If A Tree Falls

Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman have made a film about the Earth Liberation Front. This group was very active in Eugene, Oregon, where I currently live; so I was naturally interested in seeing this film. Marshall Curry says he learned from his wife one day that the police had arrested an employee at her company for being an “eco-terrorist”. He immediately became interested, and he eventually decided he wanted to make a film about this person. The employee was Daniel McGowan, whose story serves as the central thread of this film. A round-faced, soft-spoken man, he seems an unlikely person to become a violent criminal. The son of a New York cop, he grew up on Rockaway Beach. In his youth he became interested in environmental issues. He eventually gravitated towards Eugene, a hotspot for environmental activism. The film does a short history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Northwest, recounting how non-violent protests have sometimes been met with police violence. Faced with such a response, it was inevitable that some activists would conclude that they should resort to violence themselves. A cell of the Earth Liberation Front was formed in Eugene, and McGowan, frustrated by the lack of progress by environmentalists, was eventually drawn into it.

McGowan’s first job was to serve as a lookout when ELF torched the offices of a lumber company. His second job was helping ELF destroy a tree farm that was allegedly growing genetically modified trees. Only it turned out afterwards that the trees were not GMO’s. At the same time ELF set fire to the office of a University of Washington professor who was involved in genetic engineering. The fire grew out of control and did a lot of damage that ELF didn’t intend. In the aftermath, the cell underwent a crisis and disbanded. McGowan became disillusioned with ELF’s methods, while still retaining his radical environmental views. He returned to New York, where he got a job with a group dealing with domestic violence issues.

The film then deals with police efforts to solve the crimes. For years they got nowhere. Then, by sheer dumb luck, they stumbled upon Jacob Ferguson. He just happened to be the weakest link in the ELF cell, since he was a heroin addict and therefore vulnerable to legal pressure. The police outfitted him with a wire and flew him to different parts of the country to have conversations with his former comrades. He showed up in New York to talk to a surprised McGowan. The latter thought there was something odd about this, especially since Ferguson seemed “talkative”, whereas McGowan remembered him as being quiet. McGowan spoke to him any way, which was a fatal mistake. McGowan was later arrested and found himself facing a possible sentence of life plus 350 years. He eventually made a plea deal in which he confessed to the arsons but did not name any accomplices. He was sentenced to eight years, but received a “terrorism enhancement”, meaning that he was put in a special high security prison built for “terrorists”. He can only receive one fifteen minute phone call a day and one visitor a month. The film documents the emotional anguish that this experience has inflicted upon McGowan and his family.

The filmmakers interview many people involved in these events, including the prosecutor and police detectives who pursued the ELF members. People with different viewpoints are allowed to state their positions. Although the filmmakers maintain a neutral tone, it’s clear that they feel that McGowan and other members of ELF were dealt with unfairly. Ferguson, who was involved in more arsons than anyone else, did not receive a prison sentence. He betrayed his friends solely to save himself, and the system rewarded him for that. Someone makes the point that capitalists who destroy the environment, such as the executives at BP, are never punished for what they do.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

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