Tim DeChristopher is the only person to have been named an Utne Reader visionary while in prison: He’s serving a two-year sentence for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in Utah in an act of environmental protest.
One reason I nominated DeChristopher as a visionary is because he became a hugely inspirational figure to other environmentalists as he wrote and spoke about his principled act of civil disobedience right up until he was led to his cell. But make no mistake: He is in prison mainly because he dared to continue speaking out.
Utah environmentalist and author Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Progressive about the farcical nature of DeChristopher’s four-day trial, which she attended along with a legion of other supporters:
It was a shattering display of politics on the bench, beginning with jury selection. The judge [Dee V. Benson] delivered a lengthy lecture on the importance of impartiality, after which he said to the entire jury pool, “And there should be no discussion between you and the ‘kumbaya’ crowd in the courtroom.” …
But the most egregious remarks were made by Judge Benson himself during the sentencing hearing.
He reprimanded DeChristopher for speaking out after his conviction in March. He stated that DeChristopher might not have faced prosecution, let alone prison, if it were not for that “continuing trail of statements.”
This “continuing trail of statements” is called freedom of speech, your honor, not “anarchy.” The criminal is not DeChristopher but our justice system.
Judge Benson actually stated during the sentencing hearing, “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad.”
DeChristopher himself, in an August letter from prison published by Grist, showed that he understood all too clearly the connection between his ongoing outspokenness and his sentence:
Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that’s why most activist cases end in a plea bargain.