A Documentary Drama About a Bay Area Legend
By Margot Pepper
Monthly Review, October 2012
The film captures the essence of a larger-than-life visionary in the Earth First! environmental movement that, like the Occupy movement, has no leaders, is predominantly non-violent, and values life as sacrosanct. Yet this is not just a film for those curious to catch up on environmental history and statistics—for instance, that deforestation causes 25 percent of greenhouse emissions. The compelling, true story plays like a Hollywood mystery drama.
Before global warming permeated contemporary consciousness, uncompromising Earth First! organizers and songwriters Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney popularized protests against clear-cutting in the 1980s. Embodying the credo, “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” Earth First! succeeded in saving tens of thousands of acres of old growth redwoods, including portions of the Cahto Wilderness and Trout Creek, and helped turn Headwaters Forest into a national preserve. Drawing on her expertise as a former union shop steward at the DC Bulk Mail Center, Bari spearheaded the Earth First! drive to build alliances between loggers, steelworkers, and environmentalists, and actually convinced loggers to join thousands of environmental activists in opposing corporate redwood logging.
One of the biggest offenders of unsustainable logging was Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz. According to Cherney, Earth First! unmasked Hurwitz as a criminal and drove Maxxam’s stock down from $43 to $3.
Then on May 24, 1990, as the two were driving along Park Boulevard, in Oakland, California, a nail-wrapped pipe bomb exploded under the driver’s seat, crumpling Bari’s Subaru, pulverizing her tailbone, and shattering her pelvis and backbone. Cherney suffered lesser injuries, including a ruptured eardrum. “I begged them to let me die,” Bari said, recalling the ordeal in the hospital. The FBI and Oakland police then placed the couple under arrest, accusing them of transporting explosives on the back seat floorboard. Thanks to photographs that showed that the explosion was directly under the driver’s seat, the charges were dropped.
The activists then turned around and sued the FBI in a suit entitled Bari v. Held. Richard Wallace Held was the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office at the time of the bombing. He had also headed the FBI COINTELPRO campaigns which disrupted the Black Panther Party (BPP) and American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1960s and ‘70s, fashioned after J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal counterintelligence operations, according to the Encyclopedia of American Law Enforcement by Michael Newton. These operations, Newton noted, resulted in the imprisonment of BPP leader Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) and AIM activist Leonard Peltier, both of whom are widely considered political prisoners framed—like Cherney and Bari—for crimes they did not commit. “From 1956 until 1971, the FBI stalked and sabotaged a wide range of groups—from the Communist Party to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” wrote Peter Christian Hall in the Huffington Post.
Why Target Judi Bari?
According to Earth First!, it was Bari’s success in building alliances between timber workers and environmentalists, as well as her demand for seizure of corporate property, that made her the target of multiple efforts to smear and discredit the organization. Presented with footage of a logging truck the size of a small dinosaur deliberately plowing into Bari’s car containing her two small children, viewers of this film cannot help wondering: Did logging companies take a vigilante approach to the opposition, protected by the FBI? While Bari was in the hospital, the FBI tore her home apart, terrorizing her children and dismantling their toys.
Bari refused to overlook the destruction of Native lands or culture. “Our struggle to save these forests has been a trail of tears and broken treaties,” Bari proclaimed in one of her speeches. She was first drawn to Earth First! by a philosophy that echoes some indigenous principles: “biocentrism or deep ecology, states that the Earth is not just here for human consumption. All species have a right to exist for their own sake, and humans must learn to live in balance with the needs of nature, instead of trying to mold nature to fit the wants of humans,” she wrote in Ms. Magazine in 1992. Today, this same philosophy is espoused by many pacifist-minded anarchists in the Occupy movement.
In the same article, Bari said she was drawn to Earth First! “because they were the only ones willing to put their bodies in front of the bulldozers and the chainsaws to save the trees.” Bari and Cherney did just this. A true warrior, according to Cherney, “is not somebody who takes a life—but someone who offers their life for the greater good of the community. Earth First! is a warrior society. We’re willing to offer ourselves up for the ability of the earth to sustain us with life.”
Like other key activists targeted by COINTELPRO—Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, AIM’s Leonard Peltier, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,—Judi Bari refused to isolate her issue from the economic system that created the problems she was working to solve. “You cannot seriously address the destruction of wilderness without addressing the society that is destroying it,” Bari said. “The system does not respond to us when we politely ask them.”
In 1996, she addressed a crowd at Headwaters: “When you go home you’re gonna take this spirit with you, and take it back to the forest where you live or whatever issue you work on, because this is all one issue, this is all one system, the same corrupt system that rewards Charles Hurwitz while they take welfare checks away from needy mothers. That’s what we’re here to protest.”
Was this the motivation for the bombing? “For those who think this government is waging a war on terror, this well-documented film will make them think again about whose side the government is on,” actor Ed Asner cautions in the film.
Who Done It?
Reminiscent of sketchy official claims about J.F.K.’s assassination, the film reveals an unsolved mystery: If it was not Bari and Cherney, who was the bomber? Considering all the film’s players, Maxxam and fellow logging companies do not lack motivation. Another prime suspect considered by the film is the FBI’s own Frank Doyle. One month prior to the bombing, Doyle was conducting an FBI “bomb school” training. In a recording made by FBI agents at the bomb scene, a male voice, which according to Cherney is possibly Doyle’s, says “This is it! This is the final exam!” Frank Doyle testified under oath that the voice was not his. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of lying about the bombing, resigned from the FBI, and is now a consulting bomb expert on Myth Busters. Cherney also credits himself with launching yet another FBI criminal’s show biz career: Special Agent Phil Sena, another FBI agent that Bari and Cherney successfully sued, who is now a commentator for the Discovery Channel’s FBI Files. Cherney has challenged Myth Busters to “dedicate an episode to investigating their own guy, (Doyle) using voice analysis techniques.” Cherney believes the FBI has been “running cover for the actual bomber” by attempting to destroy evidence in an open attempted murder investigation.
The Bari v. Held lawsuit charged Held, the FBI, and the Oakland Police Department with violating Bari and Cherney’s First Amendment freedoms and their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizures. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed claims against Held and two FBI higher-ups, ruling there was insufficient evidence, but found that the rest of the FBI defendants could be held for trial.
Weak though defiant, Bari gave her deposition on camera from her deathbed, just a month before she succumbed to cancer in 1997. The action-packed cinematic journey follows the trajectory of Bari’s responses to her attorney Denis Cunningham during her deposition.
Director Mary Liz Thomson, also the picture’s editor, seamlessly weaves together complex story threads from archival and contemporary footage, capturing the poetic beauty of the imperiled forests as well as offering moving glimpses of both adversarial loggers and activists. Thomson boldly contemplates opposing sides of controversial topics such as tree spiking—the practice of hammering rods or nails into tree trunks to discourage logging by both devaluing the lumber and threatening injury to loggers and millers. She captures sympathetic arguments on behalf of spikers, inspired by anarchist Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman’s book on the subject that instructed activists to warn loggers of the presence of sabotaged trees with notices and large “S” spray-painted on the trunks. Only one injury, possibly resulting from the practice, is known. Thomson gives equal time to the unlucky mill worker, George Alexander, whose grizzly accident prompted Earth First! activists including Cherney and Bari publicly to denounced the practice. In terms of editing, however, the film could do with a few less article headlines and folksong segments, even if they do document the period’s history and producer Darryl Cherney’s music portfolio.
Turing the Tables On the FBI
The film offers a surprising and uplifting resolution: these two uncompromising redwood warriors actually succeeded in turning the tables on the FBI. In 2002, a federal jury found that three FBI agents and three Oakland officers “framed the two activists. The jury awarded $4.4 million damages of which 80 percent was for violation of their First Amendment rights to speak out and organize politically in defense of the environment,” according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In 2004, in exchange for a reduction of $400,000 of the damages awarded, Bari and Cherney’s legal team secured Judi Bari Day for the City of Oakland, as well as an agreement that any discarded evidence be turned over to an independent lab for testing. Later, the FBI appealed the order. Now, two decades later, in a ruling on April 2, 2012, a judge ruled that the FBI was to transfer its evidence to the Oakland police, who will then deliver it to an independent lab.
Cherney, who believes “activists can be effective, in even a short period of time, by revealing truth,” multiplied the movement’s winnings by hiring Thomson to create and direct a film about Bari’s life. He only did this after turning down multiple Hollywood offers as he attempted to retain control of the message, as well as rejecting a Hollywood screenplay he commissioned that completely missed the mark.
While Thomson has a decade of experience making Hollywood films, she actually began filming Cherney and Bari a decade prior on the night of the blast for a short about Earth First!’s drug and alcohol-free “Redwood Summer” that first aired on PBS. With Thomson directing, Cherney got the best of both worlds: an uncompromising, intelligent film that does justice to the movement and Bari as a historical figure, yet one which also unfolds like a compelling Hollywood drama.
Besides skillfully presenting weighty subject matter, Thomson has managed to capture the movement’s humor, conveying its tenacity and resilience. One of the film’s funniest scenes is during an Earth First! struggle to save Cahto lands. Following the same anarchist tradition as many Occupy movement organizers, Earth First! adheres to a non-hierarchical, decentralized, model of organization with largely collective decision-making. In the true anarchist tradition, such activists believe in living out, to their best ability, the model of the kind of society they are hoping to create. When a state trooper arrives on the scene to break up the action, he inquires of the scene’s videographer, Andy Caffrey, “Who’s in charge of the group here, do you know?”
“We’ll there’s no one in charge,” Caffrey responds. “Every single person here is here on their own. They have their own plans for what they’re doing. So I think your best bet would be to ask, once the song is over, for everyone’s attention and to address the whole group.”
A while later we hear the trooper say, “OK so everyone’s refusing to leave, right?” To which someone in the group calls out, “OK let’s huddle…” referring to their consensus process in order to answer the trooper’s question.
With California Highway Patrol vehicles in pursuit, the activists casually roll boulders to block the road singing, “ Roll, roll, roll your logs gently down the hill, greedily, greedily, greedily, nature pays the bill.”
For those seeking a more just society, Who Bombed Judi Bari? provides the portrait of tirelessly maintaining hope in the face of seemingly unwinnable adversity. The film inspires those who seek to persevere against impossible odds. Earth First’s dancing and singing brings to life barren hillsides, the acres of tree stumps beneath their rhythmic steps like headstones to a universe unconversant in the language of corporate greed.
Let the dance continue, to remember Judi Bari.
Who Bombed Judi Bari? is currently showing in various festivals throughout the United States; see http://whobombedjudibari.com for dates and locations.