On December 10, 1997, a 23 year-old woman named Julia Hill climbs to a six by eight foot platform on a redwood in Humboldt County, California. The redwood - known both as "The Stafford Giant," for being the largest remaining tree near the Northern California town, and "Luna," in honor of being discovered on a full moon - was found blue-marked to be chainsawed in the fall by activists of the environmental group Earth First! To save the 1,000 year-old Luna, a nonstop tree sit-in began, one in which Julia Hill is merely going to be another member of.
Luna is over 200 feet tall, but the platform that Julia climbs to is 180 feet above ground, the same number which represents in degrees a complete reversal in direction. This isn't the only interesting symbolism here: as a child, Julia chose the nickname "Butterfly," a name which implies metamorphosis.
On this day, John Elway is labeled a loser who chokes in the Super Bowl, and the 61 homers of Roger Maris is an almost unthinkable record to break. "Titanic" is getting good word of mouth, but there are wide expectations it will lose money, since it will have to earn nearly impossible box-office receipts to merely break even. Few people have ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, Matt Drudge or Linda Tripp, not to mention Sammy Sosa, Britney Spears or South Park.
One thing hasn't changed in the 20-plus months since Julia Hill (now 25) climbed that platform: Julia's feet have yet to return to the ground, even through two hot summers and two cold winters (one plagued by the El Nino storm.) With her determination to remain on the Luna platform, Julia has transformed into the most lovely of butterflies for a movement, and while the direction of the battle against Pacific Lumber's destructive logging practices certainly hasn't turned 180 degrees, Julia has become a potent symbol which frightens executives for the timber giant.
Most notable of the executives is Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz, who does the best impression possible of Montgomery Burns (the villainous nuclear power plant owner in The Simpsons.) Having evaded deserved imprisonment for masterminding the fifth largest S&L failure of the Reagan-Bush era for an astounding $1.6 billion, Maxxam used money funneled from the bank swindle to engineer a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber. From the moment Maxxam took over PL, the company has engaged in rabid clearcutting, tripling the rate of logging on the world's largest privately-held ancient redwood forests. The purpose of these destructive (and often illegal) logging practices appears to be extorting a sweetheart deal from the government for the land, a deal which they may receive through the Pacific Lumber Habitat Conservation Plan, which would pay Maxxam and Hurwitz $480 million for 9,500 acres, while letting them still control 200,000 acres of forests. The plan outrages most environmental activists, who have fought the giveaway in the courts. The best plan to save Headwaters and other forests, they argue, is to jail Hurwitz for his crimes and trade the land for his massive debts, not to reward him for his misdeeds.
While such issues certainly do disturb Julia, she chooses not to focus on such long-term battles. With an almost Buddhistic simplicity, she instead fights one issue at a time, in her own words, "Day by day, prayer by prayer." To her, sitting in Luna is like a domino: save it, and other victories will soon follow from the aftershocks. Her battle plan has already worked to an extent few (including herself) would have ever imagined possible. As Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart put it, "Julia is a lightning rod 180 feet atop a giant redwood. She says, 'No more old-growth redwoods should be cut - not on my watch.' She's the Joan of Arc of the redwoods."
Joan of Arc she is, along with a Rosa Parks, who kick-started the civil rights movements for refusing to leave her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. She is also the Cal Ripken of tree-sitters, having an ironwoman grit that has had obliterated all previous tree-sit records (before her, the longest is believed to have been no more than 3 months.) And she insists she will continue to be St. Joan, Rosa and Cal combined, until the Luna tree (and the grove it is part of) is saved, and she brings worldwide attention to the international destruction that is taking place.
Perhaps the most telling fact of her success is that the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department, which previously has shown little moral qualms in using vicious methods to deal with anti-logging demonstrators (including swabbing non-violent protesters eyes with pepper spray) has chosen to let her remain in the tree. While good judgement isn't a hallmark of Humboldt law enforcement, for once they wisely understood to force her down and jail her would create a martyr and an international outrage. Instead, they have let Julia sit, hoping that eventually she would crack.
Don't bet against her: she has been through the worst. Besides El Nino and its winds rivaling a Randy Johnson fastball in speed, she has been harassed by Pacific Lumber, buzzing her tree with helicopters and disrupting her sleep with blaring air horns and lights. Julia has escaped it thriving rather than beaten, ready for more abuse.
When Julia first climbed into Luna, she certainly wasn't planning to continue as long as she has. "I was just trying to help the sit-in. Frankly, tree sitting just didn't seem like my thing." She thinks for a moment, then adds an ironic chuckle, as she speaks via cell phone.
Her involvement in the tree sit-in was to last between three weeks and a month. "Somewhere in that time, I fell in love with this tree, and realized I had found my calling."
"In time, I realized this could raise awareness that there are interlocking issues here. I wanted to raise consciousness on the issues of protection and destruction. To protect the forests and the trees, a spotlight has to be brought to the many factors involved, like the Home Depot connection to old-growth forest destruction. 95-97% of all old-growth forests in this country are gone, wiped out, and there are huge commercial interests promoting this."
A spotlight she slowly became, and admits to not being naive about becoming one. "I love Abbie Hoffman, and one thing he always stressed was that people need a hook. Quite simply, the mainstream media wasn't interested in the subject of forest destruction. They weren't interested in the fact that seven families' homes were destroyed by mudslides caused by Pacific Lumber's clearcutting. These just weren't sexy issues." At first, the media even ignored her story, but that didn't seem to bother her. "I try to focus on what is ahead of me, and my immediate goal was to become a tree as much as I could."
Soon, the establishment press did realize the sexiness of the issue, and the fact that Julia is appealingly photogenic certainly was a great selling point. The big break came when the L.A. Times stumbled onto her story, and the transformation from personal journey to social campaign began. Sue Carpenter wrote a profile piece on her for the Times Lifestyles section. "It was for a column about 'rad women'," she says with a laugh. "The focus was on me, and about me as a personality. The irony is what motivated the profile. After breaking the tree sit record, surviving El Nino, being attacked by a helicopter and harassed by Pacific Lumber security, what finally got their attention was that I had my birthday. I think that really shows the superficiality of our media."
Julia feels some discomfort at the focus on her: in fact, there has been predictable grumbling by a few activists that her publicity is detrimental to the forest protection movement. Still, she and most fellow activists realize the necessity of it to draw attention to their cause, and she is satisfied her tree sit has been more than beneficial.
"What does bother me is when the questions from reporters dwell on issues about what I eat, or how I go to the bathroom. I think that trivializes what is at stake, turns the issue of ancient forest destruction into another piece of brain candy."
(For those who must ask, Julia uses an old margarine tub and bucket for a toilet, swabs herself down for hygiene, uses candles for lights, and a one-burner propane stove to cook vegan meals. She's an avid tea drinker and supposedly cooks a mean potato-squash stew.)
"I think the more important questions is why I am up here, and what can others do about it."
The odyssey of Julia Hill to where she is now is a quarter-century adventure, but the big turning point to her current lifestyle began abruptly in August 1996.
"I got in a terrible car accident," she explains. "I'm blessed to be alive, really. My steering wheel smacked me hard in the forehead. It almost affected the way I function in life, permanently. It took me ten months to recover. And during that time, I realized what this world celebrates is so sad, so false, so fake. I didn't want to be part of that. When I recovered, I promised myself I was going to create a legacy with my second chance, a legacy of life, love and respect." She pauses for a moment, thinking. "I really feel that smack in the forehead was a wakeup call."
Not that Julia was a yuppie-in-training. At the time of the accident, she was working as a bartender in Fayetteville, Arkansas, hardly the pathway to the upwardly mobile lifestyle. Even then, her ultimate goal was quite noble. "I wanted to retire by age 40, own a plot of land and raise adopted children on it."
"Still, I was raised very poor. It was humiliating. So, I had a real desire to have money. The accident made me question this desire, and it put me on a spiritual journey. It made me realize how much we are all manipulated, how those with money use it to manipulate the world."
"I believe in a creator, a higher power," she announces. "And I believe we were put on earth to create, not to destroy."
Her journey took her west the summer of 1997, and though she left with her destination unknown, she knew she had found what she was looking for when she saw the ancient redwoods. It was love at first sight. She stumbled onto activists from Earth First!, and soon she was joining in on their civil-disobedience campaign. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite her involvement in their tree-sit and campaign to save the ancient redwoods, she is not (as widely reported) a member of Earth First! herself. "I don't mean that as disrespect for Earth First! or for my friends who are part of it. I support peaceful protests, and I support their involvement in them. However, when you join a group, you lose your sense of individualism, and that is something which is very important to me."
Having said that, she defends Earth First! from public smears and attacks labeling it as a terrorist group, and the charge certainly bothers her. "The people I am in contact with from Earth First! are dedicated to peace, and it is just an attempt to discredit those who want to save our forests. Let me ask you, Pacific Lumber wiped out seven family homes in Stafford with their logging practices: is that 'terrorist' activity? Who are the ones behaving like 'extremists'? Who are the ones who are 'radical'? They've been napalming the clearcut to destroy vegetation, dumping 40 gallons of diesel fuel per acre. You tell me who are the real terrorist."
The demonization of Earth First! is the direct result of an organized campaign promoted by the FBI and the timber companies. Admittedly, Earth First! made it quite easy to be discredited originally: most members spoke in favor of the practice of tree spiking, and in 1987, when George Alexander was nearly decapitated at a Louisiana Pacific lumber mill in Cloverdale mill, the group showed little sympathy for his plight. Soon after, they were blamed in the press for the accident, though no evidence has ever been presented for the allegation and nobody was ever charged. Still, the smear was an easy stick, based on the leaderships' refusal to disavow acts of sabotage that were potentially lethal. The aftershock of such reckless philosophical nihilism lasts to this day: although there have been no injuries of lumberjacks caused by Earth First! members, the label of the group as "tree spikers" still exists.
In 1988, the FBI launched a major sting operation against Earth First! in Arizona, Operation THERMCON. Over $3 million dollars were spent trying to entrap and frame members of Earth First! in acts of destruction. Over 50 FBI agents were involved in the operation, including agent Michael Fain and informant Ron Frazier. Both Fain and Frazier were the leaders of five people caught trying to disrupt power lines in the Arizona desert. Despite the fact that the failed act of sabotage was conceived and commanded by FBI provocateurs, the further damage to Earth First! and its reputation had been done. It could have been worse: among the plans Fain couldn't convince others to participate in was attacking nuclear power plants.
In 1990, the campaign heated up in reaction to Proposition 130, the California initiative, dubbed Forests Forever, which would have ended unsustainable logging and clearcutting. If it had passed, the losses to Pacific Lumber, Louisiana Pacific and Georgia Pacific would have been in the hundreds of million dollars. Even worse, a new leader in the Earth First! movement was emerging: Judi Bari, who insisted that Earth First! as a group condemn all potentially hazardous acts of disobedience. Bari, a former union organizer, also began reaching out to local loggers. The twin values promoted by Bari were a threatening combination to the status quo: it's hard to demonize those that preach non-violence, and her developing alliance with workers could drive a stake in one of the most effective tools for business monoliths: pitting workers against environmentalists, making the issues of jobs and ecological balance appear to be in conflict. (In truth, considering the shoddy treatment loggers receive from the lumber giants - Louisiana Pacific has laid off over a thousand workers since 1988 and engaged regularly in union-busting activities, and Pacific Lumber under Hurwitz has looted $55 million from the worker pension fund - they actually share a common opponent in exploitation with forest activists.)
The big three lumber companies soon hired Hill & Knowlton, the PR firm that would later sell America on mass murder in Iraq. Soon, Prop 130 was labeled "The Earth First! Initiative." Phony Earth First! flyers and press releases calling for violence and sabotage were released. Something known as the "Earth First! Terrorism Manual" began circulating as well. According to San Francisco Examiner columnist Rob Morse, a press kit he received from H&K and Pacific Lumber "included a press release on the Earth First! letterhead, but not written in the usual careful, sweet style of Earth First! It read like a bad Hollywood version of what radicals talk like... At the bottom of this ridiculous flyer was the name of Earth First! leader Darryl Cherney, with his first name misspelled..."
Then, on May 24, 1990, Judi and Darryl were both nearly killed, when a motion-triggered pipe bomb hidden under the driver's seat of Judi's car exploded in Oakland, California. Oakland Police immediately arrested them, blaming the bombing on the victims, who they claimed were injured by their own bomb going off by accident. Over the next month and a half, the Oakland PD and the FBI trotted out claim after claim of sensationalistic lies, all to convince the public of their guilt. Bari informed the police she had received numerous death threats in the months preceding the bombing, but the cops weren't interested. "If you turn up dead, then we'll investigate," they said.
If they had ever bothered to investigate, their findings would have been quite interesting. Just a month before the bombing, the FBI conducted a bomb investigation training in Humboldt County. FBI bomb expert Frank Doyle (agent for the well-named FBI Terrorist Squad) used pipe bombs to blow up cars, the same FBI bomb expert who later showed up at the crime scene and immediately shifted the blame to Judi and Darryl. The exercise took place on a Louisiana Pacific logging site. The chief of Louisiana Pacific's security force was an ex-FBI bomb expert himself. Meanwhile, according to another FBI bomb expert, David R. Williams, the Judi Bari device "was made with excellent craftsmanship and it was well conceived. It did not come out of Anarchist Cookbook; it did not come out of Poor Man's James Bond. It was a complex bomb, very well made." In other words, the work of experts. A very similar device was used in the bomb investigation training.
Recently, Flatland Magazine, a magazine popular in the conspiracy theory subculture, published a story arguing that the bomber wasn't FBI related, but a disgruntled member of Earth First! sour over personal relationships. The story, interestingly enough, has been picked up and promoted by news outlets that previously ignored Flatland's "fringe" viewpoint, but who long have had a bone to pick with the political cause of Earth First!. The debate rages on, but one thing is certainly clear: if the FBI didn't try to kill her, they weren't interested in finding out who did. That being the case, perhaps Judi wasn't too far off when she declared, "The FBI should find the bomber and fire him."
Tainted by connection to a supposed "terrorist" group (and facing a nearly $6 million ad campaign financed by the timber industry), Prop 130 died. Yet the campaign against Earth First! continued: it reached its most absurdly surreal moment in 1991, when the San Francisco Examiner printed an article where an "ex"-CIA agent accused Earth First! of funding scientific projects to develop a virus as part of some diabolical plot to wipe out the human race (an ironically amusing charge, considering the source.) That such unsubstantiated charges could be repeated in the mainstream press explains how the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department could react after the death of David "Gypsy" Chain last September 17th. Rather than investigate the loggers who fell the tree that killed him for manslaughter (after they shouted obscenities, promised to get a "pistol," and even threatened, "I'll make sure I got a tree comin' this way!") the only individuals they even hinted at investigating were Chain's fellow Earth First! activists for supposed recklessness.
For anyone who is remotely aware of modern political history, the involvement of the FBI in harassing those in Earth First! is business as usual. The operation even had a code name: COINTELPRO (short for "Counterintelligence Program".) COINTELPRO was the FBI's Top Secret program to undermine the activities of those labeled as "subversive" organizations. FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the activities those he deemed as a menace to society. Officially, the program was disbanded in 1975, the reality is it never disappeared. According to M. Wesley Swearingen, a retired FBI agent with inside knowledge of COINTELPRO, "The program is still in operation today, but under a different code name. The operation is no longer placed on paper where it can be discovered through the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act."
Two of the more infamous victims of COINTELPRO are Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, the Los Angeles Black Panther leader, and American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. Both were framed for murders that they didn't commit: in both cases, Richard W. Held, a veteran FBI agent, was directly involved, committing perjury and destroying evidence along the way. Held, coincidentally, was the special agent in charge of the San Francisco FBI office at the time of the Bari bombing.
In recent years, those in the Patriot-Militia movement have become frequent targets of harassment by the feds, and much of the violent, dangerous behavior supposedly attributed to them by the establishment follows the predictable pattern of frameups and provocateurs. Some would argue this shows the FBI is waging not a battle of ideological purity, but rather a war against those who don't get with the program. All groups (left, right or center) that stand in the way of this goal become an enemy of the state that must be attacked.
I bring this up to Julia, and ask her what she feels about the Patriot movement. After all, for all the supposed differences between Earth First! and the Militia crowd, they're basically groups of people who are taking a stand against the path our society is heading. In fact, I suspect that if the members of the two groups met with open minds, they'd discover they have a lot more in common than they ever imagined.
Julia thinks for a moment, and speaks carefully, perhaps rightfully concerned that her opinions and words will be misunderstood and open her up to criticism. "I can't talk about the particulars, but I can say this: anyone who takes a stand against societal norms will be subject to attack, and I do empathize with all who do this. We live in a sick consumer society: consume, consume, consume. Anyone who opposes it can expect to be persecuted."
"I try to always go through life with peaceful actions. A few years ago, I felt I had to use a weapon, as someone was trying to kill me. But when I began learning how to use the weapon, I became sick in the stomach, it made me ill. I decided to give it up, that it was a temporary solution, that I was going to live my life with peaceful actions as my way."
"But do I sympathize with their opposition to where our society is heading? Definitely."
"This isn't just about Pacific Lumber, or Maxxam, or Charles Hurwitz. There is an international corporate structure behind this. There is a healthy balance, a path of equality that protects and preserves life. And this is being destroyed by the rich and powerful."
She pauses for a moment, hearing the raising passion coming from her voice. "When I say this, I come not from a place of anger, but a place of love and sacredness. We really don't have to destroy the earth and life. I really believe if we all just open our eyes, our spirit, and our hearts, this will become evident."
"I know there are a lot of people with an insider point of view, but if they can just be tweaked, made aware that these issues are connected, that what they are supposedly doing for their own benefit is in fact destroying them and the world, I believe that they can change their attitudes and actions. I believe in the humanity of all, that we all can find redemption."
Judi Bari passed away on March 2, 1997, a victim of breast cancer. At the time of her death, she was an icon for the Earth First! movement, a person who brought peace and wisdom to a structure that was clearly lacking it. Hers was a story of gradual change, from the woman who sang cheery songs about spiking trees to an advocate of non-violence and unity between workers and ecologists. Perhaps it says something that Bari (like Malcolm X) was targeted after she began denouncing divisive policies and encouraged the gathering of tribes.
As important as Bari was (and is) to the environmental movement, Julia is perhaps already more so. The lessons it took Judi Bari a lifetime to embrace, Julia seems to understand almost instinctively. The simple truth is nobody benefits more from violence and destructive rebellion than those with power, and nobody is more frightened by peace than those who control the armies. By her own admission, Judi Bari's advocacy of non-violence was more a tactical move, while with Julia it is a spiritual choice. The demons which Bari had to grapple with to the end, Julia has already conquered.
Though she is not planning on leaving Luna soon, Julia does have dreams and visions for her future. Currently, she is working on becoming a great poet. "I want to make people aware of the beauty in the world around them, and at the same time, I want to expose the lies. So much money is spent on writing for toothpaste commercials, it's misplaced priorities. Even worse, weapons of mass destruction are sold to us like a toothpaste commercial. It's really vile."
"Our media feeds off that: we have a culture that worships celebrities. I admire people who are famous for being themselves, helping the homeless, stopping oppression. People like Rosa Parks, Leonard Peltier."
"I do think we can change. It happened with slavery. The idea that people could be private property was once accepted. We all have the potential to make a difference: you can be a hero or a destroyer, celebrate lightness or in darkness. We all have choices in life, and we can all choose to cherish life."
Maybe her cheery, hopeful ideals are naive. Considering what she has already accomplished, it may be unwise to second guess her. Her battle to save Luna is not her end, but merely a beginning in her transformation into a leader of peace. At worst, her ideology sounds a bit like REM's "Stand," a silly, simple pop song on the surface that actually is a call to open your eyes and be aware of where you are in the world. This may be to Julia's benefit, as it lets her sneak up on people who don't take her too seriously. When she first entered Luna, nobody (including herself) expected it to be as important of an event as it has turned out. Somehow, I get the feeling that she's going to keep sneaking up on us.
Note: In August 1999, Home Depot, the largest single retailer of lumber in the world, announced that by 2002, it will stop selling goods made from wood cut in ancient forests in a sweeping policy change aimed at protecting redwoods, the rain forest and other ecologically sensitive tracts. They urged other retailers to join the effort to save endangered forests and pledged to hold the line on prices as vendors and customers switch to products made from alternative materials. And with that, another domino comes crashing down.
Credit must be given to Nicholas Wilson, for originating the theory that the Bari bombing was part of a public relations strategy to defeat Prop. 130 by demonizing Judi Bari and EF!, and that it involved a collaboration between the FBI and the timber industry.
Sector Air Raid Warden at /RENEGADE/
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