New Internationalist

Bombed and framed

Issue 348

FBI pays millions in damages to eco-activists

On 11 June a US federal jury returned an historic verdict in favour of two environmental activists in their civil-rights lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland police in a case that dated all the way back to 1990.

After 17 days of deliberation, the jury awarded the two Earth First! activists, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, $4.4 million for violation of their constitutional rights. It concluded that the FBI and the Police had framed the two activists in an effort to stifle Earth First! and stop participation in ‘Redwood Summer’, a planned campaign of non-violent direct action against the destruction of old-growth forest.

It took 12 years for the case to come to court, after the FBI repeatedly tried and failed to get the charges thrown out. However the long time-lag meant that Bari, who died of breast cancer in 1997, did not live to see justice.

It was in May 1990 that Bari and Cherney were touring California to drum up support for Redwood Summer. The atmosphere was already very tense. Both had received death threats in the preceding months. One had shown a rifle-sight printed over a picture of Bari. ‘If you turn up dead, we will investigate,’ the local police told her.

This nearly happened when a bomb exploded in their car. The blast shattered Bari’s pelvis in 10 places, paralyzing her right leg, pulverizing and dislocating her two lower vertebrae. ‘It was a level of terror that I had never experienced,’ she recalled after the bombing.

Within minutes the FBI was on the scene and Bari later said it was ‘uncanny’ how fast they had arrived. It later transpired that one of the key agents had run an FBI ‘bombing school’ on the timber company’s land less than a month before the bombing. The agent then lied about the placement of the bomb, saying that it was behind Bari’s seat; this implied that both Bari and Cherney knew the bomb to be there and that it therefore must have been theirs.

Although Bari was barely conscious, she was arrested with Cherney and charged with ‘illegal possession of explosives’. Bail was set at $100,000 as there was a risk of ‘flight’ and the pair posed a danger to the community. The FBI told the world’s waiting media that ‘they were no longer considering other suspects’.

The FBI never conducted a search for the real bombers and two months after the bombing the charges were quietly dropped as there was no evidence against Bari and Cherney.]

So the following year, Bari and Cherney sued the FBI and Oakland Police Department, charging them with conspiring ‘to suppress, chill and “neutralize” their constitutionally protected activities in defence of the environment’.

The jury agreed with Bari and Cherney. They concluded that six of the seven FBI and police defendants had violated the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution by arresting the activists, conducting searches of their homes and carrying out a smear campaign in the press in which Earth First! was termed a terrorist organization and the activists were called ‘bombers’.

Since Bari’s death in 1997, the case continued on behalf of her estate. After the verdict her sister Martha thanked the jury for their ‘courageous decision’. Darryl Cherney added: ‘The jury exonerated us. They found the FBI to be the ones in violation of the law.’

Lead attorney Dennis Cunningham said the message from the verdict is that, in the wake of 11 September, the FBI should not be given a ‘free hand. It’s clear that their intention is not about fighting terrorism, it’s about suppressing dissent. That’s what the FBI has always been about.’

Andy Rowell

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