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Wednesday, December 23, 2009 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Report: Obama Ordered US Military Strike on Yemen
2009-12-23

EXCLUSIVE: Environmental Activist Jeff "Free" Luers Speaks Out in First Interview After 9.5 Years Behind Bars

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In June 2001, Jeff "Free" Luers was sentenced to twenty-three years and eight months in prison. His crime? Setting fire to three vehicles in a car dealership to protest global warming. No one was hurt in the fire. In 2007, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Jeff’s sentence and reduced it to ten years. Last week, on December 16th, Jeff Luers walked out of prison a free man. In a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive, Jeff Luers speaks out in his first interview since his release. We also speak with his attorney, Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After serving nine-and-a-half years in prison, environmental activist Jeffrey Luers is finally free. In June of 2001, Jeff Luers, then a twenty-one-year-old environmental activist, was sentenced to twenty-two years and eight months in prison. His crime? Setting fire to three light trucks at a Chevrolet dealership in Eugene, Oregon.

He said he committed the act to raise awareness about global warming. The fire was put out with a regular fire extinguisher. No one was hurt. The damage to the cars totaled something like $30,000, $40,000. The cars were repaired and eventually sold.

Jeff and his co-defendant, Craig "Critter" Marshall, were arrested minutes after the fire was reported. By the time of Jeff’s trial a year later, he was facing thirteen charges and a hundred years in prison. In 2001, former Lane County Circuit Judge Lyle Velure sentenced Jeff to twenty-two years and eight months in prison with no possibility of parole. Craig Marshall took a plea deal and served four-and-a-half years behind bars.

Jeff Luer’s case became known around the country and around the world. Amnesty International and the Eugene Human Rights Commission questioned whether his sentence was politically motivated.

In 2007, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Jeff’s sentence and reduced it to ten years. Last week, on December 16th, Jeff Luers walked out of prison a free man.

Just before today’s broadcast, we spoke with Jeff Luers in a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive. I spoke to him in Eugene, Oregon.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, welcome to Democracy Now! I wanted to start by asking you how it feels to be free.

    JEFF LUERS: It’s a bit of an adjustment, going from being stuck in a small cage to having run of the entire world at the moment. It’s nice.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your reflections right now? I mean, how long have you been out at this point?

    JEFF LUERS: A week.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what have you been able to do in this week?

    JEFF LUERS: I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with my family, friends that I haven’t seen in a really long time. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to get out into the forest and start hiking again and just reconnecting with all the experiences that I haven’t had for nine-and-a-half years.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back in time for people who aren’t familiar with your case. Talk about what landed you in jail, your original sentence being more than twenty-two years.

    JEFF LUERS: Well, in June 2000, I and my co-defendant Craig Marshall set fire to three trucks at Romania Chevrolet. That resulted in my incarceration and conviction for arson, resulting in twenty-two years and eight months in prison.

    AMY GOODMAN: He plea-bargained and served something like four-and-a-half years?

    JEFF LUERS: Yeah, he was offered a non-cooperation deal to take five years, and he was released after four and a half.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t you do the same? Why didn’t you plea-bargain? You weren’t contesting what happened at the — that you had set fire to these three — would you call them SUVs?

    JEFF LUERS: They were actually light trucks. But the difference is, is Craig’s offer was for conspiracy. They wanted me to plead guilty to intending to cause physical harm to another person. And for years, the FBI had been trying to show that environmental activists were terrorists, and I didn’t want to give them a victory by pleading to intent to harm someone. I chose to fight that all the way.

    AMY GOODMAN: And you went before a non — you chose a non-jury trial?

    JEFF LUERS: Yes. There was an arson at the same dealership days before my trial was set to begin, and on the advice of my attorney, we decided that that would bias a jury of my peers against me too much to take the chance.

    AMY GOODMAN: On reflection, do you think you should have plea-bargained?

    JEFF LUERS: No, I honestly would have ended up serving the same amount of time. My final plea bargain was for ten years. And I feel that taking it to trial and serving the time that I did has been more beneficial to my struggle and my personal life.

    AMY GOODMAN: What is that struggle, Jeff?

    JEFF LUERS: Well, it’s slightly changed over the years, as the politics and recognition of climate change and global warming have changed. But I was heavily active in forest defense in the late ’90s and in 2000, and that carried over into wanting to protect the larger environment and bring attention to global warming and climate change at a time when there wasn’t much news about it, and it wasn’t really in the public spectrum.

    AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about forest defense, explain what you did in the late ‘90s and in 2000. Explain, for example, tree sitting.

    JEFF LUERS: Yeah, I and a small group of friends helped establish the Fall Creek tree sit just outside of Eugene, Oregon in 1998, and it grew into one of the longest tree sitting campaigns that the United States has seen, ultimately resulted in saving ninety-six acres of old-growth forest. That campaign was really instrumental in building an environmental movement here in the Northwest.

    AMY GOODMAN: You actually sit in the trees? Explain what a tree sit is, for people outside the Northwest.

    JEFF LUERS: Basically, it’s a small piece of plywood suspended through ropes at the top of a tree. They tend to be several hundred feet high, connected by ropes to other tree sits, so that you never have to touch the ground in order to get around or defend the forest. And you live there twenty-four/seven. Sometimes some campaigns will have a single sitter that will stay throughout, such as someone like Julia Butterfly. Other campaigns will cycle their sitters so there’s constantly someone fresh, able to move around and defend the forest.

    AMY GOODMAN: So how did you go from tree sitting to setting fire to these light trucks at the car dealership?

    JEFF LUERS: I was active in civil disobedience and direct action for many years and didn’t see it being as fruitful as I felt that it should be. Through my encounters with law enforcement, I saw that there was a lot of deceit and deception in the manner in which they dealt with protesters and sweeping aside any type of redress —- excuse me, redress of grievance. And ultimately, I decided that it was better to make a media spectacle to get my message across and draw attention to issues that I felt were incredibly important and affect every human being on this planet.

    AMY GOODMAN: And so, why did you target this car dealership? What exactly did it mean to you?

    JEFF LUERS: It was two-fold. Partially, I was attempting to bring attention to -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeffrey Luers, having a little problem with the sound there. We’re going to come back to this interview in a minute. Again, Jeffrey Luers was released on December 16th after almost ten years in prison. His crime? Setting fire to three light trucks at a car dealership in Eugene, Oregon.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: David Rovics singing “23 Years” — this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report — a song about Jeffrey Luers, our guest today in this global exclusive. Jeffrey Luers just returned — just was released from prison on December 16th after serving nine-and-a-half years there. We interviewed him just before this broadcast. Let’s return to the interview.

    JEFF LUERS: ...building an environmental movement here in the Northwest.

    AMY GOODMAN: You actually sit in the trees? Explain what a tree sit is, for people outside the Northwest.

    JEFF LUERS: Basically, it’s a small piece of plywood suspended through ropes at the top of a tree. They tend to be several hundred feet high, connected by ropes to other tree sits, so that you never have to touch the ground in order to get around or defend the forest. And you live there twenty-four/seven. Sometimes some campaigns will have a single sitter that will stay throughout, such as someone like Julia Butterfly. Other campaigns will cycle their sitters so there’s constantly someone fresh, able to move around and defend the forest.

    AMY GOODMAN: So how did you go from tree sitting to setting fire to these light trucks at the car dealership?

    JEFF LUERS: I was active in civil disobedience and direct action for many years and didn’t see it being as fruitful as I felt that it should be. Through my encounters with law enforcement, I saw that there was a lot of deceit and deception in the manner in which they dealt with protesters and sweeping aside any type of redress — excuse me, redress of grievance. And ultimately, I decided that it was better to make a media spectacle to get my message across and draw attention to issues that I felt were incredibly important and affect every human being on this planet.

    AMY GOODMAN: And so, why did you target this car dealership? What exactly did it mean to you?

    JEFF LUERS: It was two-fold. Partially, I was attempting to bring attention to the US’s foreign policy in dealing with dictatorships and tyrannical governments like Saudi Arabia, but also the fact that the US — or the US car fleet is responsible for the second highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

    AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about that process, though, of recognizing that and then deciding to engage in property destruction and how you actually carried it out, how you were caught. And then I’d like to ask about your reflections on it now.

    JEFF LUERS: We chose the car dealership partially due to location. It was the first action that I had done of that scale. And quite honestly, it was an easy place to target. It also was catering to commercial fleets rather than to the regular population. So we chose it for those reasons.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how did you set them afire?

    JEFF LUERS: I’m not going to talk about that.

    AMY GOODMAN: But you have accepted that, or you’ve admitted that, yes, you did. And the damage was —-

    JEFF LUERS: Yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: How much damage was done to these three cars, the trucks?

    JEFF LUERS: The damage, I believe, came to a grand total of about $28,000.

    AMY GOODMAN: And they were actually able to resell the trucks after?

    JEFF LUERS: They resold -— repaired and resold two of them, and one was destroyed.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you get caught?

    JEFF LUERS: We were under surveillance by a counterterrorist unit that was working, I believe, with the Joint Terrorist Task Force in Eugene.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did you have any idea at the time that you were being followed? And where had they followed you from?

    JEFF LUERS: According to testimony by the detectives involved, they picked me up at a warehouse in which I was renting and followed us using three different vehicles and a roving tail all the way to the Romania dealership.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did they know you were going to be doing this, or were they just following you?

    JEFF LUERS: According to them, they were following me, looking to see if I would lead them to a anarchist party that was happening that night.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what did they charge you with? What were you ultimately convicted of?

    JEFF LUERS: Ultimately, I was convicted of Arson I, attempted Arson I, and possession and manufacture of a destructive device.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, Arson I, you got twenty-two-and-a-half years, you were originally sentenced. That was overturned a few years ago.

    JEFF LUERS: Yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: But how does that compare to murder, to rape, to causing people physical harm?

    JEFF LUERS: Murder in the state of Oregon is punishable by twenty-five years to life. Most rape sentences are less than ninety months. The disproportionate sentence that I received was far out of line with what is standardly given to people convicted of arson.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel when the judge issued the sentence?

    JEFF LUERS: Not really very surprised. I believed that he was going to come down on me as hard as he could, and he did. The DA at the time wanted blood. She wanted to make an example, that you cannot be a radical environmental activist in this country and not suffer severe consequences.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts today on what you did? Would you do it again?

    JEFF LUERS: Given all that I know, I would do it again. I think that the things that I’ve experienced and the ability for me to continue my activism from prison and reach out to different media organizations and continue the debate on climate change has added to the fact that we’re now recognizing the danger that climate change and global warming pose.

    AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there’s an irony here, Jeff Luers, in you being released right in the midst of the largest global warming summit the world has ever seen in Copenhagen, not that the powers that be came out with a binding agreement, but that that has been the focus of the last two weeks now of the world community. Your thoughts on that?

    JEFF LUERS: Well, it was kind of summed up when I was resentenced. The first time that I was sentenced, the judge pretty much called me an evil, despicable man. And the second time that I was sentenced, the judge called me a veteran of an ugly campaign and elder statesman of my cause. The public’s view on global warming has changed so much that people who strive to create action on it are no longer fanatics.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, how did prison change you? What was it like in prison? You were in a maximum-security prison for how long?

    JEFF LUERS: I was in a maximum security for six years.

    AMY GOODMAN: Which prison?

    JEFF LUERS: Oregon State Penitentiary.

    AMY GOODMAN: What was that experience like?

    JEFF LUERS: Difficult. You see that violence becomes a way of life. I’ve seen people murdered, and that’s something that I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you’ve seen people murdered?

    JEFF LUERS: I mean I’ve seen people murdered in prison. I’ve seen people stabbed. I’ve seen them beaten with locks and strangled to death. I had a man die six feet in front of me.

    AMY GOODMAN: And who were they being killed by? Was it guards? Was it other prisoners?

    JEFF LUERS: No, it was other prisoners. Sometimes it was gang-related. Sometimes it was just personal vendettas.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you protect yourself?

    JEFF LUERS: I just stayed who I am. I never denied any of my beliefs, and I stood for the same things that I stood for in prison. And unfortunately, when necessary, I fought for those things.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you fought for those things?

    JEFF LUERS: Physical violence. I defended myself.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you have thoughts about the prison system today, having lived through it, having survived it, on how the present system works in this country?

    JEFF LUERS: I think it’s a broken system. We take our troubled people, and we throw them away with no solution, and we do not offer them a way to improve their livelihood. In the ten years that I was in prison, there was no rehabilitation offered. There’s no skill sets that they offer to teach you. The closest that comes is they offer some people a GED. But if you don’t meet certain requirements, then you’re restricted from even that. When I first went to prison, I attempted to take college correspondence courses, and I was told, quite simply, that I had too much time, and so, therefore, I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, were you ever able to?

    JEFF LUERS: In my last year, I was able to take college classes, finally.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Luers, explain what happened when the court overturned your sentence. Explain the rationale and what they said.

    JEFF LUERS: My original conviction and sentence gave me three sentences for the same fire. The court of appeals decided that there was only one fire, there could only be one punishment, and that all of those charges had to merge into one conviction and one sentence.

    AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised that the system worked in your favor that time?

    JEFF LUERS: I wasn’t surprised that the court of appeals agreed with me. The legal error was quite grievous. What I was surprised about is how greatly my sentence was reduced.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how did that shift your — the way you thought, your captivity, knowing you were going from twenty-two to less than ten years?

    JEFF LUERS: It’s a huge culture shock. I imagine it’s probably hard for people at home to imagine, but I lived in a maximum-security prison in a tiny cell, and basically overnight, I went from having experienced nothing but that for six years to living in a dorm with eighty people. And it was hard. It was a difficult adjustment going from a mentality of constantly watching your back and being ready to fight at every second to being around so many people and trying not to be freaked out by that.

    AMY GOODMAN: There has been a very active support group for you over the years that you’ve been in prison. What did that mean to you inside, Jeff Luers?

    JEFF LUERS: It meant everything. I think that people cannot at all underestimate how important letters and emotional support are. The campaign for my release, without a doubt, helped me get out of prison, but it’s the letters that helped me get through prison.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what was it like, as you describe being free for this last week and going into nature, that you had been trying to defend before you went to prison for years? What was that feeling to go from behind bars to the wild?

    JEFF LUERS: It’s really surreal. It took several days for me to, like, accept that it was finally over, that I could wake up in the morning and go outside and be free. The first hike that I went on, everything just seemed like stuck in time, until at a certain point it just hit me I was back where I belonged.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are the conditions of your release now?

    JEFF LUERS: They’re the pretty standard parole package. I cannot commit crime or possess any drugs. I have to stay away from my co-defendant. And I’m, ironically enough, not allowed to possess a bomb.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you say “ironically enough”?

    JEFF LUERS: Well, it’s against the law to possess a bomb, to begin with, but they specified that in my parole conditions.

    AMY GOODMAN: And do you plan to continue to be an outspoken environmentalist? And what form will that take now?

    JEFF LUERS: I’m definitely going to continue with my environmental and social justice activism. It’s a little too early for me to be deciding what form that’s going to come in at this point. Personally, right now I’m looking forward to going back to school and just re-experiencing life again before I decide to get heavily involved in activism.

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in your attorney, Lauren Regan. You’re the executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. You have represented Jeff for a long time. Can you talk about his case in a larger context of how the authorities have dealt with, well, cases like Jeff’s, his first — this enormous sentence of twenty-two-and-a-half years, it being overturned, and how it all fits together?

    LAUREN REGAN: Well, at the time that Jeff was first sentenced, the twenty-two years and eight months that he received from the judge was the longest sentence of any environmental or animal rights activist in the United States. And as Jeff mentioned, it was clearly imposed to send a message.

    He and his co-defendant were the first people to be actually apprehended while committing an arson. There had been a few other arsons starting back in 1997 that are now referred to as part of the “Green Scare.” But those crimes had been unsolved, and law enforcement had no leads at all. When they apprehended Jeff and Craig, they thought that they had apprehended suspects in all of those other unsolved crimes. And it turned out that that was not the case at all. But they were very, very interested in information that they believed that the two had. Part of, I think, the reason that there were no plea deals for Jeff was because they really were putting the screws to him in order to cooperate and name other people. As it turns out, even in the government’s own discovery, they knowledge that Jeff probably had no information about any of those other arsons. But at the time, that was definitely part of their focus.

    And as Jeff mentioned, even in the federal system, the crime of arson normally carries about a two-year prison sentence. So the fact that this particular act of economic sabotage created very little monetary damage, but yet he, you know, got over ten times what someone who would have committed an arson for a greed purpose would have received, definitely drew the attention of the global community. Amnesty International and a number of other human rights groups, including a human rights organization in Eugene, all decried his sentence when it happened. And, of course, you know, the lawyers that surrounded him knew right away that this judge had attempted to mathematically create the longest sentence possible and attempted to impose it on him. We were just really gratified that the court of appeals took the politics out of that case and looked at the law and corrected a really grievous mistake.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about politics, the issue of a person who is convicted, who is voicing political motives, versus someone who’s involved with a common crime. How is that dealt with, Lauren Regan?

    LAUREN REGAN: Well, under our Constitution, we have this Equal Protection Clause, which is supposed to say that like crimes are treated in a like manner. And so, whether or not you burn a house down for insurance fraud or whether you burn a building down to destroy a horse slaughterhouse facility, the law is supposed to look at those things in an equal manner and not create disparity between those two crimes.

    But particularly during the Bush administration and with the prosecution of the Green Scare cases, whether it is because the government is pandering to corporate dominance or whether or not the government really does feel that radical activism is this huge threat to them, there have been a number of cases where activists have received extremely long sentences.

    The case of Eric McDavid, a young man who was basically entrapped by an eighteen-year-old woman who was paid by the FBI to infiltrate him and his friends — they were prosecuted for thought crimes. There were no accusations that they burned anything down or caused any damage to anything. But as a result of a conspiracy conviction, a judge imposed twenty-two years on that young man. His case is currently on appeal. And unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen several similar cases, where the courts have imposed two decades or more on radical environmental activists as a result of engaging in economic sabotage.

    And the courts have been using new tools that were created via the PATRIOT Act. They’ve also started using old laws in very different ways, things such as terrorist enhancements, which allow for excessive punishment, very harsh incarceration once the people are in prison. And as with the case of Daniel McGowan, we have now seen radical activists sent to literally terrorist facilities, where their conditions are basically entirely in segregation. They have very little — even the normal rights that prisoners have are stripped away from people who are sent to these terrorist facilities.

    AMY GOODMAN: This idea of green being the new red, do you subscribe to this, Lauren Regan?

    LAUREN REGAN: Definitely. I think that the Green Scare and the prosecutions that we’ve seen are our generation’s equivalent of the Red Scare. We’re seeing government rampages, using grand juries in abusive ways.

    If the Bush administration did one thing correctly, it was to manipulate mainstream media and really use words in order to brand and malign people in ways that we hadn’t seen in a long time, probably since the ’50s. And, you know, it really is sort of a war of ideology in a lot of ways. If the government wants to brand you as a terrorist based on your beliefs or based on your ethical principles, there’s really no way for you to defend yourself of that. And it definitely — you know, from the beginning of the Green Scare, the government has really taken this campaign to the media.

    On the first day that people were arrested almost four years ago, the then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales conducted a national press conference, where he called these defendants, who were innocent until proven guilty, but he labeled them as eco-terrorists on national media, day one. And from that time, it’s been really a challenge for us.

    I think most mainstream humans see a difference between flying an plane into a building or burning down a horse barn to stop wild mustang slaughter. But the government, I think in defense of the corporations that pay them lots of money and have lots of lobbyists, definitely see that as a significant threat to their profit-making abilities.

    AMY GOODMAN: The setting of the fire of the light trucks in Eugene, Jeff, that happened right before September 11th. How did you feel being called a terrorist for what you had done, a domestic terrorist?

    JEFF LUERS: It happened about a year before September 11th. And it was new. It was going from being an activist or a tree hugger and a variety of other names that I’ve been called and are laughable to suddenly being public enemy number one. And it’s really interesting to see that you can have a crime that, if anyone else would do it, is just that, it’s a crime, but if you have some type of political thought behind it or some type of activist motivation, suddenly it’s no longer a crime, it’s an act of terrorism.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to do this interview, Jeff?

    JEFF LUERS: Well, that’s a good question. I think that there’s people out there that want to hear my story. And for years, the only interviews that I’ve done were more about defending my belief system and pointing out the scientific facts of climate change. And this is the first interview that I’ve actually given that’s personal and about my experiences.

    And I think it’s important for people to understand that there’s several people incarcerated in the United States right now that are environmental activists that are being treated like terrorists. They’re our own people engaged in acts of illegal civil disobedience, much like the Boston Tea Party. And historically, it’s people like these that bring about positive social change. And we’re throwing them away in prison for decades.

    AMY GOODMAN: What advice would you have now, given the climate today and the level of environmental activism there is, for young environmentalists?

    JEFF LUERS: I think they need to choose their battles and struggles very carefully and look at what has happened to me and other individuals when they make decisions about things that they want to be involved in. And I think it’s really important that we learn lessons from our past and learn ways in which we can be successful without putting ourself at severe risk.

    AMY GOODMAN: The Animal Liberation Front, Environmental Liberation Front [sic] are considered the number one terrorist — domestic terrorist groups in this country. Do you consider yourself a part of the ELF, Jeff?

    JEFF LUERS: No, I think it’s important to remember that there’s thousands of people that use direct action to try to create a better world. It’s the heart and intentions of the warrior that are important, and not the label.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey Luers, released from prison on December 16th after serving nine-and-a-half years in jail. In June 2001, he was sentenced to twenty-two years and eight months for burning three light trucks. We also were joined by his attorney Lauren Regan, attorney for Jeffrey Luers and executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. When I asked him about the ELF, I meant to say the Earth Liberation Front.

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