Remembering Judi Bari
Most people in the United States and around the world, it is fair to say, have probably never heard of Judi Bari — or if they have, they may just barely recall a news story about some crazy domestic American eco-terrorists blowing themselves up in a car.
But if such people had ever spent any time on the far northern coast of California in the U.S., they would need no introduction or explanation as to who Bari was. They would already know.
A few weeks ago, March 2, marked exactly 20 years since the death of Judi Bari. In the era of Trump and the elite one-percenters who now occupy the White House and seem intent on reducing Planet Earth to a pile of rubble, Bari’s life and legacy as an environmental activist, feminist and advocate for working people still have much to teach us today — both the rewards and risks of standing up to the forces of authority in the USA.
From the 1980s onward, Bari was active in protecting the old-growth, ancient redwood forests of primarily Mendocino and Humboldt counties on California’s North Coast from being destroyed by logging companies. These are lush rainforests with gigantic redwood trees that date up to centuries old, and are every bit as important to the ecological balance of the planet as the Amazon rainforests of South America.
A radical environmental group by the name of Earth First! was Bari’s home base as an activist. The group’s slogan was “No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth” and it rejected the milder protest tactics of other liberal-run, mainstream environmental organizations. Local branches of Earth First! sprang up around the western United States, with one central goal: putting a stop to the human destruction of nature by any means necessary.
What Bari brought to Earth First! was women’s voices and active participation in what was up to then a mostly White male-dominated hierarchy. Bari also insisted that some of the more dangerous practices of Earth First!, such as tree-spiking (driving long metal spikes into redwood trees as a deterrent to the loggers’ chainsaws) be stopped. She promoted a code of nonviolent protest and demonstration as a means to ending the cycle of human violence that was destroying the ancient forests in the first place.
Bari, by all accounts, was a dynamic speaker and effective grassroots organizer and could move large groups of people to follow her. She was a carpenter by trade, a labor union member, feminist, a single mother of two children, and a musician who sang and played a mean violin at the forest-protection rallies that she helped organize. She often used humor as a political weapon, but pulled no punches when it came to vilifying the logging companies that were razing the redwood forests and leaving such complex ecosystems in ruins.
If you have ever seen, like I have, a California redwood forest that has been clear-cut by a logging company — that is, completely leveled to the ground — you would never forget it. All that remains of a clear-cut forest are huge, flattened redwood tree stumps, and shredded tree bark and sawdust scattered everywhere on the ground. There are no wild animals to be found and no birds flying anywhere nearby. It is completely silent, the sound of death in nature. The silent air reeks of the smell of grease and oil, lingering long after the chainsaws and logging trucks have gone.
In summer 1990, Bari and other activists organized a protest campaign called “Redwood Summer” that would significantly raise the stakes in what were being called the “timber wars” of northern California and other western U.S. states.
Bari got the name and inspiration for “Redwood Summer” from “Freedom Summer”, a 1964 mass-volunteer effort organized by African American civil rights groups in Mississippi to help get Black citizens registered to vote amid White racist violence. Just as Freedom Summer had done in defense of Black civil rights, Redwood Summer, under Bari and fellow organizers, sent out a call for concerned people across the country to come out to California in large numbers and join them in nonviolent resistance to the help save the last of the redwood forests — and to add an extra layer of protection from White redneck violence against environmental activists.
It was on 24 May 1990, in the city of Oakland, California, when the violence surrounding the timber wars of northern California came to a head. As Bari was driving with her partner, Darryl Cherney, a fellow Earth First! activist, to a local gig in support of Redwood Summer, a bomb exploded in her car and severely injured them both.
The Oakland police as well as agents from the local FBI office were at the scene of the car bombing within minutes, and at the hospital, they informed the wounded Bari and Cherney that they were under arrest and being charged with knowingly transporting a homemade bomb in the car. They were being treated as eco-terrorists, and that was how the American news media played up the story at the time. Bari and Cherney, on the other hand, strongly believed that the car bombing was the work of the timber companies in an effort to stop the Redwood Summer campaign from going forward as planned.
A couple months later, the FBI and Oakland police dropped all charges against the two activists due to lack of evidence. Yet Bari and her partner were still publicly tainted with that “eco-terrorist” image, despite their innocence. In 1991 she and Cherney filed a federal lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police, citing false arrest and a violation of their civil rights. The FBI, in the meantime, was making little effort to find out the true identity of the bomber(s) of the two environmental activists.
The reason for the FBI’s lack of interest in this car bombing on American soil in broad daylight soon became apparent. It was found during the trial process that the FBI had organized a “bomb school” just a month before the actual car bombing of Bari happened. The bomb school was organized by an FBI agent, Frank Doyle, and offered as a community college course at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California in Humboldt County, an area that was ground zero of the timber wars in the region at the time. Among the students attending the FBI bomb school classes were officers with the Oakland police department. The bomb school site was located on land that had already been clear-cut by the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, one of the major timber companies in northern California.
And what did they do at this FBI bomb school? They practiced blowing up a car and then responding to the crime scene. What kind of car was it? A Subaru — the exact same make and model of car that Judi Bari had been driving at the time. And a few weeks later, when a bomb exploded in Bari’s car in Oakland, who showed up at the actual crime scene within minutes? You guessed it: The FBI’s bomb school instructor, Frank Doyle, and some of his earlier bomb school “students” with the Oakland police department. So, it appeared that the FBI was linked somehow to the car bombing itself; no wonder the agency was in no great hurry to investigate the crime.
In any case, Bari always considered the car bombing to be what she called an “assassination attempt”. This was no mere warning to some loudmouthed environmentalist to get her to shut up. She was not meant to survive the bombing; she was meant to be eliminated from the scene altogether.
Bari miraculously recovered from her severe wounds, but the deep bodily injuries she sustained in the bomb blast took their toll. A few years later, she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in her cabin in rural Mendocino County, California, on 2 March 1997, two decades ago this month.
Among those who spoke at Bari’s memorial service and gave moving tributes to her work on behalf of the redwood forests — and the deeper spiritual meaning behind the struggle — was John Trudell, a Native American activist who had had his own experiences with persecution by the FBI.
Bari had wanted the federal lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police to continue even after her passing, and it was indeed carried on. In 2002, Bari, in death, got the last word. The court verdict in her lawsuit came out favorably, and the FBI was ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages. My family and I were living temporarily on the North Coast of California at that time (in Arcata), and I can still remember how excited local people were to hear the news about the late Bari’s legal victory against the FBI and how widely the local press covered the story.
Looking back now, 20 years after Judi Bari’s death, we can only ask: What made her a target of the timber companies and the FBI? How could she have been considered such a threat to the status quo that she needed to be “neutralized”?
There are a few reasons. As mentioned earlier, she was an effective organizer and could move large groups of people toward a common goal. But Bari not only organized White environmental activist tree-huggers. She also worked actively to bring the timber employees and the forest protectors together. She understood that the same big American timber corporations that were screwing their own logging employees with low wages and little job security were, in fact, the same corporate criminals that were raping the land and robbing the Earth of precious natural resources for the future.
She recognized that the fight of the environmental activists and the logging company workers were one and the same. She tried to get the two sides talking to each other and even supporting each other. To some degree, she succeeded in that — which must have scared the hell out of the corporate powers-that-be in America. That alone would have been reason enough to want to eliminate her.
But there is another reason that is seldom talked about, which I think is deserving of mention here: Bari, as a White activist, took up the causes of people of color in the United States and followed in their footsteps. It is one thing for Whites to make a lot of noise amongst themselves about saving nature. But it’s quite another thing to have such Whites crossing U.S. society’s racial barriers and standing in solidarity, as Judi did, with the Black civil rights struggle and with radicals of color such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement (AIM), all of which had been targets of FBI spying, harassment and/or political assassination in the past under its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
Bari was an activist who knew her American history well, but even she seemed to have underestimated the lengths to which the FBI and other such government agencies, in support of powerful U.S. corporate interests, would go to bring the hammer down on Whites who dared to reach out and stand together with people of color in their own struggles. But it’s a reality that many today understand much more clearly, in the wake of Judi’s life and death.
And the car bombing of 1990 that went on to claim her life? The identity of the person(s) who planted the bomb under the driver’s seat in Bari’s car that day has never been found, though the search for truth in the case goes on. The question remains unanswered: Who bombed Judi Bari? A recently released documentary film asks that very question; this important movie can now be viewed in its entirety on the Web.
So, here we are in 2017, two decades after Judi has been gone, with a corporate CEO by the name of Trump and his cronies sitting comfortably in the White House. The state of the planet’s ecological balance has reached a critical level, and people of color across the board are being targeted more than ever before. U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights have been steadily eroding and law enforcement agencies, armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry, often seem out of control. Things look much worse today than when Judi was alive.
Yet if the situation looks increasingly dire, it is also true that we have more choices as well in how we can deal with it. We can do what Bari did — strategize and organize across barriers of gender, race, occupation — and work to unite people instead of dividing them. We can stand up and speak out in ever greater numbers, find common (sacred) ground with each other, and move together toward a common goal. We can keep our eyes open to the rising risks involved, but also to the many long-term rewards in overcoming dangerous or even deadly obstacles.
We can remember Judi Bari.