After a long and arduous wait, Earth First!, the environmental action movement, will have its day in court to sue the FBI and the Oakland Police Department for alleged civil rights violations.
“We hope to see justice served. A victory in the case would be a significant
benefit to not only to the Earth First! movement but for democracy itself,”
says Dennis Fritzinger, a 20-year veteran of the Earth First! movement.
Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were nearly killed on May 24, 1990 when a car bomb exploded under their seats as they drove through Oakland.
Bari and Cherney began a lengthy legal battle against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department in 1991. Bari and Cherney accused the authorities of mishandling the investigation of the bombing by ignoring evidence and focusing suspicion too narrowly on the activists themselves. Bari and Cherney charged the FBI and the OPD with false arrest, illegal search and seizure and conspiracy to violate free speech rights.
“I think this is an important time right now to stand up for civil liberties.
We can't be intimidated by the FBI,” says James Ficklin, an organizer for Earth First!'s video collective HAVC. “Part of this case is to clear the name of Earth First!, but the larger part is social justice.”
Many of Earth First! believe the FBI placed a cloud of suspicion above their heads with the charges and consequently tarnished the reputation of the organization.
“Not enough people know the facts about the case because the mainstream media has spread misinformation. It is definitely an uphill task to educate the
general public,” says Ficklin.
But a true strike forward in that education process would be a victory in court.
“A defeat would mean that the FBI can get away with anything. It would be a
defeat for democracy,” says Fritzinger.
“This is a battle, but the war is never ending, it is much broader,” he added.
Supporters of Earth First! have been raising funds to support the lawsuit. They promise not to settle the case for money, but to allow the court to decide one way or another.
The trial opens today before Judge Claudia Wilken at the U.S. District Court in Oakland.
The two activists were organizing Redwood Summer, a series of peaceful protests against the destruction of old-growth forests, the day the bomb exploded. Cherney said he and Bari had received death threats.
An anonymous letter writer claimed responsibility for the bombing in The
Press Democrat of Santa Rosa soon after the event. The individual condemned Bari’s environmentalist views on religious grounds and described the construction and placement of the bomb in detail.
Investigators sought criminal charges against Bari and Cherney nonetheless. The two were charged as Bari recovered in intensive care from a crushed pelvis, dislocated back, nerve damage and permanently numbed sexual organs. The FBI later dropped the charges due to lack of evidence.
Earth First! has gained a reputation as one of the most outspoken, energetic environmentalist groups. Some members believe that reputation led to a conspiracy on the part of the FBI and police to wipe out the organization.
Cherney insisted that Earth First! never injured anyone, and has a clear code of non-violence. He said he has never committed sabotage.
Both sides claim a desire to uncover the truth behind the case.
Attorneys defending law enforcement have sifted through thousands of pages of documents and conclude that the Earth First! claim is “long on arguments regarding conspiracies and short on proof.”
Lawyers for the FBI and Oakland Police Department concede that the investigation of the bombing may have been flawed, but maintain that authorities had good reason to suspect the activists, and acted in good faith.
For Earth First!, this case represents an opportunity to regain what has become a tarnished reputation. Despite her crippling injuries, Bari's greatest concern was always for the continued success of Earth First!'s environmental campaign to draw public attention to the crises facing the natural world. Bari died of cancer in 1997; her estate remains a party to the suit.
According to spokesperson Robert Perez of the California League of Conservation Voters, Earth First!'s direct action approach including demonstrations and protests, represents only one avenue of expression regarding environmental causes. Perez explains, “There are numerous ways to express yourself. We have chosen the political arena, recommending candidates with environmental agendas and holding them accountable with our scorecards showing how they vote on environmental issues.”
Perez claims that while his organization has remained in the political field,
there is more than one way to make change happen as reflected by the efforts of Earth First! Perez cites, however, that the California League of Conservation Voters has not encountered conflict in its relationship with law enforcement agencies such as the FBI.
Special Agent Andrew P. Black of the San Francisco Bureau of the FBI declined to comment on the Earth First! trial until the case had reached a conclusion.
According to the Earth First! hotline, a kickoff demonstration is planned for noon on Monday at the Oakland courthouse. There will be both speakers and
musicians at the event. Supporters of Earth First! are encouraged to proceed into the courthouse after the demonstration in a silent and respectful manner to show support for the case.
A fund raiser for the trial was scheduled for Sunday night at Longhall including food and film shorts about the Judi Bari and the Earth First! case including the screening of “Viva Judi Bari.”
Additional Film Screenings in memory of Judi Bari will be held April 20th at
7:30 p.m. at the Berkeley Unitarian Church at the cross of Cedar and Bonita.