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In Review

Clenched Fists, Pointed Fingers

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Written and Directed by Marshall Curry, 85 min.

Daniel McGowan doesn’t look like a terrorist. He’s sort of chubby, his round face framed by a neatly trimmed beard. When talking, he comes across as mild-mannered, if a bit defensive. He usually wears the default attire of American males: loose fitting t-shirts, comfy shorts, Nike tennis shoes. He seems like a nice enough guy.

photo of a man standing on an enormous stump in a clear-cut forest, devastation all around

United States federal prosecutors have a different view. They call McGowan a “domestic terrorist.” McGowan admits that in early 2001 he participated in two politically motivated arson attacks – one against a lumber company and the second against a tree farm. But he strongly objects to being labeled a terrorist. “It’s ludicrous,” he says. “It’s property destruction. That’s what it is. Call it what it is.”

The question of what exactly constitutes terrorism lurks at the edges of If a Tree Falls, a new documentary about the radical environmental movement Earth Liberation Front (ELF). And “lurks” is the problem. In this fascinating but ultimately frustrating film, director Marshall Curry circles around some big, juicy political-philosophy questions like a dog on a scent. But he fails to bag his prey. Having decided to focus on McGowan, Curry loses track of the larger tale of the ELF. I can see why Curry made that decision. McGowan’s personal narrative packs real punch; I nearly cried when he goes to start his seven-year prison sentence. Yet the focus on the anti-heroic McGowan left me feeling more heat than light. And it left unasked perhaps the most obvious question of all: Has ELF’s firebombing brand of activism worked?

Most of the action in If a Tree Falls occurs in the forests of Oregon during the “timber wars” of the ’90s. Logging companies were clear cutting stands of old-growth. Environmentalists were determined to stop them. At first, greens used what one local activist calls “hippie type protests”: marches, letter writing, chanting. When that didn’t work, monkeywrenchers from Earth First! started blockading logging roads. At one logging site, called Warner Creek, EarthFirsters built a stockade, dug a moat, and occupied the area for a year. Then the Forest Service came in one morning, arrested everyone, and knocked down the barricade in five minutes.

So tensions were already high when law enforcement officials began employing brutal force. During one demonstration to stop the felling of some trees in Eugene, Oregon, police sprayed pepper spray onto the genitals of a protester hanging from a tree. When environmentalists occupied the office of a logging company in Northern California, sheriff’s deputies swabbed pepper spray in their eyes.

After that, a few people decided it was time to start burning shit down. A US Forest Service office was torched. Then a Bureau of Land Management wild horse corral was set on fire. A $12 million ski resort in Vail, Colorado, was destroyed. The ELF’s tactics exploded in the national consciousness in 1999, when, during the World Trade Organization protests, some past and future ELF members tore apart downtown Seattle amid a cloud of tear gas. As McGowan says in the film: “It felt good to take out my rage on these corporate windows.”

I’m sure it did feel good. But that’s not really the point of social change activism, is it? The point is to help create a world where environmental destruction and social injustices are the exception, not the rule. In one scene, a black-clad protester on the streets of Seattle proclaims: “These businesses, they are not going to bow ... to people dressed as giant sea turtles.” I happen to agree. But I doubt very much that smashing windows will make businesses bow either.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore that tension between tactics. It’s apparent to the ELF activists that petitions and voting and marching won’t change the system driving environmental destruction. At the same time, the film makes it pretty clear that the nihilism of ELFers isn’t any more effective. But Curry doesn’t press the point. Or maybe he did, and the ELFers didn’t have any good answers.

I worry it’s the latter. As McGowan admits, “There were a lot of questions, but at the time I don’t think I was asking myself those questions too much.” Now, sadly, he has all the time in the world to ask himself questions.

   

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Comments

After reading the above review in the magazine, i came across it online here and noticed the links included for the ELF and EF! were not good choices. Below is some explanation with the appropriate links for people curious about either.

“[T]he domains, earth-liberation-front.org and originalelf.com… have no affiliation with the Earth Liberation Front or the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office. These sites were created by someone desiring to personally profit off of the Earth Liberation Front name and movement. These sites attempt to link the Earth Liberation Front to a group the sites call the “Environmental Life Force.” The Earth Liberation Front was not started by this group or by an individual known as John Hanna. The Earth Liberation Front began as an offshoot of the Earth First! movement in England in 1992.”
Learn more about the ELF from people involved with this above ground support group: http://www.earthliberationfront.org/commentary.html

“The website EarthFirst.org is NOT a movement-oriented project. There is no accountability on where the ‘donations’ go, nor the content that is posted.” From: http://earthfirstjournal.org/

By Panagioti on Fri, September 09, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Jason,
I appreciated the most recent issue of your Journal. As an editor of the Earth First! Journal, it was good to see that the EF! movement got a few mentions in there.

But I felt there was a good bit lacking from the review of the ELF documentary “If a Tree Falls” and i was surprised to get to the end of it and find that you were the reviewer. You seemed to be suggesting that Curry, the director of the film, should have pushed harder to discredit and dismiss the actions of the ELF as ineffective. After seeing the film a few times and speaking at local screenings, I had the opposite impression myself.

While I was glad the film credited the sabotage that shut down the wild horse slaughterhouse (doing in one night what 10 years of protests and petitions could not do), I wanted to hear more about how some these high-profile actions highlighted growing opposition to things like genetic engineering, free trade agreements, Sport Utility Vehicles and corporate greed in general.

How many people heard about the World Trade Organization or GMO trees because vandalism and arson made them newsworthy to the shallow, sensationalistic media? How many nefarious companies had their insurance and security costs go up as a result of the ELF activity, and did that slow them down or make them think twice?

These are details that would have more deeply enriched Curry’s portrayal of what are essentially the modern-day equivalent of the Luddite rebels—a group whose name is still cursed by industrialists. And even though the term Luddite is now used more often as an insult than a compliment, I think most could agree that they were predecessors of broader, more popular movements responding to the injustice and exploitation of an industrializing society. Even the Smithsonian gave the anonymous “General Ludd” recognition in the March 2011 edition of their magazine (which, of course, doesn’t change the fact that dozens of them were hung for their efforts in the 1800s.)

I don’t want to beat around the bush here: Your position on Daniel’s case makes it sound like you’re on the sidelines. I find it hard to believe that’s where you intend to be.

If you really do “happen to agree,” as you wrote, that conventional and symbolic methods of protest aren’t going to cut it, then where does that leave us? In these times of quickening ecological crisis, I am not ashamed to say that we the need more of the sort of thing that the ELF had to offer, with a renewed sense of strategy and priority.

On a similar subject, those who appreciated Derrick Jensen’s piece in this issue would do well to read the recent book he contributed to, Deep Green Resistance. And hell, I might as well make a cheap plug for our publication—for those interested in keeping up with these topics you can subscribe to the Earth First! Journal by checking out earthfirstjournal.org or writing to EF! Journal, POB 964, Lake Worth, FL, 33460.

And while you’re at it, send a letter to Daniel McGowan to let him know you’re thinking of him. You can find his address and more about his case at SupportDaniel.org

For the wild,
—Panagioti Tsolkas
EF! Journal editorial collective

By Panagioti on Fri, September 09, 2011 at 5:16 pm

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