Archive for December, 2007
Friday, December 21st, 2007
This is a eulogy, two years too late, for my friend William Rodgers — known to friends, family and the movement as Avalon. Avalon took his life on December 21, 2005. This was just two weeks after our arrests in the Operation Backfire case and, by no coincidence, the Winter Solstice. In his absence, much has been made of his role in our Earth Liberation Front (ELF) group. Not surprisingly, the prosecutors in the case have painted him as a leader who recruited young, impressionable activists to do his bidding. This is not only false, but also insulting to the younger people in the case, who did get involved on their own. Snitches in the case have used his inability to respond to dramatically maximize his role in certain actions in an attempt to lesson the consequences of their own actions. One person went so far as submitting to the judge video evidence and testimony that has not been made public because it was deemed too personal for public consumption. Others on the margins have chosen to focus on Avalon’s flaws by spreading rumors or even by talking to the private investigators hired by the snitches.
I first met Avalon in the months leading up to the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle in late 1999 and developed a friendship with him instantly. His sly grin, easygoing and warm personality and humility impressed me, and I was happy to see that this quiet, older enviro was up to more than attending the EF! gatherings at which I first saw him. His rationality and quick thinking prevented disaster for our affinity group during the Seattle protests (I’m proud to say we took part in the Black Bloc). I distinctly remember getting ready to leave Seattle, and hearing his suggestion to “keep in touch.” Well, we did keep in touch. Much has been said of what we did in the years after that, but that will be told elsewhere.
Like so many of us, Avalon suffered from depression and despair, fueled by the realization of what our species is doing the planet. Living underground, juggling details of planned actions and double lives, and eschewing many of the things that our movement allies had access to is stressful. I know because I did it, and yet Avalon’s experience in that underground life dwarfed mine. I can’t help but think that this isolation and despair were major factors in his suicide. We moved on, and yet the cruel hand of the past — in the form of old friends and a Joint Terrorism Task Force — pulled us all back into our secret histories. Maybe for Avalon, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. We will never know for sure. I remember seeing his name in a list of arrestees in a New York Times article while sitting in a New York City jail. It gave me some hope — I thought we could all fight these charges together, as a group of people who had lifelong solidarity with each other, as people who honored the oaths we made to each other. Sometimes, I lie there at night asking the questions I try to avoid: Could Avalon have stemmed the tide of informing? Would he have been the person who, having known some of the snitches for much longer than I, could really reach them — beyond their fears and to their core? I’ll never know these answers, but I do know this: Avalon would rather die and make a jailbreak than cooperate in any way with this immoral and unjust process.
The prosecution, knowing only hierarchy and bureaucracy, cannot conceive of a group without a leader, a pecking order and strict rules. Without Bill around to protest and because he was older than all of us, they found their puppet master. Suddenly the so-called “book club” was his invention and was deemed a “training school for arson.” Meyerhoff and Gerlach, grand quislings that they are, had the audacity to say with a straight face that Avalon pretty much did the Vail arson all by himself. Just reading about the ski resort’s geography, the large amount of fuel that was used and Bill’s slight stature made me laugh bitterly to myself about these lies. On some level, it’s the way the game is played for snitches. The government tells them what it wants to hear, and the cooperating witnesses jump through hoops like the well-trained pets that they are. To be clear, everyone involved with these actions and the “book club” are people like you and me. We have skills — some of us excel at one thing, others of us at another. However, there was no formalized hierarchy as suggested by the prosecution, and William Rodgers was no kingpin or leader of the ELF.
Avalon, like all of us, had his flaws and made mistakes, both personally and politically, in the way he lived his life and how he resisted environmental destruction. Our group attempted to deal with one of these areas — an accusation of sexual misconduct — and I’m sorry to say that we failed, due to not being equipped with the right ideas and strategies. It is all too easy to assuage our guilt about our own shortcomings by attacking others. I think it’s a better idea to focus on what we are doing in this world, rather than criticizing people who are not here to defend themselves. I thought of this often in court when I looked at my family, seeing the pained looks on their faces as they listened to attacks on me. Bill’s family and partner have had to endure a lot of grief in the last two years.
So when I think of Avalon, I don’t believe the hype spewed by aggressive and narrow prosecutors. No, I think of a soft-spoken, caring person who would give you the shirt off his back or carry a snake off the road; an avid, even obsessive recycler; someone who supported indigenous struggles and really got the connection between Earth-based cultures and ecological action. I knew Avalon was involved in the struggle against the Mount Graham telescope, but only after his death did I find out that he and his infoshop, The Catalyst, supported the campaign to protect the San Francisco Peaks (see Earth First! Journal May-June 2005).
When snitch Jacob Ferguson recorded a conversation with me through a wiretap in 2005, I asked him how Avalon was. He lied to me (big shock!) and told me that Avalon was happy and lived in an intentional community in Canada. I remember being really happy for him and hoping to run into him again one day, but for different reasons than why we last saw each other.
Avalon has been gone two years now, and yet it still isn’t real to me. Since I haven’t seen him for years, I can’t really take it all in without getting upset. Yes, one of our own betrayed us, and that action caused the death of my friend. How do I reconcile the truth? I don’t have a good answer except to say that we need to talk about these things and confront death in our movement. We need to grieve for our friends. Most of all, we cannot forget. This is my contribution to never forgetting William Rodgers: radical environmentalist, ELF activist, cave lover and sweet, kind man. I miss you, buddy.
–As printed in the Earth First! Journal, November-December 2007 issue.
Wednesday, December 19th, 2007
Recently, the US Sentencing Commission released changes to sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders (November 10, 2007) and on December 11th, applied them retroactively – a major reform in the way crack offenders have been sentenced since 1986. The gist of this change is that crack offenders sentenced under 201.1 will now receive a 2-point reduction (or, more accurately will be eligible for) to their base offense level under the federal sentencing guidelines. Depending on one’s sentence, this could be a significant reduction – leading to years off many peoples’ sentences. This is a major reform and could result in 19,500 people going home earlier in the next 30 years (currently, the federal prison population is about 200,000). In March 2008, when the change becomes official, over 3,800 people will be eligible for release in 2008 alone. A similar number will be eligible for release in 2009.
This change is only one that needs to happen but it’s a great step toward a more sensible drug policy in the U.S. The new change doesn’t affect the 5 or 10 year mandatory minimum sentences related to crack and it doesn’t affect every crack offender. Each individual will need to petition their federal judge for a sentence reduction and make sure it applies to their specific case. The guideline change unfortunately does not change the 100:1 ratio between powder cocaine and crack cocaine (i.e. in sentencing, 100G of powder is treated the same as 1G of crack). The problem with this ratio is that it treats identical botanical and chemical substances disproportionately when it comes to sentencing. It has been criticized as racist – when you consider 85% of crack offenders are black and that ratio punishes them so much more than powder cocaine offenders. While it’s great to see more reasonable minds slowly prevailing on crack, I cannot help but see the same dynamic happening nationwide with methamphetamine – what I call “the meth/crack heads are going to eat your children” propaganda – just think of the early 90’s film, New Jack City!
I don’t want to downplay the harm done by drug abuse – both from the culture associated with their use and the legal ramifications of their use, plus the destructive role addiction plays in many peoples’ lives. Growing up in a neighborhood with its fair share of crack, I can say I’m no fan. I neither felt safe nor appreciated the dealers with their pitbull guarded yards, antisocial attitudes and ‘stick up kid’ activity. My experience does not lead me to advocate for more punitive sentences for crack offenders. Locking up people and sending them to prison is a much worse alternative than intensive drug treatment for users and addressing the economic realities that underlie so much of the choices people make. The federal prison system has a drug treatment program but I’m not sure if recidivism/drug use rates are studied or even collected (never mind peer review or other less biased sources of evaluation).
I read about an act that recently passed the House of Representatives called The Second Chance Act of 2007 (Senate bill 1060, House bill 1593). The bill has many reform-based provisions dealing with increased half-way house time, more money for re-entry, family drug treatment and provisions that allow elderly prisoners to be released earlier. Please take some time to write or call your senator urging them to vote for this. While I don’t believe in giving up your power to “representatives,” I also live in this world and know there are things we can do now as opposed to waiting for long-term systematic changes which can make changes in peoples’ lives. You can find more information about this bill here and contacts for your senators here.
It’s rare that good news comes out about the state of prisons. The new crack changes are a good first step as are the recent Supreme Court decisions that address the extent of judges’ discretion in sentencing. What we need now is the removal of mandatory minimum sentences and the reinstitution of federal parole.
1) Drug Policy Alliance
2) US Sentencing Commission
3) Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)
4) New York Times article on crack law change
5) The Sentencing Project
6) Prison Legal News
Monday, December 17th, 2007
Visits are really tough – both for the prisoner and for those coming to see their friends, brother, or spouse. I spoke recently to a friend who visited me who told me she was depressed. When I inquired why, she reported that the visit stripped her of the little things she tells herself to make the situation tolerable. This I can relate to, as it’s a coping method I use daily. Somehow, despite the circumstances of the last 2 years, I’ve become pretty optimistic, even hopeful at times. I have a plan on how to do my time, tell myself, “Hey, at least I’m in a low [security prison] – it could be worse,” calculate my good time, figure out when I’m eligible for a half-way house and what I want to do when I get out. These are good things to ponder for sure, but they also insulate – even distract – me from my life. At its core, the situation is pretty simple – I’m in prison, kept far from my family and friends, and cannot control my own life. Visits remind me of these simple facts every time.
Visits are a big deal here, and many people do not receive them. I am certainly one of the lucky ones here. When I got here, I put in a ton of effort into getting visitor forms sent out along with visiting tips, directions, motel and food info and places to visit in Minneapolis/St. Paul. The night before a visit, I’m always nervous, wondering how the visit will go. (Will I be able to find stuff to talk about? Will I remember what I want to tell them?) Sleep doesn’t come easy, but I’m up early in order to eat breakfast. The food available at visits is from vending machines (chips, ice cream, soda) and is all garbage, so I try to at least get a decent meal in. One of the many reminders of my status as a prisoner is that we are only allowed to use the bathroom once and hour – with the guards behind us. Needless to say, I try to time my early meal with my visit so as to limit any embarrassing situations to a minimum!
The first visit with anyone is awkward, at first. I haven’t seen most of my friend for four months, and I was free then, with my street clothes on. Now I come into the room with my prison khakis on, and generally, feel pretty homogenous. I realize that these little things are just that – inconsequential and irrelevant – but it’s difficult nonetheless. They allow us a hug and kiss at the beginning and end of each visit, and aside from your arm around your visitor, that’s it. It’s a reminder to me on every visit how much we all need human contact and how we relate to our friends with hugs, horseplay, and touch. What cracks me up speaking to my friends is how prison distorts my sense of the outside world. It’s another world in here, and I feel out of touch discussing the outside.
Everything in the room is a reminder to both my visitor and me that we are different – that I am an “inmate” and that my behavior needs to be regulated. The funnies part is going to the vending machine. There is a red line on the color about 3 feet from the machine, with signs reminding you every 5 feet. Because we are not allowed to handle money, the line is not to be crossed. Watching my visitors try to figure out the 70’s style coffee machine and burn their hands on the hot cups – while being stuck on the other side of the line – can be frustrating! As I alluded to before, we use a separate bathroom than visitors, and we can only use it once an hour. I say this not to complain, but to show how the little things drive home the message of where I am at every moment. It’s enough to trip away the defense mechanisms I put in place to cope. The visits are great, but, of course, when the clock strikes 3:30pm, you go one way, and your visitors go another. As a last reminder, I’m strip searched before I’m allowed back to my unit.
Overall, visits are great, and I am so lucky to get them. Being 1200 miles from home – it’s a long trek, and I’m appreciative of the effort. It’s great during the visit – sitting with friends, drinking coffee – but the entrance back to my prison life is always so jarring. Some prisoners don’t want visits, as they feel it slows their time down, I’m not sure if this is true for me, but even if it did slow the time down, I wouldn’t give them up for anything.
Friday, December 14th, 2007
Friends and supporters,
We didn’t want December 7th to completely pass everyone by without any acknowledgment. Two years ago (plus a week), Daniel was first taken away from his family, his friends, his home, his job, his school — his life.
Last weekend there were events held all over the country to commemorate the multiple arrests that took place on December 7, 2005.
These events aimed to educate others on the past, present and future. A number of us in NYC spent last Sunday in one of the busiest intersections of Manhattan spreading the word about a troubling new piece of legislation called “The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act”
Please take a few minutes to read all of the extremely important information found here: http://www.supportdaniel.org/act/
We hope to keep adding relevant information to this page over the next few weeks. Please call your senator, spread the word, stop this Act.
Family and Friends of Daniel McGowan
Don’t forget to send letters to Daniel’s non-cooperating co-defendants:
Federal Correctional Institution
37910 N 45th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85086
Joyanna Zacher #36360-086
Federal Correctional Institution
5701 8th St – Camp Parks- Unit F
Dublin, CA 94568
Nathan Block #36359-086
Federal Correctional Institution
3600 Guard Rd.
Lompoc, CA 93436
Friday, December 7th, 2007
If I could, I would wear black today, not because it’s my preferred color (which it is), but because today is a day I mourn. Not in a traditional sense of mourning a person’s death but a day to mourn the end of one part of my life the day I said goodbye to a part of my life no one in my life knew about. Some people order their lives into ‘before September 11’ and ‘after September 11’ — for me, it’s before and after December 7, 2005, the day of my arrest.
Sometime around 4:15 on that day, my past caught up with me in the form of 3 federal agents standing in the entrance of my cubicle at my job. I was not quite sure why they were there but I had a feeling it was going to be bad. Although I sensed nothing that day, I had experienced anxiety in weeks prior about (then) hypothetical matters like “Who would do x if I was gone?” or “Do I really need all the Jeff Luers campaign materials, original master VHS tapes, et cetera ?” I chalked it up to anxiety – the holidays were coming up and I was woefully behind on getting gifts for my family; plus the first semester midterms in my graduate acupuncture program were approaching. The perfunctory “Are you Daniel McGowan?” along with the macho and unnecessary declaration, “You’re going back to Oregon!” snapped me out of my stupor. The office holiday cards were dropped, I was cuffed and led outside into the frigid air without a coat into an unmarked car. It hit me at that point that my life would not be the same. The feeling of my secret past colliding with my present and all I could do was slip into survival mode. My inner voice screamed, “be quiet! Don’t say a word to them! You know people care about you and they will have your back, hire a lawyer and you’ll fight this.” I am grateful to all the lawyers and legal workers who put on legal trainings as it really came in handy then.
Here I am, two years later sitting in federal prison; if all goes well, I’ll be out in about 5 years. When December was approaching, I wondered what this date means to me and how I would feel when it came. Last year, I was insulated from it all as my community held a rally for me at Foley Square in downtown Manhattan, near the FBI headquarters I was brought to and the jail I was housed in for a week. So, Dec 7th is here and it has brought up a number of feelings: frustration, anger, fear, nostalgia, loneliness and hope. I fear that as time goes on, people will move on and focus their attention elsewhere; that by being out of sight in prison, that I’ll be out of mind. I’m scared that people will forget what it is we were (and are) fighting for — that this ‘Green Scare’ is not just about punishing us but about preventing them from advocating for a culture that doesn’t destroy every ecosystem and see our planet as something to profit from. We are here as trophies for the government and symbols to you that scream: “mess with us and our god of private property and we will crush you. Talk about stopping our plans and we will label you a terrorist and when we catch you, we’ll offer some of you reduced sentences for selling your friends out.”
In the absence of information, it’s hard at times to figure out whether or not this strategy the government uses is having an impact or whether it’s backfired (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!). Recently, I read an excellent book by social justice activist, former editor of Onward!, (and someone who I met last year), Dan Berger called Outlaws of America. It focuses on the Weather Underground and their actions against US imperialism in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Dan argues that the WU’s significance is not in the property bombings of US government buildings and corporations — albeit spectacular and daring actions. The significance and legacy to today’s social and ecological resistance movements is the politics and beliefs behind the actions, not the details of the bombings, how each site was chosen or the devices themselves. As I read this, it raised a familiar frustration in me — that no matter how hard I tried, the things people remembered about the ELF wasn’t the rationale behind the actions but were, the rumors mentioned in court, who slept with whom, how much damage the fires did and other trivial matters. There is a problem with the dominant idea of the ELF and our actions as ‘activists who burn things’ or as the government labels us, ‘arsonists’ or ‘terrorists.’
For me, the tactics were not the driving force in my actions but were the means to an end. In fact, the use of fire caused me great anxiety and I felt it was generally used with little strategy as we were trapped in a self-created race to be more “effective.” This led to strategy and ideas taking a back seat to the ‘why,’ which is infinitely more important to any discussion of what we were trying to do. I should say that I speak for myself on this issue and my opinions may not be similar to any of my codefendants – cooperating informants or otherwise. My point then is that similar to the Weather Underground, the significance of the ELF actions was not the arsons, but the beliefs behind them.
I suppose in reflecting on actions I have taken and how they were perceived, it made me think I need to write more about them. If all people took from the actions were the sensational aspects – then we have failed. It is our rationale for engaging in such extreme action that matters, not the tactics. People have asked me about the actions and I’ve been very cautious about saying things for a variety of reasons. One – I don’t want what I say to be taken out of context. I’ve been screwed by the government using an interview I gave to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! as justification for opposing motions for me to stay out on bail longer. Secondly, I have my own perspectives on what went down and I am neither ELF cheerleader nor detractor. I will not be used by others to criticize people who choose the same tactics I chose no matter what my personal opinions may be. Unlike the critics, I know where they are coming from and I can empathize. Nor do I want my words to be used by people whose main goal seems to be to encourage young people to do actions they will support but lack the courage to do themselves. I’ll do my best to avoid these dynamics and instead try to explain the complexities of one’s motivations and where we were coming from, to the extent I can.
December 7th reminds me that this fight is not over. On the legal front, many of us are in prison with long sentences to do plus years of probation and multi-million dollar restitutions. One person is going to trial in early February 2008 in a related ‘Operation Backfire’ case (see supportbriana.org). The government has convened a grand jury in Minneapolis regarding ELF actions and Eric McDavid is facing 5-20 years in prison after losing his September trial. US environmentalist Tre Arrow is fighting extradition from Canada for very similar charges I faced although he has proclaimed his innocence. Jeff ‘Free’ Luers gets re-sentenced soon as well. Please take some time to educate yourself about the cases and extend your solidarity to these people and others. Perhaps more importantly, this government and its corporate friends continue to destroy ecosystems here and abroad in pursuit of unfettered profits. People may be opening their eyes to the perils of global climate change but much effort is needed to fight for real alternatives – not fake ones like bio-fuels, nuclear power, or straight-up “green capitalism.”
*Many of these ideas will be expanded on in a zine I am writing — hopefully out within the next year
Wednesday, December 5th, 2007
Books through Bars (BTB) NYC is an organization that’s main objective is to send free books and reading materials to prisoners all over the country I federal, state, ad local prisons and jails. It is an all-volunteer collective, formerly run out of ABC No Rio in NYC’s Lower East side and no runs a office out of the NYC AIDS Housing Network at 80A Fourth Avenue, between St. Marks & Bergen Streets in Brooklyn. The goal of BTB is to provide quality books to prisoners, many of whom only have access to the Bible and standard mass-market paperbacks (à la Danielle Steele, Stephen King, and James Patterson) if anything at all.
I have friends in BTB and have always been impressed with their dedication to the thankless task they set themselves. The group gets hundreds of requests each moth for books and now has three night each week to send books out. They focus o sending out books on politics, history, social science, and black liberation/history (which is a very common request from prisoners). They don’t fill orders for religious books or mass-market fiction, since these books are the easiest to fid I prison, nor do they send out legal or trade books, as they become dated so easily.
I’ve been to a few “packing nights” at BTB – both when they were at ABC and now at their new space. Often, I’ve gone when I was reminded of the project or when I really wanted to do something concrete, going to a packing night is fun – when you’re done, there is a pile of books packed up, ready to go to prisons all over. You know that, in a week or so, your contribution is helping make someone’s life inside just a little bearable. People pack into the small room/office/library BTB maintains, open letters, and spend time perusing the stacks of books looking for a good match. (BTB encourages requests for genres of books, not specific titles.) You fie one or two books, weigh them, stuff them with some info – such as a National Prisoner Resource List or a zine – and then wrap, seal, and address the package. Because BTB is real grassroots and shoestring – it is funded primarily o donations – and because of the rapid increase in postage, volunteers find books to use up all the available weight for the media mail (or book) rate. I have spent some time trying to find the right combo – just 1 lb or 2 lbs can be a challenging task. The group has a steady stream of regulars, but it is also easy to show up and volunteer.
Prison book programs grew out of the experience of prisoners and prison activists in the late 60’s and 70’s – a time during which prison libraries either didn’t exist or were too sparse and devoid of political content. Prisons had study groups amongst themselves, and there was thriving resistance in US prisons. The books programs were set up to help those on the inside meet their educational needs as they resisted the inane practices of their jailers. Books through Bars NYC is one of several programs that exist in the Us – you can find a list of them here. Last count I did, there were about 15 or so of these projects nationally although, sadly, some of them come and go. BTB-NYC sends books to most states in the US and shares letters with other groups for requests for books in states they don’t send to. For instance, the 12 state prisons of the Oregon prison system present a real challenge to activists sending books in. Orego requests are handled by Books to Oregon Prisoners or Portland Books to Prisoners. Inside books in Austin, Texas only sends to Texas prisoners and Books to Prisoners-NOLA only send to those in Louisiana. Arise! Books in Minneapolis, MN runs a program for female and trans prisoners.
As someone on the inside, I can say with certainty that books and quality reading materials make a huge difference in my day-to-day life. They can distract from the tedium as well as assist in self-managed educational pursuits. Prison libraries are notorious for being narrow and poorly stocked, as well as being devoid of political books and decent classics. By all accounts, this prison has a good collection, compared to what I’ve seen county jail and from what others have told me. Nonetheless, the collection – which consists of seven stacks of fiction, one biography and true crime, one native American, one non-fiction, and a huge amount of GED instruction books – is paltry for a population of over 1,200 men. The prison library doesn’t seem to buy any books, but instead relies on the generosity of prisoners who donate the books they’ve read. County and city jails and immigrant detention centers have horrible libraries due to having smaller budgets and an indifference to/disdain for people who won’t be there long or who come from marginalized communities. However, as many will tell you, people are often held in county jails 1-2 years before trial if they don’t make bail (like 2 of my codefendants) and that weekly trip to the library makes a huge difference. State prisons vary by the institution, but are likely to be worse than federal prisons.
The ideal situation would have organizations set up to cover specific regions of the US or particular states. I can certainly see that there are some states that are missing access to good books . Immigrant prisons are also missing that access, which is complicated by the dearth of non-English books. The good new is that although the projects are autonomous (despite having similar names), there is coordination among prison books programs, which lead to a listserve, which is used to coordinate, and a recent conference.
Check out the National Prison Resource Listing online or via the Prison Book Program, c/o Lucy Parsons Center, 1306 Hancock St., suite 100, Quincy, MA 02169 for a listing of programs. There may be one near you that either needs book donations or volunteers willing to fill requests from prisoners. Any prison book program can use donations of books of stamps, packing tape, envelopes, and markers.
Books Through Bars NYC packs on Mondays 7:30-9:30pm, Thursdays 7:30-9:30pm, and Sundays 5-8pm in the basement of NYCAHN at 80A Fourth Avenue, between St. Marks & Bergen Streets in Brooklyn. Call 212.254.3697 ext. 26 email btb [at] abcnorio.org. BTB’s mailing address is c/o Bluestocking Books, 172 Allen St., New York, NY 10002. They also hold benefits and movie nights from time to time and are always looking for donations.