On November 8, 1986, Rod Coronado and David Hewitt emerged after laying in freezing rain for an hour and destroyed the control room of the whaling station (read: slaughterhouse) on an Icelandic fiord. They then quickly entered the nearby offices and confiscated record books proving that whaling was being carried out despite an International Whaling Commission ban.
Nerve center in ruins and proof in hand, the activists then sped back to Reykjavik harbor and boarded two of Iceland’s four modern whale-killing ships. A short time later, both ships were on the bottom.
The incident garnered international publicity for Sea Shepherd, the group that now, decades later, stars in Animal Planet TV’s popular series Whale Wars. And, the action was so successful that it was nine years before Icelandic whalers killed another whale.
But, the launching of Rod Coronado on a decades-long effort in defense of animals had more far-reaching impacts.
Animal Rights? What’s that about?
In Operation Bite Back, Dean Kuipers takes the reader on an engrossing tale that reads like a whodunit (they dunit?). Action after action carried out by Coronado and various allies are presented in detail, taking one along through the identifying of and then the casing of targets to the actual, heart-racing “night work” itself.
Coronado used arson, taking care to never harm anyone, to destroy animal research facilities at Washington State University, Oregon State University, Michigan State University and others. He went on to attacks on private industry facilities, such as mink farms, as well.
The factual accounts of these actions make up the bulk of the book. But, it is the examination of the reasoning behind the actions that sets this book apart from so many others written about environmental sabotage (ecotage) since the beginnings of the radical environmental movement in the 1970s.
Most authors lazily adopt Wise Use Guru Ron Arnold’s shorthand “Ecoterrorism” when describing such activities. But, Kuipers knows better. He quotes Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First! on the topic: “Edward Abbey properly said that terrorism targets people and that sabotage, or ecotage, targets property.”
From there, Kuipers studies the underlying reasons behind such ecotage and presents a remarkably sympathetic view of the motivations of Coronado and the entire Animal Rights Movement. Right from the beginning of the book with a chapter On Nonviolence, we are seeped in the philosophy of it all. Not just Foreman, but many others who have long been part of the radical environmental movement give their interpretations. Kuipers interviewed a cooperative who’s who of the movement which is the main reason the book rings so true as to motivations.
We get some history of Earth First!, beginning with the famous “crack” on the face of Glen Canyon Dam – the target of the protagonists in Abbey’s seminal The Monkey Wrench Gang – which Kuipers accurately calls ‘the founding myth of a movement.
In March 1981, four men and one woman place a football field sized plastic sheet, carved to look like a crack, over the face of the dam, launching Earth First! – an idea, not an organization. Years later, after his first stint in prison for his activities, Rod Coronado spent time as an editor of the Earth First! Journal, the closest thing to an organization the “idea” ever became.
Another EF! co-founder, Mike Roselle, notes how EF!, the Animal Liberation Front et al. begin life when they “put the idea out in the air…and whole sets of tactics and propaganda (are) picked up and used without any central organization at all.”
The Making of an Activist
“I believe there comes a time in everyone’s life when we have to honestly ask ourselves why we are here; doing whatever it is we do on this beautiful planet.”
While the supportive recounting of the motivations behind the movement will be welcomed by activists used to being slandered with the “terrorist” label, the telling of Rod Coronado’s personal motivations and how he came to them is the heart of the story.
It begins with the young Yaqui Indian growing up in California immersing himself in books on Geronimo, Dee Brown’s devastating Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and spending time with family in the wild mountains. Even as an early teen, Rod was a rebel, protesting at the Lawrence Livermore Lab near his home. He joined Sea Shepherd when he was thirteen.
These readings and experiences led Rod to philosophical bonds with the ecological movement that was set out in Sessions and Devall’s 1985 book Deep Ecology.
He started out working to save whales. But, soon the outrage of Fur Farming was in his view. He began shooting clandestine videos of fur farm abuses. But, the resulting tapes didn’t bring about the closure, or even any sabotage, of such facilities, so he decided, along with his ally Jonathan Paul (now serving time for successfully destroying an Oregon Horse Slaughtering plant for meat sales to Belgium – which was never rebuilt) to become “mercenaries for the movement..”
On March 3, 1995, Coronado pleaded guilty to one count of arson related to the Michigan State University action that the book details at length. He served more than four years in the federal prison in Tucson. As part of the plea, he admitted his part in all of the Animal Rights actions, while never giving up accomplices or anything that even remotely could be used against anyone else – an ethic that sadly went missing with later Earth Liberation Front (ELF) actions.
(Kuipers finishes with a chapter examining the ELF and resulting Green Scare arrests/incarcerations. I found it one of the best I’ve yet read on the topic.)
Incarcerating Coronado didn’t lead to much of a drop-off in such actions. But, by mid-1996, attacks on the fur industry mushroomed. Sites in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Utah, Tennessee and New York went up in flames.
By October of 1996, the ELF made its first US appearance when Jake Ferguson and Josephine Overaker tried to burn down the Forest service Ranger Station in tiny Detroit, Oregon. Two days, later they and Kevin Tubbs were successful in destroying the Ranger Station in nearby Oakridge, Oregon. The “torch” as it were, was passed.
Rod got out of prison in 1999, took the EF! editor job and laid low until he was off probation. By then, the FBI was on record making “ecoterrorism” a “top priority.” Soon thereafter, I spent a night discussing the state of the planet with Rod under the stars at an Apache hot springs once frequented by Geronimo. Rod was tired and wanted to just be a spokesperson and have a more normal life.
But, Rod couldn’t stay away from defending animals for very long. Once he was off probation, he destroyed a trap set to capture mountain lions in Sabino Canyon outside of Tucson. He served another eight months for that one, lucky to avoid the years of “terrorism enhancement” sentences the Green Scare defendants had tacked on to their prison time.
Talking Fire in a Crowded Room
The book also examines and ends with the 2006 arrest and prosecution of Coronado for merely talking in San Diego about how to build an incendiary device – part of his usual boilerplate speech; but in this case, a more elongated answer to an audience member’s question. No matter that no one ever built a device based on his explanations; no matter that he hadn’t used an incendiary device for eleven years; he was charged under a 1997 statute sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstien and Joe Biden. He was looking at doing 18 years for his not-so-Free Speech.
Eventually, a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal. But that didn’t stop the Feds. They continued to dog him and eventually he agreed to a plea of one year and a day.
Tireless civil rights attorney Ben Rosenfeld wrote in a Counterpunch essay, “The new case against Coronado is as stark a case about free speech as this country has ever seen. Measured against any historic test of free speech, Coronado’s behavior — i.e., his speech — was alarmingly protected and uncriminal.”
Dean Kuipers has done a remarkable service writing this book. While about one warrior/activist and his amazing dedication to his cause, the book goes much further and presents an entire movement and the myriad of activists who put personal safety and comfort below allegiance to the welfare of other species that inhabit “this beautiful planet.”
Rod Coronado never caused a single physical injury to anyone. He is a visionary who always takes responsibility his actions and beliefs. Many others, an entire movement, share his view “that peace for the Earth and animals could only come through aggressive and sometimes destructive actions.” This book gives them all the respect they are due.
MICHAEL DONNELLY is an eco-activist. While he does not believe in the overall efficacy of ecotage due to the government’s ability to use such events to justify sweeping crackdowns, he supports the actions and speech of those who do. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org