And the Rest Is History...An Interview with Daniel McGowan, Part 2
by the EF!J Collective
Published in the Earth First! Journal, January-February 2008 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 second segment of a two part interview conducted by the Earth First! Journal.

 EF!J: There seems to be a pretty massive divide between the radical environmental movement’s anti-snitch rhetoric (e.g., “snitches get stitches”) and the movement’s actual response to snitches. What do you make of this divide, and what are its implications for the movement’s chances of discouraging snitching?

DM: I have little tolerance for the whole pro-violence against snitches thing. Not only is it phony—let’s be real, no snitches in our movement “get stitches”—but I find it counter to what we believe in. We are not the Irish Republican Army. We are not Marxist-Leninist rigid cadre organizations that punish weakness with personal violence. Some of the comments on Portland Indymedia were so useful to the prosecution that they must have been posted by law enforcement of some kind—especially after the agents moaned to my lawyers that I was spearheading this campaign against the snitches. Again, I want to be crystal-clear: I don’t support violence against informants in my case.

I do support their complete and total ostracization from the movement, as I think they are dangerous people. They have shown themselves to be so self-centered in their outlook as to sell people out when they swore up and down they never would. (Here’s a funny aside: The biggest informants were the ones who were the most tough and militant at the time of the actions. What does that say?) No welcome back should be given to these people. When you think of their actions and feel that, at one point, they were honorable people trying to do their best to make the world better, that is fair. But keep in mind, the people who sold me out are not the same people anymore.

As far as the movement’s chances of discouraging snitching, I do think the movement has a responsibility to educate new people who get involved, so that they can know their own history. My understanding of my case and my views are greatly informed by the past: the Justin Samuel debacle and how Darren Thurston was sold out by someone involved in his 1992 Animal Liberation Front. Knowledge is power, and you can begin to see how things were done in the past and how they could be done in the future.

I’m concerned with the historical legacy of my case and am hoping that people learn lessons from it. One thing I hope people can see is that you do not have to sell your friends out. Also, arson is a very serious thing, and the consequences are lifelong. You will be connected to people for the rest of your life if you choose to do any direct actions. I think that the movement can show principled, strong and long-term support for defendants, and this can serve as a discouraging factor in informing. Support from the movement helped me solidify my positions and made it a lot easier. If we can show one another that we will be there for one another, then the prospects of snitching will be less.

Overall, I think that the movement needs to have an honest and frank discussion about these tactics, who seems to choose them and what that means for the prospects of prison.

EF!J: What led you to decide that sabotage was not an appropriate tactic—or at least, not an appropriate tactic for you?

DM: I decided that using arson and sabotage were not the right tactics for me shortly after the Jefferson Poplar action. Part of it was my experience dousing SUVs and trucks with gasoline and being profoundly affected by that. It just didn’t feel right. I started to realize that all that was in my future was more destruction, and that destroying things doesn’t make a movement. In our situation, I felt that we were too far removed from the broader environmental movement to even be complementing their efforts. There was also this sort of ticking clock I thought about—regarding whether we were getting closer to someone getting hurt. Some of my co-defendants started exhibiting behavior that was scary to me, and it dawned on me that our goals were very different. To me, arson and sabotage are means to an end. I really did not take pleasure in destruction like some of my old friends did.

I decided to take some time off to clear my head after a particularly disappointing meeting—what the prosecutors call “the last book club meeting”—where we discussed our goals and why we did what we did. Although I risked my life with these people, it was surprising, to say the least, to find out how divergent our ideas were. I was dismayed by growing factions that felt that what we were doing was not enough, at a time when I felt we should be pulling back, engaging only in sabotage actions that could bolster bridges between us and aboveground campaigns.

My time in Canada was full of new possibilities. I saw how indigenous people were resisting forest destroyers in their territory. I saw aboveground but militant and creative forest defense campaigns being fought in the Elaho wilderness, and I met inner-city harm-reduction activists working to decriminalize heroin users and work for safe injection sites. Inspired by their public and yet unapologetic militant stance, I came back to the US and made my break with the (ELF) final.

EF!J: On Democracy Now, you told Amy Goodman that the solidarity action with Jeffrey “Free” Luers—the Romania action, which he believes was partly responsible for his original 22-year, eight-month sentence—made you “start to look at [your] actions as being very dangerous and having repercussions beyond [your] control.” Can you explain in more detail what you meant by this? To what extent should radical activists be required to anticipate or even feel responsible for the government repression that arises in response to their actions?

DM: I want to be very frank about the Romania action. It ruined Free’s chance of a jury trial. Now, of course, a jury trial may have sent him to prison for a long time as well, but we will never know. Romania was serious and dangerous because it was horribly timed and showed a very poor logic—that somehow going back to the site of the original arson would have some positive effect on Jeff. This strategy was really poor, and the action was perceived by many as rather adolescent and taunting.

Did the people who took part in this action mean to harm Jeff? No, of course not. The thing is, our actions do have unintended consequences, and I feared that this group would continue to be interested in engaging in similar actions. I felt personally responsible for Jeff’s outcome—not because I was involved, but because I was out of town and couldn’t stop the action. Shown the communiqué afterward, I pleaded to have Free’s name removed from it and was rebuffed.

I think radical activists really need to consider their impacts on prisoners. Personally, I think “solidarity actions” are sort of creepy and centered way too much on us and not on the issue at hand. A prosecutor’s wet dream is for a solidarity action to happen in the midst of a legal case. Any action dedicated to someone on trial or in a legal case will be fodder for the prosecution. That is just a fact, based on seeing it happen in many cases. Some people may like these actions—to them I say, to each their own.

EF!J: Your support group was one of the first to form following the December 2005 arrests, and it appears to be one of the most visible and effective prisoner support groups currently operating. Do you have any insight into why this is? Do you have any advice for folks doing prisoner support work?

DM: My support group is a bunch of badasses led by my wife, Jenny—who despite all claims that she is not an activist, is one of the best organizers I have ever met! The shock of my being ripped out of our city was a major factor in the fast response to my arrest: I was arrested at 4:12 p.m. on December 7, 2005, and the court room was packed the next day. My friends were able to mobilize a lot of the people I had worked with during the past five years in New York City.  My family, employer, co-workers, fellow students and friends were out in full force, aided by the simple fact that my family got everyone this information really fast. I remember being in jail in Eugene, Oregon, and not only finding out that I had a lawyer ready to be interviewed and hired, but that I had a website and listserv, and letters were already being generated for a bail hearing that I didn’t even know was planned! My friends chose to fight like hell for me, and I think that made all the difference. Living in New York, a huge and rich city, they hosted more than 50 benefits for me in the last two years and contributed massive amounts to my legal defense fund, as well as those of many of the other Green Scare defendants.

Is this something you can learn? I think good prisoner and defendant support grows out of deep relationships with people and a lot of mutual aid. I had put eight years into prisoner support, and I had met and worked with a large number of people in NYC against the Republican National Convention. I feel like the support I gave out was reciprocated.

I would also like to see people who are not well-known receive a lot of support. That would be a good goal: Can we support those we do not know but who nonetheless deserve our support?

My best advice is to let the defendant/prisoner guide the work in some way, and to be flexible and work with their family and legal team. It’s challenging but worth it in the end.

EF!J: What’s the best way that people can show their support for you?

DM: I have received such insane support that I could never give anything but praise for those who have helped me out. I suppose the best way people can show their support is to engage in activism of some kind—the kind that is long-term and promotes ecological sanity in our society. Yup, it’s a clichéd answer for sure, and I feel silly writing it, but it’s the truth. I get lots of mail, books and magazines. Really, another great thing is for people to get others to take a look at the Green Scare cases, and help those defendants and prisoners out. I also have a special place in my heart for Joyanna “Sadie” Zacher, Nathan “Exile” Block and Jonathan Paul, so keep an eye out for them, and ask them what they need. For more information, check out www.greenscare.org.

Finally, I want to ask that people consider the partners, wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends and families of those indicted and imprisoned. We are not in this alone, and our families and partners bear an awful burden.

EF!J: This Summer, you were accepted into Antioch University McGregor’s distance learning masters program. Can you tell us more about this? Do you have any other goals or plans for your time in prison?

DM: I was accepted into an environmental sociology program at Antioch University that is self-directed, and, attended a residency in April. I am responsible for recruiting my own instructors and creating syllabi, as well as keeping up with the workload like any student. I am on a leave of absence right now, due to my time in transit. I will be starting the program again in the Winter. The Antioch staff has been really open to working with me and has not hesitated at all, despite the many obstacles that this program represents for me as an incarcerated student. With luck and hard work, it will take me a little more than two years. I am also lucky to have a crew of graduate students on the outside who have helped me tremendously with my writing and preparation for a graduate-level program.

As for other plans, I am consistently exercising a lot these days and trying to take advantage of the track and many machines they have here. So far, I prefer rowing and a stationary bike, but I intend to add weights into the mix soon, too. The Bureau of Prisons makes you work, so I will be starting a job as an orderly tomorrow. Hopefully, that won’t stop me from studying too much. I also intend to catch up on a huge reading list and correspond with a lot of people that I have not been able to for some time now, due to my sort of frantic schedule on the outside.

EF!J: What concerns you? What inspires you?

DM: A major concern I have is that the cases that comprise the Green Scare will spread fear and paralyze people from action and organizing. Like Will Potter (“Green Is the New Red”) has pointed out, legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the federal crime of terrorism (which I and most of my-codefendants received) have the potential to create a severe chilling effect on activism. It’s difficult, because it’s necessary to speak of what happened, but we have to balance that with the paralysis that can set in from too much analysis or worrying. I think that groups like my support crew learned during this ordeal that action is indeed the antidote to despair—that moving, struggling and advocating for our friends’ futures and the movement is what we need to do to combat this fear factor.

I’m concerned that my case seems too complex, and, thus, people will get confused by things like the names of who cooperated or didn’t, the names of the charges and will “check out.” This does not bode well for a movement that needs to combat amnesia and stop history from repeating itself.  Of course, so much of what is happening in our movement and society concerns me—ongoing and endless war, seemingly impending war in Iran, the day-to-day ecological destruction that is seen as normal, activists in our movement facing serious time in prison, the fallacy of white people wanting to build a 700-mile fence on our so-called border, and hearing the word “faggot” and other slurs more times in the last three months than in the last 15 years and that being seen as okay.

Lately, I’ve been inspired by beautiful writing about resistance and emotions. Something about this ordeal has really affected my sensibilities, and I find myself crying when I think of solidarity and the support I have received and things like sibling relationships, friends who have passed on this past year or so, and our prospects. I’m inspired by brave people—the quiet kind who seek no accolades and who keep at it, day after day, with no end in sight and with no victory assured. I’m inspired by the selflessness of my co-defendant, Jonathan—who could have gone to trial and fought his charges further, not having the 30-year mandatory minimum count, but took the plea bargain to save us from spending the rest of our lives in prison. Finally, I am inspired by my wife and partner, Jenny, whose dedication and support I am so appreciative of.

EF!J: Is there anything else you want to say to Journal readers and the EF! community?

DM: First off, I want to thank anyone has picked up a pen to write to me or my co-defendants, has donated any money to help us pay for our lawyers, has sent supportive emails and letters, or has hosted benefits. Your support does mean something to me, and I will never forget it. I want to say that my co-defendants and I are human—just like you. We make mistakes; indeed, I have made many mistakes, like speaking to an old friend on a wiretap, allowing myself to grow overly cautious in my legal defense and not appreciating my wonderful life until so much of my freedom was ripped away.

I did what I did—not cooperating—because I honor my word to my allies. There is nothing inherently different in me that influenced that decision. You too are capable of acting with integrity, and I implore people to truly think through the consequences of your actions and work on building deep relationships that are able to withstand the pressures of legal battles that may happen 20 years from now. I erred in allowing myself to get desperate and lash out at entities that caused me great frustration. There are other ways of affecting change, although they may not give you the instant gratification that some actions will, nor will your actions be considered the most militant.

We need to have serious conversations about whether militantancy is truly effective in all situations. Certainly, direct action is a wonderful tool, but from my experience, it may not be the most effective one at all times or in all situations. This opinion will land me in disregard by both the militants (many of whom are hypertheoretical and, thus, their opinions exist in a sort of vacuum) and my enemies (who accuse me of playing both sides of the story). The truth is that things are more complex than that. In some instances, direct action is the most effective tactic. For instance, in 1999, I was involved in an action that destroyed a tremendous amount of genetically modified (GM) grass and equipment belonging to the company testing it. The risks of the GM grass were verified, and groups even sued to stop it—claiming that the GM grass would inevitably spread to the forests and grasslands, polluting them with herbicide-resistant or faster-growing GM grass. The action happened in 1999, but it took six years for the courts to rule in the plaintiff’s favor, imposing a moratorium on the growing of GM grass. Actions that are understood by the public and seen as logical can have a positive impact on pre-existing campaigns and struggles.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I have been involved in some hare-brained actions that I am not proud of, that were fueled by an intense need to “just do something.” We need to balance our need to do something about what we see happening with strategy and a healthy understanding of the risks inherent in these actions. By “actions,” I am not just speaking of sabotage but any action on any campaign.

These discussions are the sort of articles that need to appear in the pages of the Journal. Despite the fact that my particular case is over, it’s imperative that we discuss tactics and strategies in a way that people can actually hear and listen to what each other are saying. Someone once told me that many activists are not into criticizing actions that have been taken by the ELF because they want to support the defendants and that any criticism of the actions may be perceived as a diss on the people. I appreciate the sentiment and the consideration, but I think, now that much of the case is over, we should soon start to have these dialogues. I, for one, can take any criticism levied on me regarding actions that I have been involved in. In that way, we can move the conversation forward on how to resist ecological destruction in a serious and principled way, without losing so many of our friends to prison, burnout and despair.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my views with everyone. Feel free to contact me at Daniel McGowan, #63794-053, Unit I, FCI Sandstone, POB 1000, Sandstone, MN 55072.

For more information, contact Family and Friends of Daniel McGowan, POB 106, New York, NY 10156; www.supportdaniel.org.