“Bread and circuses” was coined by the satirist Juvenal to describe how the Roman Empire avoided social unrest: it kept the masses fed and entertained. But to justify the funding of a police state or near-police state, a threat — real or imagined — is also necessary. Empire needs a bogeyman.
The Romans had their barbarians at the gate; the Middle Ages had its witches; the United States in the 20th century had communism, famously scorned by Reagan as the “Evil Empire”; and now George W. Bush has his “Axis of Evil.”
Today the antagonist is Terrorism, a handy catchall that can be redefined at will — and can encompass enemies at home as well as enemies abroad. And if these bogeymen are thorns in the sides of the corporations, like pesky tree-huggers, all the better. Thus, according to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, “animal rights and environmental extremism is one of the FBI’s highest domestic terrorism priorities.”
The U.S. has its newest witches — and yes, they are green.
FBI launches a Green Scare. Led by the FBI, “Operation Backfire” began in 2004. It targeted mainly the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and activists supposedly involved with those groups, but used paid informants and warrantless spying to monitor a range of environmental organizations. On December 8, 2005, Operation Backfire went public in a big way, with seven arrests relating to arson and property damage in Oregon. More arrests and the addition of dubious conspiracy charges followed.
The Oregon defendants are Nathan Block, Joseph Dibee, Chelsea Gerlach, Daniel Gerard McGowan, Stanislas G. Meyerhoff, Josephine Sunshine Overaker, Jonathan Paul, Rebecca Rubin, Suzanne Savoie, Kendall Tankersley, Darren Todd Thurston, Kevin Tubbs, and Joyanne Zacher. Another defendant, William Rodgers, died in his prison cell on December 22, apparently of suicide.
A group trial is now tentatively set for October 31, 2006, at the federal courthouse in Eugene. (A Halloween date for a witch-hunt; who says the FBI has no sense of humor?) Charges include a total of 65 counts of arson, destruction of property, and conspiracy.
In Seattle, Briana Waters was arrested on March 30 and charged with involvement in a fire set in 2001 at a horticulture center at the University of Washington. Three others are also indicted in this case, for which a trial date is still pending.
In California, Eric McDavid, Zachery Jenson, and Lauren Weiner were arrested for an alleged conspiracy to destroy property; Rod Coronado was arrested for “demonstrating a destructive device”; and Justin Solondz, Darren Thurston, Joseph Dibee, and Rebecca Rubin were indicted in connection with a 2001 horse corral fire near Susanville. This trial also has yet to be scheduled.
In Denver, Chelsea Gerlach, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Josephine Overaker, and Rebecca Rubin were indicted on May 18 on charges related to the 1998 arson at a Vail ski resort. In New Jersey, the “SHAC 7” are also part of the Backfire dragnet (see story here).
These arrests were made on the basis of informant testimony. No physical evidence has been presented, and all of the defendants are pleading not guilty.
Picking off easy prey. Why is the FBI going after these targets as top-priority national threats? None of the actions with which they are charged resulted in injuries. Meanwhile, the feds ignore real terrorism. For example, since 1977, anti-abortion groups in the U.S. have perpetrated an estimated 59,000 acts of violence — including murder — yet these are not even on the FBI’s list of acts of domestic terrorism.
One answer to this puzzle is that eco-sabotage damages property. Low-income women seeking abortions aren’t in a position to buy influence in Washington, D.C., unlike the wealthy timber and pharmaceutical companies who routinely dispense favors and expect good protection. Operation Backfire is about class politics, not policing.
Groups like ALF, ELF, and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty are also easy targets, with narrow popular support. And there is a bonus: by painting property-destroying activists as terrorists, the entire environmental movement can be smeared. It’s no coincidence that the FBI also has been monitoring more “benign” organizations such as Greenpeace and the Humane Society.
What now? Evidence against the Green Scare victims is scant. Most are probably innocent of any crime. But the sentences being proposed if they are found guilty are harsh to the point of absurdity. The average sentence for murder is about 20 years; in the Backfire cases, the government is asking for mandatory minimums of 30 years. Some defendants face sentences of life-plus.
Heidi Boghosian, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, notes that, “Life sentences for property damage offenses where the actor has no intent to harm an individual are simply unconstitutional — the punishment does not fit the crime.”
If the government is allowed to get away with this fishing expedition against the Backfire defendants, it will only make it that much easier to repeat the feat against the next group in line. You can support the eco-activists by writing letters to those in prison and by demonstrating outside the trials. For more information, visit www.greenscare.org and portland.indymedia.org.
Although these defendants deserve your support, the same cannot be said for the acts of sabotage sanctioned by groups such as ELF and ALF. These actually harm the cause by bringing down government repression and alienating most working people.
What our besieged Earth fiercely needs is a broad-based, class-conscious environmental movement. Torching SUVs and tree farms are desperate individual acts with no long-term results. But building a determined mass movement could literally save the planet.
Gordon Frazier is a musician, graphic designer and dog lover. He moved in 1988 to Seattle from Eugene and has, on occasion, hugged trees.