And the Rest Is History...An Interview with Daniel McGowan
by the EF!J Collective
Published in the Earth First! Journal, November-December 2007 issue

Daniel McGowan was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for actions committed in defense of the Earth.  He was rounded up as part of the FBI’s “Operation Backfire,” which sought to prosecute people for unsolved Earth Liberation Front (ELF) actions. This is the first segment of a two-part interview conducted by the Earth First! Journal. Look for the second half in the January-February 2008 issue.

Earth First! Journal: How are you? How have you been adjusting to prison so far?

Daniel McGowan: I’m doing fine, all things considered, and happy to be here at my designated facility after two months in a Brooklyn jail and three weeks on the road. They definitely throw you in the deep end of the pool here, and the shock of it all is tremendous, but I’m adjusting bit by bit, day by day. Unlike representations of prison on TV and in popular culture, things are chill here. It’s a low-security prison with lots of recreational opportunities, dormitories with bunk beds and a lot of free movement. That said, it’s prison—the prison governs every aspect of my life. I am 1,200 miles from home and unable to take part in activism outside the realm of writing.

EF!J: Did you do anything special to prepare for prison?

DM: My preparation and acceptance of prison began a long time ago—before I even took part in direct actions. Once it became likely that I was going to prison, my preparation consisted of reading about prison, interviewing and meeting with former political prisoners, seeing a therapist to deal with anxiety and doing tons of legal research about where I might end up and how to conduct myself while in prison. Additionally, I did a lot of research on potential graduate school programs, as I was determined to have a very busy time while imprisoned and wanted to make the most of this “time out,” so to say. One thing I did not do enough was have fun! Beset by anxiety and stress, I found myself delving into the rational and computer-based side of prison preparation at the expense of spending time with those I love. It’s my number-one regret about my time from February 2006, when I was released on bail, to July 2007, when I self reported.

EF!J: Has your experience doing prisoner support for Jeffrey “Free” Luers been useful during this ordeal?

DM: Yes, I do think my experience of doing prison support for Free and others was useful. It may not be as linear as this, but I think working with people in New York City (NYC) and Oregon on prisoner support over the years helped us hone our tactics and strategies in support work. So, after doing it for eight years, I was able to be the recipient of these tactics and strategies, which resulted in fairly intense and vigorous prisoner support. For me, my friendship and correspondence with Jeff informed my decisions greatly—knowing how he was treated by the government, I had no illusions that the state would be fair with my case. My experience with Jeff’s case left me with no hope for justice from the courts, the US legal system or any judge—no matter how liberal they are perceived to be. Jeff’s appellate decision in February was easily the shining point of the year for me.

EF!J: What brought you to activism, or specifically, the radical environmental movement?

DM: I grew up in a neighborhood that was heavily polluted by jet fuel released from planes landing and taking off from La Guardia airport in Queens, New York. Cancer rates are high there, and my childhood memories are full of times that we were not allowed to swim in the ocean due to algae blooms or toxic waste washing up on the shores. I grew up with images of the then-radical Greenpeace putting themselves between whalers and whales (so much has changed!) and learned about the greenhouse effect and the impacts of greenhouse gasses on the environment as an elementary school student. It wasn’t, however, until I took a life-changing trip to Thailand after graduating from college that I sought to be involved. While there, I hiked rainforest trails, met environmental refugees from Burma and experienced serious pollution. My attempts to get involved in activism floundered until a late-night drunken stumble into Blackout Books (RIP) and a free-pile copy of the Earth First! Journal (the one with the “Super Freddy” with the automatic weapon guarding the Cove-Mallard timber sale!). I checked out the directory, saw that the NYC contact—the Wetlands Preserve—had open meetings and a few days later attended one. There, I heard about the Yerkes protest against primate research firsthand, as well as letter-writing attempts to keep Captain Paul Watson from being extradited to Norway. One month later, I took off cross-country for the 1997 Round River Rendezvous in Crandon, Wisconsin, got arrested for standing in front of a mining company, and the rest is history. How’s that for a plug for the organizing effect of the EF!J?

EF!J: What role did EF! and the EF!J play in your growth as an activist? What role, if any, do they play in your life now?

DM: The Journal has always been a major part of my activism, from the times I would lunge at the pile we used to get at Wetlands to submitting my first article (Mitsubishi lockdown, October 1998) to seeing analysis of the ELF actions I was involved with. I short-termed for the Journal in 2000 and volunteered for the two years I lived in Eugene helping with editing, filling sample issue orders and soliciting articles and artwork. The EF!J was a major reason for my move to Eugene and subsequent involvement with the ELF and was a base for many of the activists in Eugene who always came out for the (then) every-six-week mailing parties. I still get the Journal, enjoy most of the writings and during my time in prison, intend to submit articles and letters every issue.

For a while, I thought the Journal would not recover from its growing pains and would join the huge list of magazines that failed or ceased publication in the last two years, but I’m happy to read about new developments. The new (old) format and the scrapping of horrible relationships with vampiric distributors is promising. I am also happy to see the Journal’s commitment to not only listing prisoner addresses but also seeking input and articles from them. We are still people who have opinions and want to meaningfully participate.

EF!J: What’s your sense of the state of the radical environmental movement? Where do you see it, and specifically EF!, heading?

DM: The radical environmental movement has been the canary in the coal mine for the last 30 years, but the future, I am not sure about. We have called attention to issues long ignored by the press and our accommodating mainstream “Group of 10,” the huge environmental non-profits. Old-growth forests, mining, development, mountaintop removal, biotechnology. We should be proud of calling attention to these issues, but we need to do more than just be the messenger—we need to actually work toward having an impact on these issues. The decline of groups using the name “Earth First!” is one thing people point to as a bad thing, but if our issues are being covered or worked on by a growing number of people and organizations, perhaps that isn’t so bad. Ultimately, climate change needs to be combated as a survival issue, not just limited to an enviro issue. If we allow climate change to be just another one of our issues, we are letting people off the hook. To really deal with it—and trust me, I have my doubts about our ability and desire to deal with it—we will need more than just radical enviros doing something. At this point, within EF!, I am curious about whether Rising Tide will rise to the occasion and whether or not our opposition to this new batch of coal plants will result in some actual victories.

EF!J: Many within EF! have observed that the number and intensity of radical environmental direct-action campaigns seem to have dropped significantly during the past 10 to 15 years. Do you agree with this assessment or have any thoughts on why this might be?

DM: Not having a comprehensive diary or list of actions that qualify as “radical environmental direct actions,” it’s hard for me to say. What we always have to keep in mind is that for every action claimed through a communiqué by a group with a name, there are tons of other unclaimed actions by people who may not identify as activist in any way. It’s well known that “ecotage” did not originate with identifiable groups, complete with names, guidelines and statements to the media. Our history supports this point: The Tucson eco raiders, the Fox, billboard topplers, tree spikers, road rippers—all existed before the rise of groups like the ELF. So, I can’t say that any evidence points to fewer actions overall, although I agree with the fact there are fewer actions claimed by groups with public statements, etc.

As for radical environmental campaigns, it sure seems to be true that there are less of these. When I lived in Oregon, there were, at times, four active treesits, as well as quieter campaigns by people like myself that focused on disrupting timber sales and many lawsuits attempting to take large amounts of forest off the chopping block. Nowadays, there seems to be a much-changed situation, with no active treesits in Oregon or Washington and disbanded groups in these once very active communities. However, it isn’t always about quantity, and there are still efforts to protect forests, such as the Cascadia Wildlands Projects (CWP) and lawyers like Lauren Regan who thanklessly (and with no help from the non-profits) work hard to protect burned Biscuit sales in southern Oregon. One good thing I just heard is that the Clark timber sale (known better as Fall Creek or, in its early days, Red Cloud Thunder) is now canceled. Years of occupying trees and, in later years, red tree vole surveys that shrunk the size of the sale down to 29 acres resulted in the sale no longer being profitable. The groups that worked on this, from the mainstream Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild) to the CWP, treesitters and surveyors should be proud of themselves for working together on different levels. We need more of these combined efforts.

EF!J: Now that your sentence has started, is there anything you’ve wanted to say but couldn’t until this moment?

DM: I suppose now is the best time to address the issue of my cooperating codefendants. Much has been said about their choices, which resulted in a long list of arrests, death threats and a seemingly never-ending investigation. Let me be really clear: There was a spoken and crystal-clear agreement made between all who were involved in these actions that we would never, ever turn each other in to save ourselves. I took that oath seriously, as did a few of my old friends. Sadly though, not everyone did, and instead threw us to the wolves. In one month, I went from having three people pointing their fingers at me—a sociopathic heroin addict (Ferguson), an intellectually diminished domestic violence abuser turned conservative (Meyerhoff) and a meek porn store manager and pothead (Tubbs)—to having almost all of my codefendants selling me out. It was shocking and tremendously hurtful, and I will never forgive them for the betrayal. The straw that broke the camel’s back was probably when I found out that Suzanne Savoie, an ex-lover and once close friend, told the government of my entire illegal history from 1998-2001—including some 10 or so actions that we did together—with incredible details. She got 51 months; I got 84—the price of treachery is apparently 33 months.

That said, I am not willing to give these people any more of my time and my life. I have no desire to ever hear from them again with fake apologies or regret. Their actions are their cross to bear—not mine. I can wake up in the morning knowing that not only did I try to stop the destruction I saw, but that I acted honorably when facing life in prison.

Finally, I want to say that it was very difficult to stand silently in court while the prosecutor said that our actions were analogous to the actions of the KKK. I pride myself on speaking out when I hear racist garbage like that, and I regret that I was cowed by my surroundings and half-expected the judge to rebuke prosecutor Stephen Peiffer for his racist and horribly inaccurate remark.

EF!J: How do you feel about the sentence you received? Were you surprised? Disappointed? Relieved?

DM: My sentence of seven years for two arsons is double the federal median sentence. I received six months less than what the government asked for, due to my involvement in aboveground and non-destructive activism from 2001 to 2005. Honestly, I felt that my activism, the fact that I left the ELF without pressure from anyone and my complete lack of criminal history would have led to a lesser sentence. But I’m not surprised, really—there is no justice from the courts. If there were, the judge would never have tolerated our being charged with the 924(c) counts (use of a destructive device) which could have given me a 30-year mandatory minimum if found guilty of one and mandatory life in prison if found guilty of both. We called 924 (c) “the snitch maker” because the count caused great fear and hopelessness amongst those who were charged with it. Relief was certainly something I felt after I went from facing life in prison plus 335 years to “only” eight years. I am surrounded by people whose sentences of 20 years and more remind me that I could have gotten a lot more time.

That said, I think it’s imperative that we not accept these charges and characterization of ourselves as “terrorists” (eco, domestic or otherwise). We should never accept the overarching tactics the government uses to get people to break.

EF!J: Most of your codefendants decided to cooperate with the government by informing on you, the other non-cooperating defendants and each other. From early on, you were very clear about your refusal to do this. When and how did you decide to make this commitment? Was this a difficult decision? How much pressure was on you to inform on others, and how did you withstand this pressure?

DM: I decided a long time ago that I would never cooperate with a situation I might find myself in years later. Before I took part in serious actions, I thought long and hard about it. Frankly, it was not a hard decision to make and I think it plays to my personality—which is very stubborn at times! Once I was arrested, I clammed up and tried my best to ignore what was going on—I was cold, hungry and in a cell that was freezing with the lights on, but I knew that this was temporary and that I would soon have a lawyer. Legal trainings that I had been to a dozen times suddenly made sense as I saw the silly attempts that were made to get me to talk. Specifically, Eugene cop Greg Harvey told me that the 924 (c) count was the same count that Chris McIntosh pleaded to, that he knew I had a niece and that I shouldn’t bankrupt my family, and that I should be smart and talk with the prosecution as “the door is open now but it’s closing soon.” I saw this attempt for what it was and reasserted my right to silence over and over to them.

I can’t say there was much pressure put on me by others—all my friends and family understood my decision to not cooperate. My codefendant Gerlach did wage a “choose life” campaign, seeking to meet with every defendant and lawyer and tell them that we should “choose life” and not be martyrs! This was a very obvious attempt to gain credence with the prosecution and at her sentencing, she and her lawyer attempted to cash in on this, stating that she got many people to cooperate. Of course, this is true in the case of her private meeting with Darren Thurston, who left a joint agreement with me and Jonathan Paul shortly after this meeting with Gerlach (and started cooperating with the government after that point). Her meeting with my lawyer and private investigator provided me with a lot of insight into the mind of someone who cooperates and the lengths that they will go to in their quest to lessen their time in jail. A document of notes regarding Gerlach’s attempts to get me to inform will be made public soon on www.supportdaniel.org.

EF!J: How do you feel about the support that some of the informants continue to receive from some folks in the radical environmental movement?

DM: I think it’s sad that some people in the radical enviro movement still support informants from this case. I can understand in some way a situation in which a friend is dismayed by the actions taken by another friend who is an informant and thus, I do not begrudge them that. However, there is a huge difference between supporting a friend privately without using movement money (making sure they have commissary and letters) and publicly supporting these people, soliciting money from the movement, asking magazines to send them free subscriptions and obscuring the truth about the depth of their cooperation. I won’t delve too deeply into the situation with Darren Thurston, but I will say this: Thurston is a cooperating witness against the people in the Litchfield Bureau of Land Management ELF action. Some of these people are informants themselves, but a few people are not. Thurston told the government the timeline of the action—what he did and what other people did, specifically. It does not matter that he and his support person both say the government already knew this. That is their assertion, not a fact—and either way, that idea of “they already knew it” has been so thoroughly discredited over the last 30 years that I’m surprised it can still be spoken without meeting universal derision. The assertion made is that Thurston will not have to testify against the three people he told the government about either because a) they won’t be caught, or b) he will be in Canada by that point and won’t have to testify. Sadly, most people that the FBI deems “fugitives” are caught (e.g. Peter Young, Sara Olson, James Kilgore) so that really isn’t too much consolation. Secondly, if Darren thinks Canada is a refuge, maybe he should read a little about the cases of Leonard Peltier, Tre Arrow, John Graham or Jeremy Hintzman (US conscientious objector). Of course, maybe the US government told him that they wouldn’t need him, but that’s just conjecture. His plea agreement is available to the public, except for the paragraphs dealing with the cooperation he offered, which are still sealed. So, we are left in the dark, really, because his support people and Thurston himself keep his plea agreement and FBI debrief forms sealed. I think that anyone who reads the court reports can see that not only did the prosecution call him a remarkable cooperating witness but his lawyers also lauded his cooperation. Ask yourself how a former Animal Liberation Front (ALF) prisoner, banned from the US and caught with a fake green card, more than 20 fake IDs, guns and drugs, and a participant in an ELF arson at a government facility gets not only a 37-month sentence but no terrorism enhancement? How much proof do people need?

The second part of this interview will be printed in the January-February issue of the Earth First! Journal.  Keep your eyes peeled.