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If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

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I recently watched If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which came out last year. The film follows the story of Daniel McGowan, a radical member of the Earth Liberation Front. During the late 90s and early 00s, the ELF took to arson as a means of stopping companies and organizations it saw as destroying the environment of the American West. This included timber mills, SUV dealerships, and most famously, a ski resort in Colorado. McGowan was heavily involved in several of these actions and took the leading role in burning the offices of a tree farm the ELF believed was using genetically modified trees. It took years for the police to bust open this case (in fact, most of the arsons remain unsolved), but after nailing a ringleader in Eugene, Oregon, law enforcement arrested the Eugene cell. By this time, McGowan had quit the ELF, moved back to his home in New York, and was working for an organization fighting domestic violence while organizing nonviolent environmental rallies in New York. McGowan was arrested, tried to hold out against taking a plea deal, and finally agreed when he had no option. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison, received a “terrorism enhancement” sentence from the judge and was placed in the “Communication Management Unit” of a federal prison in Illinois, where he receives a single 15 minute phone call a week and a brief personal visit a month. He remains there today.

As an Oregonian who not only grew up in the middle of the spotted owl crisis but who writes on these issues (though not this specifically), I have deeply mixed feelings on the ELF and other environmental radical organizations. Some of these people were deeply committed activists, others were screw-ups who floated into the group because they had nowhere else to go. I don’t think arson was a good tactic, but I’m not opposed to it on theoretical grounds. I don’t see the endgame of the ELF resorting to it, but on the other hand, given what corporations have done to the planet, it’s hard to blame them for viewing radical violence as a logical answer.

It’s also important to place ELF actions in the context of police violence. We are beginning to have honest conversations about police violence again because of the awful responses to activists at Occupy protests. The protestor shot in Oakland, the pepper spraying at Davis, and the violence last weekend in Chicago reminds us that the police will use maximum violence against nonviolent protestors. In Oregon, environmental protestors faced this during the 1990s. The most powerful footage in the film wasn’t of clearcuts or McGowan’s discussion of his past. It was of the police doing horrible things to protestors. Pepper spraying protestors who were chained to objects in the eyes. Rubbing some kind of substance right on their eyeball. Cutting a man’s pants who was in a tree and applying pepper spray directly to his testicles. These are the actions that less fortunate Americans experience from police everyday and we don’t hear about it. Why police culture unleashes such horrible behavior on nonviolent people is probably better left for another post, but if you are an activist engaging in nonviolent protestor and you experience violence, it’s very easy to see why you would think that traditional means of protest are useless. This trajectory of radical activism is hardly unique to environmentalists; watching the film, you could have substituted some of the conversations for radical cells in the 60s anti-Vietnam movement or the Black Panthers.

Without question, the ELF did some really dumb things. They were central to the black bloc that took over the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, hijacking a well-planned protest to go break some Starbucks windows. They had no right to do that. Attacking small timber companies just seems pointless and stupid. The burning of the tree farm that McGowan helped execute was especially dumb considering that the farm had been sold to a new owner who stopped using GMO trees. If you are going to burn things, you’d better have your information correct!

The film itself does a good job giving voice to all sides. Marshall Curry, who also directed the outstanding documentary about Newark politics “Street Fight,” made the film; in fact, McGowan was working for his wife when he was arrested, providing Curry with an amazing opportunity. At the same time, he gave full voice to those negatively affected, such as the owner of a small timber outfit that ELF protestors burned, as well as the cops who investigated the case. Most of the other activists were unwilling to talk. Only Suzanne Savoie, who accepted a plea deal early on, spoke at length. Curry managed a brief interview with Jake Ferguson, the ELF member who rolled. A heroin addict and drifter, he didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the ELF ever knew what it was doing.

What really made me angry about the film was the concept of “ecoterrorism.” Such a thing can exist but the ELF were not ecoterrorists. They hurt no one. They specifically chose actions that would not cause damage to human life. When a few members did suggest upping the ante to target individuals, the entire group fell apart as most members, including McGowan, refused to even consider such a thing. To compare Daniel McGowan and Suzanne Savoie to Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh insults the intelligence of Americans. Yet the politics of terrorism are so politicized that so-called ecoterrorists get far more attention than right-wing loonies who actually could be terrorists. For example, the museum at the Oklahoma City National Memorial goes into all sorts of detail on domestic terrorism launched by radical environmentalists but says nary a word about the right-wing writers that influenced both Timothy McVeigh and the conservative wing of the modern Republican Party. It’s a sick joke. Burning an SUV dealership is not the same as flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Burning a sawmill is not the same as putting a truckload of explosives under the federal building in Oklahoma City.

And why is Daniel McGowan, a threat to no one, wasting away in a Communication Management Unit? When he gets out next year, will he still be sane? 7 years of almost solitary confinement? Savoie received 4 years in her plea agreement. For the first 3, she could not go outside. Why? What possible reason is there for this? It’s clear enough-these were people the Bush Administration could make examples of and distract Americans’ attention from their failures of stopping real terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the prosecutors notes in the film that nowhere in the terrorism laws does it say you have to harm people to be a terrorist. Of course–that’s because the government doesn’t want to define what is terrorism so it can charge anyone under these laws. They are a great threat to our already declining civil liberties.

Anyway, If a Tree Falls is a really fantastic, thought-provoking, and amazingly fair documentary about a controversial subject and I highly recommend it to anyone.

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