This morning, as I sat in the back row of the Salt Lake City federal courthouse listening to the opening arguments in Tim DeChristopher’s trial, I couldn’t help but think about the many freedom fighters of the past who have sat stoically behind the defense table watching the judge mete out their fate. Like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Cesar Chavez before him, Tim DeChristopher broke an unjust law to protect the rights of people and the planet.

Over two years ago, he entered a public lands auction, where dozens of oil and gas leases were being auctioned, some near the magnificent Arches National Park, and outbid mining company representatives, holding up a bidder paddle with the number 70 on it over and over, bidding up the plots. He had no intention of paying for the land.

The auction manager, fearing something was up, ended the auction early, and a few days later, the land sales were deemed illegal by the department of the interior because the plots had not been properly evaluated in terms of environmental impact. Though the auction was invalidated, the federal government decided it would prosecute Tim on two charges: for posing as a bidder in “good faith,” and for interfering with the auction by bidding up the price of the plots without the intent of making payment. None of the other bidders were indicted.

The prosecution’s opening statement this morning quickly brought up some of the key questions in this case, and even larger questions for our movement. The U.S. government attorney told the jury that “while lawfully protesting is a right,” what Tim did amounted to “a criminal form of activism,” and that by “posing as a bidder…and artificially raising the price, [he] sabotaged the auction.” The attorney went on: “This trial is not about the Bureau of Land Management and our energy policy; those will be debated in other forums.”

Sabotage? When I think about sabotage, I picture Wile E. Coyote setting a dynamite trap for the Road Runner, not a 27-year-old economics major holding up a paddle, trying to protect wilderness lands he loved.

The real sabotage in this case isn’t Tim’s effort to stop carbon from spewing into the atmosphere—it’s the inability of our elected officials to take any significant action on the major issue of our time: climate disruption. The melting Greenland ice sheet, droughts in the West and killer storms sabotage our families, our jobs and our future. Our addiction to coal, oil and gas has sabotaged the Gulf of Mexico, big chunks of Appalachia, and it has even sabotaged our democracy. Tim’s act of civil disobedience wasn’t a criminal form of activism—it was the only way he had to bring the issue of climate disruption to the fore, because it was not being debated in other public forums.

Yesterday, Tim’s friends and neighbors came together and stood outside the courthouse in the freezing cold for 10 straight hours. They came by the dozens, young and old, some from his Church, others his college classmates, standing for a safe and livable planet. They sang songs, entertained each other, planned out next steps for the movement, and showed that breaking the law (the march was unpermitted) isn’t a criminal form of activism if the laws themselves are unjust. This outpouring of support echoed across the country and around the globe, eliciting thousands of notes of encouragement, all standing for Tim.

That coal, oil and gas companies—those self-same same entities that pollute our water and air, and treat our atmosphere like an open sewer—are somehow entitled to buy the lands and burn fuel without prosecution, while Tim faces 10 years in prison, must be a mistake. These companies are polluting politics, with their campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures and blocking off any real debate on carbon pollution. Yet the federal courts take no notice of this more insidious kind of sabotage—instead they choose to intimidate a recent college graduate, his concerned church community, his friends, and the climate movement.

Though these companies and prosecutors might have money and power, they are missing these, more powerful things: courage and commitment, joy and resolve. Those standing outside the courthouse in Salt Lake City this week and the thousands more around the word with their eyes on Tim’s case know that our movement has power—even more power than intimidating prosecutors or corporate CEOs. We have the power of the people.

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