The “Case” Against Rod Coronado:
The federal government has been salivating to put Rod Coronado back in prison since he got out in 1999 and later refused to repent for his role in a 1992 arson at a Michigan State University animal research lab. Federal officials have publicly branded Coronado as a leader of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), even though the ALF is apparently non-hierarchical. However, he has been an unabashed advocate of property destruction in defense of animals, and the new charge against him—for delivering a speech three years ago in which he explained how the incendiary devices used in the Michigan arson were made—is a flimsy pretext to punish him for his radical views.
The government's targeting of Coronado is part of a broader witch hunt against radical environmentalists and self-identified "green anarchists"—those who merge ecology, animal rights and anarchism into a vision of freedom and sustainability for all living beings. After Coronado's arrest, US Attorney Carol Lam stated in an official press release, prejudging the case for the public: "Teaching people how to build explosives in order to commit violent crimes is unacceptable in civilized society. There is no excuse for it." And so, through sophistry and syllogism, the government has transformed speech into violence.
On December 13, Coronado was convicted in Arizona for peacefully attempting to disrupt a US Forest Service mountain lion hunt (see EF!J March-April 2006). After Coronado's conviction, Assistant US Attorney Wallace Kleindienst told reporters that Coronado is "a danger to the community. ... I know he wasn't tried here for being a violent anarchist. This trial wasn't about Rod Coronado being a terrorist, but he is one." Kleindienst thus revealed the government's two ulterior motives for going after Coronado: One, it has a vendetta against him personally, and two, it has quietly embarked on yet another war against an abstract concept—anarchism.
The new case against Coronado is as stark an attack on free speech as this country has ever seen. Measured against any historic test of free expression, Coronado's behavior—that is, his speech—was alarmingly protected and uncriminal.
On July 30, 2003, persons unknown torched an apartment complex under construction in San Diego, California, causing millions of dollars in damage. The day afterward, Coronado flew to San Diego to lecture at a previously scheduled event. In response to a question from an audience member, Coronado—who has been a public figure on the environmental lecture circuit since his release from prison— demonstrated how someone had constructed a non-explosive, incendiary device out of a plastic jug filled with gasoline to commit the Michigan arson for which he did his time. The government does not suspect, and has not accused, Coronado of any involvement in the fire set the day before his speech.
The Supreme Court has carved out three famous exceptions to free speech: the "fighting words" exception (Chap-Hnsky vs. New Hampshire), the obscenity exception (Miller vs. California), and the "clear and present danger" exception (Brandenburg vs. Ohio). However, each exception is extremely limited. As Justice William Brandeis eloquently wrote in 1927: "Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech.... It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.... No danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.... The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
But playing "gotcha," the government has charged Coronado under an obscure, anti-First Amendment law that makes it "unlawful for any person to teach or demonstrate the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device or a weapon of mass destruction... with the intent that it be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a federal crime of violence." This law has yet to be challenged on constitutional grounds.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) reportedly has used this law only four times—twice now against dissidents. In 2003, Sherman Austin, the then-20-year-old founder of the anarchist website www.raisethefist.com, pleaded guilty to it in order to avoid a possible 20-year sentence just for hosting and linking to another website on his server, which provided crude, Anarchist Cookbook-style information on bomb-making (see EF!J November-December 2005). The same information is widely available elsewhere. Austin otherwise had nothing to do with the site he linked to. But according to the government's theory of the case, Austin's anarchist beliefs and the political content of his website furnished the requisite intent. Thus, the government substituted other speech for intent, thereby nullifying the only part of the statute that required something more than mere speech. Austin served one year in prison. So much for the First Amendment.
The arrest of Coronado occurs in the midst of a new Green Scare, in which the FBI would have us believe that eco-saboteurs—who engage in property crimes such as arson and vandalism, and studiously avoid causing injury to people—constitute "the number one domestic terrorism threat," as FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism John Lewis told a Senate panel on May 18, 2005. Apparently, according to the FBI, the threat is greater than that posed by neo-Nazis, systemically brutal and racist police forces or Al-Qaeda.
Since then, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces—multi-agency units operating out of every FBI field office— have mercilessly harassed numerous environmental and animal rights activists by conducting paramilitary-style raids on their homes; seizing computers, papers, photos and other personal belongings; subpoenaing scores of people to grand jury inquisitions; engaging in electronic surveillance; dispatching informants to demonstrations; and even planting informants in people's homes.
In January, the DOJ unsealed a 65-count indictment against 11 alleged eco-saboteurs (the number has since grown to 15) accused in a series of arsons committed under the banner of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Even though the ELF disavows violence and no one was hurt, the government has branded them terrorists, thereby cheapening a term that, by its very mention, affects policies and budgets. In some cases, the DOJ is seeking life terms for the young activists, while the same crimes, if committed to defraud insurance, would land them a few years in prison.
The Green Scare picks up where the Red Scare left off—with the FBI bruised and reprimanded by Congress for engaging in illegal break-ins, wiretaps, frame-ups and even assassinations of members of targeted political continued from previous page groups. Now, Congress is the enabler of such FBI dirty tricks, not so much legalizing them as laundering them through the passage of flagrantly unconstitutional laws like the USA PATRIOT Act—reauthorized by Democrats and Republicans alike—and the looming, retroactive legalization of the National Security Agency's illegal domestic spying program.
Both the Red Scare and the Green Scare fuel and are fueled by a hysterical hatred for a broad political philosophy—communism, and now anarchism—caricatured as a tangible threat casting its shadow over the land. Thus, anarchists—a diverse group of people from all walks of life, who generally agree that most government structures are repressive, that people shouldn't be greedy and that we should support one another—are reductively drawn as bomb-throwing lunatics. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Noam Chomsky, who has lobbed many books at the public, is an anarchist. George Orwell was one too.
Also in January, with the arrest of three suspected eco-saboteurs in Auburn, California, the FBI revealed that it is investigating the "anarchist movement," writ large. Special Agent Nasson Walker disclosed in an affidavit that the FBI had embedded a paid informant with the suspects, recruited when she was only 18 or 19. The FBI had dressed her up as a medic and dispatched her to participate in numerous peaceful, large-scale protests. Needless to say, most if not all of the people she interacted with (politically organized with, treated medically and lived with) were not plotting crimes of violence or sabotage. Yet the FBI can claim—with a whiff of legitimacy, even—that it has the right to engage in such intimate espionage and dragnet-style policing because ex-General John Ashcroft relaxed the Attorney General Guidelines to permit widespread snooping. Originally created to protect the public from repressive tactics after the exposure in 1971 of its COINTELPRO operations, the guidelines now permit the FBI "to go anywhere the public can go" in Ashcroft's words, without any foundation of suspicion that a crime is afoot. Undoubtedly, the FBI did not blow "Anna" the informant's cover without leaving other agents in the field... and in political meetings, in decision-making positions in groups and in people's homes.
Agent Walker's affidavit is further revealing of the FBI's backslide into politically motivated investigations. It references "anarchist" or "anarchism" 26 times in its mere 14 pages. In it, Standing up for people's rights of free expression, whether one agrees or disagrees with the message, is fundamental to a free society. the FBI seems obsessed with the anarchist "lifestyle," anarchist literature and anarchist gatherings. These invocations of dread anarchism add nothing to the scales of probable cause. It is elemental that a person is not guilty by association to an unpopular (or popular) cause. But as a public relations move—in seeking more constitutionally suspect laws, higher bails, more warrants, longer sentences and a bigger chilling effect on progressive activists—the government's projection of a giant anarchist menace is highly effective.
On January 13, the FBI's David Picard plainly admitted on network television that the FBI is again investigating an entire ideology as if it constitutes, a domestic security threat. "One of our major domestic terrorism programs is the ALF, ELF and anarchist movement," he said. "And it's a national program for the FBI." Then, on March 9, FBI Agent G. Charles Rasner revealed at a speech in Texas that Food Not Bombs, Indymedia and "anarchists" are on an FBI "terrorist watch list."
Against this backdrop, it is clear that Arizona Assistant US Attorney Kleindienst, who labeled Rod Coronado a "violent anarchist," was not just spouting personal invective. He was reading from the official program.
Standing up for people's rights of free expression, whether one agrees or disagrees with the message, is fundamental to a free society. As Chomsky put it in Manufacturing Consent, "If you believe in free speech, then you defend speech that offends you, because to only defend speech that you agree with is a function of the commissars of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany."
To convict Rod Coronado, prosecutors will have to prove that his demonstration created a "clear and present danger" that it would be used toward violent ends, and that he intended as much. In a rational setting, this should not be easy. Coronado's audience probably was not comprised of glazed-over Manchurian candidates, determined to and capable of going out and making violent revolution—if ever such a group existed. Moreover, the construction of an incendiary device from readily available materials, such as a plastic jug and gasoline, hardly constitutes an arcane science. If the term "destructive device" includes items so simple to construct, it might turn out to be too vague to satisfy constitutional due-process standards.
What we know for sure is what the government has already told us: This trial isn't about Rod Coronado being a terrorist. The other thing we know for sure is that while real environmental terrorism goes unabated, forests recede, species go extinct, ice caps melt, and the sea levels continue to rise.
Ben Rosenfeld is a civil rights lawyer in San Francisco, California, and a board member of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon. He was one of the members of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney’s legal team.
© Earth First! Journal May-June 2006