A Letter From Prison: Tim DeChristopher Speaks Out

h/t AlterNet

What one person can do is to plant the seeds of love and outrage in the hearts of a movement,” writes DeChristopher.

The following text appeared in a handwritten letter from Tim DeChristopher addressed to Grist’s Jennifer Prediger.

If I had ever doubted the power of words, Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month. When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he admitted my offense “wasn’t too bad.” The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my “continuing trail of statements” and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been avoided. In fact, 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.

Since that seems like such a good deal, some people are asking why I wasn’t willing to shut my mouth and take it. But perhaps we should be asking why the government is willing to make such a deal. The most recent plea bargain they offered me was for as little as 30 days in jail. (I’m writing this on my 28th day.) So if they wanted to lock me up for two years, why would they let me walk for an apology and keeping my mouth shut for a while? On the other hand, if they wanted to sweep this under the rug, why would they cause such a stir by locking me up? Why do my words make that much of a difference?

With all criminal cases, of which 85 percent end in a plea bargain, the government has a strong incentive to avoid a trial: In addition to cutting the expense of a trial, a plea bargain helps concentrate power in the hands of government officials.

The revolutionaries who founded this country were deeply distrustful of a concentration of power, so among other precautions, they established citizen juries as the most important part of our legal system and insisted upon constitutional right to a jury trial. To avoid this inconvenience, those seeking concentrated power free from revolutionaries have minimized the role of citizens in our legal system. They have accomplished this by restricting what juries can hear, what they can decide upon, and most importantly, by avoiding jury trials all together. It is now accepted as a basic fact of our criminal justice system that a defendant who exercises his or her right to a jury trial will be punished at sentencing for doing so. Transferring power from citizens to government happens when the role of citizens gets eliminated in the process.

With civil disobedience cases, however, the government puts an extra value on an apology. By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no matter how small. To regain that tiny piece of authority, the government either has to respond to the activist’s demands, or get the activist to back down with a public statement of regret. Otherwise, those little challenges to the moral authority of government start to add up.

Over the last couple hundred years of quelling dissent, the government has learned a few things about maintaining power. Sometimes it seems that the government has learned more from our social movement history than we as activists have. Their willingness to let a direct action off with a slap on the wrist while handing out two years for political statements comes from their understanding of the power of an individual. They know that one person, or even a small group, cannot have enough of a direct impact on our corporate giants to really alter things in our economy. They know that a single person can’t have a meaningful direct impact on our political system. But our modern government is dismantling the First Amendment because they understand the very same thing our founding fathers did when they wrote it: What one person can do is to plant the seeds of love and outrage in the hearts of a movement. And if those hearts are fertile ground, those seeds of love and outrage will grow into a revolution.

UPDATE: Tim’s previous mailing address at the Davis County Jail is no longer valid. He is currently in transit to Herlong Federal Prison in Northern California. As soon as there is a new mailing address it will be posted at Bidder70.org and Peaceful Uprising.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on August 31, 2011 - 11:17 am

    It’s clearly against the Constitution to throw anybody in prison for advocating a change in government policy. What’s truly amazing is that Judge Benson admitted that was why he sentenced Tim DeChristopher to serve two years.

  2. #2 by cav on August 31, 2011 - 12:03 pm

    You can jail a revelationary, but you can’t jail a revelation!

  3. #3 by cav on August 31, 2011 - 12:15 pm

    Tim’s in jail for bidding to protect the envoronment and not being contrite, while everything Dick Cheney wanted to do, he did, including getting himself a dark heartbeat away from the Big Button in the first place.

    He sent Jim Baker to steal the election, and he did just that.

    He lied us into starting a war for greed and power, and the country fell for it.

    He demanded to keep damning records from the public, and we let him.

    He consolidated an imperial executive along with his ward that brushed aside objections from the other branches of government, with impunity.

    He returned the security state to its former glory and beyond, with increased funding that flows to his buddies.

    He wrecked the ability of the government to provide for the hated common welfare.

    And he got away with it with no punishment, and no one chasing him when he left town. in fact, in some sick circles, he’s somewhat of a star.

    Cheney and his crew won – did very well for themselves, and furthered the precedence set when Ford pardoned Nixon.

  4. #4 by Richard Warnick on August 31, 2011 - 12:39 pm

    And you could add, where was the Obama administration rollback of the expansion of executive power? Didn’t happen. President Obama couldn’t even withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. We’ve still got 46,000 soldiers there.

  5. #5 by cav on August 31, 2011 - 5:29 pm

    Bradley Manning – another message prisoner of the present administration.

    Surely there are others.

  6. #6 by Larry Bergan on September 2, 2011 - 8:08 pm

    Great letter from Tim. What did he have to be contrite FOR! He, no doubt has increased the power of the protest against the pipeline from Canada through his selfless act for our future.

  7. #7 by Sadie on September 9, 2011 - 3:28 am

    Such good words of fact and observation from everyone already on this Comment. There is a petition out to prosecute Dick Cheney and G W Bush as war criminals. I agree that Tim’s imprisonment assisted support and understanding in the deeper meaning if the pipeline is allowed – it is amorality, selfishness, short sighted egotism that rules the world.
    There is no ‘majesty’ remaining in law courts any longer wherever that court is in the West. Wrongly managed imprisonment, wrongly applied levels of punishment, old laws that in 21st Century inapplicable, regularly apparent the the Courts politically influenced despite the Presider has taken oaths that they be independent.

    Listening to something on the News last night made me think that this year there is a coming together of many environment, ecological issues … enabled by the internet – Nuclear, oil, coal, mining, whaling, water pollution, dams, marine life, types of fishing etc and the politicians are scared. They see the power going from them pontificating in a Club called some posh name ! and often more intelligent, insightful people taking the rug from under their feet and desperation makes a bully and this is why Tim is in prison and not probation and why others have had wrongly applied rules or over zealous practice.

  8. #8 by Larry Bergan on September 9, 2011 - 2:33 pm


    I believe you are right about them being scared. Clamping down on the innocent is not helping them.

  9. #9 by Rico on December 17, 2011 - 9:20 am


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