had come in from the south. But I had a glowing ember of anger and disgust sitting right behind my eyes for the rest of the evening. I doubt that's what the protesters were hoping for, but in the end, that's about all they managed to accomplish...