Better to light a fire than curse the darkness

An unsettling documentary about the Earth Liberation Front asks if arson can help save the environment

Published September 14, 2011 12:14AM (EDT)

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, you say? Well, how about lighting a fire?

This was the ethos of the most aggressive members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a group of radical environmental activists. In the 1990s, the ELF decided that traditional methods of protest -- sit-ins, marches, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns -- were having no discernible effect on the mining and logging companies, tanneries, slaughterhouses and other industries they accused of abusing the land. So they settled on a new tactic: arson. In the 1990s and early 2000s, ELF members torched high-profile U.S. targets including logging operations, a Ford SUV dealership, a Vail, Colo., ski lodge and a slaughterhouse that turned wild horses into dog food. The federal government declared the group the most dangerous terrorist organization in the country and moved aggressively to crush it.

In 2005, FBI agents arrested 13 ELF members in an action called "Operation Backfire." One of the people caught in the dragnet was Daniel McGowan, an ELF member who in 2001 stood lookout while ELF members burned the offices of the Superior Lumber Co. in Glendale, Ore., and was charged with multiple counts of counts of arson, property destruction and conspiracy. McGowan was arrested in 2005 while working at, a nonprofit that gives legal advice to domestic abuse survivors. In 2007 he was sentenced to seven years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.9 million in restitution. The judge in the case originally wanted to use a post-9/11 legal provision known as "the terrorist enhancement" to expand McGowan's sentence to life in prison for trying to "influence the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion."

As it happened, McGowan's boss at the legal clinic was married to Marshall Curry, the director of "Street Fight," an Oscar-nominated feature about the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, N.J.  Sensing a potentially dramatic film subject, Curry teamed up with cinematographer and co-director Sam Cullman and commenced interviewing McGowan and researching the history of the modern envivornmental rights movement, especially its violent edge circa 1995-2001. Five years later, the filmmakers completed the documentary "If a Tree Falls," which debuts tonight on the PBS nonfiction series "P.O.V." (10 p.m./9 Central) and is available on DVD. By turns elegiac, tender, funny and horrifying, it is a portrait of McGowan that doubles as a complex philosophical argument about the benefits and dangers of violent social protest.

As Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir wrote in his review of the film during its theatrical release:

"[T]his is a sterling example of journalistic documentary, clearer, fairer and more engrossing than any of the sensationalistic newspaper or magazine stories about ELF. Curry spends a lot of time with McGowan and his family, which is almost the opposite of what you'd expect from an accused eco-terrorist. McGowan grew up in middle-class, Irish-American Queens, and his father is a retired New York police detective. By his own account, McGowan's environmental awakening happened not in the wilderness but at Wetlands, a now defunct nightclub in downtown Manhattan.

Curry spends time with several other ELF members, including McGowan's ex-girlfriend Suzanne Savoie (who spent nearly four years in prison) and the notorious Jake Ferguson, a charismatic founder and leader of the Eugene [Oregon] cell who subsequently turned police informant and wore a wire to incriminate McGowan and others ... The filmmaker also has revealing conversations with assistant United States attorney Kirk Engdall and Eugene police detective Greg Harvey, who led the four-year ELF investigation that culminated with the arrest of McGowan and many other suspects -- and both have a more nuanced understanding of the group than you might expect."

I interviewed Curry yesterday at his production office in Brooklyn, N.Y. Excerpts from our conversation follow.

Had you ever met Daniel McGowan before he became the subject of a feature?

I met him a number of times. My wife was running this domestic violence organization and he was an employee there. She came home from work one day and said, "You'll never guess what happened. Four federal agents walked into the office today and arrested Daniel." I knew who he was. It completely blew our minds.

Over the next few days we found out what it was that he was being charged with and what the potential penalty was -- life in prison, no parole, no discretion of the judge if he gets found guilty of this stuff. At that point I didn't actually know whether he had done it.

But I thought, "Well, this will be a good story either way, because it's either the story of an innocent political activist who's being targeted by the government and didn't do it, or the story of this guy who participated in these huge, multimillion-dollar arsons, part of this group that the government considers the No. 1 domestic terrorist group in the country."

And yet he didn't act, look or talk at all like my expectations.

Did you know anything about the Earth Liberation Front before you started working on this documentary?

No, not at all. I had maybe read an article or two.

What was your impression of the group, based on your limited knowledge?

I don't even know that I had a strong opinion. I don't think I thought, "Ugh, this is terrorism" or "Oh, these guys are heroes." I think I just thought, radical environmentalists who are committing arson.

How long did it take you to complete the movie, and what did you learn about the group and its activities?

From start to finish, it was five years. Right after [McGowan] was arrested, I talked to his sister, who was finding a lawyer for him, about whether it would make an interesting film. Of course for her it was not about whether it would be interesting. It was about the importance of telling her brother's story. She ended up putting up everything she owned to get him out on bail, and when he got out, I went to the airport to shoot him coming back to New York, and I told him what my thoughts were about doing a film, and he said, "Yes, let's do it."

As we were doing research, from the very beginning we were surprised. Again and again and again, as we would meet people and gather archival footage, we would dig deeper. Very early on [McGowan] said -- and we use this in the film -- "You know, I think people look at this thing and they think, 'This is just a bunch of young crazies with gas cans walking around lighting things on fire,' and they see that and think, 'What if that motherfucker burned down my house?'"

But it's more complicated than that. And I think the way that it's more complicated was what surprised us. It's such an unlikely story, growing up in Far Rockaway the son of a cop, and a business major in college, then becoming a domestic terrorist in the eyes of the government. It's a pretty amazing coming-of-age story. And then to have our perspectives shifted again as we talked to the arson victims, and as we talked to the police, and as we talked to the prosecutors -- and to sort of feel like each time that we met somebody, they complicated it for us even more, and by complicated I don't mean confused, I mean made more interesting and nuanced, more complicated than all the political spouting --

Well, it is a nuanced movie. At the same time, though, one of the things that struck me about it immediately was the staggering emotional power of some of the archival footage and home video. I came away from the movie strongly rooting for the ELF, and going into it I knew nothing about this group beyond what you initially knew, which is that they burned down some buildings and were in trouble with the law. In this movie, law enforcement is shown using such overwhelming force against political protesters on behalf of the people they serve -- which in this case is really business owners more so than anyone else -- that I found myself becoming somewhat radicalized as I watched.

And I realize that as a documentary guy, you've got an obligation to tell interviewers, "Oh, we're telling everybody's story." But you've got some terrifying imagery of police brutality in this movie, imagery you must know is going to sear itself onto people's minds, including footage of police officers very clearly provoking and then beating the hell out of protestors, and one piece of footage where you see a couple of cops terrorizing two helpless young women in their custody, and actually using, what are those, cotton swabs--

Q-Tips, actually--

Q-Tips to dab tear gas directly onto the lips of the eyelids of these young female protesters, women who are their prisoners and are in restraints and pose no threat to them at all. It's like something you would read about in the diary of a torture victim from Argentina in the 1970s. As a filmmaker, what sort of thought processes occur to you as you are weighing whether to put that kind of footage in a film? It happened. People need to know about it. But it's so innately powerful that it can overwhelm the nuances that you say are important.

Well, the goal of the film was not to get the audience to support the ELF. I think the goal was to explain why people who were part of the ELF decided to do what they did. And I do think there's a big difference between explaining and justifying.

And I actually don't think arson is a great tactic [for political protesters]. I think it's dangerous and destructive and counterproductive. I think it creates more enemies than converts.

But I also think it's important to understand why the people who used it, used it ... I think there are specific tactical reasons that a spokesperson for the ELF kind of lays out [in the film].

Which is that the "We shall overcome" strategy doesn't work. That's pretty much what he says in the movie.

Yeah. What he thinks is, when you [commit] arson, there are three things that happen. One is, you get attention that you do not get from doing sit-ins. When you burn a building down, the media cannot ignore you. They will cover it, because they have to. And they will print what you said in your communique as the reason for the arson. Arson will get paid attention to, in a way that a letter to the editor will not get paid attention to.

Second, the thing that is burned stops doing whatever it was doing before you set fire to it, usually until insurance money comes in and they can [build] it again. The timber mill stops cutting timber. The polluter stops polluting.

The third thing that happens is, the business that used to do that thing assesses the cost/benefit of continuing to do it. They might say, "Well, we could continue to cut down old-growth trees, but we will be at risk of having our multimillion-dollar facility burned down. If we cut down trees in a more sustainable way, that won't happen."

In one fell swoop, arson covers three things that are important to a protest movement: the public relations or message aspect, the military or logistical aspect, and the long-term political aspect.

Yes. But let me tell you the other side. The other side is, somebody is asleep under their desk the night that you set fire to the building, and suddenly the act is not the Boston Tea Party, it's not symbolic property destruction, it's murder.


Also, you get a lot of P.R. for setting fires, but a lot of it is the wrong kind of P.R.

In case of the people fighting the expansion of the ski resort in Vail, some people we talked to told us that before the fire, there was a diverse coalition of groups that were fighting the Vail project, which wanted to expand a ski resort into protected forest on government land. They had a coalition of old-lady birdwatchers, yuppie environmentalists who wanted to take their kids hiking in the woods, and radical hippie environmentalists, and scientists, and all sorts of other people. After the fire, that coalition completely splintered.

A lot of the people involved with it did not want to have anything to do with a group that would use arson as a tactic ... It's a very risky tactic, and one that even a lot of very hardcore environmentalists are not comfortable with.

Right. Although the radical, extreme edge of any movement for social change is not typically dissuaded by such concerns.

It's a complicated topic, for sure. And everybody we spoke to in the Earth Liberation Movement felt mixed about it, for sure, in retrospect. I think on one hand they felt very frustrated that traditional tactics were not having an effect, but on the other they were a little surprised by the response to their [violent] tactics. I think they thought, "If we get caught we'll get three years, four years, five years." Not life in prison without parole, and ending up in a [Communication Management Unit], which is where Daniel is right now.

They underestimated or discounted that potential risk. Later they heard stories about people's personal property in these places [that they burned], their photos, and so forth, being destroyed. That was not their goal. They didn't think about a secretary at a timber mill getting attacked and her personal property destroyed. I think that [the people in the movement] felt that the issues were much less clear in retrospect than they thought that they were when they were in their 20s, back in the 1990s.

Where does the movement stand now, with so many important people in the movement in the '90s now in prison?

Even after the arrests there have been a number of big fires. Seattle had a huge, multimillion-dollar fire. San Diego had a huge one.

And the Earth Liberation Front? There is no Earth Liberation Front. There are just individual cells of people who don't know each other, who don't have any communication with each other. If you and I decided to go burn an SUV dealership tonight and spray "ELF" on the wall, we would be the Earth Liberation Front.

So they are decentralized -- I hesitate to put it this way, but -- like al-Qaida.

They aren't crazy about that comparison, but yeah. They were using the word "cells" in the 1990s because that was the strategy. If you have a group that has a leader and membership rolls and all that stuff, when you cut off the head, the movement dies. But if you have individuals who don't know each other but who are united by an ideology, it's much harder to stamp it out.

The downside of that kind of structure is, it's harder to organize and coordinate. If you did something in the name of the ELF and I did something in the name of the ELF and you didn't approve of what I did, it wouldn't matter, because you would be painted with the same brush that I was painted with. Some of the later fires -- such as the Jefferson Poplar Farm, where they had the intel wrong and they burned a place that wasn't doing what they thought it was doing -- were very controversial, because it meant that some parts of the Earth Liberation Front were answering for actions that they did not approve of.

Have your attitudes toward the environment or the goals of the environmental movement changed in any significant way as a result of working on this movie?

Yes, but I couldn't tell you exactly how. [Laughs]

I was a religion major in college. I spent a number of years studying comparative religion and thinking about whether or not where there was a god and how we should live our lives. After all that a [classmate] of mine said, "I'm still confused, but at a higher level." This is not a polemical film that answers the questions that it asks.

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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