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“If a Tree Falls”: New Documentary on Daniel McGowan, Earth Liberation Front and Green Scare

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A new documentary, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” tells the story of environmental activist Daniel McGowan. Four years ago this month, McGowan was sentenced to a seven-year term for his role in two acts of politically motivated arson in 2001 to protest extensive logging in the Pacific Northwest—starting fires at a lumber company and an experimental tree farm in Oregon. The judge ruled he had committed an act of terrorism, even though no one was hurt in any of the actions. McGowan participated in the arsons as a member of the Earth Liberation Front but left the group after the second fire led him to become disillusioned. He was arrested years later after a key member of the Earth Liberation Front—himself facing the threat of lengthy jail time—turned government informant. McGowan ultimately reached a plea deal but refused to cooperate with the government’s case. As a result, the government sought a “terrorism enhancement” to add extra time to his sentence. McGowan is currently jailed in a secretive prison unit known as Communication Management Units, or CMUs, in Marion, Illinois. We play an excerpt from the film and speak with the film’s director, Marshall Curry. We also speak with Andrew Stepanian, an animal rights activist who was imprisoned at the same CMU as McGowan, and with Will Potter, a freelance reporter who writes about how the so-called “war on terror” affects civil liberties. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJun 11, 2007Exclusive: Facing Seven Years in Jail, Environmental Activist Daniel McGowan Speaks Out About the Earth Liberation Front, the Green Scare and the Government’s Treatment of Activists as “Terrorists”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Human Rights Watch Film Festival has opened in New York. One of the films that has just premiered at the film festival is called If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. It tells the story of environmental activist Daniel McGowan. Four years ago this month, McGowan was sentenced to a seven-year term for his role in two acts of politically motivated arson in 2001. McGowan had helped start fires at a lumber company and an experimental tree farm in Oregon. The judge ruled he had committed an act of terrorism, even though no one was hurt in any of the actions, an outcome the defendants said they had taken pains to ensure. Daniel McGowan participated in the arsons as a member of the Earth Liberation Front but left the group after the second fire led him to become disillusioned. He was arrested years later after a key member of the ELF, himself facing the threat of lengthy jail time, turned government informant.

Daniel McGowan ultimately reached a plea deal but refused to cooperate with the government’s case. As a result, the government sought a “terrorism enhancement” to add extra time to his sentence. The National Lawyers Guild called the terrorism sentencing enhancement an unnecessary and excessive government tactic to discourage the exercise of free speech.

McGowan is currently jailed in a secretive prison unit known as Communication Management Units, or CMUs, in Marion, Illinois. The units are designed to severely restrict prisoner communication with family members, the media, the outside world. Most of the prisoners held in the CMUs have been Muslim men, but the units have also held political activists. McGowan is allowed just one visit per week, behind a glass partition.

Well, the new documentary film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, looks at this case and examines the history of the Earth Liberation Front. We’re going to turn right now to an excerpt of the film.

CHUCK WERT: It was somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. when I was home, sound asleep, and I got a phone call. And, of course, anytime you get a phone call at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, it’s not good news.

It turned the office into just a fiery oven. I mean, I don’t know how hot it got in here, but we had keyboards that were — I mean, you couldn’t tell one key from the other. They were just melted together.

DANIEL McGOWAN: I went up to Portland and wrote the communiqué and sent it in. Even then, it wasn’t real. It was just like still like kind of this cartoonish thing. And it wasn’t real until I really saw the newspapers, seeing the man from the company, I think Steve Swanson, just walking through this like charred remains. And I was just like, “Holy crap!”

STEVE SWANSON: That was a major blow to our mental psyche, at least in the short run. Just felt like a big hole in my heart.

TIM LEWIS: In Eugene, people were jazzed. When the big bad bully gets, you know, hit in the stomach and feels a little something, and maybe a little fear or whatever, that felt good.

SUZANNE SAVOIE: It was exciting. The next day I felt, you know, like, wow, I’ve actually done something where it stopped.

DANIEL McGOWAN: I didn’t have a problem with what I was doing. I thought it was effective. It was a million dollars or something like that. You know, it’s like when you’re involved with it and you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to look at like all the consequences and like the real repercussions of that. Like, you know, did this action push them in a better direction? Did it scare them? Did it help the movement, in any capacity, on old-growth logging? There’s lots of questions, but I don’t think at the time I was asking those questions too much.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a group of people, Daniel McGowan and others, describing the firebombing of the offices of Superior Lumber, Superior Lumber president Steve Swanson, and also activist and filmmaker Tim Lewis, and former ELF activist Suzanne Savoie. Chuck Wert was also describing the night of that fire.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

Marshall Curry, you are the director of the film. Talk about the significance of this today, and explain more about why you chose to focus on the Earth Liberation Front.

MARSHALL CURRY: Well, the story sort of just dropped in my lap, actually. My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and told me that four federal agents had walked into her office that afternoon and arrested one of her employees, this guy Daniel McGowan. And he was actually somebody who I knew a little bit through her. I had, you know, met him at the company picnics. And he was not at all what comes to my mind when I think of somebody who would be facing life in prison for domestic terrorism, as the government called it. And for me as a filmmaker, when reality clashes with a stereotype that maybe I have, that’s interesting. And so, you know, Daniel, he doesn’t look like a terrorist, doesn’t talk like a terrorist. He grew up in Rockaway, Queens. His dad’s a New York cop. He was a business major in college. And so, I just thought, how could this have happened? How could this guy have been involved in these arsons, and how could he be facing life in prison for them? And so, Sam Cullman, who’s the cinematographer and co-director on the project, and I just said, “Let’s try to figure it out.”

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what you found. Talk about how you structure this film.

MARSHALL CURRY: Well, over the course of five years, we — first we spent time with Daniel. So there’s a — part of the movie is the time that — from the time that Daniel was arrested until the time that he went to prison, a year later. He was released on house arrest. So we got to spend a lot of time with him while he was on house arrest and really kind of probed the back story. You know, how had this kid from Rockaway, Queens, gotten involved in radical environmentalism, and how had his philosophy changed over that time?

And in some ways, his story is a story that we heard a lot when we talked to folks that were involved with the Earth Liberation Front. You know, he started off writing letters and gathering petitions and became increasingly frustrated with that, got involved in civil disobedience, felt like that was not effective. The sort of violent police response to some of that civil disobedience, I think, helped radicalize people. And eventually got involved in property destruction, you know, was part of the Black Bloc at the WTO, and finally got involved in these arsons, these big multimillion-dollar arsons.

And after participating in two arsons, he kind of had a change of heart and began to question arson as a tactic, both in terms of its effectiveness, you know, the ethics of it. And so, he moved back to New York, got involved in organizing protests against the RNC, worked at the Rainforest Foundation, and ultimately was working at my wife’s domestic violence organization doing aboveground activism, when he was arrested. And these fires that he had committed years before kind of reached out from the past and grabbed him.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of Daniel McGowan in his own words. He appeared on Democracy Now! June 2007, just before he began serving his seven-year term. We’ll go to that in a minute, but we’re going to go to break first. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And when we come back, we’ll also talk to Andy Stepanian, who was held at the same prison that Daniel McGowan is being held at right now. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re looking at a film that just aired at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival here in New York called If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Marshall Curry, the director, is with us. We’re also joined by Andrew Stepanian. He was jailed at the same CMU unit that Daniel McGowan was held in for four months. Daniel McGowan has just been moved. We’re also joined in Washington by Will Potter, freelance reporter who focuses on how the war on terrorism affects civil liberties.

But I wanted to go to the clip of Daniel McGowan just before he went to jail. We interviewed him on Democracy Now! June 2007.

DANIEL McGOWAN: It’s really hard. I’m still trying to get the big picture of all this. I definitely have regrets. I have regrets that I, you know, employed arson as a tactic. I don’t think morally I’m wrong about what I did, but I do think, strategically and tactically, it was an unwise decision. I wish that I had people in my life at the time to kind of guide me back to a different path. But, you know, I was very disenchanted and very upset about what I saw. I think those feelings are legitimate, and I think young kids that have these feelings right now, and not-so-young kids, are — you know, they’re legitimate thoughts, and we have to — we have to come up with ways of dealing with this crisis and stop ignoring it. And that was my message to the media that day, after sentencing, was we have to stop pretending this is all about crime and punishment and start dealing with, like, real issues, like global climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: At Daniel McGowan’s sentencing hearing, June 2007, prosecutors compared him and other defendants to the Ku Klux Klan. Daniel McGowan’s lawyer, Jeffrey Robinson, criticized prosecutors outside the federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon.

JEFFREY ROBINSON: He stood in that courtroom as a representative of the United States government and told Judge Aiken that Daniel McGowan and his co-defendants were essentially the same as the terrorists from the Ku Klux Klan. That meant something to me personally as an African American. And I am disappointed that my federal government would make that kind of a comparison in a case like this. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was born in 1956. I know something about the Ku Klux Klan and what they were about. And what they were about was murder, was killing — completely different from Daniel McGowan and these defendants.

AMY GOODMAN: The attorney for Daniel McGowan. Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, is with us in Washington. Can you put this in context, Will?

WILL POTTER: Sure. This threat, this threat of animal rights and environmental activists as the number one domestic terrorism threat, according to the FBI, has been a manufactured threat. This has been manufactured since the early 1980s, when corporations created the term “ecoterrorism.” And over the next several decades, they relentlessly pushed that — in the press and in the courthouses and in Congress and congressional hearings. And so, by the time Daniel McGowan was arrested, that threat had been pretty firmly established. So the government held these national press conferences announcing a major victory in the war on terrorism and, as we heard Marshall talking about, labeling him in the courtroom with terrorism enhancement and now putting him in the CMU. So this was really the culmination of a long-running campaign by corporations to demonize their opposition and silence dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what else you have found. I mean, in your book, Green is the New Red, is about the environmental movement overall. And talk about the spectrum, from the ELF to the other movements that you’ve covered, Will.

WILL POTTER: I think the most important thing to point out when we’re talking about tactics in that spectrum is that the spectrum has been quite narrow. So when you look at other social movements, there are a wide range of tactics, from protest to leafleting, lobbying, and, across the board, physical violence. But that physical violence hasn’t been a part of the animal rights or environmental movements. So we’ve heard about arson, but it’s arson against property and empty buildings — not to say it’s not a serious crime, but that these movements have made a very concerted effort to not reach that point. And so, to use the word “terrorism,” which to most people automatically conjures images of violence and planes flying into buildings and murder, against groups that are actually trying to save life, I think really reflects these disproportionate policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Stepanian, you were in the Marion, Illinois, unit that Daniel McGowan was in until very recently, in a CMU. Explain what that is and, well, what his experience is like there, based on your experience when you were there.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: Daniel McGowan and I were at the CMU Marion, Illinois, for about four-and-a-half months together in 2008. The CMU essentially is a prison within a prison. It’s on a maximum security yard, but if people out there can imagine, there’s a smaller unit within the prison itself, walled and contained, and done such a way that notes and other messages can’t be passed out. All communications are closed down. You’re limited to one 15-minute phone call per week and two four-hour visits per month. Daniel McGowan was able to see his wife during those visits, but it was behind glass, unlike other maximum security prisons, where you could actually interact with your families or hold your children. The CMU is different because you don’t have any of that family contact anymore.

And so, it’s subject to a lawsuit not only under the grounds that people that aren’t of that security classification, custody levels that are federally mandated, are being held like they’re supermax prisoners or the absolute worst of the worst — it’s being sued for that process as well as for the processes of these people not being able to access due process. These people that are being held at the CMU don’t really have — it’s kind of a litigative black hole, where these people can’t find their way out, because they don’t have an administrative remedies process in place, set forth by the Bureau of Prisons, to actually challenge their designation to that unit.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy, talk about why you were in jail.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I was in jail for participating in an aboveground protest campaign called the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign, where the government alleges that because of our aboveground protests, that were also shadowed by underground movements doing actions in solidarity with our aboveground movement, that our movement caused $300 million in damages to a private biotechnology company based out of New Jersey called Huntingdon Life Sciences.

AMY GOODMAN: You weren’t a part of the environmental — the Earth Liberation Front.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: No, I was not. However, upon my designation to the CMU, they listed me as a leader in the Animal Liberation Front, which was news to me when I arrived. I guess that they needed to kind of pad my paperwork to say that I actually was a terrorist when I arrived.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, who is held there? You were there. Daniel McGowan was there. But you represent the minority.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: In a nutshell, people that are held there are very politically charged cases, cases that are either the focus of scrutiny by the media or cases that the government doesn’t want to be dragged through the media. So, the majority of the people that are held there, roughly 67 percent of them, are Muslim Americans and Arab nationals. The remainder is this kind of hodgepodge of people that are environmental activists, animal rights activists, tax protesters like Edward Brown, antiwar tax protesters, and some people from right-wing hate groups.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your interaction with the other prisoners. The majority of the prisoners there are Muslim?

ANDREW STEPANIAN: Majority of the prisoners there are Muslim. Like I said, this remainder is this hodgepodge. Compared to the prison yard where I was — I only spent six-and-a-half months of my three-year prison sentence at the CMU. Where I was before that was a medium-high security, general population prison, where there were fights, you know, at least once a week. There was violence, not like what’s depicted on television, but there was regular violence, and I had to be aware of it and prepare myself for it.

When I arrived at the CMU, it was peaceful. Everyone worked together. Everyone showed a great deal of solidarity with one another. There was no violence. And above all else, I kind of had my stereotypes of what people that are labeled normally as terrorists kind of broken once I arrived. I saw people that were labeled as members of al-Qaeda that, at the moment I arrived there, were asking me what they can get me in the way of food. They knew I was a vegetarian. They wanted to be able to give me products that I was able to eat. They gave me shower shoes. None of this was because they wanted to indoctrinate me. It was simply because they wanted to support me when I arrived at the unit with nothing in my hands. And this was this kind of camaraderie that was at the unit. Everyone showed respect for one another and also respect for the guards, which was pretty much unheard of in any other unit where I was beforehand.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you able to speak out about the CMUs for the first time? We had you on before, Andy. You were the first person to be released from the CMU, but you couldn’t speak openly about it at the time.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: During the time when I was on the air last, I was on probation. And I could be violated by my probation officer for not committing a crime, but rather for speaking to the media about things that were sensitive to the government. Between that time and now, there have been exposés into the CMU that have leaked who the people are that are actually there. My lawyer was concerned that if I mentioned the people that I actually had emotional ties with, people that I played chess with or people that I worked out with on the yard, that I was going to be subpoenaed to a grand jury about al-Qaeda investigations, simply because of what I had been through in being subjected to these individuals. I’m not Muslim myself, and I don’t have any sympathy for terrorism of any sort. However, my lawyer was concerned that I was going to be roped into a larger investigation, and by default, as an activist, I wouldn’t want to cooperate with authorities. So I took the avenue of not talking about it until I got clearance to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: The film aired last night here in New York, Marshall, If a Tree Falls. You have been applauded both by the Earth Liberation Front and by the district attorney.

MARSHALL CURRY: Right. I mean, the film really — it’s not a polemical film. It’s a film about an important issue, and we really try to understand that issue from all the different sides. And, you know, we spoke to folks whose businesses were burned by the Earth Liberation Front. And from their perspective, they didn’t know who these people were that were doing this, and they didn’t know whether their house was going to get burned down or whether — you know, they really did feel fear. You know, people like Daniel say this was not terrorism, that this was the Boston Tea Party: symbolic property destruction designed to draw attention to things that people weren’t paying attention to. But it’s not an easy issue, I mean. And so, it’s been interesting both understanding this question of terrorism but also understanding the sort of mechanics that radicalize people, because, you know, the film is kind of designed to be a cautionary tale to activists to think clearly about the tactics that they take, kind of the ethics and the effectiveness of different types of tactics, and also a cautionary tale to law enforcement to think about the way that they respond to activism, because there are responses that radicalize people and responses that bring people into democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the images of the police, I mean, looking like they’re performing a surgical operation, when they’re peeling back the eyelids of — I remember playing this for years on Democracy Now! as it was happening, pulling back the eyelids and applying pepper spray to the inner lids of people who were peacefully on the ground.

MARSHALL CURRY: It’s breathtaking. I mean, it really is. And, you know, when you play it for a room full of people, there are gasps.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, the informant who first recorded Daniel McGowan, his name and who he was.

MARSHALL CURRY: So, Jake Ferguson was actually the person who did the very first Earth Liberation Front arson in the United States and had been involved in many, many fires. And when he was brought in for questioning by the government, he believed that they had more information than in fact they did, and agreed to cooperate. And so, the government flew him around the country, getting him together with his old friends, who had put arson behind them years before, and getting them to talk on tape. He would wear a wire and get them to talk on tape about the actions that they had been involved in. And so, he was kind of the crack that broke open this group.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, talk about the use of informants.

WILL POTTER: It’s been pervasive. And what we found in Daniel McGowan’s case and in many others is that they weren’t broken by following leads or law enforcement investigations. They put pressure on someone through the power of fear to make them turn informant and to have them testify against their friends. And that’s really a theme we’ve seen throughout these cases, is the government manipulating this fear, using the word “terrorism,” using outrageous prison sentences, using new legislation to intimidate these social movements and try to get people to turn against each other.

AMY GOODMAN: The ultimate message, Marshall, that you want people to take away from this film?

MARSHALL CURRY: Think carefully. I mean all different types of people. I was a religion major when I was in college and really wanted to figure out if there was a god and how we should live our lives. And when I was graduating, one of my friends said to me, “You know, I’m still confused, but just at a higher level.” And in some ways I think a lot of these questions about what sort of activism is appropriate and how we should respond are complicated. And I’m just hoping that it prompts more conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Stepanian, we have 10 seconds. Same question to you.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I guess, in terms of his film, it follows an emotional arc of Daniel’s life. He was motivated by compassion, by what he saw happening in the forest with clearcut. The same thing that draw him to help battered women at Women’s Law Collective is what motivated him. He was motivated by compassion. I could say the same thing for the men that were at the CMU. A lot of them are motivated by compassion. People like Ghassan Elashi is motivated by charity, Yassin Aref. These people are involved with charitable causes. People should question this moniker of terrorism and support prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andy Stepanian, I want to thank you for being with us. Marshall Curry, If a Tree Falls is the name of the film. And Will Potter, Green is the New Red is his book.

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Exclusive: Facing Seven Years in Jail, Environmental Activist Daniel McGowan Speaks Out About the Earth Liberation Front, the Green Scare and the Government’s Treatment of Activists as “Terrorists”

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