A Conversation with Earth First! Activist Judi Bari

A Conversation with Earth First! Activist Judi Bari

by Christine Keyser

The spirit of Mother Jones lives on today in the backwoods of Northern California. The North Coast’s most eloquent anti-chainsaw organizer, Earth First’s! Judi Bari, is back at work defending the ancient forests from corporate slaughter after surviving a crippling car bomb in Oakland last May and the FBI’s subsequent attempt to pin the blame on her and her companion Darryl Cherney. Just as the grandmother of the American labor movement fought King Coal a century ago, Bari has taken on the Big Timber barons armed with a bullhorn and a diehard credo, “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.”

Ban’s battlecry has reverberated from California’s redwood forest to Wall Street to embrace a broad-based progressive agenda rooted in a profound reverence for the earth and its creatures. For the chief architect of 1990’s Redwood Summer— the celebrated nonviolent campaign to save the vanishing remnants of California’s once verdant old-growth coastal forest—stopping environmental destruction has profound urgency.

Bari has grafted environmentalism onto peace, social justice, equal rights and other progressive concerns. A former Maryland labor organizer, she is a longtime crusader for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden in factories, fields and offices across the land.

Bari has put her organizing skills to work on the North Coast building coalitions with timber workers to fight corporate abuse. She founded a Mendocino chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World and represented a group of mill workers who were poisoned by leaking PCBs at Georgia Pacific’s Fort Bragg pulp mill.

In a wide-ranging interview at her rustic “hippie shack” in the backwoods of Mendocino County where she lives with her two young daughters, Bari shared her perspectives on the impact of Redwood Summer, progressive coalitionbuilding in the 1990s, the “feminization” of Earth First!, and the departure in August of Earth First! co-founder, Dave Foreman, who, in a parting swipe, publicly denounced Bari and her feminist compatriots for injecting “class struggle” and “humanism” into an organization he conceived to preserve wilderness.

Looking back on the last year, how do you feel about the outcome of Redwood Summer?

I think Redwood Summer succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The most conservative measure is that 3,000 people participated. The summer before no more than 150 people participated. So that’s quite an expansion. People came from all over the country, including many students and people who were doing firsttime activism. We radicalized a lot of people. One of the ideas of Redwood Summer was to plant the seeds and pass the torch to the next generation. We’ve gotten calls from people who have gone back home and tried to start things. We just got a real touching letter from the mother of a 20-year-old college student who was killed in a car crash this fall. He had participated in Redwood Summer, and she said it was the most meaningful thing he had ever done. No, we didn’t stop the logging. They cut 20 years’ worth of trees last summer. But we brought this issue to national attention, to international attention, on a scale that it’s never been before. I think the contention that “you didn’t stop the logging” is ridiculous. They never went up to anti-war demonstrators during the Vietnam era and said “The movement failed because you didn’t stop the war with this particular demonstration.” It’s not a question of a particular demonstration stopping the cutting. It’s more of a cumulative effect. I think that we’ve raised the level of awareness of this issue, raised the stakes.

What other impacts did Redwood Summer have?

Another accomplishment of this summer that you’ll never, ever read in the mainstream media is the education of the people working in the timber industry. Even independent loggers who work for the big timber corporations are beginning to question and say things. There was an editorial in the Fort Bragg Advocate, which is a very pro-timber, antiEarth First! paper, conceding that there is an overcut and that the corporations are doing this. And now that we’re running out of corporate timber land maybe the small land holders can learn how to log in an environmentally sound manner. People never raised these questions before. One thing I was very, very impressed with was the way in which the vast majority of Redwood Summer participants got the message that, this was not directed against the workers.

Wasn’t that because of the campaign’s emphasis on nonviolence and the continual nonviolence training programs throughout the summer?

Absolutely. One of the results of Redwood Summer is that these issues have been raised, including the issue of who is at fault. What followed Redwood Summer was Corporate Fall. We said that the individuals need to be held responsible — these aren’t faceless corporations. Our slogan is: “It’s not dying, it’s being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses!” That’s a quote from (Wobbly songwriter) Utah Phillips.

The purpose of Corporate Fall was to bring the demonstrations to the corporate offices and lavish homes of the people who are actually benefiting from the destruction of the earth. Somebody who is making seven or nine bucks an hour cutting down the last of the Redwood forest is not benefiting from the destruction of the earth. The wages in the woods in Mendocino County are appalling. Nine bucks an hour is the average. And there are many Mexicans, including illegals, who get paid less than that for the most dangerous job in the United States. It’s appalling. They’re being exploited to accomplish the destruction of the earth. When the corporations are done they’re going to lay them off, and they’re not going to have any money to relocate or to retrain or anything. What we’re trying to do is to make it really clear who is to blame. We’re not trying to fault the people who are working in the industry who are also being exploited. We’re trying to lay the blame where it belongs.

Do you think Redwood Summer was effective in reaching beyond the environmental movement to build a broad-based progressive coalition?

Redwood Summer had Central American groups doing demonstrations. We had people who work on anti-nuclear and peace issues. So another thing we’ve done is help to link different issues and help to link environmentalism with the rest of the movement, which it’s been sadly separated from.

Why do you think environmentalists have remained apart from mainstream progressive movements?

To begin with, the people who were doing it have tended to be privileged people. They want to save wilderness so they can enjoy it on backpacking trips, which in itself is a class privilege. People in the ghetto don’t worry about wilderness because, number one, they can’t get to it, and number two, the issues of surI vival are so predominant for them that they have to deal with them. When the I environmental movement began it was primarily focused on saving scenery. But the destruction of the earth has reached [ such proportions that it’s threatening the very life support systems, so we’re not ‘ saving scenery anymore. We’re saving life support systems.

This leads into a broader issue of environmental destruction becoming the central focus of the 1990s.

It’s becoming the principal contradiction because we’re destroying the earth at such a rate that the earth can no longer sustain this kind of society. We’re reaching the end of the resources. Our society has been built on the exploitation of both the lower classes and the earth. I would differ from Marx there. Marx says that all value derives from labor. I think that all value derives from labor and the earth. Profits are gained by not paying the workers the true value of their labor, and by taking from the earth in a manner that doesn’t replace resouixes. So the profits are stolen from the earth as well as from the workers.

The disenfranchised, the poor, the people who are working in cancer alley— there’s nobody representing them. The unions are not representing them, with the exception of the farm workers union. Only 15 percent of the workforce is unionized. And the unions tend to really limit themselves. Even if they talk about safety on the job it’s in such a narrow sense that once the poison leaves the plant, they’re no longer concerned about it. There’s certainly no party representing the workers. That’s what I think we should be doing. That’s who I think our constituency needs to be. Our constituency also needs to be the loggers who are being destroyed along with the forests.

Is this because many environmentalists don’t understand the interconnection between the exploitation of poor and working class people and the exploitation of the earth?

Deep ecology proclaims the interrelationship of all the different species on earth. If you’re acknowledging that everything is interrelated, how can you say that we can separate off this wilderness here and claim that it isn’t interrelated to the society around it? That strategy contradicts the very theory of biocentrism. I refuted Dave Foreman, Earth First’s! co- founder, on this in the Earth First! Journal. He red-baited us, actually. He basically said “you’re not green, you’re red.” He said we’re bringing in extraneous issues of class struggle and social issues, and we’re anthropocentrists for that reason. But I don’t think that’s true —you can’t separate the issues. And the only reason for trying to separate the issues is that people don’t want to challenge the society because they are benefiting from it. He (Foreman) calls himself a patriot! To this day he calls himself a patriot. His lifestyle conforms to that, and his politics conform to that.

Another aspect of this — although I don’t think that Dave Foreman or any of that group recognizes this — I think part of their discomfort is with a feminine rather than a masculine organizing style. One of the things we accomplished in Redwood Summer is what I refer to as the feminization of Earth First! We changed the organizing strategy. We used collective nonviolence as a strategy rather than individual bravado. We’re not just trying to depose male leaders. We’re trying to change the style of leadership so that it’s a collective style and not dependent on glorifying individual personalities.

Women can be egomaniacs, too. I’ve had some pretty bad women bosses.

Bad women bosses are imitating men, but I think there’s more to it than that. Women have a biological role as the givers of life and the nurturers of life. You know, I never believed this before I had children. I thought the difference between men and women was all in upbringing — until I had children. There is a biological difference. Women are certainly capable of imitating men. Look at Margaret Thatcher, she’s the perfect example. But it’s not as basic to women. It’s harder for women to do that. They have to not only betray their class to do it, they have to betray some basic instincts.

Some feminists contend that patriarchal aggression is the basis of all problems.

I don’t know if it’s the basis of all the problems. I can’t say that, but it’s definitely an element. There is that drive, that male aggression. There’s also that kind of need, the individualism that goes along with it. The male strategy, the former strategies of Earth First!, included a reliance on individual acts of bravado. That was the basic strategy. We’ll get some brave guy to climb way up in a tree and we’ll get in the newspaper for it. Or we’ll sneak around in the night and sabotage bulldozers.

It’s sort of a “real man” approach. Exactly. And that whole little macho scenario wasn’t designed for mass organizing. In fact, they’re real uncomfortable with mass organizing. They’re real uncomfortable with collective action.

Do you think they’re elitist? Absolutely! As one friend of mine so aptly worded it: “The question is, is it earth first, or is it Earth First! first?” These people see it as this little clique, and they want to preserve its purity at the expense of its effectiveness.

It reminds me of the old fight between Trotskyists and Stalinists.

Right. We have the correct line, and we don’t want to have all these people coming in because they won’t have the correct line. The question to me is “do we want to save the planet, or do we want to form a little elite corps?” If we want to save the planet, we need to address root causes, including patriarchy and the destructive, exploitative society. We can’t separate it. If all we want to do is make ourselves feel better and assuage our guilt, then sneak around at night and sabotage bulldozers and have a rendezvous once a year in which 400 people get together and do an action afterwards. But that’s not going to save the planet. If we can’t expand beyond the white middle class, we don’t have a chance.

It’s interesting that Dave Foreman and his friends would come up with the slogan, “No Compromise in Defense of ‘Mother’Earth “

That’s part of the male myth. “We brave warriors are going to go out and protect motherhood and apple pie or Mother Earth!” It’s no different from the dominant paradigm that they claim to be subverting. Not only is male aggression part of the problem of the destruction of the earth, but hatred of the feminine is part of the way that they maintain control both within the movement and within the society that the movement’s a part of. I mean the Movement with a capital M. I think this has always been a problem. I used to laugh at my father. He had this book on his shelf that we called “The Women’s Question.” It was for men, commenting on the “women problem.” You know, “what we do in the movement about the women’s question?” As Freud says, “what do women want?” I’ll tell you one thing, Freud. We don’t want penises!

It’s not a question of men and women. It’s really a question of feminine and masculine energy.

I think that’s a really important distinction. I’m not against men, and I’m not a separatist. I’m a feminist and I’m an ecologist. I don’t think that the only problem is the male-female problem. But I definitely think that’s part of the issue, and anybody who pretends that it isn’t is supporting the status quo.

Do you think Redwood Summer is a good model for organizing other coalition efforts?

Absolutely. In fact, a lot of other groups have said that they want to do something similar. It provides a way to expand the movement. It provides a way to have continuity between the generations, and between local organizers and people who have a general interest in saving the planet. It provides a way for different elements in the movement to unite because we’re trying to use existing structures. For example, a Central American affinity group decided to do an action in which they focused on the comparison between Central America and what’s being done on the North Coast. Redwood Summer also provides a model of nonhierarchical or less-hierarchical organization that the movement can use. It provides a way that we can be effective and have actions without adopting this hierarchy and control of the male society, of the dominant paradigm.

Some people have said that that opens you up to anarchy and chaos.

It’s true that there was a lot of chaos, but don’t forget that Redwood Summer started with the principal organizers being wiped out by an assassination attempt. I mean, give me a break! First of all, our most experienced organizers were taken out by the bombing. People either were scared off, became incapacitated, or were helping in my care and in my and Darryl’s defense.

This is also a first. None of us were really experienced enough to handle this. We haven’t worked on this scale before. I’ve helped organize demonstrations of 2,000 people before, but not in a far-flung rural area out in the woods. We could do a lot better with a lot fewer people if we do it again. Mississippi Summer took four years. There were four summers before Freedom Summer. We had four months. So I think that we have a lot to learn, and we could make a lot of improvements. There was a lot of confusion, but the confusion was brought on by the attacks on us and by our own inexperience, not by the tactics of Redwood Summer.

There’s always been this tension in the movement between people who want more organization and people who want more freedom of individual action.

We tend toward the anarchistic side. I think that if you have too much organization you suppress individual creativity and you end up parroting the society that you’re trying to change. We’re also trying to provide a model of new ways for people to relate to each other. On one hand we’re trying to save the Redwood forests. But the other thing that we’re trying to do is learn new ways of relating to each other, form new kinds of societies that are not exclusive. And there are going to be inefficiencies. I mean fascism is the most efficient system there is. But I can certainly tolerate inefficiencies in exchange for greater freedom and a more collective spirit from a less hierarchical organization.

The FBI has certainly helped the movement come together. Some of the first groups to offer support after the bombing were the American Indian Treaty Council and the Rainbow Coalition. Through those groups, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Black Panthers, who are not really functioning very much under those names anymore, expressed support. AIM representatives came to the Earth First! conference in Colorado this fall. Those groups were both targets of the FBI harassment — although more intense — by the same man, Richard Held (director of the FBI’s COINTELPRO undercover surveillance program of domestic protest groups). And I think that helped bring us together. Environmentalists tend to see ourselves as separate. Well, the FBI doesn’t see us as separate.

Should Native Americans be involved because they are the custodians of this land?

They didn’t see their role as custodians. They saw themselves as part of nature and not in charge of nature. They didn’t see themselves as the dominant species. They didn’t see humans as being the climax species. That’s something that we need to do. Just as we need to change hierarchy within our society, we need to change our hierarchical view of nature. That’s what’s so revolutionary about Earth First!, and that’s why we’re not willing to give up Earth First!, even when macho men give it a bad name. Because the ultimate message of Earth First!, what the phrase Earth First! means, is biocentrism — the idea that humans are not the center of the earth. The earth is not here, nature is not here, to serve humans, but humans are merely a part of nature and we need to reclaim our proper place as part of nature. Our attempts to dominate nature have led us to the brink of destruction, have led the earth to the brink of no longer being able to support life as we know it. I don’t actually think that we can destroy life. I don’t think we’re that powerful. But I think this form of life can be right at a dead end — a total evolutionary dead end.

What is happening with the investigation of the bombing? Nothing. I can say with no doubt whatsoever that the FBI actively prevented any real investigation from taking place. They actively made sure that the bomber was not found. And there’s a reason for that: Most likely they are directly complicit. I don’t have evidence of that except their behavior after the bombing was perfectly consistent with their past history with COINTELPRO. There are too many things that just don’t make sense. Why were they even there immediately? Why did they say that Darryl and I were not only suspects, but that we were the only suspects? They concluded that within hours of the bombing, despite the fact that we have been involved in a highly volatile organizing campaign in an area and in an industry that is known for its violence, and we had been receiving increasing death threats preceding the bombing. But they never even looked at them. Their whole contention was that it was our bomb. They “knew” it was our bomb because it was behind the seat. Therefore we should have seen it. Later on we showed, by the locations of my injuries, that the bomb was under the seat where I couldn’t see it. And the FBI conceded.

The problem with the FBI is that these things don’t come out for years. Right. If ever. There are investigations going on, but they’re not from the FBI. We have an investigator that Greenpeace has paid for. There’s also a Congressional investigation by the House Judiciary Committee on Constitutional and Civil Rights headed by Congressman Don Edwards (D-San Jose). The coalition of 50 (progressive) groups that called for an investigation last summer actually got one. The Committee submitted a list of questions to the FBI, and the FBI has declined to answer them. So I don’t know where that’s going to go—we’ll put whatever pressure.

You don’t seem afraid now— It’s been a real long, hard process to get from where I was to where I am now. I’ve little by little, with a lot of support from a lot of people, gained back confidence. But not all of my confidence.

As soon as I tried to move back here after the bombing, a poster and another death threat appeared on my landlord’s mail box. It said “Bari get out!” It gave exact directions, mileage and everything, to this place. It said the hippies out here are building me a hideaway for national Earth First! And it offered a case of Coors to the stud who burns me out and a sixpack for every hippie shack taken out on my road. So not only was I threatened, my entire neighborhood, a remote rural neighborhood, was threatened by arson in a dry summer. It was signed by the Stompers. It’s pretty hard to be recoveringfrom a bombing and continue to receive death threats.

Are you worried about your kids? I certainly am. I’ve chosen the safest place that I can find to live right now. After the bombing I thought I would never do anything political again. If somebody had asked me if I was willing to die for the cause I would have said “wait until my children are grown.” I didn’t try to sacrifice myself at the expense of the children, and it’s been really, really hard on the children. The kids have trouble sleeping still.

But after the bombing I told Lisa (Bari’s nine-year-old daughter) that I would drop out of politics altogether. She told me that she didn’t want me to. She told me that several different times. And, you know, one of the reasons that I do this is for my children — so that my children can have a decent place, or any place, to grow up in.

You are a good role model in terms of the type of children you’re raising your kids to be in this world — not being afraid of speaking out.

Well, maybe they’ll be more afraid. Another thing that’s made me able to go on—have you ever heard John Trudeau’s poem “This is not El Salvador?” You know what happened to John Trudeau? He was an AIM leader and he was warned not to give a particular speech, but he went ahead and gave it anyway. When he came home he found that his house had been firebombed and his wife, two children and mother-in-law had been killed. “This is not El Salvador” is a poem about that. The theme being, of course, that it is El Salvador. When I think about John Trudeau, and I think about Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, and I think about the people in El Salvador and Nicaragua where 50 percent of the children are orphans …

We know that the system is enforced by violence. And if we are effectively challenging the system, then it’s not surprising that they’re going to use violence against us. The people from the American Indian Movement said “Violence isn’t a choice to us. It’s like the weather. It just happens.” It’s part of the powers that be, and it’s something that we’re trying to change about this society. But with that knowledge of what this society is and how brutal they really are, if as soon as they start doing that to us we drop out, then we’re defeated.

I don’t see how we can support the people of El Salvador and be so easily intimidated fighting the battles here. I’m not trying to take away from El Salvador solidarity work. I’ve certainly done that. I was regional coordinator for the Pledge of Resistance. But I think that we are effectively helping the people in El Salvador by fighting the battles here. Okay, well how can we do that if all they have to do is the slightest thing to us and we back down? When I look at the courage of the comadres in El Salvador, when I look at the people in South Africa and the things that they have to put up with, then our problems pale by comparison. We are still very privileged. If we are serious about it — I mean the alternative is that they are going to kill the earth and everything on it! The alternative is either we are going to stand up to them or everything is going to go. We need to exhibit both personal and collective courage because that’s the only way we are going to survive.

What you’re saying is the struggle is beyond people’s personal safety, I think our collective safety is more important than our personal safety. And the fate of the forest is more important than the fate of me. I think I have a purpose in being here. I have been given talents or abilities: The ability to analyze, to speak clearly, the ability to make connections. I feel that the reason that I have those talents is for the movement, and I want to use them for what they’re for. If I stop doing it, then they don’t have to kill me. They’ve succeeded.

But it’s scary. I’m scared to death sometimes. Sometimes I’m so scared that I can’t sleep and I literally shake from fear. I’m not going to pretend to not be afraid, because I’m definitely afraid. I don’t want to be a martyr. It’s not fun and it’s not glamorous. It’s fucking painful.

You’ve given people a lot of support by your courage and integrity. I’ve heard a lot of people who aren’t activists say what a tremendous example and inspiration you’ve been to them.

I get all kinds of letters from all kinds of people, and it’s amazing how many of them are women. I don’t like being considered an icon, it really bothers me. But I have to say that I’m proud to be a model for women. I’m proud to have helped women stand up. And I think that’s one thing the bombing has done. In Redwood Summer, in my absence, 10 strong women rose to take my place, and the movement increased tenfold. These women were already in the movement but were not taking as prominent a role. With me out of the picture, many people, primarily women, rose to more prominent roles. That was the other aspect of the feminization of Earth First! — the rise of individual women leaders.

That may have been why it was so threatening. A women’s movement is threatening to the male power structure. Just like a Black movement is threatening to a white movement.

Aside from healing yourself what are you working on these days’? I’m beginning to coordinate a book on Redwood Summer because it’s been very suppressed. We’re compiling anecdotal accounts. We all know that we will never be the same. But if you read the press you would think that nothing happened, that it was a complete failure. The New York Times said 500 people came — all summer; that we wrecked Earth First!, caused local divisions, and that the problem is still jobs versus trees, which has never been the problem. The problem is short-term profit versus long-term survival. It’s really important to get the message out.

I intend to speak and write as much as I can. I also need to be based in the local community. I can’t just go national and lose my local base or I lose my grounding. I don’t just do this in a vacuum. I do this because I’m connected both with the earth and the people here. I think that the movement is way farther advanced than it was before the bombing.

The thing that we lost the most from the bombing was the work of coalition. It’s very brave of a worker to begin to align with us and to work with us and say “yeah, these people are right. The emperor has no clothes.” There were a few workers who had begun to do this publicly, and there were more who had begun to do it privately. And there were more than that who had begun to do it anonymously — including people who were sending me information and calling me. People in the timber industry got scared off by the bombing, and the worker coalition lost ground. We’ve got various logger supporters, but we have a long way to go just to have them begin to trust not just me, but environmentalists. And to begin to not buy the company line.

There’s a lot of lay-offs going on right now because they cut 20 years of trees last summer. They’ve got them stacked up on the log decks and there’s a recession. It’s from automation and from exporting — it’s from overcut. What I’m seeing among some of the timber workers is more of a criticism of the corporations than before. There’s an opportunity to rebuild the alliance that we had started to build before, and I hope to be able to work on that. It’s not glory work. I don’t get credit for it. It’s slow, and I think that it’s the most important work that I can do.

I have a unique perspective to do that because I’m not just aligning with the working class. I’ve been a blue-collar worker my entire life. I deliberately sabotaged myself by not getting a college degree. I’ve done factory work and carpentry work and various other jobs like cashier. So I’m not just saying hey, it’s because those are the conditions of my life also. I live pretty marginally — I always have. I’m culturally different from them, but economically we’re the same.

The problem is the way we all live on the earth. Pursuing a yuppie lifestyle while claiming to be an environmentalist is a tremendous contradiction. We have to simplify our own lives.

Christine Keyser is a journalist from Berkeley, CA.

Editors Note, January 2010: On March 2, 1997, five and a half years after this article appeared in On The Issues Magazine, Judi Bari