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A Tree-Hugging Terrorist Behind Every Bush?
Bright green characters on the hand-lettered sign proclaimed, Youre not gonna scare the GREEN out of me. The sign was held high by an activist outside the imposing federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, as proceedings began inside to impose sentences on ten environmental and animal rights activists rounded up in the governments Operation Backfire net, dubbed the Green Scare by environmentalists and civil libertarians.
A substantial crowd gathered, and throngs of media buzzed around, as the sentencing hearings began in the last days of May, following a terrorism enhancement hearing on May 15. Unfortunately, most mainstream environmental groups have shied away from comment, much less solidarity, with Green Scare defendants, as federal prosecutors brand the defendants facing property destruction charges as terrorists.
Terrorists? Are young activists taking direct action to new levels or has the government dusted off Senator Joe McCarthys brush used during the Red Scare of the 1950s?
After 11 environmental and animal rights activists were named in grand jury indictments in January 2006, linking them with acts of property destruction and arson, activists and civil rights attorneys have pointed to what they regard as a government vendetta against radical environmental and animal rights activists and self-identified green anarchists. Indeed, the FBI announced in 2005 that the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) had become their number one domestic terrorism priority.
ELF and ALF have claimed responsibility for more than 1,200 incidents of environmentally-motivated acts of sabotage, animal release, and direct actions since coming on the scene in 1990. Significantlyand ELF and ALF say very deliberately those 1,200 actions had zero injuries.
Even as government prosecutors entered into plea negotiations to avoid lengthy, expensive, and political trials, they made clear they would seek terrorism enhancement on sentences handed down in federal court. This could increase prison time by as much as two decades on top of recommended sentences, as well as placing severe restrictions on the young activists while in prison. In the past, terrorism enhancement was applied only to international terrorism. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the provision was expanded to include domestic terrorism, but still applied only to crimes targeting people, not property. Passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2001, however, further broadened the definition to include dangerous acts meant to coerce or influence the government.
Public support for most cases of terrorism prosecution rides on concerns for safety and protection of the populace. Environmental and civil rights advocates, however, charge the protection of corporate property, not imminent threats to the masses, is at the core of new laws proposed at the state and federal level, ostensibly to fight eco-terrorism. As an example, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), signed into law by President Bush on November 27, 2006 expands an existing federal statute to prescribe harsher penalties for physical disruption of (or conspiring to disrupt) an animal enterprise (e.g., animal testing labs that impose torturous procedures on animals for cosmetics companies, slaughterhouses, mink farms, veal factories, etc.), thereby instilling a reasonable fear in company heads. A reasonable fear in one person could be common sense precautions in another, particularly if they are in the business of pouring caustic chemicals into the open eyes of caged rabbits, and might expect opposition to those practices.
A bill passed by Maines legislature in 2006 established the crime of environmental terrorism as acts dangerous to human life or destructive to property or business practices when the purpose of the act is to protest the practices of a person or business with respect to an environmental or natural resource issue resulting in a significant interruption of business or loss of revenues. Legislation passed in Pennsylvania last year also increases the severity of charges and sentencing of civil disobedience activities if they interfere with people engaged in resource extraction, agricultural research, or animal experimentation. Most of these new laws are either written by or promoted by the conservative corporate lobby organization American Legislative Exchange Councilfunded by the likes of Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, Corrections Corporation of America, Philip Morris, Exxon, International Paper, and hundreds of others.
Operation Backfire charged people with conspiracy and with setting fires in several western states. Targets included a corral for wild horses rounded up to slaughter for pet food, the Vail, Colorado ski resorts expansion into endangered lynx habitat, SUV yards, and other sites the saboteurs found to be icons of ecological destruction or animal cruelty. No injuries resulted, though damage was in the millions of dollars, so hefty restitution requirements accompany the prison terms, ranging from 3 to 13 years so far. By comparison, a Forest Service employee convicted in 1999 of setting 35 fires in order to collect overtime pay was sentenced to three years of probation and a period of house arrest.
Many see the new spate of so-called eco-terrorism laws as an expansion of the FBIs long-standing agenda to criminalize dissent and part of an intensely political agenda that ignores the adequacy of existing laws to prosecute people for property destruction. Current laws spell out median sentences in the five to eight year range, absent other factors, like serious injury. Provisions for restitution meted out through the courts are common. Saddling the Oregon defendants with the terrorism label could send them to maximum-security prisons, land them in 23-hour-a-day lockdown and otherwise severely restrict visitation and phone calls from family.
Does an ever-expanding definition of terrorism that puts property destruction on a par with violent killing better ensure safety of the populace? Or does it make light of the pain and suffering of victims of attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center? Attorney and director of Oregons Civil Liberties Defense Center Lauren Regan remarked, When everyone is called terrorist, then no one is. If a mon- keywrencher is the same as Osama bin Laden, where is the distinction drawn?
It seems unlikely that anyone or anything, except for the bottom line of a few corporations, will be safer with the ELF/ALF defendants behind bars. Besides, those indicted had left their more extreme tactics behind them with their youth as they pursued other forms of activism. Ranging in age from 26 to 41, as compared to the youthful span of 16 to 32 when the crimes were committed, their activist career pursuits now run the gamut from EMT/volunteer fire- fighter in rural Oregon to support staff at a womens center for domestic violence to medical student to journalist.
The Eugene case is far from being the only grand jury indictment related to crimes of sabotage in the name of environmental defense and what people call the Green Scare is far from over. The ten people in court in Eugene May 26 through June 5 are now being assigned to federal prisons around the country and most had the terrorism enhancement imposed on their charges. The case of Jonathan Paul, the last to be sentenced, was held over until August 1 due to mistakes in the judges sentencing guideline calculations. In addition:
- Two women connected to the Eugene indictments will be sentenced this fall after their performance testifying in a colleagues trial is taken into account.
- The principal informant, indeed the former activist (and serial arsonist and heroin addict) who broke the case for the FBI, Jake Ferguson, has yet to be brought to court, despite the fact that he holds the longest rap sheet for the arsons.
- A young mother and violin teacher in California will go to trial in September for Operation Backfire charges, likely with terrorist enhancement requested by the government, based solely on testimony from an informant.
- Rod Coronado, a well-known Native American environmental and animal rights activist in Arizona, is facing charges handed down by a San Diego grand jury related to a public speech he gave. In answer to a question from the audience at the end of the speech, he described an act of property destruction carried out years earlier for which he served prison time. The government calls that teaching terrorism.
- Activists in Sacramento face conspiracy charges after being entrapped by an undercover agent posing as an activist, although no action actually took place. In that case, the defendants lawyers have filed motions to divulge illegal wiretapping in the case.
All these Green Scare defendants are being threatened with draconian sentences and the terrorist label.
The real life drama of the governments Operation Backfire has dealt a blow to the radical environmental movement. Trusted communities and alliances were blown apart when the dominoes of government informants started toppling and, once it started, most fell flat quickly. Former colleagues, affinity group members, housemates, and lovers have been driven worlds apart after the wedge of government coercion came crashing into their lives. Threats of life sentences plus hundreds of years were delivered over jail house tables, and defendants sought deals with the devil in hopes of regaining their lives. When the dust settled, the most cooperating defendants gained was an 18-month reduction in their sentence and praise from the judge for being heroes for turning their friends in. Part of the deal is a life- long commitment to the federal government to assist in investigations.
A question still unanswered is how far the FBI, not particularly known for its embrace of political dissent, will go with fewer bounds on conducting surveillance. Will other environmental campaign strategies that target corporations, with civil disobedience and market campaigns, become targets of aggressive prosecution because of their effect on the corporate bottom line? Journalist Gar Smith in his piece published on the environmental website the Edge admonishes us to remember who the real eco-terrorists are, illustrated by fines levied against them for vandalizing natures property: Exxon ($125 million), Louisiana-Pacific ($43 million), Rockwell International ($20 million), Chevron ($6.5 million), Chemical Waste Management ($3 million)the list goes on. It is a question of priorities, principles, and fair prosecution. And perhaps the future of environmental protest.
Karen Pickett is a long-time political activist based in California, affiliated with Earth First!, the Civil Rights Outreach Committee, and other organizations.
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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