Taking the Golden Gate Bridge … for the Redwoods

The occupation of Golden Gate Bridge. Photo: Greg King.

On Sunday, April 22, 1990, I rented two rooms in a skeevy motel on Lombard Street in San Francisco. I’d raised enough money to keep the room for several nights, as the action would be weather dependent. Papers the previous day had predicted mostly clear skies in the Bay Area, which we’d need to pull off a visible occupation high above the Golden Gate, one of the foggiest places in the world. The papers also ran lead stories on Michael Milken’s plea bargain down to six felonies and a $600 million fine “to settle the massive criminal case against him,” as the San Francisco Examiner reported. Milken had faced ninety-eight counts of racketeering and securities fraud. By the end of the year one of Milken’s most loyal clients, Charles Hurwitz, would celebrate Maxxam’s best annual return to date. In 1990, Maxxam reached 184 on the Fortune 500 list, with $2.4 billion in revenue and $161.9 million in profit, derived in large part from the life of the last ancient redwoods.

Twenty people crammed into one room for our first meeting. I knew or had heard of the exploits of almost everyone. In addition to the North Coast crew of Larry Evans, Mickey Dulas, Mikal Jakubal, and Darryl Cherney, the group included Bay Area activists Karen Pickett, John Green, Brian Gaffney, Jennifer Grant, Mark Heitchue, Christine Batycki, and Tracy Katelman. A couple of new faces concerned me. By now there was no question that the FBI and possibly private security had us under surveillance. If you’re going to climb the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s nice to be able to trust your partners.

We strategized on how best to take the bridge. We would necessarily be operating in the middle of the night, on a freeway, one that happened to be among the state’s most dangerous thoroughfares. During the meeting I said we’d need to block off a wide section in the middle two lanes so we could park and get people and gear to either side. “We’ll need a bunch of orange cones,” I said. An hour later someone returned with twenty cones, stolen from a construction site.

In the corner of a room sat the banner. It weighed fifty pounds and was carefully folded into a military gunny sack equipped with backpack straps. It could be pulled from the top end, attached at the corners to one of the traverse lines, and carefully lowered to occupy the middle reach of the bridge. The banner— 30 feet wide and 100 feet long, with the bottom end 150 feet above the road— would greet morning commuters with messages that, unfortunately, are even more pertinent today.

At the banner’s top were eight-foot letters:




Underneath, in six- foot lettering, were the admonitions:




2) NO





In Eureka I’d bought the biggest pair of bolt cutters I could find. These would snap the gate locks so we could access the big cables. During one of the planning meetings, I scanned the group and said, “We’ll need someone strong enough who can cut the east lock and then run across the freeway and cut the other lock, then toss the bolt cutters into the water.” I saw the face of Mikal Jakubal light up like a neon sign. “Oh, yeah,” he said, rubbing his hands together. He was as tightly wound as a golf ball.

An even dicier task would be running a piece of paracord seventy feet across the freeway to connect both sides of the span and allow climbers to pull the traverse lines from one end to the other. The paracord would have to make it across the road and at least twenty feet above the span before any vehicles, especially semis, roared past.

Eight people would take the span. From our high point on the big cables, two climbers would descend the vertical cables and attach the lower guy ropes to anchor the banner. Two people would go out on the traverse, over the roadway, drawing out and anchoring the top of the banner. And two people would descend vertical ropes affixed to the traverse lines, hovering over the road and stopping at the bottom corners of the banner. This bit of derring-do would allow a human to anchor the bottom corners of the banner in case bridge security was somehow able to cut the lower ropes. It would also look really cool.

Additional climbers would remain on the big cables to guard the traverse lines. These were the “Bettys”— a term I’d learned from a woman in Humboldt County, a surfer. While she surfed the rugged, lonely beaches of the wild Humboldt coast, I sat on the sand, watching as a backup in case she got into trouble. “You can be my Betty,” she said wryly, employing a term she’d picked up in Malibu.

Longtime Bay Area activist John Green would be a Betty on the west side, flanked by Mark Heitchue. Both activists were calm and strong. Larry Evans would be an east side Betty, and he would also haul up the banner. Larry had brought in a young friend, who called himself Jesse, who had rock- climbing experience. Jesse would draw the banner out of the big sack and shimmy across the traverse toward the west side, where I would meet him on the traverse, grab the top corner of the banner, drag it over, and anchor it to the horizontal rope. For extra security Jesse and I would each have two traverse lines, four total, that would span 90 feet from one side of the bridge to the other, 250 feet above the road, 470 feet above the water.

I’d prepared notes for the meeting. At the very top I’d written, “CAN’T DROP ANYTHING— #1 CONSIDERATION.” At that height an errant carabiner could do serious damage to a pedestrian or a driver. I also wrote, “Speed with calm,” “cut locks,” “run paracord,” “each person gets # at fence for order of ascent,” “recon 1- 2 a.m.,” “all gear in Greg’s name,” and “jail solidarity.”

We were likely to be spotted early. We needed to buy time. Two people would kryptonite- lock themselves to the bottom gates to keep security from accessing the cables. The other way to get at us would be from the elevators that ran inside the towers, allowing access to the tops of the cables. Big iron doors closed in the elevators, and they had locks. Someone said, “Superglue.”

Two counties, San Francisco and Marin, share a border in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. We would ascend on the Marin County side to greet morning commuters. A crowd would inevitably form, and they would be leafleted by six activists. Karen Pickett and Darryl Cherney would head up media outreach, manning the pay phone at the vista view parking lot.

On the night of April 22, a gorgeous plume of fog wafted across the Golden Gate and engulfed Lombard Street. The next night was better.

Someone regularly walked outside to check the night sky through the bright streetlights that infect nearly all human communities. “Stars!” was the common report.

At 1 a.m. we loaded the cars. A reconnaissance crew returned and gave the all clear. They also exulted, “The middle two lanes are blocked off!” I’d driven the bridge countless times at night but had forgotten that, every night, bridge authorities closed two lanes of traffic to prevent head- on collisions. There was no barrier, just orange tubes. The traffic cones were superfluous. (Later someone returned them to the construction site.)

We waited for barfly bitter-enders to clear off the roads. Then, just before 3 a.m., we drove. We pulled three cars into the generously provided center lanes and unloaded. Traffic was light. Jakubal grabbed the heavy bolt cutters, ran east, and leapt the small barrier to the walkway. We heard a loud metallic clank. Then, hoisting the bolt cutters over his head like a lance taken in battle, he sprinted gleefully across six lanes, clanked the second lock, ran south along the walkway until he was above water, and chucked the tool into San Francisco Bay.

Larry toted the heavy banner while the rest of us carried the six ropes, carabiners, and assorted gear. We also had supplies of food and water, and I carried a radio phone and a camera. By 3:30 a.m. we were scaling the cables. Such a climb, even in a group, is a solo experience. No one talked. The mild hiss of traffic ebbed with ascension, and the sparkly skyscrapers of San Francisco seemed to shorten as we gained height. For safeties we used prusik loops that extended from our harnesses to the guy cables that ran parallel to the big cables at waist level. The prusik loops ran around the small cables and locked back onto the harness. Every twenty feet we would stop to negotiate the safeties around the vertical posts that anchored the small cables. In this fashion we quickly gained an exceptional height.

Greg King on Golden Gate Bridge. Photo: John Green.

Even while huffing up the wide cable, I was awed by the scene. Only the slightest breeze blew, a condition almost unheard of at the Golden Gate. At the appointed height we stopped and quickly began pulling static lines with the paracord. Just after 5 a.m. we were set. Jesse eased himself onto the traverse, the banner in tow, and edged out onto the line, dangling hundreds of feet above the roadway. I ran two safety loops to each of my traverse lines—four safeties total— checked my gear (water, food, radio phone, camera), and turned to give Mark Heitchue the thumbs-up when I noticed several silhouetted human figures swiftly descending the cables toward us.

“Shit!” We’d counted on more time than this. When the bridge’s iron workers got to the elevator doors and found the locks superglued, they simply melted the glue with a torch.

I yelled across to Larry and Jesse, “Dump the banner! Dump the banner!” There was no time to pull it out carefully. The whole thing would have to be launched, at which point Jesse and I could untangle it and hang it from the traverse, where we’d be untouchable. But those iron workers were quick. They fairly trotted down the cables, shouting epithets. Later we learned that we’d angered them. The iron workers who maintain the Golden Gate Bridge are possessive of their span. No one else— not tourists, not activists, not cops— ascends the bridge. We’d breached their domain—seized their gates and glued their locks— and they were not happy.

The Bettys tried to block the iron workers. On Larry’s side the workers reached over and removed his safeties and tried to push him down the cable. Not good. When Larry reattached his prusik line an iron worker made to cut it with wire cutters. Unaware of what was happening, I kept yelling at Larry to toss the banner, but he was continuing to hold off the most vicious of the iron workers. “He was dangerous,” Larry later said. Embracing his inner bouncer, Larry wrapped his giant arms around the iron worker, who was neither small nor weak, and gripped the man so tightly he could hardly breathe. Now realizing the risk at hand, overpowered by this huge man in a frenzied struggle nearly five hundred feet above San Francisco Bay, the iron worker calmed.

On our side, iron workers also assailed Mark Heitchue. I readied for what seemed like a fight, though it never developed. Everything stopped. We all stilled at once in a state of impasse.

Then a blood-orange sunrise eased over the East Bay hills. The bridge, the bay, everything exploded in an effusion of color so lustrous that everyone, even the iron workers, seemed to take notice. The apricot blaze appeared as a sign of the life force we’d come to protect; it illuminated, yet also somehow trumped, our thousand industrial cuts— perhaps as a reminder, as the Earth First! bumper sticker promised, that “NATURE BATS LAST.”

Shortly after sunrise I was on the radio phone, live on the air, with a reporter from KCBS, the big San Francisco news radio station. I told the host that we’d taken the bridge. “What we’re trying to do is indicate the severity of the crisis the planet faces.” At that moment an iron worker pushed past Mark Heitchue and grabbed the phone’s antenna. I jerked it from him, bade the reporter to hold on, and gave the iron worker a look he could not ignore.

We all knew where we stood. He backed off, and I continued with the most surreal interview I’d ever given.

After the call I stopped talking to the press and just enjoyed the view. The Golden Gate stands among the world’s most dramatic natural features, a magnificent crack in a long reach of otherwise impenetrable coastline. I could see the entire bay, 550 square miles, more than ten times larger than the city of San Francisco. Two fabled river ecosystems, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, feed the bay.

For five thousand years the Ohlone and the Coast Miwok peoples lived rich lives in the Bay Area. These communities thrived alongside wildlife and within fully functioning ecosystems. We are warned against idealizing the lives of Native peoples. Yet the original human inhabitants of California did lead largely ideal lives “in a land of unbelievable plenty,” Malcolm Margolin writes in The Ohlone Way.

There is no record of starvation anywhere in Central California. Even the myths of this area have no reference to starvation. . . . [F]or century after century the people went about their daily life secure in the knowledge that they lived in a generous land, a land that would always support them. . . . San Francisco Bay rimmed with vast saltwater marshes, rivers that flowed throughout the year, springs that bubbled out of the hillsides, natural lakes, ponds, and innumerable creeks. Water was everywhere, and everywhere it was teeming with life.

Then arrived the Hoopers, the Huntingtons, the Crockers, the Creeds, the Grants, the Stanfords, the Drums, and the Hammonds. These ruthless men and their forebears carried to this bountiful but fragile world a severe imbalance, insecurities so deeply wrought that they would learn to justify, indeed celebrate, the wreckage left in the wake of their rapid industrial expansion.

From some deep and malign well they embraced riches and power, status and admiration, somehow unable to see or to care about the cataclysms and suffering they caused. They revered false idols of success achieved through violence and theft and cloaked their misdeeds in a fictitious benevolence.

Their worlds coalesced as an inexorable heat that within a single generation would despoil the San Francisco Bay region. These men had many equals around the country and throughout the world. Today we face an abyss of their making, a juggernaut full- steam ahead and professionally managed by their ideological progeny, who remain dedicated to the cause, whatever that may be. Yet somehow we were the terrorists.

By now hundreds of people had gathered on the ground below the bridge and in the vista view parking area— the entire tableau bathed in golden light. Traffic backed up for several miles to and through the rainbow-painted Waldo tunnels (now renamed for actor Robin Williams). I was sad we hadn’t gotten the banner out; it would have been epic. But there we were, alive and fighting. The clean ocean air felt good in my lungs. It was a beautiful day.

Two hours later we ambled down the bridge into the arms of California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers, who were professional and polite. Nonetheless, those of us on the bridge were arrested on suspicion of “resisting a police officer” and “assaulting a police officer,” potential felonies. We retained several lawyers, including famed San Francisco civil rights attorney Tony Serra, who quickly brought the Marin County district attorney down to earth. In the end we received two misdemeanor trespassing charges.

In the tank at Marin County jail, we were surprised to see Darryl Cherney and two other male members of the ground support crew. Karen Pickett and another woman from ground support were on the women’s side. The ground crew had somehow been picked out of the packed crowd and arrested, no matter that they were breaking no laws. We soon learned that they’d been arrested not by Marin County sheriffs, nor by CHP, but by Oakland Police, whose jurisdiction was twenty miles away, across the bay.

It would have been impossible for those cops to have picked out our ground crew unless an infiltrator had breached our action group. The mystery of why Oakland cops were making arrests in Marin County would become clear exactly one month later.

Darryl didn’t say much. He was embarrassed because the cops had also impounded his car, which he’d driven from Humboldt County with virtually his entire set of office files in the back, “in case I needed them,” he said sheepishly. Included were the names and addresses of all donors to Darryl’s Earth First! group over the past three years, all of his contacts, notes, flyers, the works.

A cop approached the tank and brought us back to the processing area, one by one. At first I thought we were to be released. But in the fluorescent room I heard, “More fingerprints.” A female officer appeared. I hadn’t seen her before. She pressed my inky fingertips onto a small white card containing ten spaces. This was my sixth arrest. I’d never seen a card like this. I said,

“I thought we already did this.”

“Not this,” she said.

“What are these?”

“FBI,” she said.

This is excerpted from Greg King’s new book, The Ghost Forest: Racists, Radicals, and Real Estate in the California Redwoods.