Friday, March 2, 2012

You cannot control what is wild

Remember back in October, when I announced I was going to start a new little series on social, environmental and political issues? And then, didn't. Well, now that I'm back online, I'm going to try to resume the practice and each Friday inundate you with discussion about some of the less frivolous things in life.

Like I originally stated, posts in this series could take the form of reviews of books or documentaries, or a discussion of current topics, or more personal pieces closer to the heart(h) and home.

This piece will be the first kind, a review of a provocative, moving piece of cinema.
So, if you only see one upsetting documentary this year, see Marschall Curry and Sam Cullman's If A Tree Falls-a story of the Earth Liberation Front. Take this from a girl who watched tens of upsetting documentaries last year. Many of them were touching, frightening, enraging. Some alerted me to issues I had never thought of, others changed my point of view on things I thought I had a solid grasp on. Some gave me hope, others made me despair. But only one shook me to my core.

The film follows the story of Daniel McGowan, a social and environmental activist, as he is preparing to go on trial for participating in a number of arsons as a member of the Earth Liberation Front. Though the film is first and foremost the story of one person (hence A Story of The Earth Liberation Front), through him the filmmakers raise questions about the boundaries of freedom, abuse of power, individual rights and responsibilities.

They also use his experience to illustrate a piece of the recent history of the environmental movement, as well as the rise of radical activism in the 1990s.
The funny thing is, at first I had a hard time figuring out why I was so shaken by this film. I have, after all, been peripherally aware ELF and the American logging struggle my whole adult life. In 1995, at the time of the battle of Warner Creek, mentioned in the film happened, I was a sixteen-year-old going to protests against Micky D's, collecting signatures against animal testing and participating in workshops leading up to the coming Kyoto Convention On Climate Change.
Along with pretty much everyone in the country, I watched in astonishment as three teenage girls(at least two, Mia Salli and Minna Salonen, were 19 at the time) were convicted for letting loose hundreds of minks from a fur farm. Unlike a lot of people I remember being astonished, not by the fact that anyone would do this, but the fact that someone this young, would have the courage to stand up for their convictions and suffer the consequences.

I became as avid a follower of radical environmental and animal rights action as one could in those pre-internet days.
As the decade ended environmental and animal rights activists seemed to be ramping up their actions, but not to the degree that the law enforcement and media seemed to think.

For the few years before 9/11 there was fully an effort to try to frame Animal and Environmental activists as a national and international terror threat. Does anyone else remember sensational articles about para-military ELFs fire-bombing the homes and businesses of decent, ordinary citizens?
It seemed that for a while every broken window of a fur shop and every logging truck with sugar in the gas tank, became another chapter in the battle "environmental terrorists" were waging against organized society.
Little discussion was had, at least in the mainstream media, about the motivations of these activists and whether their deeds of property destruction could be understood from a moral stand point.
I was in my early 20s then, and more than sympathetic to radical activism, participating in mass protests against the WTO, the War in Iraq, the Mayday Marches in London that sometimes drew out three times as many police officers than protesters. The first time I came to the US was five months after the Battle of Seattle a hundred miles South of here and I was inundated with tales from the trenches and how wrong the media had got it and how forceful the police had been.

"I had never seen with my own eyes what kind of a world we live in. I was in perpetual mourning and have been ever since they took the blinders of my eyes. "- Daniel McGowan on his environmental awakening.

Like Daniel McGowan, I have been mourning for the world we live in for a long time and
I believed deeply then, as I still do, that it is our moral duty to live by our convictions and fight against injustices when we see them in front of us. In a lot of ways it is very easy for me to understand the disillusionment with the democratic process and peaceful protesting that in part led the members of ELF to commit the radical actions this movie deals with.
So what is shocking about this film to me, then is not any one element of it: not the violent arsons Daniel and his comrades staged, not the misguided use of force by the police, not the horrifying environmental destruction that the film is illustrated with.

It is the clear and beautiful display of the institutional violence that emerges from these pieces, the silencing of the conversations activists everywhere want to have.

It is the fact that for the mere acts of "politically motivated" property damage, labeled as domestic terrorism by the government, Daniel McGowan and his co-defendants faced life in prison.
Or that McGowan's crimes qualified him for a "terrorism enhancement", which would have him locked up in a facility where he would have only minimal contact with the outside world (one 15 minute phone call a month, one two hour visit with one family member, one three-page letter a month). This in spite the fact that by the time of his arrest he had not been actively a member of the ELF for almost five years and was only caught because of an elaborate sting operation by the FBI and he is unlikely to be running some sort of underground terrorist operation from prison.

It seems that this can only be interpreted as retaliation on the part of the government for his engaging in these politically motivated actions.

Did Daniel McGowan and his co-conspirators engage in dangerous acts of property destruction, causing millions of dollars worth of damage? Yes. So maybe they should deal with the consequences of their actions? As McGowan himself points out that this is probably a lot of people's first reaction, and perhaps rightfully so.

But the thing that keeps me up at night (and has made me watch this movie six more times since I first saw it) is that this is not the first time when some fearless folks have committed property crimes on moral grounds, simply because the people profiting from this property were doing something wrong.
These days we hail those outlaws as heroes. The heroes of the Underground Railroad who smuggled other people's perfectly legal property out of the South at the risk of their own lives. The heroes that time and time again disrespected private and corporate property and the right of some people to make a profit at the expense of others. Heroes of the Labor Movement, of the Civil Rights Movement, and perhaps, in the hindsight of history, folks who Occupied Wall Street and got arrested in front of the White House to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline.

There are people like them behind every social change, for as this movie points out for every change there is a push, because governments and corporations have not yet thus fur done the right thing just because it's the right thing to do.
"Forgive me thou bleeding piece of earth that I am meek and gentle with these butchers."-William Shakespeare, Julius Ceasar
Am I comparing trees to human people? No (though I could. I'm a dippy hippie, remember?). Am I saying that the companies that log national forests with the aid of the US Forest Service are comparable to slave holders? No. I'm not qualified to make those comparisons.

What I actually think about late at night is what I would have done had I lived in that place at that time? See, we all like to think of ourselves as moral, decent human beings. We want to believe that when faced with unbearable injustice we would do something about it. That if we lived in the US during the time of slavery, or in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, we would have helped or at least been vehemently and vocally against those immoral abuses of power. Right?
But the truth on the matter is most people at that time did and said nothing. A lot of perfectly nice, ordinary folks did not question the powers that be as their actions became more and more sinister and if they did it was behind closed doors among like minded folk. Most people did nothing. The ones that did were very radical (Remember "freedom or death"?) and often viewed with distaste and distrust by even those who agreed with their moral standing.
In this light I can't help but wonder if the future generations will look at this society at this moment and ask how the majority of us could stand by idly as these entities with the aid of our governments were wrecking the earth. I wonder if they'll know the names of Daniel McGowan, or Tim DeChristopher, or Bill McKibben and ask why the rest of us stood by in silence while these people took action, however misguided it might have seemed at the time, to protect all that is precious on this earth?
"The industry tends to call the environmentalists "radical". The reality is the 95% of the standing native forests in the United States have been cut down. It's not radical to try and save the last 5%-what is radical is to log 95%. "-Bill Burton, Native Forest Council.

But don't take his word for it, or mine. Watch If A Tree Falls.

*edit: I just want to make it clear that I fully understand that there is fairly clear division between peaceful protest, civil disobedience, direct action and outright criminal activity and am in no way endorsing the latter. The purpose of this post is simply to discuss these actions in a wider context.


  1. I'm going to email you my sweet.

  2. Thank you for this post!!! I resonate with it so much. I have just discovered your blog amd am glad I did. I'll make sure to see this film, too!

  3. milla, your posts sometimes get into the skin and move me practically to tears. political or personal, you have a way of writing and processing and articulating the deepest connective tissues of ourselves and our society that gives everything heart and scope and life. i can't wait to watch this film, and to think more on the issues you've brought up. i remember very well the word "terrorism" being thrown about in very dangerous ways; the semantics frighten me, the power of a word like that to galvanize. your thoughts in the last part of this post are so moving and inspiring to me. i think a lot about what i would have done or been in certain times and places. would i have been a pioneer? could i have? what would i have thought about native americans and their displacement from their own land? could i have thought for myself, or would i have been narrowed by the prejudices of a destructive pompous government and society?

    there are so many things that are important to me here and now on earth, that i have a hard time fixating on one i'd fight to the death for. that sounds sort of petty and whimsical, and i suppose i am, but just being honest, that is a real obstruction for me to true activism. the needs of our times are too great, it overwhelms! but under and above it all, always, is our earth herself. i have wondered how far i would go to protect our river here, our wilderness just up the road, these mountains, our coast. it is a challenge that i present to myself, and i open my heart to new heroes. thank you for this provocative bit of friday prose, you wondrous warrior of the world.

  4. i'm not going to say much, but i will definitely watch this.
    very nicely written milla!

  5. I don't usually comment on your blog but I wanted to let you know that I hope you do continue with these posts; I really enjoy them. I feel a lot of the same frustrations. Living in Canada, a country that wants to exploit the environment as much as it can for the sake of money, is incredibly difficult for me. Everyday I wake up thinking "what can I do?". How can I get the government to support Kyoto, to shut down the tar sands, to abandon the risk of destroying our Great Bear Rainforest, to stop the slaughter of thousands of baby seals! The list goes on. Everytime someone makes a post like yours they become aware of important issues they may not have known about before. Keep it up!

  6. i have an awful habit of shutting down when faced with real-world issues. i ignore it, don't read the news for a bit, and pretend everything is okay. but then guilt consumes me and i dive back in, getting angry once again until i feel depressed, shut down, and the cycle starts over.

    that's why i've decided to make my world as small as possible. buying local, eating local, getting involved in local politics and community projects. the smaller my world, the less effect large corporations have on my life.

    this issue is one that i can't escape nor ignore. the environment surrounds me and cradles me, and this issue overwhelms me and makes me feel powerless and small. what can i do? my thought is to delve further into my new habit: making my world as small as possible. like the food forest you posted about on my blog. supporting community action like that is not only good for the economy and people in it, it is good for the environment. so this is my new default, this is my new call to action. thank you for reminding me that i have power.

    regarding the food forest, my former roommate (more on that later) wrote the first article covering it on then, all of sudden, friends of mine who didn't know him started sharing it on facebook, word spread to other news sources, and last week it showed up on the world is small, isn't it?

  7. wow! what an awesome deep post! I to spend my teens and early 20s in the animal rights movement. It was the focus of my life before I had kids. I was always interested and supportive of environmental causes but feel even more so now that I live in an area with rainforest, logging,etc. And as I've developed our own tiny homestead (and deepened my spirituality) feel a deeper connection to the earth, plants, trees... can't wait to see this! now of to get my hands dirty and plant seeds and nurture my own garden... xo m

  8. I'm just sitting here trying not to cry. It's so easy to be pulled under by the current, it's difficult to stand against it, and frightening to breach the roiling surface. We're all kept at a distance from most of the things that these few brave people are willing to fight against. It's like watching happenings from behind a soundproof glass, you are aware, but not involved, and the path to get to the other side is fraught with real dangers. So many of us are trapped and dependent though, and it's fear that keeps us quiet. I'm definitely going to have to find this documentary and give it a watch...

  9. Thank you Milla for this heartfelt post. I tend to do the same as Nichole, since I get too overwhelmed by global issues to act in a positive way (at all).

    But outward, illegal fight (and movies telling us about these actions), however constroversial, have the power to alert the world and each concerned individual about the fact we are getting the earth drawn away from under our feet, so to speak. Which is indeed radical (and can't be undone).

    The truth is, there are many ways in which we can personnally struggle against corporations, even local ones. Not consuming unethical products or services, spreading the world, donating to Greenpeace are but a few.

  10. Oops - I meant to write "spreading the word" but it ended up as a nice slip of the pen :o)

  11. i had a good chuckle at that first sentence, "remember when i said i'd do this thing? and then didn't." so human, so funny.

    you've almost convinced me to watch this film, but i have to be very careful about what i digest, news/documentary wise. it hits me so hard that instead of being informative, it becomes traumatizing. i'm curious how it would impact me after all the grief work i did last year, but like mcgowan, i also think the grieving is perpetual.

    i was living in humboldt county in the 90s, and while ELF was not always there, earth first and other radical anti-logging groups were. tensions were so high, and i went out with EF to stop logging in the old growth. i remember spying on timber activities, crawling on our bellies and hiding from helicopters. it was insane that what was motivated by love could potentially be punished with violence. we all heard the propaganda about ELF and it was just confusing. was something going on that i didn't know about? were there 'terrorists' among the passionate lovers of earth that i stood beside at rallies? where did the terrorists hang out, because they weren't in our midst.

    what actually shakes me more now is the policy that is being approved under our the indefinite detention law that obama signed. we all push it aside thinking, "well, it's really just in case of terrorists...". but what happens when the government decides that anyone who gets in the way of corporate greed is a terrorist? just like with ELF...women's rights, environmental, social the wee hours of the night, the danger plays out like an armageddon film in my minds eye. for this reason, i think watching something like this film is remind ourselves to stay awake, to not believe the hype, to trust lightly, or not at all, the government put in place to protect us.

    i'm so glad you're doing these posts, and i love hearing the wisdom from your piercing insight and the truth that your heart speaks. xoxo

  12. The fact that the word "terrorism" is such a charged and loaded word with such immense labeling power, yet at the same time totally subjective is super scary. The powers that be can't even agree on a concise definition without coming up with all kinds of caveats such that their own institutions will not fall within it's bounds. Crazy.

    Thanks for this well-written and insightful post dear Milla. Looking forward to your future friday posts. I will be watching If A Tree Falls with your thought (and emotion) provoking questions swirling through my head.

  13. God damn Milla. I wasn't ready for these kinds of heavy issues in the morning! Actually, ever. These days. I feel like I got so burned out on politics and activism in college that I've really turned away from it. I've kept it on the periphery. I've avoided films like this, though I do remember thinking this one looked especially interesting.

    I often think about what future generations will think of ours.


    You've given me a lot to think about.

  14. I'm so excited about reading these posts Milla! I've kinda slipped off the bloggersphere of late and sadly haven't been keeping up with your blog, but its weird as I am exploring issues around activism and the environment in my blog too... A big shift from the previous types of posts i was writing! I'm actually doing my post grad in environmental activism and design this year so it will be cool to check out your links and writings if you keep up the regular postings on these topics. Just discovered the film If a Tree Falls the other day and cant wait to see it! Thanks hun xo