EF! Survives Agents of Repression
In liberation struggles all over the world, from Africa to East LA, you can trace the roots of conflict right back to the control of resources. The muted backdrop for every war, genocide and rights abuse is a living ecosystem that represents power and profits for a well-armed few and survival for the rest.
As the uncompromising ideals of ecosystem defense caught on and evolved, Earth First! became a truly revolutionary movement that fiercely contradicts the cornerstones of industrialism. If the land has as much right to exist as people, then capitalism, which is based on the ownership of resources and exploitation of people and the Earth, just can't function.
While it took Earth First!ers a few years to really put all of this together, the corporations and the secret police figured it out right away. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been keeping tabs on us since at least 1982, and the Forest Service has acres of files tracking EF!ers and their activities dating back even before that.
Moreover, the last two decades have seen the wise use movement, with groups like People for the USA, crop up with the backing of their corporate sponsors, determined to "eradicate the environmental movement." As with any effective grassroots effort, local law enforcement officers all over the country have turned themselves into a bunch of corporate thugs and FBI lackeys, jumping into the fray to beat, pepper spray and prosecute Earth First!ers from Tucson to Burlington. Their combined mission is to stop anyone who challenges the ability of corporations, the real ruling force in the US, to rape and plunder the last scraps of living Earth.
From almost day one, the feds were determined to undermine the Earth First! movement, illegally targeting activists for their free speech activities. The earliest FBI file on EF! that we know of, dated December 1982, is a report of a letter sent to then Interior Secretary James Watt vowing "civil disobedience" to stop mining, road building and oil exploration, signed by Earth First! It triggered an "extortion investigation" by the FBI, an early example of what was to become a multi-million dollar FBI counter-intelligence operation to stop Earth First! across the country. Another early FBI file notes that "as a matter of background, in 1967 an individual named Edward Abbey wrote a book called The Monkeywrench Gang.... Since that time the Earth First! organization has rallied around Edward Abbey and he is now associated with that organization."
The FBI is not actually allowed to investigate political groups in the US, just crimes. If someone in a group commits a crime, the group's other members are shielded by freedom of association. This is according to the Attorney General Guidelines (AG), the rules that are supposed to protect the rights of citizens. With Earth First!, as with many other political movements, the FBI simply ignored the limitations of the AG rules and went straight for the throat, trying to prevent the free speech activities of EF!ers.
The well-documented FBI assault on EF! includes surveillance, information gathering, infiltration, targeting of leaders and conspiracy to falsely arrest activists. But the most consistent tactic used is the false association of Earth First! activists with violence and terrorism, specifically bombs. Probably the most well-known example of this is the car bombing of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney in Oaklarid, California, in 1990. The FBI showed up at the scene and had the victims arrested for bombing themselves. A federal civil rights lawsuit against the feds is scheduled for trial on October 1, 2001. The false arrest of Judi and Darryl came on the heels of the FBI's "Operation Thermcon" in Arizona, which targeted Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman. Thermcon was an acronym short for "Thermite Conspiracy," which the FBI set about not to uncover but to create. Despite the use of an undercover agent and many informants, the FBI failed in its goal to get Arizona EF!ers to use the explosive Thermite to destroy a powerline.
This FBI effort to falsely associate Earth First!ers with bombs continued through the '90s. The most bizarre case was its feeble attempt to draw connections between Earth First! and the Unabomber. These stories turned out to be fabricated by the wise use movement, which tried to tie the anti-technology sentiments of the Unabomber Manifesto to the Earth First! movement. While there was never any relationship between EF! and the Unabomber, and Earth First! has never advocated bombs or bombings, the movement once again was branded as "terrorist" in the media and subjected to a whole new round of FBI investigation and harassment.
In 1998, the feds were at it again in Oberlin, Ohio, where they showed up to investigate the fire-bombing of an EF! activist's car. Even though Josh Raisler-Cohn had received many death threats aimed at his environmental organizing, the FBI tried to blame him for torching his car when he was asked to "answer a few more questions" a few days after the fire.
"The FBI agents sat me down at a table and said, 'You're on that side of the table, and I'm on this side,' Josh remembers, 'and we're also kind of on opposite sides in this situation."' "I said, 'What do you mean?"' "He said, 'Well, I'm a conservative, law abiding citizen, and you're on the opposite end of that political spectrum."' "I realized at that point this guy wasn't interested in investigating the crime."
Pro-industry groups and corporations have tried to stop Earth First! as well. They have built a national pseudo-grassroots movement--often called in the public relations world, "astroturf," because it mimics the behavior of an actual community movement. In the summer/fall 1992 Mendocino Environmental Center newsletter, Gary Ball writes in "Meet the Wise Use Movement":
"Environmentalist bashing and the rhetoric of war have been wise use movement (WUM) trademarks from the very beginning. Ron Arnold, one of the WUM's founders and most prominent spokespersons, says, 'Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement...' Arnold and his partner, Alan Gottlieb, are CEOs of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE) in Bellevue, Washington. CDFE is granted credit for launching the wise use movement... Amold is one of the most popular speakers on the wise use circuit, and his words often seem to be fueled with religious zeal. And perhaps they are, if money worship counts as a religion."
Classic wise use movement tactics include setting up local pro-business, anti-environmental groups, harassing environmentalists, and advocating the use of threats and dirty tricks against us. This was rampant during the Redwood Summer days in Northern California in 1990 and can also be seen in the Cove/Mallard campaign in Idaho. The wise use movement whips fear and hatred against Earth First!ers, which often erupts in violence against us. Its corporate sponsors include Pacific Lumber, Louisiana Pacific, Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, Macmillan-Bloedel, DuPont, Burger King, Coca-Cola and a host of other mining, oil and logging companies around the world.
A couple of years ago, one of the most active wise use groups, People for the West, changed their name to People for the USA. They remain among the most hateful and effective anti-environmental groups, and are currently waging campaigns against activists in Utah and Southern Oregon, as well as many others.
The wise use movement and FBI couldn't be nearly as effective without the help of local police, who have played an important part in the repression of Earth First! activists. Local cops are often the first line of defense. They are the law enforcement agencies who know the players in community political struggles, so the FBI goes to them for information. They are also the ones that activists turn to when they are being harassed and often do nothing to help stop it. In rural areas, local police agencies are usually tied to the dominant industry or corporation in the region, like Humboldt County's Sheriff Dennis Lewis, who testified during the notorious pepper spray trial that he has family members who work for Pacific Lumber Company and he once worked there himself.
Local cops play a key role in stirring up violence against Earth First!ers. When they ignore threats and violence against activists, it sends the message that corporate thugs can do whatever they want to eco-defenders and face no penalty. During the summer of 1998, incidents of violence against EF!ers in the redwood region were on the rise, and we were reporting them to the local sheriffs, who offered no help. The death of David "Gypsy" Chain is a result of this kind of negligence by local law enforcement. Even after Gypsy was killed on September 17 of that year by a logger who felled a tree in his direction during a nonviolent blockade, the district attorney of Humboldt County refused to prosecute, offering the observation in his report, "Sometimes people die."
What's even worse is when the local cops jump into the fray, as the Minnehaha Free State learned in December of 1998. Over 800 local police dressed in riot gear and wielding automatic and chemical weapons descended on the peaceful encampment to stop a road project in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can hardly expect protection from the same agency that would direct its deputies to smear pepper spray directly into the eyes of nonviolent protesters, as we have seen all over the country in ever increasing numbers. The real question is, who is going to protect Earth First!ers from the police?
If we take all this attention from the government as a sign of our effectiveness, then we are in good shape. There are a million and one more stories of police harassment and government repression aimed at Earth First!, far too many to relate here. There is an effort to compile a national clearinghouse of anti-environmental activities based in Boulder, Colorado. You can contact Betty at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center for more information at (303) 444-6981.
Alicia Littletree is an organizer with Mendocino Earth First!. She is currently working on Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney's federal civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland Police which will go to trial in October 2001.
© Earth First! Journal, November-December, 2000