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.
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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