Why was a climate activist persecuted, but the Bundy militia shown patience?

Tim DeChristopher speaking at the 2011 Power Shift, shortly before being sentenced to two years in prison. (Flickr / Linh Do)

Tim DeChristopher speaking at the 2011 Power Shift, shortly before being sentenced to two years in prison. (Flickr / Linh Do)

When activist Tim DeChristopher sabotaged a December 2008 Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, oil and gas auction by bidding on thousands of acres of land he had no intention of paying for, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison, a three-year probation and a $10,000 fine. Since Saturday, an armed militia has occupied BLM facilities on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, and the BLM’s reaction, so far, has been comparatively subdued.

On Sunday, DeChristopher weighed in on Twitter suggesting the Oregon uprising is a result of the federal government’s capitulation two years ago, when Cliven Bundy threatened to go to war with the government in order to continue using public lands for cattle grazing. “The Bundy Klan pointed loaded weapons at government officials … and faced no consequences,” DeChristpher said. Today, Bundy’s sons are leading participants in the militia’s occupation.

As depicted in the documentary “Bidder 70,” the BLM didn’t “play along” once it was obvious DeChristopher’s paddle was buying up every parcel offered at the oil and gas auction. The auction was stopped and federal agents swiftly took DeChristopher into custody, and he was charged with two felonies three days later. In Oregon, the federal government has closed the Malheur Refuge, effectively providing the militia privacy, on federal public land. Now, in Oregon, unlike in DeChristopher’s auction, the BLM is not intervening to stop a protest, but merely monitoring the situation.

While both conflicts revolve around the BLM’s handling of federal land, DeChristopher’s intentions were quite distinct from the militias. In the last days of the Bush administration, the BLM had quietly attempted to privatize 22,500 acres of federal land, through a discrete auction held the Friday before Christmas. Much of that federal land surrounded Utah’s Arches National Park. DeChristopher showed up at that auction, took a paddle, and pretty much thwarted that scheme. A judge would later rule the auction was illegal, and some of the parcels that DeChristopher “won” would remain federal land. DeChristopher’s intention was to preserve federal public property for public use.

The militia’s intention seems less about preserving federal property for public use, and more about preserving it for the private use of ranchers, or the militia group itself. In fact, the militia appears to be seizing the Malheur Refuge and its buildings and facilities. The Bundys told the Oregonian, “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely.”

The militia’s occupation followed a Saturday protest of a federal judge’s sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond, ranchers convicted three years ago of arson for fires lit in 2001 and 2006. The Hammonds claim they lit the fires to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species, but the BLM argued that the Hammonds were destroying evidence of poaching. Although both arsons occurred years before DeChristopher’s auction incident, the father has served only three months in prison, and the son has served only one year. DeChristopher served 21 months.

DeChristopher was armed with a paddle, a weapon of principle. The militia that has seized the Malheur Refuge is armed with pistols and long rifles — weapons of war.

Some are debating why the media isn’t labeling the militia members as terrorists. That criticism is rooted in a collective gut feeling among progressives that hypocrisy is at play, and it certainly is. However, the government’s reaction also shows how much more dangerous it views creative nonviolent direct action.

While some may want to see the government storm the refuge, and solve its hypocrisy problem, there’s another takeaway. In the future, the federal government should exercise as much patience, if not more, with protesters armed with paddles as it exercises with armed militias seizing federal property for their private use.