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FDL Movie Night: Who Bombed Judi Bari?

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Tonight’s documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari?, takes an in depth look at the events surrounding the attack on Earth First! organizers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. Bari and Cherney–who is one of our guests tonight, along with director Mary Liz Thomson–were visible, vital forces in the fight to end over-logging of redwood forests.

Who Bombed Judi Bari? is riveting.  The film unfolds through Bari’s deposition in the civil suit she and Cherney filed against the Oakland Police Department and the FBI in the wake of their 1990 arrest for transporting an explosive device, and utilizes news footage and on-the-scene videography of Earth First! rallies and protests to create an exciting and moving film. (The deposition was given in 1997 as Bari was dying from breast cancer, and was played for the jury just weeks after she died.)

Before 1987, much of the radical environmentalist work was centered around “monkey wrenching” (equipment sabotage) and tree spiking; but Bari, a union organizer who moved to Northern California and worked as a carpenter, created a change in tactics after a sawmill worker was nearly killed by shrapnel from a spike that struck a saw blade. Bari began to advocate for civil disobedience and non-violence. Her tactics were successful. Earth First! in conjunction with Native American tribal leaders and local residents turned back the logging. Bari’s background in labor relations helped formulate the message that Earth First! wasn’t opposed to people earning a living by logging. Rather they were opposed to the practice of over-logging and strip-logging by the logging companies, which began in 1986 when Pacific Lumber was acquired by Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam, Inc. corporation, who doubled its rate of timber harvesting as a means of paying off the acquisition. (Junk bonds were involved.)

As blockades increased, so did violence against the protestors who were punched and shot at by loggers as police stood by and did nothing. Bari’s car was rammed by a logging truck with her and her children in it. Mailed threats to her increased once ‘Redwood Summer’ was announced. Redwood Summer, inspired by the Mississippi civil rights movement, called on thousands of students and activists to mass in numbers in the redwood forests, in the summer of 1990 to prevent logging. Meanwhile, Bari helped organize a coalition of lumber workers to stand up against over-logging and the exportation of logged trees to Mexico for milling. As Redwood Summer drew closer, fake press releases and statements purporting to be from Earth First! advocating violence were sent to media and posted throughout logging towns. One newspaper said the press releases read like a Hollywood version of radical speak, and Earth First! scrambled to disavow them while continuing to advocate for non-violence.

The threats against Bari and Cherney escalated, but the police and FBI ignored them. Then on the morning of May 24, 1990, as Bari and Cherney drove through Oakland on their way to a rally in Santa Cruz, an explosion ripped through Bari’s Subaru. The first police officer on the scene said it was clear that the explosion came from under the driver’s seat, but subsequently the police reports and the reports from the FBI (which took over from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, claiming it was a case of terrorism) stated the bomb was carried in the backseat and that Bari and Cherney were aware of the bomb. The couple was arrested for possession and transportation of explosives, when Bari was still in hospital recovering from her severe injuries.

FBI Special Agent Frank Doyle, who handled the case, had held a training on car bombs just a month earlier on Louisiana-Pacific Lumber property. Doyle stated in an affidavit that the bomb had been carried in the backseat, but photos and other evidence, including Bari’s injuries, demonstrated that the bomb had been placed under the driver’s seat. The investigation’s focus on the activists, and their attempts to clear themselves, severely hamstrung their work on Redwood Summer and spread fear throughout the movement. Despite this, the protest went forward, successfully drawing attention to the redwoods, and resulting in significant changes, including the establishment of the Headwaters Forest Preserve (Bari would later head the congressional committee that wrote a compensation clause for lumber workers laid off because of the establishment of the preserve).

Six days after the bombing, Mike Geniella of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat received a letter claiming responsibility for placing the bomb in Bari’s car and also for an earlier bomb that did not detonate placed at the Cloverdale sawmill. The letter writer, who called him/herself “The Lord’s Avenger,” had inside knowledge of how the bombs were made. The investigation followed up with search warrants for typewriters belonging to Bari and Cherney’s family, friends, and associates. Even finishing nails were pulled from the windows of Bari’s house in an effort to prove she was behind the bomb-making.

But based on the evidence, or lack thereof, the Oakland District Attorney ultimately declined to file charges against Bari and Cherney. The couple in turn filed a federal civil suit against the Oakland Police Department and the FBI claiming that the FBI and police officers falsely arrested them, and attempted to frame them as terrorists to discredit their political organizing. (Earth First! and other activists had successfully gotten Proposition 130 on the ballot, which would have decreased logging; the measure subsequently failed by only 1%). Bari and Cherney learned that FBI Supervisor, Richard Wallace Held, had been a leading force in COINTELPRO. (After the lawsuit, from which Held was dismissed, Held left the bureau and went to work for VISA in their fraud division.) Was the bombing an FBI set-up or an act by a lone, crazed person?

Bari died from breast cancer  in 1997, and the civil suit ended in 2002, with a $4.4 million verdict in the plaintiffs’ favor. The jury found that the Oakland P.D. and the FBI had violated Bari and Cherney’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly; and for committing various unlawful acts, including, unlawful search and seizure in violation of the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Who Bombed Judi Bari? begins its screening run in December. There is a $50,000 reward offered for information in the case.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.