“Pinocchio asked Jiminy Cricket, ‘how do you become fully human?’ Jiminy Cricket said, ‘you develop a conscience, and then follow it.’”
That’s probably not exactly how the dialog went. That of course is from the story of Pinocchio, and I could look it up. The rest I can’t.
Sitting on plastic chairs, around a plastic table, inside a room with thick cement walls and massive, steel doors, was Marie Mason, Peter Werbe, and me. On top of the table was a little bag of peanuts and a bag of very mediocre trail mix. These are the only vegan options available from the vending machines in the room Peter and I were taken to before we were escorted into the visitation room in Marie’s cell block. Nearby sat a sleepy-looking prison guard.
Peter and I were spending the weekend in prison. Marie is in her fifth year of a 22-year sentence at the Carswell federal women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas. She is being held in a highly repressive, so-called Administration Unit of the facility. She’s not allowed to give interviews, or write anything for publication anywhere. The few people approved to visit her, somewhat bizarrely, include me and Peter, one of the most notorious anarchists of Detroit, sitting at the table with us.
Peter is a journalist – host of a popular Detroit radio talk show, and a long time staff member of the almost half-century old Fifth Estate magazine. I have also dabbled in that profession to some small extent. But no one visiting this prison is allowed to bring a notepad, a writing utensil, a recording device, or anything else other than car keys and a few dollars, which you can spend on the vending machines in the general visitation area. So anything I write here that attempts to represent Marie’s words are my efforts to remember our conversations of several days ago.
Peter and I are both old friends of Marie’s. Our visit includes fond reminiscences shared by these two Michiganders of the Detroit newspaper strike way back when, and of the many concerts of mine that Marie, a talented musician herself, organized over the decades. Such as the one she organized at the Trumbullplex alt-space back in the 90’s, when I first met her, Peter, David Watson and other members of the Detroit anarchist community.
Peter is a member of Marie’s support committee, and he’s been working with other good people on a campaign to get her moved from this prison-within-a-prison back into a somewhat less draconian “general population,” preferably closer to where most of her friends and relatives reside.
“Why do you think they moved you here?”
It was a question we all already knew the answer to, but Peter was searching for ways to explain this to the general public for the purposes of the next Move Marie campaign brochure.
“They’re scared of me.”
Marie is a humble person, not one to brag, but what she says is clearly a statement of the obvious. There is no other explanation. She was and is a model prisoner, in terms of her work ethic, respect for the guards and other prison authorities, kindness towards fellow inmates, etc.
Back in Waseca, the Minnesota prison she was in before being transferred to this gulag in Ft. Worth, she was able to give classes in music and was able to interact with a broad range of other people within the prison. But this seemed to be exactly what troubled the BOP.
That, and the fact that as time went on, her infamy was growing. It’s one thing to get several years in prison for politically-motivated destruction of property – that’s bad enough. But to get the post-PATRIOT Act “terrorism enhancement” and a sentence of over two decades when you’re a 52-year-old loving mother of two who has never hurt a fly, let alone a human, well, word gets around, apparently.
I continued the discussion, trying hard as I could to remember every word of her response, knowing I’d fail to do so. I was thinking of some of the Plowshares activists I had met recently in Australia, who had taken sledgehammers onto a military base in Queensland and badly damaged an American helicopter gunship – one of so many gunships. I mentioned an encounter I had with a Dutch hippie on a foot path in rural France who had heard the song I wrote about this Plowshares action, that I sang the night before.
“You know,” he said, “ten million people with sledgehammers could change everything.”
“Yes,” was Marie’s emphatic,one-word response to that little anecdote.
I followed up. “Do you see the actions you engaged in as symbolic actions?”
“No, they were exemplary.” She explained further. “The organization that I was part of believed that sometimes the best way to illuminate a dark space is to light a match.”
In the name of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front – the organization(s) in question – Marie had carried out many operations, which arguably inspired many other similar acts around the country and the world. She pleaded guilty to over a dozen of them.
Million-dollar mansions under construction were burned to the ground, logging equipment was destroyed, and Monsanto’s efforts to enslave the world were set back to some extent when a research facility at Michigan State University went up in flames on one New Year’s Eve some 13 years ago.
As with the Plowshares actions around the world, no human or animal has ever been harmed in any ELF or ALF action.
Peter told Marie about a news item he had recently run across. “This guy burned down an apartment building in Detroit, hoping to collect on the insurance, and four firefighters were badly injured trying to put out the fire. Because of this, the judge gave the guy a 15-year sentence. But that was overturned later and drastically reduced, because it was found to be too harsh a sentence.”
Peter recounted this story because he was thinking of the contrast between it and Marie’s case, which didn’t involve anyone being hurt at any point. But Marie’s immediate reaction was one of genuine human empathy for the injured firefighters.
“I would have been horrified if anything like that had happened.”
She continued. “People ask me why I didn’t try to change things through legal means. I did! I organized campaigns, I went door to door with petitions, I organized educational events, concerts, all sorts of things.”
Of course, most people who knew Marie could easily vouch for the truth of these statements – this is the sort of thing she was most known for, except among a select few members of her ELF and ALF colleagues, who knew that she was also involved with other sorts of campaigns.
“But we felt like more had to be done.” She went on. “What we did at MSU, we did for the forty thousand farmers who committed suicide in India. Have you read Naomi Klein’s book about Disaster Capitalism? That’s exactly what’s happening with Monsanto. Monsanto is trying to take advantage of the economic crisis around the world by forcing farmers to buy their Terminator seeds, and thus enslave the farmers of the world in the process. Dr. Vandana Shiva has written about this eloquently. We wanted to highlight this situation, to show that more could be done.” (She said it all so much better than that, though – at greater length, with bigger words, and more poetry. But that was the idea, anyway.)
“I just regret that we didn’t get those research papers from the filing cabinets at MSU out to the public. If we had gotten them out there, then everybody would understand why we did what we did. These papers really demonstrated how nefarious Monsanto’s research on genetically modified seeds was. Frank thought we shouldn’t do anything with the papers because it could make it easier for them to track us.”
She referred to Frank Ambrose, her ex-husband, and someone Peter and I both knew, who, faced with spending most of his life in prison,decided to cooperate with the authorities in return for a lighter sentence, and implicate his ex-wife, and others, in the crimes of conscience they committed together. Frank’s cooperation with the authorities is ongoing.
“Do you have any other regrets?”, I asked.
She thought for a few seconds. “Once, I came across some foxes in a cage in the forest. I was so close to them. We were looking at each other. I tried to get them out, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the right tools. There was nothing I could do. I had to leave them there.”
The painful emotions this memory brought up were obvious on her face. Marie is a vegan for reasons of conscience, and she loves living things. It’s been years since she has so much as touched a blade of grass. She’s held in a cell block of twenty women, about half of whom are have severe emotional problems and are there because of disciplinary, violence, or escape issues. Several, such as Marie, are clearly political prisoners – Afffia Saddiqui, a Pakistani scientist accused of shooting at American soldiers who had detained her in Afghanistan; Ana Belen Montes, who spied for Cuba for a quarter of a century from within the ranks of the Department of Defense; a well-known Plowshares activist who robbed a bank and publicly burned the money. (Marie is not allowed to talk about the women she shares the block with, but their names are on the prison’s Wikipedia page, among other places.) Because the Carswell Admin Unit conditions exacerbate the problems so many of her block-mates have, they all spend much of their time on lockdown, basically in solitary.
One hour each day, she is let “outside” — basically a small concrete area surrounded by 20’ fences topped with triple-coiled razor wire, with the blazing Texas sun shining down from above. This is the closest she can come to communing with the natural world she has spent most of her adult life trying to save, in so many ways. Judging from the anecdotes she shares, that mostly involves insects now. She demonstrates a vast knowledge of the insect world, and an almost comical affection for these creatures. She tells Peter and I all about the differences between wasps, hornets, and different varieties of bees, and how you can tell they’re being affected by the pesticides the BOP sprays on the grass all the time. I’m reminded of stories of the Bird Man of Alcatraz, but it would be very unlikely for such a story to be repeated there at FMC Carswell, because the windows in their cells are made of thick plastic, no bars, no contact with the outside.
A question occurs to me that I never thought to ask Marie before. Her mother is German.
“Do you think your German heritage had any impact on your activism?”
“Yes,” she said immediately. Peter seemed a bit surprised.
“My grandfather was an architect. During the war he took a lot of risks to help people. Near the end of the war, when the Allies were advancing, the Nazis wanted my grandfather to blow up certain bridges, and fix other bridges, depending on who controlled different areas or looked like they were about to control different areas. So he blew up the ones he was supposed to fix, and didn’t blow up the ones he was supposed to blow up. He always said that when faced with a situation where those in power are doing terrible things, you can’t just stand idly by. You have to do something, even if there aren’t enough other people doing something, too.”
The conversation moves from one subject to another, and eventually returns to how we might phrase things on the Move Marie campaign brochure.
“As the brochure says,” she explains, “it’s bad in here. But it could be worse. There are worse prisons in the US. Conditions could be worse. I don’t want the emphasis to be just on me – no one should be held in these conditions.”
There are differences of opinion among members of the committee about what to emphasize. Some think the emphasis should be on the fact that Marie is a loving mother.
“Of course, I love my kids so much. And I’m so grateful that I didn’t get arrested until after they were more or less grown up. And I’m so grateful for all the support I have, which most of my fellow prisoners do not have. But I’m not just a loving mother who ended up in here by accident. I’m a revolutionary anarchist. I’m in here for following my conscience.”
It’s time to take Peter to the airport. It’s Sunday – his weekly radio show is that evening. We all hug good-bye. I’m sure I’ll be back within a few months – I’m one of the few friends of Marie’s who is able to make it to Texas on a somewhat regular basis, since I can line up gigs there and pay for the travel expenses that way. This was Peter’s first visit to Marie there, and his first visit to Texas, period. She recounts a long list of mutual friends Peter should say hello to on her behalf.
“Have a good trip to Austin,” she says to me. “Wish I could come to your gig.”
David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.