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Sun Magazine Interview                         Page 1 of 6
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Outside Agitator: How Darryl Cherney Set Out To Save The Redwoods And Ended Up Suing The FBI (And Winning)

an interview by Greg King

I met Darryl Cherney on the spring equinox of 1986, in a gravel parking lot outside a motley environmental office in Humboldt County, California. I had hardly emerged from the vehicle when this little overwound spring of a man uncoiled from the office door and bounded toward me, sizing me up as if I'd dinged his car. He asked if I needed help. I told him I was looking for Sally Bell Grove, an ancient redwood forest threatened by logging.

"Oh," he said, almost under his breath but with obvious satisfaction. "Well, that's great. Because we're going to Sally Bell Grove." Pause. "Can we take your car?"

Three months later Cherney and I co-founded the campaign to save the world's last unprotected ancient redwood groves, Headwaters Forest, from clear-cutting by the Houston-based Maxxam Corporation. (Maxxam had floated $750 million in junk bonds to take over the Pacific Lumber Company.) We took my car; we took his car. Sometimes we drove each other crazy: the high-strung big-city hustler, and the country-journalist-cum-tree-climber joined in pitched battle against draconian timber companies.

By 1990, Bari, Cherney, and I had collectively been on the receiving end of some four dozen death threats and a half-dozen assaults.

During the late 1980s, Cherney, who'd arrived to Humboldt County with a master's degree in education from Fordham University, emerged as one of the nation's most noteworthy and effective grass-roots activists, devising street theater, media spin campaigns, and humor-laced folk songs as a means of bringing news of falling redwoods into American homes. The U.S. Congress eventually protected most of Headwaters Forest, but not before Cherney and others—especially fellow activist Judi Bari—had paid a heavy price.

Bari was a brilliant left-wing dynamo in Mendocino County who was attempting the overthrow of timber giant Louisiana Pacific. LP was clear-cutting thirty-five thousand acres of second-growth redwood every year in northern California and treating its nonunion work force like indentured servants—and environmental activists even worse.

By 1990, Bari, Cherney, and I had collectively been on the receiving end of some four dozen death threats and a half-dozen assaults. Nonetheless, that year Cherney and Bari began organizing "Redwood Summer," a campaign that would bring thousands of activists to the forests, mills, and streets of Mendocino and Humboldt counties to protest the "last great roundup" of California's once ubiquitous redwood forests. On April 24, 1990, Darryl and I kicked off Redwood Summer with an occupation of the Golden Gate Bridge. While I was 250 feet above the concrete, expecting to be arrested for hanging a banner, Darryl was at a public phone at the Marin Headlands, expecting to grab media coverage and then bail me out. But he was among the first to be arrested. Somehow the police knew where to find him. His car was impounded in Marin County, where the action took place, but was searched by members of the Oakland Police Department, a jurisdiction that has as much to do with the Golden Gate Bridge as it does with Manhattan.

Exactly one month later, on May 24, a pipe bomb exploded in Bari's Subaru near downtown Oakland with her and Cherney in the car, injuring Darryl and nearly killing Judi. The Oakland Police Department repeated over and over the FBI's assertion that Bari and Cherney were knowingly transporting the bomb, but the charge was later dropped for lack of evidence.

The following year, the two Earth First! activists filed a lawsuit (Bari v. USA) against the Oakland Police Department and the FBI, alleging that Bari and Cherney were "denied any normal and proper police effort to catch those who set the bomb," and instead "were themselves preposterously but sensationally arrested . . . without grounds and on fabricated evidence."

It was one of the most powerful and protracted actions ever brought against the FBI, contending that the FBI made Bari and Cherney—and by association the Earth First! organization—the targets of a frightening smear campaign. The lawsuit charged that such illegal tactics were a matter of regular FBI policy, and were modeled after the "counterintelligence" programs of the fifties and sixties, particularly the infamous COINTELPRO.

COINTELPRO was the creation of former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who sought to neutralize U.S. political organizations that challenged the status quo. In 1975 the Senate rendered COINTELPRO illegal, though activists contend that it simply went underground. On June 11 this year, after an unusual three weeks of deliberating, a federal jury found several FBI agents and Oakland police officers liable for $4.4 million in damages for violating the activists' constitutionally protected freedom of speech and freedom from unlawful search and seizure. It was a rare victory against the FBI.

Contrary to FBI claims that Bari and Cherney were transporting explosives "in the back seat" to be used in toppling power lines, the bomb was actually a sophisticated anti-personnel device wrapped in nails, rigged with a timer and motion detector, and placed under the driver's seat of Bari's Subaru. While Cherney's injuries were superficial, Bari was permanently disabled until she died on March 2, 1997, of breast cancer—a death political activist Michael Parenti lays at the doorstep of the national security state, saying that her injuries suppressed her immune system and left her vulnerable to the cancer.

At forty-five, Cherney remains an aggressive, creative, and sometimes alienating activist. He can still be found organizing "base camps" for young environmentalists who continue to challenge Maxxam in Humboldt County. The gutsy Manhattan native lives and works deep in the Humboldt County hills, occupying a two-hundred-square-foot, leaky canvas "dome on the range," where he's spent the past twelve years living as a dedicated minimalist. A tiny woodstove in the middle of the floor is surrounded by a bed, a sink, clothes, books, filing cabinets, musical instruments, and a tiny kitchen. There is one solar panel, one water spigot, and an outhouse. When I arrived in early November of last year for the first of several rounds of questions, the sun was still warm on surrounding meadows. We talked for hours in the sienna glow of Elk Ridge and Bear Butte.


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