This week marks the 10th anniversary of the day Judi Bari died on March 2nd in 1997 from cancer. On May 24, 1990, Judi was severely injured by a motion-triggered pipe bomb which exploded on the floor directly under the driver’s seat of her car as she and fellow Earth Firster Darryl Cherney traveled through Oakland, California, on an organizing tour for Redwood Summer, a campaign of nonviolent protests focused on saving old growth redwood forests in northern California. I first met Judi in San Francisco at a rally against Pacific Lumber; now know as Maxxam in 1989. She was a dedicated lefty labor activist, not the usual type of organizer who goes up against the timber industry over logging in a small economically depressed logging town. Yet she worked tirelessly until her death on behalf of both the workers and the forest. At the time of the bombing she was attempting to break the deadlock that had developed in Humboldt County over the fate of California’s last large stand of unprotected Redwood trees. The situation was dire, and local activists had exhausted every avenue to keep Maxxam from liquidating the ancient forests to service the debt Charles Horowitz had acquired during a hostile takeover of the venerable Pacific Lumber Company, which had been locally owned and operated for over a century.
Judi’s idea was an organizing campaign based on Freedom Summer, the Mississippi Civil Rights campaign that brought in activists from across the country to break the deadlock on voting rights for African Americans in the South. After hundreds of arrests, demonstrations and the death of several activists, the civil rights workers of Mississippi were exhausted, and put out a call for outside help. Three of those who chose to answer the call were later found buried in an earthen dam in rural Mississippi. The uproar over these brutal killings helped galvanize support for the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act in Congress in 1965. As in Mississippi, Judi understood that this campaign would have to be nonviolent, but that did not mean it would not be dangerous.
The night before Judi and Daryl were bombed, I was at a meeting with them at the Seeds of Peace house in Oakland. Seeds had volunteered to help with, among other things, the logistics of the campaign, primarily the care and feeding of the hundreds of expected activists who would arrive that summer. The meeting went late into the night, and I left early for my home in Berkeley. I had a river trip planed on the Wallowa River with Mike Howell the next day, and we had to drive north early in the morning. We stopped in Chico to see Michelle Miller, another organizer on the campaign, who had also been receiving death threats from various anti-environmental groups over the last few months.
When Howler and I pulled my VW bus into Michelle’s driveway, she came running out the front door in her night clothes. I will never forget that moment.
We knew something big was up even before Michelle uttered those words that would change the course of the campaign, and change the lives of everyone who was working on it. “Judi and Daryl have been bombed in Oakland. They are in the hospital. The FBI has arrested both of them and raided the Seeds of Peace House”. I spent the next six hours at Michelle’s house answering phone calls from reporters from around the world. We had a small office in San Francisco with one phone line so it made more sense to stay put and work the phones than to spend the next four hours on the road incommunicado. When we caught up a bit on some of the hundreds of phone calls we would field that day, Howler and I drove back to my house in Berkeley.
The rest, as they say, is history. Daryl escaped serious injury but Judi’s pelvis was fractured in many places. She would be able to walk only with the aid of a cane for the remainder of her life. Whether the injuries she suffered in the blast cause her early death from cancer we may never know. Her attacker has never been identified. But even from her hospital bed in Oakland, Judi’s remained involved in the campaign, working tirelessly to build a bridge between environmentalists and timber workers in her community.
In 2002, after a lengthy campaign by Judi, Daryl and a team of pro-bono lawyers a jury in their federal civil lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department exonerated Bari and Cherney by ordering four FBI agents and three Oakland Police officers to pay a total of $4.4 million to Cherney and to Bari’s estate for violation of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and for false arrest and unlawful search and seizure. Unfortunately, Judi died before her exoneration.
Of all of the people who have been involved in the Earth First! Movement, Judi’s story is the most complicated. A divisive and combative figure in life, in death she has achieved a degree of martyrdom seldom seen in the environmental movement. Depending on where you stand, she is either a working class hero or an environmental extremist. An energetic organizer, or the one responsible for the end of the Earth First! movement. Redwood Summer was a tremendous success or it was a total disaster. But it’s not that simple. It never is.
Judi did not fit the mold of the early Earth Firster. A self described eco-feminist red-diaper baby, she clashed often with the Buckaroo faction of the western conservation movement. While she devoted her life to working with labor, labor never came around to her way of seeing things. And at the time of her death, much of her work remained unfinished. Yet today, she has been exonerated by a jury of any involvement in the bombing that maimed her. Later activists such as Julia Butterfly Hill and John Quigley would be inspired by her life to continue the struggle. Maxxam filed for bankruptcy last month and the company’s employees are just now wishing they had paid more attention to the warnings of Judi and the other conservationists that the company planned to cut and run, leaving the workforce high and dry.
I spoke with Daryl Cherney yesterday and he thought that Judi would most want to be remembered as someone who fought the FBI and won. Indeed, she identified strongly with the victims of police repression around the world. But I also remember her as a hippy girl, the mother of two wonderful children, musician and soapbox preacher, a firebrand with a wicked sense of humor, and most importantly, a friend of the trees.
MIKE ROSELLE is the publisher of Lowbagger.org.