Environmental Warrior : Remembering Judi Bari

Judi Bari celebrates March 3, 1995, outside the Oakland Federal Courthouse after winning a round in her civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland Police. Photo by Xiang Xing Zhou / San Francisco Daily Journal.

Earth First! and the FBI:
The bombing of Judi Bari

By Penelope Rosemont / The Rag Blog / May 17, 2010

Twenty years ago — on the 24th of May, 1990 — sensationalist headlines across the country announced the arrest of two leading environmentalists, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. Their car had been bombed — but it was they who were arrested, charged with their own bombing! The environmental activist movement and Earth First! in particular were branded as terrorist organizations.

This incident fell just after the very successful Earth First! campaign to save the old growth Redwoods, labeled “Redwood Summer,” that brought in young people from all over the country. They sang, they sat down in the roads, and they filled the jails like the old time Wobbly organizers, like Civil Rights activists, like the Peace Movement. It looked like the timber industry was in for big trouble.

But then the car bombing. What followed was an interesting and frightening revelation of political intrigue, collusion among the police, the FBI, and the timber companies.

This remarkable history is being observed with a series of “Revolutionary Ecology” activities and an historical exhibit in Berkeley on May 23, 2010, and with an anniversary observance in Oakland on May 24.

Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney filed a civil rights lawsuit against four FBI agents and three Oakland police officers, and in a landmark decision on June 11, 2002, a federal jury found unanimously against six of the seven defendants, saying they had attempted to frame the defendants in an effort to stop their political activities. The jury awarded $4.4 million in damages.

In an editorial on June 13, 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle said that the verdict “reminds law enforcement advocates that Americans are not panicked by the threat of terrorism into abandoning their civil rights… The overzealous pursuit of [Bari and Cherney] was unacceptable — and unconstitutional — regardless of what one thinks of the activists’ politics.”

Attorney Dennis Cunningham of the People’s Law Office in Chicago was interviewed by Michael James on “Live from the Heartland,” at Chicago’s Heartland Cafe, June 6, 2004.

James asks Cunningham about the outcome of the Judi Bari case, and for “background on who she was and what the case was about?”

Dennis Cunningham replies,

Judi Bari was an environmentalist organizer with Earth First!. She and Darryl Cherney, another EF! Organizer, were bombed in their car in Oakland. A pipe bomb was put under the driver’s seat and rigged with a motion device that would ignite on the motion of the car. When the bomb went off the cops came — the FBI came right away — and they told the cops ‘we know these people, they are terrorist suspects, we’ve been investigating them, and we believe this was their own bomb and they were on their way to plant it someplace — you should bust them.’ Oakland cops say ‘okay boss’ and did.

They arrested them and charged them with possession and transportation of an illegal explosive device — it made headlines all over the country — the front page of The New York Times, and everywhere else — it was the top of the news around the country. They were vilified as terrorists by virtue of those headlines and by connecting them to the bomb, which in fact had been used to try to kill them or kill her. Judi Bari was a leading voice and an amazingly skilled, experienced, and persuasive organizer and public speaker — those who planted the bomb were out to shut her up.

The bombed car. Photo from Judi Bari Web Photo Gallery.

Michael James asked Cunningham why he thought Earth First! was the main environmental organization getting headlines at that time, and added that he heard they “had been chaining themselves to trees to trying to stop the cutting of the redwoods.”

Cunningham replied,

True, true. They were organizing for a summer project. They called it Redwood Summer. They modeled it after the 1960s Civil Rights Project, Mississippi Summer — they were trying to bring people, students, and activists from all over the country to the redwood region to do direct action in the summer of 1990. They wanted to try to slow down the timber harvest and protect the old-growth redwoods.

A big local timber company in Humboldt County had been bought up by corporate raiders with junk bonds, to pay off the junk bonds, they tripled the timber harvest. There was an initiative put on the ballot for November that would have limited the clear cutting and the kind of destructive logging that they do now, which fills up the streams with silt and kills the fish, and kills the fishing industry, and leaves the hillsides unstable and prone to mud slides — a disaster. After the bombing, the timber companies hired a Washington public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to fight the ballot initiative.

Cunningham continued,

And then as soon as the bombing had taken place Timber Companies labeled the bill ‘the bomber initiative… terrorists want to pass this thing, it’s too radical. Earth First! shouldn’t be allowed to dictate public policy.’ The Initiative ultimately lost by a point and a half.

A researcher concluded that there was more than three billion dollars in timber revenues that the companies had been able to realize in the 12 years since the bombing, that they wouldn’t have got if the initiative had passed. So there was a big motivation to shut Judi up, besides that she and EF! were reaching out to the timber workers.

Judi was trying to make common cause between the environmentalists and the workers, saying, ‘where you gonna work when the trees are gone?’ The timber industry is clear cutting as fast as they can. In Mendocino County at that time 95% of big trees were already gone, and they closed mills.

Judi led an Earth First! contingent and with a group of workers went to a county board meeting right after the big timber company in Mendocino announced it was closing the mills. They got up at the county board meeting and said that the board should take over the mill, preserve the jobs, keep the economy stable. For the timber companies that was pretty much the last straw. But they didn’t want to make a martyr out of her.

They hoped to shut her up for good. They thought they did, but she didn’t die in the bombing. It was a miracle she didn’t die. But then they had her accused of the bombing. Within three hours and five minutes of the explosion, they were under arrest.

James asked Cunningham when he got involved with the case. He replied that “Bill Simpich, a lawyer in San Francisco and Oakland, had started a suit against the FBI and the Oakland Police for false arrest, but that after he joined the group of defense attorneys they were able to reverse the charges so, in fact, they were able to accuse the Oakland police and the FBI of arresting Bari and Cherney on purpose in order to discredit them in a COINTELPRO type operation.

Cunningham explained that “COINTELPRO stands for Counter Intelligence Program — a J. Edgar Hoover undercover dirty operation that the cops used and that the FBI used against the Black Panthers, against the anti-war movement, against the Communist Party, against who knows…”

James commented that it was often used against anyone who challenged them.

Cunningham added,

Yes, everyone who seemed to present a popular threat against the status quo, they did what they could to mess up their work; and they didn’t have any boundaries of legality on what they allowed themselves to do. So there were frame-ups… the murder of Fred Hampton arose out of COINTELPRO operations…

We had a lawsuit that lasted 10 years and went to trial in 2002, in trial for about six weeks, and we were waiting for the jury for another three weeks. The jury came back with a 4.4 million total award for the two of them. It was half punitive damages and half what they call compensatory damages.

About 80% of the total of the money was assigned to the First Amendment cause — meaning that the claim that it had been done on purpose to mess up their political work was the thing that most appealed to that jury, and they gave the most damages for that. It was going to be appealed, and then we started talking about settling and getting it over with since by then it was 12 years of litigation.

James pointed out that Judi had since died of cancer, and never got to see this victory.

Cunningham added that she had endured incredible suffering,

Judi died in 1997 from breast cancer. She had been horribly injured in the bombing. She was crippled, and she had a lot of pain. She kept right on doing her political work and got deeply involved in the case because she felt it was really important to fight back against the FBI attack on the environmental movement.

The FBI were so intent on creating the effect they wanted — headlines of the arrest of the victims as the perpetrators — that they really didn’t bother to cover their tracks very well…

Michael James’ interview with James Cunningham will be excerpted in a book now under development by Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company.

Today it seems everybody is an “environmentalist” — but it doesn’t seem to mean anything except that they want a car with better mileage, and may have a recycle bin. That’s it, they fill up the world with more and more junk and the oceans with plastic bottles. Even capitalism has adopted “green” as the new thing since the financial and real estate crash, trying to exploit what minimal interest people have in preserving the planet.

The great tragedy of the Gulf Oil Spill has not yet been felt. The spill is still going on! Why aren’t BP officials being arrested and charged with reckless homicide? The ocean is being killed, so why aren’t the army, the navy, young unemployed kids, being mobilized to do some good for a change and try to clean this thing up. Oil, like water and air, should belong to the people, it should be used wisely, not wasted.

Such actions would honor the legacy of Judi Bari.

Here is more about the upcoming activities in the Bay Area:

  • On Sunday, May 23, an event dubbed “Revolutionary Ecology” (the title of one of Judi’s best essay collections) will take place at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, with a panel of speakers, music, film and an exciting historical exhibit.
  • On Monday, May 24, the actual anniversary, people from near and far will gather at the site where a motion-triggered bomb exploded under Judi’s car seat, nearly killing her and forever changing the Earth First! movement. The location is on Park Blvd. in Oakland just south of the MacArthur Freeway.
  • [Penelope Rosemont is a writer, editor, publisher, radical activist, and surrealist artist. She is the author of Dreams and Everyday Life: André Breton, Surrealism, Rebel Worker, SDS and the Seven Cities of Cibola, and the editor of Surrealist Women : An International Anthology.]

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    Judi Bari always livened up rallies with her fiddle. Photo from Judi Bari Web Photo Gallery.

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    6 Responses to Environmental Warrior : Remembering Judi Bari

    1. Penelope, thanks so much for this report — Judi Bari’s story needs to be known by more people. I hope there is a HUGE turn-out for the anniversary of the bombing, that goes on for hours; will you write about that for us, too?? And what a beautiful photo of her with her fiddle — a fighter AND a fiddler, a legacy worth remembering, indeed!

    2. Ray Reece says:

      Double dittos, Penelope, to Mariann’s comment above. Your piece is a touching reminder of what real heroism is all about in these dangerous times.

    3. Didier says:

      Yes, please, can you tell the whole story, Penelope ? I’ll do my best to make it known in France.

    4. Nick Wilson says:

      Thanks for this excellent write-up by Penelope. I’m an old 60s Austinite who moved to the California redwood region and experienced the timber wars up close and personal. I was a friend and associate of Judi Bari’s and a journalist who attended and reported on the 2002 trial in her suit against the FBI and Oakland Police. I’ll be attending the commemorative events in Berkeley and Oakland next weekend.

      There are a couple of corrections to the story:

      1) The bombing on May 24, 1990, took place while Judi was organizing for Redwood Summer, not after the summer protests as the article says.

      2) The link to the Judi Bari website at the end of the article is correct in print, but the link itself is malformed and does not work. The correct URL is http://www.judibari.org

      The timing of the bombing is important to understanding the strategy behind it. A wire story about plans for Redwood Summer and Judi’s role as an organizer had just gone out nationwide in April 1990, and responses and queries were coming in from all over the country. Judi was just starting a recruiting trip to college campuses when she was bombed.

      A few days after the bombing, an anonymous letter to a local newspaper claimed credit for it, purporting to be from a crazy anti-abortion fundamentalist calling himself “The Lord’s Avenger.” To establish credibility, the letter included details of the construction of the bomb.

      The letter is widely regarded as a hoax intended to throw suspicion away from the timber industry. Also the entire last page of the letter threatened all those who would come to the summer forest demonstrations that they would suffer the same fate as “the demon Judi Bari.” It was clearly intended to squelch Redwood Summer by scaring people away from participating, either because they believed the FBI lies that the environmental leaders were violent terrorists, or because they believed that crazy fundamentalists might attack them.

      Clearly the letter served the interests of the logging corporations, and I believe it was authored by agents of PR giant Hill & Knowlton, which is known to have been working for the timber corporations to defeat a logging reform initiative on the November 1990 ballot that would have shut down corporate liquidation logging and stopped them from sucking several billion dollars in profits out of Northern California’s redwood forests over the following 20 years. I believe H&K operatives set up the bombing and framing of Judi Bari as part of a strategy to turn public opinion against environmentalists and the ballot initiative.

      Testimony and other evidence in the Bari vs. FBI trial showed that the FBI and Oakland Police never made any genuine effort to investigate the bombing, other than trying to pin it on the victims. They did not investigate written death threats that Judi received before the bombing and turned over to the police. They didn’t want to solve the crime because they were likely in on a plan to frame the victims. Those behind the bombing of Judi Bari are still running free today.

    5. Nick Wilson says:

      (Continued from my previous comment)

      The person with the most to lose if the ballot logging reform initiative passed was Houston corporate raider Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation. In a 1985 hostile takeover, Hurwitz gained control of Pacific Lumber Company, a family owned timber company that owned the vast majority of the remaining virgin or old-growth redwoods left in the world.

      Hurwitz’ history was to use junk bond financing to take over “undervalued” companies and then liquidate the victims for a profit, often also leaving creditors holding worthless stock after the company was driven into bankruptcy.

      That’s what Hurwitz was doing to Pacific Lumber in 1990, but liquidating the old redwoods would take time, 20 to 25 years of accelerated clear cutting. Hurwitz completed the liquidation in 2009 after extracting conservatively over $2 billion in profits.

      Clearly, Hurwitz would have been ruined financially if the 1990 reform initiative had passed, because it would have banned clearcutting, placed a moratorium on cutting old-growth forests, ended industry domination of the state forestry board which made the rules governing logging, and imposed significant financial penalties for violating the rules. And it would have done this only five years into a plan that ultimately took 24 years to finish.

      But Hurwitz and his allies Louisiana Pacific and Georgia Pacific succeeded in beating the initiative. All three logging corporations have now finished their liquidation plans and have sold off the battered remains of hundreds of thousands of acres of clearcut redwood forests. It was a classic case of “cut and run” logging on a grand scale. Accelerated, profit-driven logging with heavy equipment on steep and erodible hillsides resulted in siltation of salmon spawning grounds, nearly wiping out the native salmon population and ruining the northern California salmon fishery.

      For the first time since 1852, when whites first settled the northern California coast to log the giant redwoods, there is no sawmill left operating on the Mendocino County coast, where I live. Hundreds of third and fourth generation timber industry workers — loggers, truckers and sawmill workers — were laid off and many have moved away because there is no other blue-collar work available except minimum wage tourist industry jobs.

      This is exactly what environmentalists, Judi Bari most prominent among them, predicted would happen if the corporate timber barons were allowed to continue unchecked. This was Judi’s message to the loggers and other workers: “You are cutting yourself and your children out of a job. The bosses are not your friends. Join us in trying to stop corporate liquidation logging and you will also be protecting your future.”

      As a closing note, beware of a smear book titled “The Secret Wars of Judi Bari.” It is a trash for cash pseudo-biography published in 2005 by the right-wing nonprofit Encounter Books and funded by the ultra-right Bradley Foundation, which also brought you “The Real Anita Hill,” the smear book defaming the woman lawyer who spoke out against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings on his appointment to the Supreme Court. For more about the smear attack on Judi see the Friends of Judi Bari website at http://www.fojb.org

      Read Judi’s own book “Timber Wars” a compilation of her essays and speeches published in 1994 by the Common Courage Press collective. You can also read many of Judi’s writings and hear her speeches at http://www.judibari.org

    6. Anonymous says:

      During my first trip to the state of Washington I hiked up a rise in a lovely woods. Upon achieving the crest I viewed what, Hell? A sci-fi movie set? Actually, a nightmare landscape of clear cut timberland, sans trees, grasses, brush or any visible wildlife. Only an army of stumps remained, standing silent witness to the devastation.

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