Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Judi Bari and Earth First!

The CNS interview with Judi Bari focuses on the efforts her group, Earth First!, to slow and eventually eliminate the clear-cutting of old growth redwood forests in Northern California. This strategy was multi-faceted and multi-leveled, in that the group sought to achieve goals through direct action and legal action while engaging and enlisting environmentalists and loggers. The group was a grassroots organization, operating almost entirely exclusive of large environmental groups like the Sierra Club.
Bari herself had “seen the light” while working as a commercial carpenter building “Yuppie houses” out of old growth redwood. Starting Earth First! from the finished product end of the business, she was hearing primarily the complaints of the environmentalists, who she said held the loggers themselves in contempt despite the fact that the loggers had been trying to fight clear-cutting for years.

While it is the interest of the big environmental groups to purchase and preserve wilderness areas, the loggers’ interests were their own economic well-being. Logging as a profession was multi-generational and often the only means of employment in the sparsely populated counties where Bari worked. She makes the point that unionizing millworkers and loggers at the time of her activism would have been useless, as the big corporations who were doing the clear-cutting would simply abandon their operations. While this surely would have satisfied those solely interested in the environment, Bari understood that workers certainly would never organize only to lose their jobs.

Her solution was to propose a legal push for sustainable foresting and the enforcement of existing legislation (The Forest Practices Act). Meanwhile, activists engaged in direct actions, such as occupying trees and chaining themselves to logging equipment. This latter proved effective as it then gave the activists a chance to engage the loggers directly. Also, after the group publicly renounced tree-spiking (a direct action with potentially fatal consequences for millworkers), the coalition of activists and workers grew.

After winning several court battles, the corporations (together with their always-willing accomplices, the FBI) coordinated a counter-attack. Using the unconstitutional practice of COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Protocol), the FBI and the corporations’ PR firms attempted to break up Earth First! from within. Forged letters were sent to various media outlets, and from member to member, in an attempt to create rifts within the group. The FBI and the PR firms also attempted to paint the group as a terrorist organization, despite its record of non-violence.

The efforts of the FBI and the corporations culminated in the attempted assassination of Bari and colleague Daryl Cherney. The FBI then arrested and charged the victims with being blown up by their own bomb, despite photographic evidence that the bomb had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat and had been triggered by the motion of the car. Bari and Cherney sued the FBI for civil rights violations. Bari, however, never fully recovered from the attack. She did some writing and spoken-word performances in 1994 and 1995, but developed breast cancer and died in 1997. Cherney and Bari’s estate won the court case against the FBI and succeeded in getting Congress to investigate the FBI’s methods in regards to environmental activist groups.

Philosophically, Bari shared with this author her opinion of one notion that has plagued the movement for decades. As she put it, “Unfortunately, the language of the theoreticians is often so dense that you have to wade through it with hip boots. It's actually kind of funny the way academic Marxists talk about the working class in language that is designed to exclude working people from the conversation.” (p. 27) She goes on to mention the same John Bellamy Foster that we’ve spent so much time trashing, in that he blames working people for being too ignorant to analyze class analysis. Of course, the working class is quite often victimized by establishment propaganda. However, academics are also often victimized by their own certainty in their positions, without ever having been “in the (expletive)”. Bari points out that her efforts led to her own assassination attempt. She also mentions loggers that stood up to the corporations and were subsequently blacklisted, and often ostracized from their own families.

Clearly, movements like Earth First! have the potential to be the most successful, given their different levels of analysis, recruiting and action. However, real social change is going to raise alarms among very powerful people who have no qualms about murdering to keep their power. A “soft” transition is obviously more likely than outright Marxist revolution, but it will not come without cost or casualties.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Roberts claim that EF! and groups like is have the most potential to be successful. I think part of the reason it is so successful is because of its locality. Bari sees the loggers as individuals and not just the cog in a machine she is trying to fix.
    I particularly was impressed by Bari's statement: "Social/environmental issues are too closely linked to even begin to separate them." She points out that people will only try fixing one part of a problem - like saving the redwoods - but neglect the social ramifications - like an entire town losing their livelihoods.
    I enjoyed this article because Bari offers solutions, which I like. She also doesn't praise Marxism as the solution to all of our problems, but rather social/environmental changes. Or, as Robert put it, a "soft transition."
    In short, Judi Bari is pretty cool because 1) she understands that environmental problems have more than one facet and are deeply rooted socially, economically, and politically; 2)she organized a strike to help form a union for 17,000 grocery clerks (being one for years I can definitely will her a high five).