December 17, 2006
By Dan Berger
One of the biggest post-9/11 criminal cases involves the prosecution of fourteen radical environmentalists on a slew of charges for property destruction, mainly arson, and conspiracy. The actions for which they are accused occurred date back as far as 1996 and include the multi-million dollar destruction of a Vail ski lodge expansion in 1998. No one was hurt in any of the actions, which were claimed by the Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front, or jointly by the equally shadowy and decentralized groups.
The FBI swooped up the defendants in December 2005 in multi-state raids the government dubbed Operation Backfire. This massive operation targeting the awkwardly named phenomenon of eco-terrorism—but which environmentalists and civil libertarians are dubbing the Green Scare—is at the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s assault on domestic dissent under the auspices of fighting terrorism. The terrorism these defendants are accused of, like other eco-militants arrested in recent years, has targeted the property of large corporations to the tune of more than $100 million—done intentionally without harming anyone.
Yet because the T-word is attached to the case, people are facing more severe punishments than they might otherwise face for property destruction—including the possibility of life in prison. Indeed, six of the fourteen pled guilty shortly after their arrest in exchange for reduced—but still lengthy—sentences. Part of their plea agreement, however, mandates that the half-dozen eco-militants cooperate with the state in ongoing investigations against radical environmentalists for the rest of their lives.
The case has been built on informants: the government’s star witness who helped build the initial case is, by his own admission in a gossipy article in the August Rolling Stone, a longtime drug addict who says he took part in several of the arsons yet who faces no charges himself. After the FBI starting applying significant pressure in the Pacific Northwest through grand juries and home visits, other activists also began cooperating as the government expanded the number of people indicted to 18. Some remained defiant; Jeff Hogg spent six months in jail for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury.
Of the remaining eight defendants from the initial arrest, one person, Bill Rodgers, committed suicide in his cell shortly after being arrested in December. Three people remain at large, and four people—Nathan Block, Daniel McGowan, Jonathan Paul, and Joyanna Zacher—changed their pleas to guilty in November, after months of negotiation. As a condition of their plea, however, these four defendants remain non-cooperative with the state. As a result, prosecutors will seek a terrorism enhancement charge in their case, attempting to add up to 20 years to the reduced plea sentence.
Many progressives haven’t paid much, if any, attention to the trial of these eco-militants—feeling distanced, perhaps, from a movement that has not only utilized illegal tactics but has generally done too little to incorporate itself into a broader social justice initiatives and whose militant sectors have earned the wrath of the FBI as the number-one domestic terrorist threat, according to FBI deputy assistant director John Lewis last year.
But the ramifications of this case are too large to ignore, and not just because it is likely that such militant actions will increase in number as the earth’s destruction becomes more severe.
One of the defendants is Daniel McGowan, an activist who has devoted significant attention to exactly the kind of bridge building that the environmental movement is in desperate need of. As with radical attorney Lynne Stewart and incendiary professor Ward Churchill, the government has gone after seemingly extreme radicals in the hope of cleaving off any significant support from the left for people whose tactics or politics prove controversial, even among progressive circles. Unlike Stewart and Churchill, however, many of these eco-activists face up to life in prison as a result of illegal activities and an investigation bolstered by informants and surveillance.
It is a strategy that has been used before, with some degree of success: go after the apparent margins of the left as a way to limit the parameters of dissent more generally. The targeting of clandestine anti-imperialist militants and jailhouse activists of the 1980s with experimental control unit prisons led to the more widespread use of such draconian institutions. This includes the supermax prisons in Florence, Colorado and Marion, Illinois, as well as the other entire control unit prisons, and the special housing units within most prisons, which function as exceptionally austere prisons within existing prisons. In both cases, according to groups like Human Rights Watch, prisoners are separated from any human contact except the guards and confined to tiny cells for 23 hours a day. Numerous psychologists have criticized such institutions for the mental illnesses they engender in those incarcerated.
This case is also one where the worst of PATRIOT ACT surveillance and its related snitch culture are being tested. The six who plead guilty in the spring and summer are required to cooperate with prosecutors in testifying against other defendants, numerous people have been hauled before grand juries to testify about environmental activism in the northwest (resulting in the incarceration of several people for refusing to comply with the invasive and undemocratic subpoenas), and it appears that the initial arrests were made on the basis of voluminous surveillance data. Besides informants, the case is evidently built off the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program.
According to a September story in the Eugene Weekly, the government has handed over some 28,000 pages of documents, 71 CDs (likely recordings made by snitches with wires), four DVDs and three videotapes. But they hedged the request [from the defense] for information obtained by NSA surveillance. Since a federal judge in Detroit ruled domestic NSA surveillance illegal for violating the Fourth Amendment, revelation of warrantless wiretapping used in building a case against these radical environmentalists could have rendered the government’s case null and void. The judge presiding over the case ordered the prosecution to find out whether warrantless wiretapping was used to build a case against the defendants, the Weekly reported.
Ultimately, however, the defense agreed to drop this motion when the four defendants opted to plead guilty (presumably in exchange for lower sentences). Still, these proceedings and the case overall mark an important turning point in the existence of radical opposition within the United States : can resistance movements develop and maintain consciousness about non-cooperation with the repressive aims of the state? And will the rights of people to oppose the government and corporate agenda beat back the current Orwellian strategies of control?
Check out www.greenscare.org or www.supportdaniel.org for updates.
Dan Berger is a writer, activist and graduate student in Philadelphia . He is the co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books, 2005) and author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006).
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