Eco-terrorism, not


The photo, uncredited, was posted at GaMoonbat and shows the Blue Ridge Earth First! (BREF!) protest at Dominion Resources headquarters on June 30, the day Dominion started construction of its proposed new coal-fired plant in Wise County, Virginia.

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I wouldn’t have suspected the folks, pictured above, were considered eco-terrorists, had not Don Thieme at GaMoonbat linked to my June 30 blog post on their sit-in. Thieme, a self-described geologist, archaeologist, and college science teacher in Valdosta, Georgia, tagged his entry “eco-terrorism.”

As I noted in my post, opponents argue that the Wise plant would serve to accelerate mountaintop removal and its problems, so eloquently outlined by Jaculyn Hanrahan and other Wise County citizens in their testimony before the Air Board.

Before undertaking the sit-in, BREF! activists joined many of us throughout Virginia in signing petitions, testifying in state hearings, sending letters to the editor and to Governor Kaine to oppose the plant. In fact, the last time I heard from Marley Green, one of those arrested, was July 5, when he emailed all his contacts to ask that we sign another petition–this one in support of the wind power initiative started by folks in WV’s Coal River Mountain Watch. Coal River. (Coal River Mountain is another area being destroyed by MTR. Marley, Holly Garrett–another arrestee–and I were all among the first 16 signatures. This petition is so-mainstream that I received a second request to sign it last night from an anthropology research scholar.)

So what is mountaintop removal (MTR)? What is ecoterroism? And should the term apply to these folks?

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MTR, as practiced in Appalachia has been called, as I wrote for LLRX.com, “Strip Mining on Steroids.” Coal companies denude mountains of their trees and topsoil, drill holes to insert AMFO (ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil–a combination similar to that used in car bombs), and after detonation tear down the mountains, removing the coal and dumping the refuse to bury headwater streams. In the process, drinking water is poisoned, communities destroyed. And when folks who have lived in these mountains for years question the process, they receive threats to themselves and their families. For several examples of the latter, consider this description from the Washington Post about Larry Gibson and this piece from the Bristol Herald about Larry Bush. And many people tell me that complaining to the sheriff in rural counties does no good, and that in some cases deputies even serve as enforcers of the coal companies’ will.

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Eco-terrorism occurring within the U.S. is a subset of domestic terrorism. Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act (Pub. L. No. 107-52), according to the American Civil Liberties Union, [my emphasis added]

expanded the definition of terrorism to cover “domestic,” as opposed to international, terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act “dangerous to human life” that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States…

In testimony before Congress, the FBI defined ecoterrorism as [my emphasis added]

the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

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The problem for our democracy comes with expanding the application of the term terrorism to embrace non-violent civic protest. Sourcewatch reports in an article I’d recommend reading, that Ron Arnold, the Executive Director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise has been instrumental. [my emphasis added]

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the word ‘terrorism’ has become a potent political weapon. Since the 1980s, Arnold has blurred the boundaries between nonviolent civil disobedience and more contentious tactics such as vandalism and sabotage – which have on the whole been rejected by mainstream environmentalists – and elevated property damage to equal terrorism as a societal threat. More recently, he has been joined by other prominent anti-environmentalists including self-styled “eco-terrorism expert” Barry Clausen and Nick Nichols, the now retired chair of PR firm Nichols-Dezenhall. (After Nichols retirement the company was renamed Dezenhall Resources).

The deliberate conflation of civil disobedience with terrorism by Arnold, Clausen and Nichols has paved the way for the introduction of draconian legislation, such as the so-called Ecoterrorism Prevention Act of 2004 , to ban or increase penalties for civil disobedience protests.

Apparently Arnold et. al’s efforts are succeeding. Take the definition of eco-terrorism promoted by the National Forum for State Legislatures, which has the slogan “The Forum for America’s Ideas.” NCSL’s annual legislative summit, which finished up last week in New Orleans is

an opportunity for state lawmakers from around the country to exchange ideas and debate issues being considered in Washington that will affect state public policies. The resolutions enacted will guide NCSL’s lobbying activity in Washington over the next several years.

Denver staff member L. Cheryl Runyon (email) wrote a piece posted at the group’s site entitled “Eco-terrorism-A New Kind of Sabotage”which ranks towards the top of a Google search on the word “eco-terrorism.” Her second sentence is:

Eco-terrorists commit arson and burglary, trespass, issue death threats, and engage in malicious destruction of property and vandalism-usually against farmers, ranchers, miners, loggers, researchers, manufacturers or home builders.

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I find conflating trespass and death threats alarming, especially in an official paper by a group that lobbies Congress. How are a misdemeanor involving civil disobedience and death threats in the same category? And, if Runyon prevails, how will that affect legislation and thus our civil liberties?

In re-defining terrorism so broadly, we risk losing the First Amendment rights so important for a democracy.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

In the most recent legislative iteration concerning eco-terorrism, Jane Harman’s (D-CA) H.R. 1955: Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 passed the House by a vote of 204 to 6, on October 23, 2007. The measure would have amended the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to

add a new section concerning the prevention of violent radicalization (an extremist belief system for facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change) and homegrown terrorism (violence by a group or individual within the United States to coerce the U.S. government, the civilian population, or a segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives).

One wonders, just exactly violent radicalization might be identified and what measures will be allowed to prevent it. The only six voting against the measure were: Abercrombie, Costello, Duncan, Flake, Kucinich and Rohrabacher. The Senate has not acted on the measure to date.

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There was no violence in Richmond, nor even property damage, in any of the other activities by BREF!, who have done things like sing Christmas carols w. new lyrics protesting coal investments by the Bank of America. This time, seven had been standing with a sign “No New Coal Plant in Wise County” or a banner “It’s Up to Us Virginia. No Nukes. No New Coal. Renewables Now! No Dominion Over Our Democracy.” The seven were arrested despite disbanding upon request. The prosecutor told their attorneys that if all of them did not accept the plea bargain, she would withdraw it for everyone. Five accepted the plea, to allow the blockaders to avoid trial. But, when two women refused, the prosecutor allowed them go to trial separately on September 18, while accepting the other pleas, despite her threats to do otherwise.

The sign holders and the blockaders who accepted the plea bargain are willing to work in Richmond, VA for 200 hours with no pay. That’s five weeks, if they can find a full-time assignment, which will require a temporary move across state. Marley, who was hanging from the bridge, was originally to have been required to work an additional 50 hours with the option to go to jail for the weekend and reduce his hours to 200. Without a guilty plea, that seemed legally problematic and thus the prosecutor changed her offer to 25 extra hours. I find it exceptional that the community service would be required to take place in Richmond, entailing an extended period of work without pay, necessitating travel expenses and/or housing costs for a second location.

I ran a community service order program for 17 years in Virginia, supervising both misdemeanants and felons–including one man transfered to my caseload after being found guilty of major drug possession in another area. The current sentences, based on my experience, appear to be more severe than for many felonies and thus may have been invoked against expressive speech based on the viewpoint of the speakers.

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The Richmond Times Dispatch story of July 1 quoted Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring as saying,

I have no doubt that the city will be asking to recover the money, whether by criminal penalties or civil action remains to be seen.

Then on July 2, that paper quoted Richmond police spokeswoman Karla Peters as saying there were no estimates of their costs and that police and fire departments would not pursue recovery because,

We don’t want to give them that much credit.

After the plea agreement, the Richmond Times Dispatch coverage yesterday cited Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Toni M. Randall as saying the arrangement respected the activists’ right to protest but required community service because of the disruption they caused.

And, yet, although the amount of community service is on a par with that assigned to felons, s
ome of those who hold BREF! in contempt have commented at the paper’s website with vitriol, one saying that allowing community service would somehow lead to riots.

I’d ask such critics to remember that the founders of our nation embodied in the spirit of our Constitution the notion that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. ” They designed a government based on free speech, a free press and access to the courts. Thomas Jefferson wrote James Madison from Paris in 1787, saying,

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

He also wrote in 1808

The liberty of speaking and writing guards our other liberties.

There are so many communities besides ours here in Appalachia who have had to fight for the health and welfare of their families and their neighborhoods. Whether at Love Canal or or in Times Beach, Missouri, they would not have been able to do so, without free speech and access to the courts.

Yet, in both of those cases, the affected area was relatively small, the remedy evacuation. Here we face almost 1,000,000 acres of mountains leveled, half of them in West Virginia, alone. In a single 2001 case, 1,500 homes were lost in a flood and the courts have held the coal, landholding, and timber companies liable.

When I think of domestic terrorism, the Oklahoma City Bombing comes to mind, or the Ku Klux Klan or the Army of God. For eco-terrorism, maybe the Earth Liberation Front, although its targets have not been as widespread and have involved serious property damage rather than human lives.

But Blue Ridge Earth First! activists as eco-terrorists? Five folks who blockaded Dominion Resources for a couple of hours on June 30 after that company had succeeded in convincing the State to let it build a new coal fired electric plant, which will serve to accelerate the blowing of of mountains? Another five who held signs and banners and disbanded upon request and still got arrested and have agreed to performing 200 hours each of unpaid labor for the City of Richmond hundreds of miles from their homes? Another two, who did who held the signs and disbanded, but are asking for a trial?

Just who are the eco-terrorists here? Those who engage in civil disobedience and are willing to take their punishment or those who perpetrate the destruction of our mountains and our way of life?

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6 Responses to “Eco-terrorism, not”

  1. Luke Says:

    Beth, nice sophisticated discussion. I enjoyed the piece. Thanks!

  2. Beth Wellington Says:

    Thanks, Luke. Out of curiosity, how did you locate this piece?

  3. Luke Says:

    Beth, Newstrust had a link to it. Luke

  4. Beth Wellington Says:

    Luke and other readers, you can review this piece at NewsTrust:http://www.newstrust.net/webx?14@@.106f67afI find the review by Shaw ironic, as I’ve spent the last 34 years living in Appalachia and in visiting and writing about life in the coal counties specifically. And thus have been told by two retired mine inspectors that mountaintop removal provides jobs at a rate of 1 to 200 compared to conventional mining and destroys the potential for wind generation and tourism. And his comments are doubly ironic given how many of my friends are miners, families of miners, retired miners, and mine inspectors. It is these folks who have been the backbone of protest. It is they who have drawn support from elsewhere, despite being shunned by most of the big-name environmental groups, save Sierra Club and most recently, the smaller Rainforest Act Network. All of the protesters I wrote about have spend their summers and spring breaks in the coal fields and several live there year round.I am not writing Shaw as he does not list a public email address in his profile, nor can I comment on the site until we upgrade without rating the piece, which I do not want to do.

  5. Don Thieme Says:

    My apologies for any offense. I will track down the source of the photograph, at least. I do not consider these sorts of protests to be terrorism although they are being labeled that way.

  6. Beth Wellington Says:

    Don, Thanks for clarifying and for getting me the photo credit. I was just writing to the fact that this is the label you gave the even and that many others are doing far worse by actually defining non-viiolent acts such as trespass as being eco-terrorism.

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