The Harbinger Home Page
Front Page

October 6, 1998

A Violent Streak

by Woody Justice

You may have seen it in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago a two-paragraph Associated Press blurb about an Earth First! forest activist dying as a result of being struck by a falling tree. Sure, trees fall on their own, and with no amplifying information (though it was available) we are led to believe it was accidental with no contributing circumstances; just another man-bites-dog story. There was even a significant undertone of hilarity in some responses to that story that I heard, such as "ha-ha, see what good it does to try and help Nature!" Well, the tree that fatally struck 23-year-old David "Gypsy" Chain on September 17 didn't just fall, it was cut by a man with a saw.

The young man from Texas was trying to halt the logging of the Headwaters Grove by Pacific Lumber near Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park in Northern California. This has been a long-running and important cause among dedicated forest activists, because redwoods grow only in a small range in this one area of the world. Forest activism has always been nonviolent, as have all other aspects of the environmental community -- at least on the side of the protesters. Violence toward the "greens" is not new, and unfortunately seems to be on the increase. And whether or not anyone disagrees with their cause, he or she still does not have the option to risk the others' lives.

Occupying a strategic location was always as much a part of civil rights and peace protests as the marches were. Putting oneself in front of a billyclub or police dog or in a nuclear testing zone is the legacy upheld by all these forest "actions" where passive resistance is the key. Civil disobedience, or CD, as practiced by environmental activists usually requires trespass (if one can be said to "trespass" on public property) and using one's body, either "locked-down" or out of reach, as an impediment to whatever exercise is being disputed. Another delaying tactic is the game of "cat-and-mouse," in which protesters make their presence in the logging area known, then avoid apprehension by stealthily using the woods for cover.

A lock-down requires some device either difficult to cut or inaccessible to cutting tools: U-shaped bicycle locks made of hardened alloys fit around the neck or waist, securing the protester to heavy equipment or a closed gate or door; by reaching through sections of pipe, individuals or chains of bodies are secured with handcuffs hidden inside concrete-filled steel barrels, and sometimes these drums are buried beneath the road. Anti-logging tactics also include tripods and tree-sitting. A tripod's legs block vehicles from traversing an access road, and a protester is suspended out of reach; cutting one of the three legs would cause the device to fall, injuring the occupant. Tree-huggers sometimes chose to sit 100 feet or more off the ground on platforms or in hammocks suspended from trees marked for death or others nearby; again, the strategy is to risk personal harm while hoping their opponents practice self-control.

If it sounds disturbing, it should. They are stuck in inconvenient and uncomfortable positions, exposed to the elements for days and months -- one Earth First!er named Julia "Butterfly" Hill has been perched in a redwood since last December -- and too often, to the aggression of company and law- enforcement employees. However, they are not glassy-eyed zombies in some demoniacal trance; the people I've met are cooperative, generous and energetic; they feel good that they have something positive to which they can contribute; in fact, they offer a ray of hope when so many young people today are inclined to either whine or threaten. These volunteers give of themselves in hopes of publicizing the travesty of commercial logging on public lands.

In addition to enduring the heat and cold, thirst and hunger, locked-down protesters are defenseless to the attentions of fired-up blue-collar workers and "peace" officers. After the verbal threats and intimidation, the removal of their food, water and warm clothing, defenseless against kicks, punches and the "pain compliance" holds (when joints are stressed in reverse directions or hard objects are ground into pressure points) and pepper-spray, the activists almost always end up in jail and then have to pay fines and court costs. To the greens, it seems that the violence is escalating, due to encouragement by timber companies and anti-environmental "wise-use" organizations, the absence of protection by the police and federal agents, including the US Forests Service's expanding Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) division, and the lack of public indignation.

The international group Greenpeace first made headlines with their protests against nuclear-bomb testing in the 1970s. Though they are definitely confrontational, the news spin always makes their nonviolent direct-action campaigns sound violent. Too bad their sacrifices do not enjoy the same coverage. In July 1985, the sailboat Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French Secret Service agents while at anchor in New Zealand waters. The boat sank, and Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira drowned. After initial French denials and an illegitimate official inquiry, it was finally admitted that they bombed the boat under direct orders of the French Prime Minister; two saboteurs were arrested and briefly detained.

While organizing for the 1990 Redwood Summer activism campaign in California, two Earth First!ers were first victims of a shrapnel-loaded pipe bomb planted in their car; then victims of an illegitimate investigation, despite overwhelming evidence that the bomb wasn't theirs after all. Rather than seek out the guilty party, the FBI dropped the case after two and a half years. The activists filed suit against the FBI, claiming lies and falsified evidence, and Alameda County investigators admitted that contrary to available facts the Feds were not interested in treating this as an attempted murder but instead as justification for an intense surveillance campaign against environmental activists. (There is even evidence that the FBI conducted a "bomb school" on timber company land in Northern California a month before the attack.) The countersuit continues even though one of the bombing victims, Judi Bari, died of cancer this year after a long, painful and incomplete recovery from the incident.

Other violent acts include arson such as that suffered by Greenpeace Toxics Campaign director Pat Costner. In 1991, her Arkansas home went up in flames, but the half-hearted investigation went nowhere. Since then, the anti-environmental backlash has increased as it also shifts from anonymous covert action into direct aggression by individuals. It appears that transgressors have little to fear from USFS LEOs and local peace officers, and are encouraged by a small but vocal body of "wise-users" that advocate intimidation and violence..

Sucker Creek, part of a long-term anti-logging protest in Southern Oregon's critical coho salmon habitat, has been the site of numerous violent altercations. During Cascadia Summer in May 1997, LEOs stood by while chainsaws were run in close proximity to locked-down protesters. A Sierra Club activist was attacked and beaten by loggers, and his camera was destroyed when they realized he had videotaped that and other incidents. He escaped with the footage (and bruises and sprains) while the LEO chief (caught on a second camera) screamed at the protesters, "Now we're going to come down hard. I'm going to turn these f--kers loose on you guys any way and every way, and somebody is going to get killed! Do you understand? I ain't going to give a f--k!" Six protesters, but no loggers, were arrested, and one activist received a concussion after being brutalized and held in solitary confinement for eighteen hours.

In June 1997, a group protesting construction of a city-subsidized parking garage in Eugene, Oregon climbed trees doomed to fall and were assaulted with pepper spray by police in fire department buckets. When the chemicals didn't seem to have a rapid enough effect, it was aimed into protesters' ears and mouths, and officers lifted the protesters' clothing to spray directly into underarm and groin areas. At the Headwaters area that same fall, nine locked-down protesters were assaulted with pepper spray at point- blank range and had Q-tips doused with the chemical applied directly to their eyeballs. Police videos captured the event and it briefly raised public outrage when the footage was shown on CNN. Charges were filed against the Humboldt County Sheriff and Eureka PD but the two-week trial concluded in August with a deadlocked jury; the new trial date is November 16. (The occurrences are really too numerous to list here, but you can find them outside the mainstream press and in David Helvarg's book War against the Greens: The "Wise Use" Movement, the New Right, and Anti-Environmental Violence, published by Sierra Club Books.)

The Headwaters, where David Chain was killed, is a prime example of Federal forestry gone wrong. Owned by Pacific Lumber, the 60,000 acre Headwaters Forest Wilderness became just another expendable resource when MAXXAM acquired the company and CEO Charles Hurwitz started raping the land to pay off the junk-bond debt owed to his insider-trading buddies. His name should sound familiar; he made the news with the failure of his of Texas Savings and Loan, costing the Federal government (i.e., taxpayers) $1.6 million, and is the object of a recovery suit brought by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS). Hurwitz's forestry practices in Owl Creek also violated the Endangered Species Act, and a lawsuit in Federal court ordered him to pay $1.2 million. Mudslides caused by Hurwitz's clearcutting have wiped out many people's homes in Stafford, California, and residents of Elk Creek are suing Hurwitz because of flooding caused by his logging that is threatening to wash away their homes.

It seems logical that an individual owing so much should be ordered to trade his holdings in order to reduce his debt, but Hurwitz was recently rewarded with a deal to sell 6,000 acres of the Headwaters (and not prime intact redwood forest, either) for $380 million in Federal and state funds. Earth First! and other environmental groups demand a debt-for-nature swap and prosecution of the whole MAXXAM gang for the banking failure. Darryl Cherney, Earth First! activist and survivor of the pipe-bomb attack noted above, leads the cry for economic justice alongside environmental protection: "Our motto is Debt for Nature and Jail for Hurwitz. The only thing to negotiate is how many years Hurwitz, Munitz, et al. will spend behind bars." (Cherney maintains a website listing the criminal history of Hurwitz and his collusion with other power mongers.)

So back to what we weren't told about the "accident" at Headwaters. A story in The Santa Rosa Democrat (one of the few news sources to write fairly about the car-bomb incident) reported that Pacific Lumber President John Campbell claimed that the company "had no knowledge" that Chain and others were nearby in the danger area, that "no one was around" on Thursday morning and that the loggers "worked for five hours without interruption before the body was discovered." An article the following day had PL admitting that the logger had been aware of the presence of protesters early in the day Thursday, but had not seen or heard anyone "for at least an hour." This was after Earth First! claimed to have a video showing that the logger who cut the tree can be heard threatening the activists' lives less than an hour before the tragedy, shouting obscenities and vowing to get his "pistol." Several other Earth First! activists were just six feet away from Chain when the tree came crashing down.

Earth First! has regularly confronted loggers for a decade with no fatalities. The activists feel that increasing aggression has been sanctioned by the timber companies, with employees encouraged to frighten and intimidate trespassing protesters. Because the tree that struck Chain fell sideways onto the steep slope where it was cut, even though standard timber practice is to fell trees downhill on steep slopes, Earth First!er Angela Wartes said she believes loggers targeted the activists. While they aren't contending murder, activists claim that it was a reckless action and another example of increasing physical intimidation. Sheriff's investigators plan an overflight to see if a pattern of falling trees supports contentions by environmentalists that the logger knowingly cut redwoods in the direction of Chain and other protesters.

Activists demanded State and Federal oversight into the investigation, suspecting that Pacific Lumber and local authorities can't be trusted to honestly investigate Chain's death. Their fears may be justified; Thursday's edition of the Press Democrat reported that authorities have released test results indicating that the slain activist smoked marijuana within thirty days of his death. The attorney representing Chain's family criticized authorities for releasing results of the preliminary drug tests and the fact that drug tests weren't performed on the logger. He complained that it is "another attempt to smear environmental activists."

Meanwhile Earth First! is being criticized for using dangerous tactics that put people at risk of death and injury. Cherney and others say recruits like Chain and Hill are first trained in nonviolent tactics before being sent out to the woods. When the courts and resource-protection authorities ignore scientific recommendations and change the laws to eliminate public protest, such direct action is the only course open to them. Their goal is to slow logging while attempting to engage timber workers in conservation. Often loggers react angrily to the intruders, and view their presence as a threat to their jobs and livelihoods, a conviction intensified by company managers who promote a campaign of violence and hostility against the youthful intruders.

The environmental community isn't going to give up. They feel that David Chain's death should not be taken in isolation but rather seen as a consequence of a fabric of violence that is pervasive throughout the logging community which includes activities of the Forest Service, the logging industrialists, and the local, regional, and federal law enforcement agencies that support them. They call for nonviolence training for all USFS employees who are middle managers and above. They are available to provide the nonviolence trainers or to consult with the USFS in the implementation of the training program. Additional requests are directives to eliminate the use of chemical agents, pressure and pain compliance techniques, and similar physical intimidation when dealing with nonviolent protesters, and letters to all logging companies decrying any activities that they or their employees may take which would encourage violence in relationship to nonviolent protesters.

Check out Darryl Cherney's concise history of Charles Hurwitz at

Earth First!'s website is at

Follow the unfolding story of death in the redwoods at The Santa Rosa Press Democrat webpage

Greenpeace information can be found at and

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001