Sunday in the Park
July 29, 2011
In May of 1970, when I was a freshman in college, Kent State exploded. Students were protesting the Vietnam War — specifically Nixon’s invasion into Cambodia. The National Guard opened fire on them. Four students were killed. We fellow university students, at the University of Nevada at Reno, were shocked. So I (along with a hundred or so other students) followed my English professor onto the school grounds and we marched. My fiancé chose not to join us. The professor was fired for leading the march, our grades were withheld for months and downgraded because of our involvement. I got married a month later.
My mother called me during this time about my wedding plans and I said how saddened I was at the events at Kent State. My mother said this, exactly — that if I was out of class, protesting, instead of being in class where l belonged, she hoped the same thing would happen to me. That may have been the moment I nicknamed her Mean Jean.
I was thinking about all this during a conversation with a younger friend who was saying how dumb the protest had been this week in support of Tim DeChristopher. Tim was sentenced to two years in federal prison on Tuesday for trying to derail a Bureau of Land Management sale of oil and gas leases in Southern Utah back in December of 2008. My friend thought the whole idea of protesting was "dumb" and "wimpy" and a waste of time. I asked if he’d ever been part of protest and he admitted he hadn’t. I realized I was a dinosaur speaking to an app. Different time and language and species.
Tim protested the growing thoughtless violence against the environment by trying to draw attention to something others have named "Climate Justice." Caring about the actions of today that are affecting the climate of tomorrow. He did this not in a Monkey Wrench Abbeyesque style but rather a monkey business style. He did not destroy any property or steal anything or hurt anyone. He used his words, as any good parent/therapist might say. And that, according to federal Judge Lee Benson, is why he received the harsh sentence. Because after he was first arrested and then after he was convicted in April, he continued to speak out.
That would be his First Amendment right.
This same judge had already forbidden Tim to tell the jury why he had done what he had done, only how he done it. And the judge had instructed the jurors they couldn’t vote their conscience in this case but only vote on the exact facts as presented in the courtroom. They were not to think for themselves.
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At an appearance at a small event the Performing Arts Foundation held last month, this 29-year-old, who had completed his master’s program in economics, spoke plainly from his heart about what he did and how the court system treated this case. We knew his sentence could be up to $750,000 and ten years in federal prison. But we held out the hope that justice would be merciful for this first-time offender of a victimless, nonviolent crime.
Editorials and blogs cropped up across the country about the need for Tim to perform community service as opposed to prison time. As a thoughtful Unitarian, Tim could relate to being assigned to work on the land he had tried to block the sale of. He is an activist, not a criminal. Supporters from Bill McKibben to Robert Redford expressed outrage and hope for mercy from the court. But Tim was led out of the courthouse straight to jail this Tuesday, without the usual grace period of three weeks to put his affairs in order. Outside, his supporters protested, linked arms and 26 people were arrested for their nonviolent actions.
I was just sorry I hadn’t been one of them.
There is a movement afoot (with a website attached) called Peaceful Uprising. Besides Tim’s story there are others about coal mines in Virginia and tar fields in Montana and rising tides and rainforest lands the world over. When we think about legacy gifts to our children and grandchildren and our community, the stuff that will matter is to teach them to protect the planet.
Let Tim’s imprisonment serve some purpose. Add your voice to the cause. And reflect on your place on this small blue dot in the universe, maybe this very Sunday in the Park. …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
Last week, in an editing effort to make my words fit into the space provided, John and Kristi Cumming’s amazing organic farm, under the direction of Daisy Fair, became John Helton’s masterpiece artwork, the namesake of the farm, Copper Moose. We regret the error.