COINTELPRO’S latest victims: radical environmentalists

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On May 24, 1990, Earth First!ers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were driving in Oakland, California when a pipe bomb exploded in their car and sent the two activists to the hospital. Bari was there for over a month. Cherney was treated for a lacerated cornea and released-only to be arrested immediately by the Oakland police, who charged him and Bari with “illegal possession and transport of explosives.”

The prosecution had no evidence and eventually dropped its case. But first they ensured that Bari and Cherney were thoroughly smeared in the media as “eco-terrorists” who accidentally bombed themselves. And the FBI and Oakland police never managed to find any suspects other than the victims.

But suspects there are, obvious ones. Foremost among them is the FBI, acting in the interests of the timber industry.

Bari and Cherney were central organizers of Redwood Summer, an ambitious campaign to halt the logging of much of California’s last redwood forests by three timber giants: MAXXAM Inc., Louisiana-Pacific, and Georgia-Pacific.

MAXXAM had acquired a junk bond debt of $750 million in its hostile 1985 takeover of Pacific Lumber. The corporations’ stake in squelching resistance to their clear-cutting plans was high. Bari and Cherney were bombed eight days before the scheduled kick-off of Redwood Summer.

In the previous months, they had made crucial headway in breaking down divisions between environmentalists and working loggers and had won important allies in the feminist, people of color, and lesbian/gay movements. Bari, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World General Executive Board, had been a labor organizer for seven years on the East Coast.

A month before the bombing, Bari convinced a majority of regional Earth First!ers to renounce tree-spiking, a dangerous, divisive practice that had loggers up in arms. In the weeks that followed, Bari, Cherney, and their colleagues were deluged with death threats and fake press releases issued in their name.

In one instance, Bari and three other women received a letter that said, “We have distributed your phone number to every organized hate group that could possibly have hostile tendencies toward ilk of your kind. No longer can sleazy dykes like you operate with impunity.” Cherney and four other men got similar mail, adjusted for gender.

These tactics echo the FBI counter-intelligence programs (COINTELPRO) against the Black Panther Party, Native Americans, and others in the ’60s and ’70s. Ward Churchill, author of the invaluable study Agents of Repression, describes the FBI goal in these incursions: “First, it targets key activists, then it discredits the organization and breaks the morale of its participants.”

But Bari and Cherney are undeterred. They both continue to organize for environmental and other causes. Redwood Summer attracted 2,000-3,000 participants and helped Earth First! claim a few victories over the logging companies. Perhaps even more importantly, Bari and Cherney’s message of cross-movement solidarity is gaining adherents inside the ecology movement.

Not even dynamite can stop an idea whose time has come. 0

Thanks to Z magazine and the Industrial Worker for material in this article.

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