Film Review: If A Tree Falls

By Mary Getlein

Coming home from seeing the movie If A Tree Falls, coming home on the #1 Bus. We pass car dealership lots – I imagine them igniting in flame as we pass. What would this world look like if we all destroyed the things we hated?

The trees are still here in Venice and Santa Monica. They wanted to cut down all the ficus trees in Santa Monica, but they’re still there. What is not there are huge 500-year-old trees that used to live in Northern California and are now gone, thanks to clear cutting practices of the lumber companies. What else is gone? Wild horses, there were all taken away, killed, ground up for dog food. These are a few of the things that drove peaceful demonstrators over the edge and led to the formation of E.L.F. – the Earth Liberation Front, which had 14 members.

There was also cruel and heavy-handed response by the police in Oregon and Washington to peaceful civil disobedience. The film shows police beating protesters and spraying them with pepper spray, directly into their eyes. In one demonstration, protesters were in the limbs of the trees that were scheduled to be cut down by the Eugene, Oregon City Council, to make way for a parking lot for a corporation. The police arrived on cherry pickers and proceeded to cut the pants of demonstrators and spray their entire bodies with pepper spray, including their legs and genitals, which is extremely painful and can last a week, with your limbs swelling up as a reaction to the poison.

The film’s main focus is Daniel Cowan and what led him off the path of peaceful demonstration to be willing to participate in the arson of properties of corporations, meat packing plants, Ranger stations, lumber companies, car lots, wild horse corrals, and universities suspected of doing genetic engineering on trees.

Daniel was a product of a loving family, growing up in Rockaway Beach in New York, and went on to become a business major in college. He graduated and got a job in corporate America, in New York City. He went to Northern California for a retreat run by Earth First, which showed him films of clear cutting old growth forests, oil spills, harpooning of whales and strip mining of mountain tops, which he had never seen before. At the end of retreat there was a demonstration against clear cutting forests. Daniel participated in this and got arrested. They show his arrest photo, and he had a big smile on his face. Clearly, he had found his calling, and went on to participate in more demonstrations, and moved to Northern California.

Police response to peaceful protesting was one of the main reasons people gave for going past the rules of non-violent civil disobedience. People would chain themselves together, with metal sleeves over the chains, so police had no way to separate them. The police would grab a protester by the head and spray pepper spray directly into their eyes. Protesters felt that none of the non-violent tactics were working and E.L.F. was born. There were over 1200 Arson reports that E.L.F. claimed credit for, but there was no loss of life in any of them. it was an extremely secretive organization which did not get caught at any of the arson. They did not look like crazed activists and looked like “normal” Americans. The arson happened in the lat 1990’s.

Daniel McGowan was directly involved in two of the arsons, the first as a look-out, and in the second he directly participated in it. They targeted a garage of a tree farm that was suspected of genetic engineering of trees. It turned out their information was wrong, and the tree farm was just using hybrid plants, which is a technique that has been used for thousands of years.

On the same weekend, other members of E.L.F. targeted the greenhouse laboratory of the University of Washington, which was also reported to be doing genetic engineering on trees. This information was also proven to be false, and the fires got out of control and burned part of the library at the University.

Daniel Cowan felt sick about this and questioned the effectiveness of arson as a tactic. This time, he flew back to New York to be present at his sister’s birthday. Once back there, he realized he loved his family and wanted to stay there. E.L.F. disbanded over questions of tactics and what direction they wanted to take, and they went their separate ways. Five years went by, and everyone thought they got away with it.

The FBI had a hard time finding any evidence until they found Jake Ferguson, who had been there at the first E.L.F. arson. He had been involved in many arsons and demonstrations, and had become a heroin addict. He was relatively easy to turn into an informer. Most heroin addicts are. He also had a young son who did not want to have to come and visit his Dad in jail. The prosecutors realized he would not be a credible witness, as he had a pentagram tattooed on his head, so they convinced him to wear a wire and fly around the country visiting his old friends, getting them to incriminate themselves on tape. The U.S. Government got most of the E.L.F. members to cooperate with them and give up fellow members, in exchange for shorter sentences. They were all arrested in December 2005.

The Oregon police were happy to catch them and charge them with arson, but the federal prosecutors insisted on charging them as “eco-terrorists”, which led to Daniel being sentenced to a specially built institution within an institution, the C.M.U. (Communication Management Unit) in Marion, Illinois. The C.M.U. was built to house mostly Muslim terrorists, since 9/11. It limits communication with family members, the media, and the outside world. Prisoners can only meet with their family for two four-hour visits a month, behind glass.

A Government prosecutor is quoted as saying, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Daniel McGowan does not look or sound like anyone’s idea of a terrorist. He looks like a teddy bear kind of guy, a little chubby, good with small children and animals.

A Government prosecutor is quoted: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Daniel McGowan does not look or sound like anyone’s idea of a terrorist. E.L.F. did multi-millions of dollars worth of damage to many companies, but they would maintain that those companies are the real terrorists. When you look at clear cutting and see a landscape totally devoid of trees, it is really devastating. The activists make the point that when there is an oil spill and damage is done to the environment, and all the living creatures in it, that no FBI forces march in and put them in handcuffs and call them eco-terrorists. All they do is pay fines, which they can well afford, and continue to reap huge profits, while continuing to pollute the planet.

Daniel McGowan was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2007, so he will be out in 2014. Jake Ferguson, who was involved in many more arsons than Daniel, received no time at all. He is currently residing in the Eugene area.

This film was directed by Marshall Curry and co-directed by Sam Cullman. It is appearing at small theaters around the country and will be shown on PBS and BBC Television, which provided funds for the film. I highly recommend the film, which is an acute learning experience. This film raises a lot of questions, with no clear answers.

Categories: Environment, Mary Getlein

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