The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground
Rolling Stone’s 2006 feature on what the government called the “the number-one domestic terrorism threat.”
It’s long been assumed that those who counted themselves members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) — less a group than an ideology, with no central office or leader, and its only mission the destruction of property with no harm to human life — were angry suburban boys in their late teens or early twenties who worked in small cells, performing one or two misdeeds and then disbanding. In fact, nearly every member of the Family was an adult committed to environmental activism, whether traveling below the radar, like Avalon, or as “top-landers,” like Jonathan Paul, a longtime anti-whaling advocate and the brother of a Baywatch star, who famously posed as a fur farmer in the early Nineties to secretly videotape mink-ranching techniques. (Paul, accused in only one of the Family’s arsons, has asserted his innocence.)
"Most of these people had two lives," says Mike Roselle, co-founder of Earth First! and the Ruckus Society, two of the country’s leading environmental and civil-disobedience groups. "In their day lives, they were important activists. In their night lives, they were secret. I’m surprised at what I didn’t know. I never knew I was hanging out with members of the ELF."
Although the elves always focused on destroying property and avoiding the loss of human life, the Bush administration now treats the ELF as the homegrown equivalent of Al Qaeda. Last year, FBI deputy assistant director John Lewis called the group — along with the ALF and an aggressive animal-liberation outfit called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty — the nation’s “number-one domestic terrorism threat.” In the past three years, the administration has doubled the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, multi-agency units that add state and local police and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents to each FBI field office, and many seem intent on busting arsonists like Avalon rather than catching killers like Osama bin Laden. In 2003, when activists including CalTech graduate students fire-bombed several SUV dealerships in Los Angeles, FBI director Robert Mueller responded by assigning the entire terrorism task force in L.A. to the case and personally briefed President Bush about it. In a post-9/11 world where every FBI agent wants to catch a terrorist, an “eco-terrorist” is better than nothing.
Branding activists as terrorists not only makes for good headlines, it also results in longer prison sentences. In 2001, forest advocate Jeffrey “Free” Luers, perhaps today’s most passionately embraced eco-martyr, was sentenced to nearly twenty-three years for setting fire to three Chevy SUVs. The Family faces far more prison time. Under a 2003 order by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, any arson set with a timer must be prosecuted under a post-Oklahoma City statute that defense lawyers call “the hammer.” Under standard arson charges, the maximum sentence is five years for each building or car that is set ablaze. Under the hammer, the mandatory sentence for a single act of arson is a minimum of thirty years in prison. For two, the minimum is life — with no possibility of parole. The government wants to sentence some members of the Family to life plus 1,015 years.
Given the current environmental crisis facing the planet, even some of those responsible for putting the Family behind bars find themselves sympathizing with the group’s motives. “My heart’s with these people,” says Kirk Engdall, the lead prosecutor in the case. “We’ve got to save the planet for our children and grandchildren. Where they went wrong is when they resorted to violence. They were desperate, because they felt that their cause wasn’t being addressed appropriately.”
Supporters in the environmental movement agree. “This is such a waste of good people,” says Roselle. “I’ll bet I trained some of these people in nonviolent civil disobedience, and we taught them that history shows that radical movements that are violent make people paranoid, isolated and easy for the feds to pick off.” He starts to choke up. “When I think about them, it brings me to tears.”
To those who have studied radical movements, the unprecedented prosecution of environmental activists represents the end of an era. Four states have already passed legislation — drafted by a right-wing lobbying group that represents 300 major corporations — that classifies any act of property destruction motivated by environmental beliefs as “ecological terrorism.” In Pennsylvania, misdemeanors and nonviolent protests like tree-sitting are now punishable as terrorist acts. Even Coronado, considered the “leader” of the movement for years by the feds, has vowed to quiet down after too many years of harassment by the government — as the father of a young child, the risks are now too high for him. “I suspect that on a practical level, these arrests, especially followed by lengthy sentences, will fuel a transformation in local anarchist politics,” says Michael Dreiling, a University of Oregon sociology professor who studies social movements in the Northwest. “If I were to make a guess, I’d say that it will lead to deeper fissures over tactics and strategy in years ahead. I don’t think we will see many more ELF actions. We live in a society that can practically monitor your body from a satellite in outer space. An underground political-protest movement like the ELF is going to be very difficult in the future.”