By MIKE ROSELLE
When it comes to civil liberties, most people will remember 9/11 and the Patriot Act. But if you are a treehugger, you will probably remember when the federal government, and some states, started taking the gloves off back in the mid-eighties. The commencement was a series of laws passed to target a perceived eco-terrorist threat, following the widely publicized sawmill accident in Sonoma County where a young mill worker was injured. A spike in a tree caused a saw blade to snap and hit the worker. It was no matter that the spike was placed by an enraged local landowner and not by any of the activists trying to protect the last old-growth Redwoods on the Pacific Coast. The national news media cranked up the story that eco-terrorists were everywhere planning violence and a series of new laws were passed to deter them from wreaking havoc on the beleaguered timber industry.
Most of these new laws didn’t distinguish much between property destruction, peaceful protest and acts of civil disobedience. Within a decade, every western state would have laws making it an offense, subject to imprisonment, to halt, impede, hinder, obstruct or delay a timber sale. Some of these laws, like the notorious Idaho “Earth First! Law,” made it a felony to conspire to or advocate any of those actions. During debates on the House floor, outraged legislators said the law was intended to apply to professional radical environmentalists who recruited innocent kids from college campuses, and sent them off to block legal-logging operations, and take food out of the mouths of working families. Imagine!
Back at Cove/Mallard Coalition International World Headquarters in Dixie, Idaho the response to the new felony law was predictable. We went to a bunch of college campuses with Uncle Ramon and Robert Hoyt and other professional agitators. Robert Hoyt had carefully crafted a song with the intent of breaking the law (it was vetted by our lawyers). We intended to recruit a bunch of new students to block, impede, halt, obstruct, and otherwise obliterate logging in the Cove/Mallard Timber Sale. We continued to block the road until the U.S. Forest Service was halted, impeded, blocked and obliterated in Federal court. It turned out that the logging in Cove/Mallard never was legal after all.
Oregon, that famed bastion of civil liberties, has, of course, been at the center of the efforts to nip this hippie treehugger rebellion in the bud longer than anywhere else. Whether it’s SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits, felony charges, random arrests, unconstitutional forest closures or just old fashioned police violence, Oregon has seen it all. We have even seen the Sheriff’s department read us the 1875 Riot Act and arrest everybody on site, including the press, for a simple sit-in at the Pyramid Creek Timber Sale in the Cascades. As it turns out, you actually have to read the riot act before you can make any arrests.
So, with all of this in mind, about a year and a half ago I went down to Ashland, in Southwest Oregon to join some local environmentalists from the Mazama Forest Defense who were protesting an old-growth timber sale on BLM lands in the Cow Creek watershed. I won’t piss off my lawyer by discussing the facts of the case, but somehow I got arrested and taken to the Douglas County Jail in Roseburg and charged with “Interfering With An Agricultural Operation,” Oregon’s latest version of the Earth First! Law.
It’s been a year and a half and I still haven’t had a chance to enter a plea, but a lot has happened since I was arrested. A number of other people have been arrested at various anti-logging protests since the notorious “Ag-Ops” law was enacted a couple of years ago. Most of these defendants later agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges. But, one case in Curry County, on Oregon’s southern coast, did make it in front of a Superior Court Judge before I was to appear in court in Roseburg. Lauren Regan, staff attorney for the Civil Liberties Defense Center (<mailto:email@example.com>firstname.lastname@example.org) in Eugene, filed a motion to dismiss my charges on the grounds that the law violated Oregon’s constitution. The Judge in this ultra-conservative, pro-logging county agreed and dismissed the case.
Right before Christmas, Lauren gave the Douglas County district attorney a copy of the same motion she filed in Curry County, and said she intended to file it in this case as well. Even though the Curry County Judge had thrown out the charges, it seems that he was getting pressure from the state attorney general to go ahead with the case. By default, it seems, the first test of this law was going to be mine.
Floyd and I flew out to Roseburg from Alabama for my court appearance in early January. Lauren was going to introduce a motion that was thicker than my rap sheet, which was now on the prosecutor’s desk. He had to spend his Christmas vacation poring over it and studying the case law. He gave a response that was prepared by the state attorney general’s office. After Lauren’s presentation, the Judge asked a few technical questions to which Lauren gave a five-minute response. The Prosecutor did his best, but admitted he was a bit confused. I was now convinced that the only person in the room that really understood what was going on here was Lauren. The rest of us were just trying to just look like we knew what was going on. But, by the time I had heard all the arguments, I sure felt like my constitutional rights had been violated.
The State of Oregon seems to want to go to trial. Interfering with an agricultural operation carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail. The rap sheet that the prosecutor provided the court contained numerous violations, including about a half dozen arrests for similar offenses in Oregon over the last twenty years. This probably makes me the worst possible defendant a lawyer could ever have. The Civil Liberties Defense Center has been monitoring the Ag-Ops Law since it was first debated in the State legislature. The Judge will issue a decision sometime in the near future. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, in another quasi-legal matter, the House Ways and Means committee is investigating a number of environmental organizations with ties to civil disobedience, or as they call it, “illegal activity”. Attorneys for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) have advised Randy Hayes and I, among others, to expect a subpoena to appear in front of the committee sometime in the near future. The committee is responding to pressure from a few wise-use groups, including Ron Arnold’s Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise that has convinced some committee members that RAN’s famed banner-hangers are engaging in some sort of tax fraud. This is based on a narrow definition of civil disobedience, long rejected by advocates of civil liberty, that only acts that violate unjust laws are truly civil. Acts against private individuals or corporations, this reasoning goes, cannot be targets of non-violent direct action and still be protected as free speech. However, in a world where corporate power is rapidly eclipsing that of the government’s, and in cases where corporate behavior sometimes violates existing environmental laws, this narrow definition is in itself a denial of our basic right to free speech.
Environmental groups often have no other recourse than to directly intervene in the commission of a crime in order for either the government to take the necessary action or for the corporation to change their illegal behavior. Given the great economic disparity between the environmentalists and the industrialist developers they oppose, the ability to generate coverage in the news media (itself controlled by the same corporations) is difficult. Direct Action is often the only way smaller public interest groups can level the playing field. In most cases, any actual damages incurred during a protest are slight, relative to the business of the company being targeted. Usually the setbacks are smaller than the disruptions they would encounter during a labor dispute, an extreme weather event, a traffic jam or even a post Super Bowl hangover. Simply put, if we want to halt the destruction of the environment it is not enough to challenge unjust laws. We also have a civic responsibility to do everything possible to see that existing environmental laws are obeyed, especially when the government refuses to do so.
There is one thing I’m fairly certain about in this ongoing campaign of government intimidation toward environmental activists. It is most often the fear of the law and not the law itself that deters activists. If we are afraid of exercising our rights to stand up to those who would profit from the destruction of our planet, then the government has already succeeded. If more people would have stood up to Joseph McCarthy during his Red-Scare witch hunts, his little reign of terror would have been stopped in its tracks before it began. McCarthy often ignored people who were not afraid of his House Committee on Un-American Activities and instead he focused on those who he could easily intimidate. This created a panic amongst those intimidated, and brought on and era of self-censorship. We are within our rights to stand up for the Earth, and to engage in the time-honored tradition of civil disobedience as pioneered by the late Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, to name only a few. We need to stand up for our rights and rally behind those who are being singled out. With the help of people like Lauren Regan and the Civil Liberties Defense Center, we plan to do just that. United we stand, divided we fall.
Finally, last month I was in Knoxville, Tennessee at a meeting on Mountain Justice Summer, a campaign being planned for the southern Appalachians to address the ongoing rape of the countryside by coal companies. Several of the participants of the Mountain Justice meeting were planning a summer of civil disobedience in the same fashion as Redwood Summer and, of course, Freedom Summer in Mississippi, the seminal anti-segregation campaign. An air of paranoia seemed to permeate the air, and much of the discussion centered on the issue of security. Safe houses, vouchers, applications and questionnaires, among other provisions were being suggested to deal with “infiltrators” and provocateurs. I was getting down right sentimental, this reminding me of my earlier days with the Yippies! But, infiltrating the Yippies was like infiltrating a marshmallow, as my old friend Vinegar Ben used to say. We once had a Federal agent living with us in Miami during the Republic Convention of 1972 that we kept around because he had a car. When we had important meetings at the house, we’d send him out shopping or more often, Dumpster diving. We didn’t really have any secrets, but we would have been disappointed if we weren’t infiltrated. My advice: don’t worry about the infiltrators if they have a car you can use.
MIKE ROSELLE, “Man Without a Bioregion,” is cofounder of Earth First!; the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society and has been instrumental in virtually every famous GreenPeace stunt. “Nagasaki” has lost count of how many times he has been arrested at nonviolent anti-war and environmental Civil Disobedience actions in every region of the country, as well as internationally. His dispatches from the road can be read on Lowbagger.org.