Civil Disobedience isn’t what it used to be

Back in 1846 Henry David Thoreau got himself thrown in Concord, Mass., jail because he refused to pay a poll tax which he said supported slavery. It was an act of conscience, and he got himself thrown in jail for a night until friends — much against his will — paid the tax for him.

Still, while in jail, he is said to have been visited by Ralph Waldo Emmerson, who asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” and Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

What indeed? If you are going to stand up for something, the idea is to remain standing.

Which brings us to the trial underway in SLC of Tim deChristopher, who is accused of messing up a BLM oil lease sale two years ago as an act of civil disobedience.

It’s a complicated situation. I agree the sale should not have gone on — the Bush administration was taking a last-gasp shot at making nice-nice with the oil industry — so I’m not really sad that deChristopher messed it up.

On the other hand, if he was engaged in a genuine act of civil disobedience, what’s he doing pleading innocent? His lawyer, Ron Yengich, in the first day’s questions, even seems to be laying a defense that the people running the auction are at fault because they didn’t stop the kid.


If he had any steel at all, deChristopher would just plead guilty, say he did it out of conscience, and go to jail. I actually think this would work in his favor — no judge wants to create a martyr, and if deChristopher went to jail for even a year, or a night, he’d be a better role model for civil disobedience.

As it is, if he does manage to weasel out by pleading it wasn’t really his fault, how does that look? There seems to be some feeling that he shouldn’t go to jail because he meant well and was really right, but sometimes being right and meaning well is precisely the reason you do go to jail.

More than one journalist has done time to protect a source.

People in Egypt and Bahrain and Lybia and Tunesia are dying in the streets for their civil disobedience.

In the US they’re lawyering up and claiming they’re not really guilty.

Heck of a breed of revolutionary we have in this country.

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10 Responses to Civil Disobedience isn’t what it used to be

  1. Marcy says:

    Though I am also of the thought that lawyers have created more than our fair shar elf mess, I can’t help but think about the effects going to jail has on a persons livelihood. I wholeheartedly agree that pleading guilty is the right thing to do, but when has doing the right thing, in our current society, paid the bills??

  2. Doug Gibson says:

    Completely agree with you, Charlie, on DeCristopher not being willing to accept the consequences of his act.

  3. Matthew says:

    Well said, Charlie. I’ve been arguing the same thing for quite a while about this case.

  4. Dan S. says:

    At the purely pragmatic level, if the goal is to draw public attention to the issue, then pleading guilty would be a bad strategy because it would get the whole thing over with much too quickly. This way there are many more opportunities to get the story told by the press (yes, that’s you, so it’s your fault!).

    Also, it seems that there’s a chance the jury will decide on a not guilty verdict because the auction itself was illegal. If it does, that would set quite a precedent so I don’t blame anyone for making the attempt.

  5. Charles Trentelman says:

    of course there’s always the possibility — and from reading the testimony of the guys watching deChristopher in action this may be the case — that he was just an idiot kid goofing around and got in over his head.

    Do you throw someone in jail for being stupid?

    That’s his problem: At this point, who’d believe him if he said that was what really happened? And if he came out and said he was just a jerk kid goofing around, he’d very quickly lose all his new friends in the environmental community. Everyone else already hates him, so he’d have no friends at all. Darryl Hannah would even quit hanging around.

    A good lesson in why, if you are planning to do civil disobedience, it is wise to ponder the consequences.

  6. I think Dechristopher stands to go to federal prison for this… little different than landing in the county jail for not paying a fine. Maybe we could pick on Thoreau for not doing something more bold and more disobedient. Or maybe the two situations just aren’t an apt comparison.

    I have a hard time criticizing the defense. If you feel, as Dechristoper did, that the sale should not have gone on, then my question is… what are you still doing out there, Waldo?

    • Charles Trentelman says:

      My name’s not Waldo, and I have no desire to go to jail over this issue, nor do I think it would accomplish anything if I did.

      I was unaware that it was an “either…or” situation — either you favor the land lease auction or you decide to disrupt it with civil disobedience and go to jail.

      We’ve got way too much of that sort of black/white thinking going on these days — there are other ways to oppose these things that might not be so satisfying in the moment, but can in the long run be more effective.

      Mr. deChristopher chose a way that risked jail. I’m willing to give him the benefit of being too dumb to realize what he was getting himself into, but if he’s going to insist (a) that he was doing this out of conscience and (b) should still get off, I think he’s being less than candid with us and himself.

      • Well the “not accomplishing much by going to jail” is among others on my list of arguments for keeping activism within the law. I’ve written about this before.

        I’m not saying you have to choose between going to jail and caring about something, I just don’t think your criticism of his defense is fair. The guy took a stand and if he has a defense, his cause (and I think we agree, it is a good cause) will be better served if he can remain free to fight for it.

        I think part of what he’s fighting for is the recognition that the auction wasn’t legal in the first place. If he can show that, then he wins, and we would have to question sending him to jail without putting the whole system on trial.

  7. Howard Ratcliffe says:

    Wisconsin is the birthplace of AFSCME a union of 1.6 million US Public Employees. This Dialectic sruggle affects all unionized US workers, not just public employees. One side supported by billionaire Koch Brothers American’s for Prosperity and Dick Armey’s Freedom Works who fostered the 1st Tea Party rebellion on April 15, 2009 and a George Soros financed arm of Freedom House USA.
    George Soros takes his marching orders from Zbigniew Brzezinski who wrote a book “The Grand Chessboard”. Revolution is his specialty; he likened nations falling as Dominoes. Looks like it’s our turn.

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