A 'green scare' in shades of gray

Invoking the Red Scare of the 1950s, some environmentalists claim the federal government is committing something similar against the green movement of the 2000s. Of course, it could simply be vigorous enforcement of laws against violence and property damage.
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Briana Waters and partner John Landgraf with daughter Kalliope. (supportbriana.org)

Invoking the Red Scare of the 1950s, some environmentalists claim the federal government is committing something similar against the green movement of the 2000s. Of course, it could simply be vigorous enforcement of laws against violence and property damage.

According to court documents, Briana Waters, convicted in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, is afraid that by remaining in prison she will lose her deep connection with her three year old daughter, Kalliope. She has justification to be worried about her sentencing on Friday, May 30. Throughout the grand jury process, the indictments, guilty pleas by others, and sentencing of cases involving the Pacific Northwest Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the federal government has been intent on sending a message to radical activists: Think long and hard before choosing to destroy property in the name of saving Mother Earth.

Waters will not be an exception to the tough stance taken by the prosecutors, despite her public appeal as a devoted mother and musician and her claim of innocence. A recent sentencing in an unrelated ELF case does not bode well. Last week, in Sacramento, Calif., Eric McDavid, a 30-year-old former philosophy student, was sentenced to almost 20 years for conspiring to cause damage to a federal facility. His sentence might be ominous for Waters, an indication that her journey back to life as a mother and violin teacher might be long. There is controversy, however, in these long sentences. Are the methods used by the federal government an attempt to suppress green dissent?

So-called green radicals believe that the long sentences, as well as aggressive investigation techniques, intimidating indictments, and, in particular, use of a sentencing enhancement known as the "terrorist enhancement," are evidence of a "green scare." Comparing the arrests of eco-radicals to the Red Scare of 1947-57, essayists such as Will Potter assert that the federal government is bullying eco-radicals into silence. Numerous Internet publications, such as Counterpunch, AlterNet, and The Guardian, support the notion that the crackdown on ELF is an escalating war on environmentalists by the government.

Green radicals point to an ongoing federal prosecutions of well known eco-saboteur Rod Coronado as Exhibit A of government harassment. Coronado was arrested for describing how to make an incendiary device while he was speaking at a bookstore in San Diego and at American University in Washington, D.C. His San Diego trial resulted in a hung jury. But the federal prosecutor re-filed charges, adding allegations about the D.C. event. Recently, Coronado pleaded guilty to lesser charges and will soon begin serving less than a year in prison. Coronado, considered a hero among radical environmental and animal rights activists, has publicly announced he is withdrawing from activism upon his release to spend more time with his family. Advocates of the green-scare theory believe Coronado was harassed into retirement.

Environmental organizations, including several known for pushing the envelope in terms of "direct action," such as Rainforest Action Network, have recently increased fund-raising and have not been called before grand juries or congressional committees to testify on their connections with anyone using property damage as a tactic of dissent. So far, there is no evidence of anyone attending Sierra Club meetings or a Saturday morning bird walk with an Audubon chapter being denied employment or blackballed. In fact, even two character witnesses for Waters, who participated in radical environmental tactics while students at The Evergreen State College, are now are employed — one as an aide in the Washington Legislature and another by a mainstream environmental organization. In other words, there is no evidence that there is methodical harassment of green radicals by the government.

These days, mainstream environmentalists and conservation organizations are enjoying a heyday of popularity. From two recent Nobel Peace Prizes going to environmentalists to local regulatory success throughout the U.S., environmental issues are on everyone's top 10 lists of concerns. Even the current Republican presidential nominee is addressing global warming.

Is there a green scare, or are the government actions a function of crime fighting strategies? If there is a green scare similar to the the Red Scare of the mid-20th century, it would be difficult to explain such cultural and social acceptance of environmental issues. Rather, the governmental prosecution may be more accurately described as a "radicals-endorsing-illegal-tactics" scare. There is no doubt the federal government wants anyone thinking about using property destruction as a tactic to reflect long and hard about the consequences. Destroy property or instruct someone how to in the name of Mother Earth, and you will feel the full force of the law. The sentences in the ELF cases, the manner which the investigations are conducted, and the application of the terrorism enhancements are intended to send a message. It is intended to scare and frighten anyone thinking of taking a next step.

One of the more controversial prosecution strategies has been to seek the greatest possible sentences for even the ELF defendants who cooperate. Federal sentencing continues to be a complicated formula of points or scores assigned to the type of crime, whether the defendant pleaded guilty or took the case to trial, prior criminal history, and the amount of damage caused to the victim. Then there are downward departures from the guideline score. Departures are made when the defendant cooperates or if there are health issues. From that base score, there may be sentencing enhancements such as whether a gun was used or if the crime was committed in near a school. Or in the ELF cases, a terrorist enhancement. In the other Pacific Northwest Earth Liberation Front cases, in Oregon, the sentencing judge, Ann Aiken, applied the terrorism enhancement to all but a few defendants. The sentencing judge in McDavid's case dryly stated, in applying the enhancement to him, that this was "a new world since Sept. 11, 2001."

The anarchist and radical green community has been quite vocal in their opposition to the terrorist enhancement and any attempt by mainstream media to label the arsonists as eco-terrorists. Their first argument is that the real terrorists against America are corporations, loggers, miners, polluters, and some researchers. Another argument, which may have more traction, is that eco-sabotage has not killed or maimed anyone. The arsons are merely acts of vandalism, which has a long history as a tactic used by dissenters in this country, going back to the Boston Tea Party. To constitute terror, they argue, you must have the intent to physically hurt someone. They further argue that the use of terrorist in this context dilutes the meaning of the word, offending those have have been killed by actual acts of terrorism. Lastly, they argue, in the two most violent cases of domestic terrorism during the 1990s, neither Theodore Kaczynski nor Timothy McVeigh were labeled terrorists by the sentencing judges. The enhancements, they conclude, are further evidence of a "green scare."

Waters has reason to be concerned about her possible sentencing on May 30. The two counts of arson have mandatory minimum sentences of not less than five years and up to 20 years, and she would serve them concurrently. Mark Bartlett, the lead federal prosecutor in Waters' case, has stated he intends to ask for substantially more than five years. While Bartlett has yet to tip his hand as to whether the government will ask for the terrorist enhancement, it would be unusual if he did not, given the universal requests in all of the ELF cases. There is a chance Waters' sentence could be similar in length to McDavid's and would be substantially longer than any of her Washington or Oregon co-defendants.

McDavid committed his crime by discussing possible targets for arson while he was staying in a remote cabin in the foothills of the Sierras. Waters was a lookout for an arson on a college campus that was the epicenter of ecological restorations for the Pacific Northwest. Both are now far away from the natural world they professed to love and wanted to save. McDavid will have almost 20 years to ponder his flirtation with eco-sabotage. And we shall soon see whether Waters is labeled a terrorist as well as a violin teacher and mother.


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