If a tree falls: the story behind the making of an American 'eco terrorist' group

If a Tree Falls
If A Tree Falls is a film about the Earth Liberation Front. Photo by T.J. Watt
The Earth Liberation Front targeted dozens of businesses they accused of destroying the environment. As a new film charting its rise and fall premieres in the US, Matilda Lee speaks to director Marshall Curry about the fine line between activism and terrorism

Matilda Lee: What spurred you to make a film about the Earth Liberation Front?

Marshall Curry: I actually didn't know anything about the ELF beside very cursory things I'd seen on TV. My wife runs a domestic violence organisation in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and told me that 4 Federal Agents had walked in to her office and arrested one of her employees. It was Daniel McGowan - I knew him a bit, he was the opposite of someone who'd be facing life in prison for domestic terrorism would look or act like. I was interested and decided to jump in.

ML: Did your views on the ELF change in the course of making the film?

MC: Yes, I have to say that along the course of making the film, our team had our points of view stretched a lot in different directions. We'd talk to the people who were part of ELF, then the arson victims, the prosecutor the detective that worked on the case. Each time, the people we spoke to defied my simple stereotypical expectation and kind of complicated the story, in a good way, a better way.

ML: How implicated do you think the media are in giving the ELF and similar groups a specific image?

MC: They pretty well control the image. I would say they are the reason we have a sense of who the ELF is, both in terms of either trying to make them out to be heroes, and drawing attention to them or calling them nihilistic terrorists in the same sentence as Al Qaeda.

ML: The film ends on a bittersweet note. You get the sense that Daniel McGowan is just a normal guy. But it also doesn't really justify his actions. Was that intentional?

MC: To me the goal of the movie was to try to understand how these fires happened. I think there are lots of different ways of doing that: political, emotional, reasons that have to do with family and adolescence, ecological destruction, frustration at the democratic process not working the way it should work. It was never the goal to excuse the arsons, but it was the goal to try to understand them.

ML: Do you agree with ELF members being branded as ‘domestic terrorists'?

MC: That is one of the big questions of the movie: how we define terrorism. I think that in our society we use the terrorism a lot - individuals throw the word around a lot without carefully considering it. I think it is a pretty complicated question. Part of me is reluctant to explain how I feel - because how I feel is reflected in this 85-minute movie. If you tell you in two sentences what I think, it kinds of undercuts that I made a whole movie about it. I do think that terrorism is one of those terms that maybe confuses more than it clarifies, because we have such different understandings of what it means. The person who I fall closest with on this issue is the police captain who worked on trying to catch the ELF. In the film, I think it is easier to focus on crime and not crime. Arson is a crime but is it terrorism or not - we will find out. Ultimately, it is a term that ultimately creates more heat than it sheds light.

ML: In the film, a representative from the Native Forest Council brought up a good question: why is saving the remaining 5 per cent of the US's native standing trees radical when the actions of the logging companies, which have cut down 95 per cent of the nation's native standing forests, are not seen as radical?

MC: That really stuck in my ear when he said that. Since then I've heard a few other people use similar analyse. I was moderating a panel of people talking about environmental tactics. One of the people said we need to get people to understand that we are the conservatives, as environmentalists. We get branded as liberals or radicals, but we are trying to keep the earth's atmosphere from dramatically changing in ways that are unheard of in the history of humanity. That is a conservative, not a radical, position.

ML: Do you know much about the ELF's impact on the wider environmental movement?

MC: I was surprised to see how much the mainstream environmental movement hates the ELF. When we were getting archival footage for the movie, we found out that the Wilderness Society has a library of incredible footage of forests and old growth trees. We tried to license some of it. They refused to license us because our movie was about the ELF. That really amazed me. They think that the ELF is so radioactive that they didn't want any connection in any way. Honestly, I think that is typical in the more mainstream environmental movement.

ML: You also show there was one faction of the ELF that wanted to go even more extreme and target individuals and not just property and that's what splintered the group.

MC: Yes, I don't think anybody was sitting down drawing up plans on how they would assassinate people. But even just the idea that people would want to sit down and discuss targeting people caused that ELF group to splinter. In some ways I think it's typical of radical or revolutionary movements that get frustrated with something not working and then a more radical group splits off from and then a more radical group splits off from that. Yet even when the ELF were lighting fires, there were still lots of non-arson environmental actions that were happening: civil disobendience, letter writing, lobbying...

But one should point out that there were people who were peppered sprayed, and experienced the same things, who didn't decide to join the ELF. But yes, that is the reason why folks who did join the ELF did.

As we were making the movie, we talked about it as being kind of a cautionary tale for activists to carefully consider the action and the tactics they are taking and think about the ethics and the legal repercussions and practical considerations: how effective these actions will be. But also, it is a cautionary tale for law enforcement and the government to consider how they react to activists. Some reactions radicalise people and some reactions bring people into the democratic process.

ML: A similar debate is going on in the UK as to what constitutes a ‘domestic extremist' and whether or not tactics police have used are appropriate. We've had a few cases (that we know about) of undercover police infiltrating activist groups. Do you see any parallels with the UK situation?

MC: When we were at the Sheffield Documentary Festival (last week) a number of people talked to us about that, and a couple of films have been made about it: Just Do It and UK Uncut. It sounded like there was a growing group of protesters breathing new life into the movement. There are certainly discussions going on within that group as to whether property destruction is an acceptable way of drawing attention to things. It certainly sounded like it was something that resonates here.

ML: I'm reminded of Nelson Mandela, who recounts his radical actions in his autobiography. He is considered a peaceful hero, but at the same time what he did on the way to becoming what he is now is quite surprising.

MC: It's interesting you mention that. In Daniel McGowan's sentencing hearing, his lawyer made a reference to Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Though in their case the argument was not about the ends justifying the means as much as it was about illustrating the fact that people change over time. In some cases maybe they think that violent reactions are acceptable and later they change. In Mandela's case I'm not sure how much of it was a personal change and how much of it was realising that tactics should be appropriate to the situation that you are battling. When you are fighting apartheid in the 1960s and 70s it's one thing and when apartheid is on it's deathbed and you are released from prison it is time to work with the political process instead.

I think people would say the same thing about the best way to fight the environmental battles: there are ethical and also practical questions: is lighting a fire going to really achieve the specific goal that you are going for. My sense is that it is not. Not from some kind of moralistic sense that fire is never OK. If you are in the middle of a war, perhaps. But when you are fighting the US government, from the US, that doesn't seem a particularly practical way of achieving your goal. The result is that usually you will end up in prison and ostracise people who otherwise would have helped you achieve your goals. But it's definitely complicated - that's the reason I made an 85-minute film about it.

ML: Have you had any contact with McGowan? He has still got a few years left in prison.

MC: Yes, he's got a few more years. I think he feels frustrated with the lack of action and on the other hand that lighting things on fire isn't necessary the best way of achieving your goals. Right now he is in a special wing of a prison that was set up to house terrorists, people who the government feels need to be more controlled. His contact with the outside world is very restricted. I've spoken to his wife and sister and dad, but he is only allowed one 15-minute phone call a week - he uses that to talk to his wife.

ML: What has been the reaction to your film so far?

MC: It's been great. When you work on something in an edit room with just a couple of other people, you never know how it is going to be received. It was really important to us that it reflect the complexities of the case. We've been happy to see that - the prosecutor, the detective, and the police captain - they've all seen it and feel like it's an important and accurate story. Similarly Daniel's family and the spokesman for the ELF say the same thing.

Further information:

If a tree falls will show on BBC Storyville later this year.

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