Firebrand: Rod Coronado’s Flame War

He was the firestarter, shooter of flaming arrows. He traveled the night-path, unseen, leaving ashes and wreckage in his wake. He was the escape artist, the man of few traces, the Yaqui warrior, who communed with animistic spirits. He was the sinker of ships, liberator of coyotes, scourge of the animal skinners.

Or so the myth goes, anyway.

He is, of course, Rod Coronado, the most notorious radical animal rights activist—no, activist isn’t the right word—avenger of our time. Some call Coronado a terrorist. But he is devoted to non-violence—non-violence against living beings. He shows no mercy toward machines, research labs, fur farms. In dozens of incendiary actions that destroyed tens of millions in property, not one person was seriously injured. Not even Rod. Yet it is fair to say that Coronado’s season of retributive fire changed the game for environmentalists and animal rights activists. It upped the ante. Congress, pushed by the fur lobby and medical research establishment, used Coronado’s dramatic raids as a pretext for a series of punitive federal and state laws that equated nonviolent acts of sabotage to domestic terrorism. Burning down a barn that housed animal skinning equipment or torching a few SUVs could now land you in federal prison for twenty or thirty years. With a straight face, the FBI would claim that environmentalists, like Coronado, (and not neo-Nazis like John Van Brunn or anti-abortion zealots like Scott Roeder) constituted the most dangerous domestic threat to the United States.  More than a dozen activists, many of them inspired by Coronado’s tactics, are now in the federal pen staring down long prison terms for emulating Coronado’s pyrowar. How did it come to this?

Now veteran journalist Dean Kuipers steps forward with a thrilling book about Rod Coronado’s life and his audacious assaults against the fur industry and the medical research complex. Kuipers’ book, Operation Biteback, is an intimate and chromatic portrait of an American Revolutionary, the John Brown of the Animal Rights Movement.  Kuipers has known Coronado since the early 1990s and has had unparalleled access to Rod and his circle. All this adds up to a rare inside look at the tactics and social dynamics a militant underground movement. Kuipers vividly evokes the battleground and the stakes, taking his readers into the gruesome abattoirs of the animal skinners and the vile medical research labs on college campuses across the country. The more buildings Coronado torched, the more draconian was the government response.  In tracking the often bumbling efforts of the FBI to nail Coronado, Kuipers also tells the grim story of how non-violent environmental activism came to be treated as terrorism by law enforcement at both the state and federal level–Constitution (and coyotes) be damned.

You first met Rod Coronado at a cafe in Venice, California in 1992.   At that very moment, the FBI was zeroing in on him for string of   daring raids and arsons at mink farms and animal research labs on   several campuses, including Oregon State, Washington State and   Michigan State.  Even though the smoke was almost fresh on his   clothes, he looked you in the eye and told you he had nothing to do with them. Did you believe him?

I believed Rod when he told me he was not the arsonist, but I strongly suspected that he had inside knowledge about the arsons. He was always in the proximity of the fires, yet it seemed so unlikely that he would be talking to the press if he were guilty. This was exactly the same position that law enforcement was forced to take at the time: many people had a hunch that it was Rod, and some of the state and federal arson investigators were sure it was him, but even they had to admit there was simply no evidence. Nothing tied him to the fires, so we all had to go with Rod’s own explanation: that he was just the messenger for the ALF. It was being the messenger that finally got him busted for the MSU fires; he was prosecuted for being part of the conspiracy, not for setting the fire itself. But then, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, part of his plea bargain was that he admitted his role as the actual arsonist in all of the Bite Back arsons. That information was sealed. No one knew that except some federal prosecutors, his attorney and a judge, until Rod told me about a decade later. He had a good poker face.

During those years, Rod was living a double life–at night launching    raids to liberate mink and coyotes and burning research labs during   the day publicly reporting on these anonymous feats as the spokesman   for a group called CAFF and later the Animal Liberation Front. You   quote the Oregon eco-commune leader Chant Thomas as referring to Rod   as living a “Clark Kent/Superman” existence. This must have exacted a   tremendous psychological toll, as well as putting the FBI on his trail.

By his own admission, Rod really wanted to control the way his message was received by the press. He wanted his Operation Bite Back actions to be understood as Ghandian nonviolence and as protests for the way animals are treated. Not as rash, unconsidered violence. He thought the rest of the movement would step up and explain that to the press, but of course they wanted no association with any arson campaign. Too dangerous. So he exposed himself to the press, over and over, and his paranoia grew. I think he became a paranoid wreck. He had no intention of getting caught, so he had to accept that he would die in this campaign, and putting his face on TV day after day only made it more likely someone would come after him. His relationships with all his friends and lovers and supporters were strained by his behavior. Lots of people wanted him to stay away. I think he came to believe that the fur industry had a bounty on his head because of this paranoia. He did have some reason to believe it was a bounty, but it was a thin logic. His exhaustion and fear just blew it all out of proportion.

For me, Rod’s first act of sabotage, the sinking of half of the   Iceland whaling fleet, remains the most spectacular and   consequential. Can you describe that raid and more generally his   relationship with Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd?

Paul Watson was one of Rod’s earliest environmentalist heroes and role models, and he still maintains great respect for him today. Rod joined Sea Shepherd and began giving them money when he was 12 years old. From my discussions with them both, the respect is mutual and heartfelt. Rod had many historical role models, especially among Native Americans, but Paul was the one Rod saw on TV, out on the ice in Canada, physically interfering with the killing of seals. As Rod told me later, he didn’t grow up wanting to be the cameraman on such a campaign, even though he knew the images were part of Paul’s strategy: he wanted to be the man stopping the killing just like Paul. And, remarkably, immediately after leaving high school he skipped college and joined Sea Shepherd with his parents’ blessing and Paul welcomed him. Rod’s parents dropped him off at the boat. He never looked back.

Rod and David Howitt went to Iceland in 1986 to stop the country’s whaling industry, which was small but took a fair number of whales every year. They lived in England for a bit while the Sea Shepherds battled the traditional killing of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands, then, already veterans of that campaign but only about 20 years old, they both moved to Iceland and got jobs where they could observe the whaling business there for about a month. They didn’t just sail in there and do the job in a day. This action got a lot of accolades because it was a model of nonviolence: they doggedly recorded the comings and goings of the security for the boats and the whaling plant until they were sure of a time when targets would be empty. They went on to the boats when they knew they were empty, and still searched them to be certain. Then they opened the valves in the bottom that would let sea water in, at some fair risk to themselves. They walked away undiscovered, but even if they had been arrested, their intention was that no one was going to be hurt.

Same for the whaling station. They smashed it up and damaged equipment, but made it obvious they were doing so. They didn’t sabotage the equipment in a way that someone would inadvertently use it and be injured or killed. They made a loud, clear statement. It was only luck that made it all go so well that they got on a plane and got away, but anti-whaling sympathizers around the world were thankful that they’d done it in such a way that no one was put at risk.

Plus, it was 100 percent effective. Those boats did not kill whales. It took the Icelanders a while to refloat and rehab the boats, and during that time whales were unmolested.

Rod had multiple affairs during the time of his Operation Bite Back   and many of these women would also join him in his acts of sabotage.   During the GreenScare cases, the FBI turned jealous former lovers   into informants. Can you talk a little about the sexual relations of   the Animal Rights Movement underground?

Very interesting question. The threat attending movement romances has definitely changed in the last few years, and as far as I can tell, there are two explanations for what has changed between the early ‘90s and now. The first is that in the Operation Bite Back cases, prosecutors had no evidence against any of Rod’s contacts. They jailed Kim Trimiew and Deb Stout for half a year each on contempt charges, hoping they’d turn on Rod, but there was no evidence to compel them to do so. They were massively inconvenienced, and suffered, but they were not under threat of being prosecuted themselves as accomplices. In the Green Scare cases, they had lots of evidence in the form of testimony from a drug addict who was definitely facing consequences from the drug charges and needed an out.

The second is a change in the severity of the penalties allowed by the new eco-terrorism laws and the use of terrorism sentencing enhancements. Rod was prosecuted for arson, and got the max: 5 years. If he’d been prosecuted today, he probably would have been charged with multiple counts of “Use of a Destructive Device,” which could have brought a Life sentence. Faced with a charges like Life + 1,115 years, as some of the Green Scare defendants were, and with strong evidence against them making it clear they are likely to be convicted, most people crack.

Sexually, however, I suspect this won’t change the basic dynamic of love in the trenches. The heat of activism is a lusty environment, no matter if you’re a nonviolent treehugger or a fire-and-brimstone Christian evangelist or a crew of bank robbers: when the action is hot, the one who is sharing it with you is also looking hotter. That person next to you in the foxhole understands the cause and why it’s important – or at least how you feel about it. They’re sharing a campfire with you and maybe a cheap hotel room or at the very least, a secret. That’s sexy. That’s not going to change. But these huge potential prison sentences have definitely introduced a note of caution into any relationship, even platonic ones.

If you added up the amount of economic damage done by all of Rod’s   acts of arson and sabotage is possible to come to any conclusions   about much of a bite Operation Bite Back took out of the fur industry   and the animal researchers? In other words, is there any evidence at   all that Coronado’s raids inflicted any long-term damage on his targets?

There was some damage and it had some strong effects. A couple operations just folded up, like the Oregon State University experimental fur farm at Corvallis; it was already greatly diminished by public outcry against fur in the 1980s and early ‘90s, and was being supported by grants, and Rod knew that, so he targeted that grantor, the Mink Farmers Research Foundation. When Rod burned it, it never recovered. Some other private farms also eventually decided to go out of business rather than risk that kind of attention any further. The man who sold Rod his mink farm went out of business right there on the spot. So there were impacts.

But, as an industry, Teresa Platt of the Fur Commission USA tells me that the industry was economically unharmed by Rod’s campaign. Operation Bite Back was a strong psychological and political shock, but never really threatened to shut down the industry.

You’ve been writing about the radical environmental movement for a   long time time. How where does Coronado rank as a figure of influence   among the likes of Dave Foreman, Paul Watson, Mike Roselle and Judi  Bari?

Paul Watson has to be the big influencer right now, with his TV show, “Whale Wars.” This is a coup in every way: as ecological campaign, as media, as spiritual influence.  No one in this movement has ever broken through this big. Funny, because friends of Paul’s tell me that, even back in the 1980s when Hollywood was optioning his books for money, he downplayed the significance of that, saying that what he really wanted was a show like MTV’s “Real World.” He wanted a reality TV show to make a huge impact. He was right. Oddly, Paul Watson is now the new Jacques Cousteau.

All these people are influential, however, among their various constituencies. Roselle and Foreman are very well respected and that respect crosses over to Republicans, conservatives, old-school Conservationists, and Sixties-style activists who believe in beer and truth-telling but still also have a traditional self-image as patriotic Americans. Judi Bari is hugely influential among women and North Coast forest activists. Getting carbombed definitely gives a person a holy aura. Rodney is influential with a later generation and his influence has persisted among the young. He is young-seeming, not bound to Sixties ideologies or lifestyle tropes, not a hippie. He is a Native American and thus seems less burdened by ideology and more engaged in a spiritual pursuit. Plus he went way over the line into hardcore direct action – arson, property destruction on a huge scale – so he kicked open a door that many want to see left open: that one solution to many ecological problems is just to sink the boat.

Until recently, the radical environmental and animal rights movement   in the US (as opposed to Great Britain) could rightly claim that no   one had been killed or injured during any of its direct actions. Can   you address Rod Coronado’s views on non-violence?

At the time of Operation Bite Back, Rod believed that no action was violent if it didn’t harm or risk harm to any living thing. Thus, arson was not violent if the building burned down and no one was hurt. His definition is very clean and many people agree. Even the law used to agree. The definition of violence and also terrorism was about visiting hurt on human beings and animals up until the late 1980s. It has helped Rod’s definition greatly that no one was ever hurt in actions undertaken in the U.S., in over 1200 known actions and $1 billion in damages. That is an astounding track record. In the UK, there have been injuries and even deaths attributed to the movement and so the movement there has forfeited a bit of moral high ground.

There is a very important struggle going on right now that should be a concern for the U.S. environmental and animal rights movements: those who oppose the radical environmental agenda have worked with the U.S. government to take control of the definitions of both nonviolence and terrorism. Since the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, property destruction is now defined as violent. Where that line is drawn has now become incredibly vague. Pulling up survey stakes could now be deemed “violent” under the law, depending on the situation. The 2001 Patriot Act and the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act have only made that definition more malleable in the  hands of prosecutors, by opening up the definition of terrorism to mean almost any act in support of a politically motivated federal act of violence. Even websites. Or speeches.

In 2007, federal prosecutors threatened to give Rod a terrorism sentencing enhancement for making a speech – a speech that resulted in no actual act, no federal act of violence, no subsequent act at all. Leading to the inevitable conclusion that even speech itself can be construed as violent. And as terrorism.

Now the Bureau of Prisons is stretching the definitions of terrorism to pull inmates into secretive Communications Management Units in prison even if they’re acquitted of terrorism charges but are convicted of some incidental procedural crime, like contempt of court. Being associated with a terrorism investigation can get you locked up in a hole where no one will ever find you. The rules about what is and isn’t violence, and what is and isn’t terrorism are becoming very blurry. It would serve the activist community well to begin demanding clarity.

Arson remains a taboo tactic even among some of the most militant   environmentalist, such as Dave Foreman in his prime and Paul Watson.   Can you speculate on why arson had such an allure for Coronado?

It’s easy, cheap and totally effective. Simple as that. If you burn a business down, like Jonathan Paul and his co-defendants burned the Caval West horse slaughterhouse, sometimes it never reopens. That can cost as little as a gallon of gasoline and a sponge. For Rod and others, it also once had a spiritual element; it was seen as a cleansing fire. A redemptive act.

It seems to me that Rod engendered tremendous loyalty among his   friends and often his friends paid a heavy price for even a passing   association with him. They were placed under surveillance, their   homes were raided, they were hauled before grand juries and publicly   harassed. At least three of his friends spent more than 150 days in   prison on contempt charges rather than talk about Rod to federal   grand juries. That goes with the territory, I guess. But on several   occasions Rod seemed to exploit this loyalty without much regard for   the potential consequences. I’m thinking here mainly of the   philosophy professor Ric Scarce, author of Eco-Warriors, who let Rod   stay in his house in Pullman while he and his family went on a   vacation. Rod used the Scarce home as a staging area to launch raids   on animal research labs on the campus. Is there any evidence he felt   any regret about the extreme jeopardy he exposed his friends and   family to?

Rod tells me he had all kinds of regrets, but in the same way he had accepted that he would likely be killed during this campaign, he accepted that he would also likely lose the friendships of everyone who worked with him. He had decided this was just a cost of going to war. Of course, it didn’t actually work out to be so clean and neat, because Rod is a friendly, loving person and all throughout the campaign he tried hard to maintain his relationships where he could. He tried to convince people to forgive the fact that he had to go all the way or else just quit. Then, much to his surprise, he survived and eventually got out of prison and had to deal with all the messiness he’d left. As you see in the beginning in my book (the final version has a quote in the preface from an unidentified activist who is angry at Rod), many people did not welcome him back afterward. Even now, 17 years after the last time he set any kind of fire that I know about, people say they’re afraid to have him around.

When Rod was arrested, the mainstream environmental and animal rights   movement were quick to denounce him. Indeed they even supported bills   like the Animal Enterprise Protection Act to prove how much they   opposed his tactics. Who stood by him?

The radicals and Indians stood by him. The Earth First Journal lionized him and took him into its editorial collective: when he got out of prison, he immediately went to work there. The Native American community never even batted an eye. They were there for him all through the trial and afterward. You can’t get a crew that is more likely to doubt the claims of the federal government than Native Americans.  ALF and ELF and similar underground organizations quickly claimed Rod as a hero. Among animal rights organizations, only PETA came close to embracing him. Because Ingrid Newkirk’s positions are so strident, she could afford to say she supported his goals, even if she still had to back away from his use of arson. No membership group could actually support the use of arson.

It is true that most mainstream groups had to denounce the use of arson. It’s just too likely to hurt someone – a firefighter, a passerby, and unintended victim. However, Rod didn’t really lose much support among individuals in the movement. His stature amongst environmental activists is largely untarnished. Privately, people still tell me all the time that the Iceland action is one they will admire forever and that Bite Back, though problematic, is work they understand and respect. As one respected professor told me in a note a few days ago (and I’m paraphrasing): “I’m sitting here drinking a Sam Adams. He was another radical that was not embraced during his time. But one day we’ll probably be drinking a Rod Coronado or a Dave Foreman and toasting what a patriot he really was.” I think Rod’s legacy among the movement is secure.

The subtitle of your book is Rod Coronado’s War to Save the   Wilderness. Isn’t this something of a misnomer? Most of Rod’s direct   action in Operation Bite Back was geared toward animal liberation   wasn’t it, not keeping roads out of wild lands and chainsaws from old   growth forests?

True enough, it probably would have made more sense to say “Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wildlife.” But that’s just too limiting. It was the mountains and trees and rivers and PEOPLE, too; he was trying to save Native Americans as much as native wildlife. All part of the wilderness, to me.

For at least, a couple of decades there’s been a sometimes bitter   divide between animal rights activists and environmentalists. Rod was   someone who had a lot of respect in both of these often camps.  But   his tenure as editor of the Earth First! Journal was contentious.   Many old-line Earth First!ers saw the Journal, once the principal   magazine of the radical environmental movement, become transformed   into an organ of the animal rights movement and stifled by an   obsession with identity politics.

Rod had spent a lot of time with militant movement women, Native Americans and others who demanded to have their perfectly legitimate issues heard, and who thought the EF Journal was a good place to air them. He listened. He himself is Native American and of Mexican heritage, so he brought his own concerns about the environmental movement, which has always been about white men. You can see even in the Bite Back communiqués that the list of key issues is broadening, as several of the missives talk about the subjugation of women and other issues that are not strictly about animals or conservation. This was the main reason Dave Foreman told me he left Earth First!: he understood that it was important to find supportive communities for transgendered individuals, or multiracial environmentalists, but those issues weren’t strictly about conservation of species. Those were human problems, and needed a publication dedicated to human problems. Rod was predisposed to have more tolerance for identity politics.

While Rod grew up in a middle class Bay Area home, he is of Yaqui   descent and one of only a handful of environmental activists who   isn’t white. Can you talk about the role that Native culture played   in informing Rod’s philosophy and his style of resistance?

At one point in his life, Rod was a mad Indian. And Indians have plenty of reasons to be mad. During Rod’s youth, the FBI snuffed the American Indian Movement with a bag of dirty tricks and Rod studied that history, the history of the Indian Wars of the 1800s, and the particular histories of his personal heroes like Geronimo and Crazy Horse. His heroes, including Ghandi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all died bloody.

That history drove him in two directions. For one, it drove him into militant confrontation with those who exploit native wildlife. He saw himself as a Native American defending his own kind. Like Geronimo, he went to war.

However, indigenous spirituality also turned him away from that path. When he was on the run after Operation Bite Back, his interest in finding a living, ritualized spirituality on which he could base his environmental activism drove him back to the Yaqui, on a quest. There, he found he needed to help spiritual leader Anselmo Valencia, and the at-risk youth on the Pascua reservation south of Tucson, and his own people. He needed to help them get along and survive as people, not as warriors in an environmental struggle. He veered off the warpath and began working on the reservation, and particularly with religious rituals and the youth. This was an entirely new direction that he continued in prison and after he was released.

Can you talk about Rod’s relationship to his friend Jonathan Paul,   who in 2006 plead guilty to burning down the West Cavel   slaughterhouse in central Oregon?

I’ll let Rod and Jonathan Paul speak for themselves, I think, but my understanding is that they came to some disagreements when they were both working as Global Investigations in 1990 and ‘91, getting video footage of fur operations, and Rod kept pushing for more dangerous actions. They had a falling out, but when Rod was underground Jonathan tried to see him and also defended him in public, and went to prison on a contempt charge for half a year for refusing to divulge information about him. And Rod expresses nothing but admiration for that. So their mutual respect remained unbreakable.

Rod came to believe that the fur industry and the feds had put a   bounty on his head and that he would likely be killed by the feds or   some hired gun of the fur lobby. Ironically, many of the fur farmers   felt the same way about Rod, believing that he was intent on hurting   or killing them. Can discuss the kind of paranoia that descended   over both camps?

I believe this came mostly from federal dissemination of information about attacks in the UK, some of them unverified and some later discovered to be the work of provocateurs. The UK animal rights movement, beginning in the 1970s, had engaged in much more aggressive actions, many including bodily harm to researchers and even attempted murder, and all the talk at the federal level, including Congress, was that this type of behavior was headed for the U.S. But it never materialized. The movement in the U.S. was adamant about publicly denouncing firearms, in particular.

Some of my interviews demonstrated this perfectly. One of the officers who once spotted Rod doing surveillance at Washington State University expressed certainty that Rod and his accomplice had a rifle. He was terrified that they were going to engage in a “running gun battle.” But Rod had no weapon with him on that surveillance. It was just fear that made the officer see that.

Rod had more reason to think that he might be shot as he continued his campaign. On more than one occasion, farmers told him outright that they’d shoot trespassers, and many farm hands wore sidearms on the job. Rod was breaking the law, trying to burn people’s property and destroy their livelihoods in the dark of night. On one occasion a farmer burst out of his trailer door with a rifle in his hands. That wasn’t imagination. It just wasn’t so far-fetched that he might catch a bullet in this line of work.

In 1992, Congress enacted the Animal Enterprise Protection Act,   largely in response to Rod’s raids on the University animal research   labs. This bill was the first step toward equating non-violent acts   of sabotage with eco-terrorism. It was followed over the next decade   by the Patriot Act and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which   impose life sentences for non-violent crimes. Does Rod feel at all   responsible for prompting this crackdown? Should he?

He does not feel responsible for this, as far as I can tell. Because he wasn’t alone. Even in 1992, there had been attacks at Texas Tech and medical facilities out East that weren’t Rod’s doing and which got even more Congressional attention than his campaign did. He merely contributed. Rod has been most influential, however, when it comes to communicating his beliefs about property destruction and environmental philosophy. That has led to a serious and still-mounting effort to shut him up, and shut up all peole like him. Thus, the BOP has built the Communications Management units in prison to curtail the prosyletizing of eco-radical inmates. And they’ve prosecuted Rod’s speech.

And now, just in the last few days, they’ve imposed absolutely outrageous probation restrictions on Rod, who is out of jail and trying to reconstruct his life in Michigan. He was a model prisoner in jail, but they’ve got him on house arrest, no cell phone, no computer, a whole raft of draconian restrictions. It’s not because of his behavior, or his crimes. And it contradicts the instructions of his sentencing judge. It’s because of his influence as a communicator of ideas.

In 2006, Rod was arrested on the flimsy charge of demonstrating how  to use an explosive device during a talk in southern California, even   much more detailed information on how to make firebombs is available   to any teenager on the internet or in the Anarchist’s Cookbook.   During the trial, it was revealed that federal agents had   deliberately manipulated some of the evidence to make it seem like   Coronado was encouraging someone in the audience to make such a bomb   and use it. The case ended in a hung jury with 11 of the 12 jurors   voted to acquit. Can you explain why Coronado ended up entering a   plea deal in this case and serving a one-year prison term? Doesn’t it   set a bad precedent for first amendment cases?

Yes, the First Amendment took a real ding in this weird, rare case. But they prosecuted Rod for a speech he made regularly. And even though the government lost, it required huge resources for Rod to muster a defense. So when they lost, the government came right back to him and told him they had recordings of many other similar speeches, and they’d just keep prosecuting him unless he took a plea. Eager to get this off his back, to not go broke constantly defending himself, and to get to the real business of raising his two kids, he took a year and a day.

The new wave of animal rights activists seem to have abandoned Rod’s   commitment to nonviolence. Researchers and their families have been   targeted in the past couple of years. Assassination of   vivisectionists has been openly talked about, if not directly   advocated. Much of this seems to be emanating from your end of the   coast down there in southern California. I tend to believe that one   reason we’ve seen this kind of threat escalation is because of the   punitive nature of the eco-terrorism laws. When you can be facing   multiple life sentences for an arson where no one was injured there’s   not much deterrence for engaging in actions that might maim or kill   people. Thoughts?

This is a very important topic of discussion for the environmental and animal rights movements. I don’t have any problem saying that the people who target researchers for actual bodily harm and assassination actually are terrorists, because that’s the definition of terrorism. And that makes every day activism more dangerous – far more dangerous – for the entire movement. It sets everyone up for conspiracy charges. It turns the public against the movement. It drives a terrified Congress to pass stiffer and stiffer laws and to loop more and more people into crimes of association in an attempt to stop the threat. It puts the local cop and hired security firm in a defensive position where they think every animal rights activist carries a gun, and so makes it much more likely innocent (or at least unarmed) people will get hurt.

But while the temptation is to see these superheated sentences as a kind of feedback loop, driving the truly militant over the edge, I don’t have any evidence that this is what’s causing the recent rash of terrorist acts in L.A. It could be one group of acquaintances, or even like-minded folks who’ve never met, who’ve just decided they’re fed up and they’re going to kill someone.

Crossing the line into arson or heavy property damage – burning labs, destroying experiments, etc. – puts a person at risk no matter what the laws. Rod was only facing 5 years for arson, but he figured he’d get shot by a farmer or a security guard, and so he resigned himself to the idea that he’d die during Operation Bite Back – even if he maintained his nonviolent principles. Heavier jail sentences probably wouldn’t have made him abandon those principles, so let’s not make too much of that logic.

Your last book was Burning Rainbow Farm about the self-immolation of   a stoner community in Michigan. Now you’ve written about the   country’s most famous eco-arsonist. Any concern that you might be   perceived as suffering from “pyromania-by-proxy” syndrome?

Ha! No, it’s purely coincidence that both of these stories happen to involve fire. As I noted above, fire is cheap, effective, and has a spiritual quality that drives people to use it in protest and in anger. Maybe my next book will have to feature lots of snowy mountains or a chain of clear mountain lakes to bring me back into balance as a writer. I’ll look forward to getting cooled off.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at:



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3