author of Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness.
The longtime radical animal liberation activist Rod Coronado has been sent back to prison for four months after a US district judge in Michigan ruled he had violated the terms of his parole. Coronado’s offense was associating with fellow radical activist Mike Roselle by accepting a friend request from Roselle on the social networking website Facebook. We speak with Dean Kuipers, author of Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The longtime radical animal liberation activist Rod Coronado has been sent back to prison for four months after a US district judge in Michigan ruled he had violated the terms of his parole. Coronado’s offense was associating with fellow radical activist Mike Roselle by accepting a friend request from Roselle on the social networking website Facebook. In accepting the friend request, Coronado’s action amounted to one click of his computer’s mouse. Coronado was also using what his parole officer called an "unauthorized" computer.
Rod Coronado is a well-known Native American activist who participated in direct actions with the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front during the 1990s. He spent four-and-a-half years in federal prison after he was convicted of aiding and abetting arson at a Michigan State University research facility. The fire destroyed years of data that was used to benefit the fur industry.
In 2006, Coronado wrote a letter from prison renouncing property damage as a tactic and advocating social change through other means. But in recent years, the federal government has continued to target Coronado.
AMY GOODMAN: The journalist Dean Kuipers has been following Rod Coronado’s story for almost twenty years. Last year, Kuipers published the book Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness. Dean Kuipers joins us from Los Angeles, an editor at the Los Angeles Times
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Tell us what has just happened to Rod Coronado.
DEAN KUIPERS: Good morning.
Well, Rodney was under the provisions of his probation. He had been serving a one-year jail sentence that he got — he finished in 2009, and he was under probation. And as was pointed out in the intro to the program, evidently he had some restrictions on him regarding which computer he could use and what he could do with that computer and who he could associate with. Now, I don’t think these were very well defined, from what I understand. I don’t think Facebook, for instance, was specifically mentioned on there. But, as has been pointed out, he got a friend request from Mike Roselle, who’s a very well-known character throughout the movement, both radical and non-radical environmental movement. And when he accepted this friend request, evidently, the federal government decided that that was a violation of his parole.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So, Dean Kuipers, this is guilt by Facebook association?
DEAN KUIPERS: Evidently. There are quite a number of people who are probably in the same position as what Rod is in now. There have been a lot of prosecutions of radical environmentalist activists over the last five years or so, beginning with quite a large prosecution that happened in 2005 centered around Eugene, Oregon, with a number of activists involved, a sixty-five-count indictment, like twenty different people involved. A lot of those people went to jail. A lot of those people are facing the same kind of probation restrictions that Rodney will be — has been facing and will now face again, because, unfortunately, Rod is going back to jail for four months, a four-month sentence that he starts later this month. And then he has to start his thirty — his thirty-month, I think, or three-year probation all over again. So I think a lot of people are watching this case because they want to figure out what exactly the federal government is going to do and how it’s going to treat these radical animal rights and environmental activists.
AMY GOODMAN: Dean Kuipers, you’re a contributor to the Los Angeles Times. You are an editor at Los Angeles City Beat. And you’ve been following Rod Coronado’s case for twenty years. Give us a thumbnail sketch of who Rod is and what happened to him.
DEAN KUIPERS: Sure, yeah. I’m actually no longer with City Beat, but I am at the LA Times.
Rod came to some notoriety in 1986, so quite a long time ago, when he was working with the Sea Shepherds, who are very well known now for their show the Whale Wars, which is a popular show on TV. Rod and another activist went to Iceland, where they observed the whaling operations in Iceland in 1986, and were there for about a month observing and then, one night, snuck onto the boats — they had four sort of hunter-killer whaling ships there — and sank both of — two of their boats in the harbor and then got away. This was — this got a lot of media publicity, as is true to the Sea Shepherds’ usual tactic. They immediately claimed responsibility for this. And Paul Watson, in fact, the captain of the Sea Shepherds, offered himself up for prosecution. But because Iceland was whaling in what was considered a violation of International Whaling Commission rules and a ban on certain kinds of whaling, they were not — they decided not to prosecute him, because they didn’t want the media publicity. This is a way that Sea Shepherd has been operating for years. So, Rod was big time on the map at that point as a radical environmentalist.
In the early 1990s, he was doing an investigation of the fur industry in the United States. He was trying to get some video footage of conditions on fur farms that some East Coast environmental groups wanted to use for a publicity campaign. I say East Coast, because he was working mostly on the West Coast in the Mountain West. In the course of Rod’s investigation with another activist, he decided that the way that he could best affect the conditions on these farms was to go after the research and development arm of the mink industry. And that was a very small group of people who were mostly university scientists, who were doing research on genetic and breeding issues, diet issues, that kind of thing. And Rod was pretty good about targeting exactly the right people, in terms of what he considered to be the right people. And he used arson as his tool. And he would go to these university labs or research offices when there were nobody around, surveil them for quite a number of days, and then burn these labs. This was a campaign that went from 1991 through 1992 into '93. And then he was identified from one of these actions in Michigan state and went underground.
Rod is a Yaqui Indian by heritage, so it was quite easy for him at that point to go underground and to live on Indian reservations, which became a whole ’nother fascinating part of his story, where he changed his identity multiple times and was hidden and helped to live on Indian reservations across the country, mostly in the West again, until he was finally captured in ’94 on the Pascua Yaqui reservation and did five years for arson.
This was part of the calculation, I guess, for Rod, was that the — at that point, anyways, the penalty for doing arson was five years, and he got five years. And he had figured, even when he started this, that arson was a very dangerous thing to use. He, like many other activists, were — at least he claims, were reluctant to use arson. It's difficult to control. There’s a good reason why we have, you know, quite stiff penalties for anybody who does an arson, even one that doesn’t hurt anybody. But he knew that he could do the five years, so that was part of his calculation, and he did the five years.
Rodney came back on my radar screen only a couple years ago, actually, in 2007, even though I had sort of stayed in touch with his activities. And, you know, he was always involved in something very interesting, even if it was a legal campaign. In 2007, he was prosecuted again, but this time he was prosecuted for terrorism. Now, Rod has always sort of been intimately involved with the sort of creeping progression of the definition of terrorism for radical activists in this country over the last fifteen, twenty years, because a lot of the — a couple, anyways, of the laws that were passed about domestic federal terrorism were passed partly because of him.
In 2003, is where this latest bit begins, he was doing a series of talks across the country, which was his sort of standard activist action at that point, was he was doing some talks, in which he would talk about the whaling action, he would talk about his anti-fur campaign. And as part of that series of talks, he did a talk in San Diego at a gay-lesbian center there. It was an open talk, public talk. You know, it was advertised throughout the local activist community there. And as part of his talk, he answered a question at the end during the Q-and-A period from someone in the audience who said, "How did you make these incendiaries?" This was a standard question that Rod evidently had answered many times before. His take on that question was that this was an easy thing to do. He wanted to show that he was not some sort of bombing madman or some kind of, you know, a demolitions expert. But he held up a jug of gasoline — a jug of apple juice and said, you know, "Imagine this was filled with gasoline." And then he went on to describe very briefly that you could do a number of different things that would make that burn and then run away. And that was the essence of his type of incendiary device.
There were federal agents, or federal task force agents, anyways, in the audience that night, as there always are at a Rodney Coronado speech. They decided that this was incitement and that, under the rules of federal terrorism law that had developed by 2003, that this was a crime of not just incitement to arson, but that it was a crime of federal terrorism. And it took a number of years to put the case together, but in 2007 they finally went to trial on that.
The jury seemed to not quite buy the incitement prosecution. There was a hung jury that was hung in Rod’s favor. The crime that he had committed during a talk really was quite a new area of territory for First Amendment cases. It seemed to fail every one of the tests that we have, you know, under Brandenburg for determining what is protected speech and what isn’t, meaning that it seemed like it was protected speech. But there was a hung jury, and the government came back to Rod and said, "Guess what. We have a whole bunch of your speeches on tape. We are happy to prosecute all of those speeches." And Rodney, who at that point has two young children and is really trying to put his family together, decided that it would be better for him to take a plea and do a year than to go through all these prosecutions, so he took a plea. And he did a year in jail and got out in the spring of 2009, I believe, if I have that correct.
And since then, he’s been on probation. He has been serving his probation in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. And the judge, who has been overseeing his probation and oversaw his sentencing there, has been pretty tough on him and has been really showing that, under the laws that exist now, that can be pretty stiff for radical activists and animal rights and environmental activists who sort of get tripped up by these — you know, the sort of steadily creeping, increasing definition of what could be considered federal terrorism.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, well, you have this changing of federal law —-
DEAN KUIPERS: Yes.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —- to prosecute animal rights activists as terrorists. We had the passage in 2006 of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. But finally, talk about how Rod Coronado, the prosecution of him, fits into the so-called Green Scare.
DEAN KUIPERS: Well, the Green Scare was the name that they — of course, that was used sort of beginning around this 2005 prosecution in Eugene. That’s when these words started getting thrown around as an overall sort of sweeping term for the prosecution of environmental activists. And, of course, the Green Scare being a reference to the Red Scare of the Communist-hunting days of the 1950s.
You know, so many of the definitions of terrorism and the tools that are used to prosecute terrorism have now been turned on environmental activists, beginning really with the PATRIOT Act in 2001. There are a couple lines in the PATRIOT Act that loop in specifically environmental activists for prosecution under terrorism laws. And the laws that have been passed to go after environmentalists sort of steadily have been increasing. Most recently, the big leap has been this 2006 law that you pointed out, which is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes all kinds of different stuff that was not considered terrorism before into terrorism, including things that were considered vandalism or mischief before.
One interesting case that has been moving forward under the AETA, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, is a case that involves a group of people who protested outside the home of a university — I believe it was a university researcher, and in which they were chanting and in which they were drawing chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Now, no matter what was being chanted or what was being drawn on the sidewalk — and I’m not sure what that was — I think prior to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, this would have been considered free speech, or at least, you know, if there was — possibly people who were engaged in this kind of activity would be arrested for disorderly conduct if they were disturbing the people in the home or, you know, blocking their ability to get to their driveway or some kind of thing like that. But now, this is being considered possibly federal terrorism and is — the people who are convicted under these laws face quite stiff penalties, and they also face the use of a federal terrorism sentencing enhancement, which was the significance of that Eugene case I mentioned in 2005. It was the first time that was used against environmental activists —-
AMY GOODMAN: Dean, we’re going to have to -—
DEAN KUIPERS: — in which at a judge’s —
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. At a judge’s discretion...?
DEAN KUIPERS: At a judge’s discretion, it could add as much as twenty years to the sentences of these activists. And obviously now, also the probation conditions are pretty extreme, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dean Kuipers, we’ll have to leave it there, but we will continue to follow Rod Coronado’s case. Dean Kuipers works at the Los Angeles Times. His book is called Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness. In Coronado’s 2006 letter renouncing arson, he wrote, quote, "Don’t ask me how to burn down a building. Ask me how to grow watermelons or how to explain nature to a child."