Ashes Round the Yard
Editor’s note: Better This World‘s 20 June screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be followed by a Q&A with directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega and film subject Brad Crowder. The film premieres on PBS’ POV series on 6 September. If a Tree Falls will open in theaters 22 June and premiere on POV on 13 September. The 20 June screening at the HRWFF includes a Q&A with Marshall Curry.
“It’s hideous to be called a terrorist,” says Daniel McGowan. “But here I am, facing life, plus 335 years.” Sitting in his kitchen with a lowjack on his ankle and awaiting trial in 2006, McGowan looks back on the events that brought him to this place. As he explains in If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, he’s never considered himself a terrorist, though of course he’s seen the reports on television and in newspapers concerning his work with the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF). “People need to question this new buzzword,” he suggests, “It’s a new bogeyman word.”
It’s a word that conjures fear in people’s minds and sensationalized in media representations. It’s also a word that holds weight in legal proceedings, leading to longer sentences, to be served in particular locations designed to limit communications with the outside world, including loved ones. And since 9/11, the word has been applied to any number of people engaged in a range of activities, from committing actual crimes to coming up with very bad ideas.
If a Tree Falls is one of a couple of films screening at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York that are looking at the complex processes and costs of using the word “terrorism” in U.S. prosecutions. The other is Better This World, focused on the cases of Brad Crowley and David McKay, young activists from Midland, Texas arrested at the Republican National Convention in 2008. At the time, that is, “since 9/11,” says FBI Assistant Special Agent Tim Gossfeld, domestic terrorism had become a specific target for the agency: “That is what we need to focus all our resources on,” he asserts, “to the best of our ability.” To prepare for the RNC, the agency had sent out requests to all local law enforcement organizations for information on potential terrorists headed to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Among those flagged were McKay and Cowley, and Brandon Darby. Hailing from a politically conservative small town, McKay and Crowley were new to protesting when they first met Darby, whom they came to see as a mentor. A co-founder of Common Ground, an organization dedicated initially to helping Katrina survivors, he and his coworkers on that project. he says, were “gutting homes and tarping roofs,” as well as confronted daily with suffering left unattended by government agencies. The abuses bothered him, he says: “My question is, why do we as people allow things like this to continue?” Moreover, he asks, “Why does Homeland Security feel so threatened by our social justice movement? I’d like to know that. Why is Homeland Security harassing aid workers in New Orleans?”
As the film submits, Darby’s own commitment to social justice takes a series of changing shapes, including conversations with wannabe protestors in Austin, Texas. As he reports, he encouraged newbies like Crowley and McKay to take action: “I told them I wasn’t there to fuck around,” he writes in a journal (narrated for the film). “I stated that they all looked like they ate too much tofu and they should eat beef so that they put on muscle mass.” The instruction sounds superficial, but, as Crowley and McKay remember, they were inspired by Darby’s devotion and passion. “We are willing,” Crowley says they assured Darby, “We are honestly willing to do things for people that are going to help.”
In fact, as the film puts together the pieces of Crowley and McKay’s stories, they weren’t always quite aware of what was going on around them. In Minnesota, they shop for Molotov cocktail makings at a Walmart (and appear shopping on surveillance tape), and put together eight of them. They never come close to using them; as they tell it, they never had an intention to do so. Instead, their rooms are raided and they’re arrested, and the FBI has averted another terrorist plot, specifically, as Special Agent Christopher Langert puts it, stopping two men who “were going to try to block delegates, cause destruction and other felony criminal activity.”
And yet, as Better This World shows, McKay and Crowley don’t see themselves as terrorists, and were not, in 2008, planning terrorist activities. As the case unfolds, filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega construct the film as an investigation—one that is soon as focused on what the FBI is doing as what McKay and Crowley might have done. The film cuts between federal documents, suspects’ text messages, phone calls, and footage at the RNC, all raising questions about who knew what and when.
The filmmakers also spend time with the young men’s families and girlfriends, who express predictable upset and shock at what’s happening: David’s father, Michel, sums up: I don’t know if the FBI and Homeland Security since 9/11, they all went berserk and crazy, but everything about this case stinks.” Their outrage only expands when they must confront the government’s cases against McKay and Crowley, the efforts to turn their testimonies against each other, the manipulations of sentences and possible plea deals in order to make sure that the government’s own work is justified.
If a Tree Falls
A remarkably similar story evolves in If a Tree Falls. Director Marshall Curry has even more extraordinary access to McGowan, as he comes to the case early, namely, when McGowan is arrested while working at Curry’s wife’s office. After meeting with McGowan, Curry narrates, he decides to investigate. And so the film offers not only McGowan’s personal history with the ELF (his move from New York City to Oregon, his participation in a series of actions, including arsons carefully designed to damage property and stop environmental abuses), as well as a look at the ELF’s evolution. This includes interviews with members and considerations of tactics and goals.
One interview subject, Tim Lewis, a filmmaker and activist in Eugene, is especially helpful in sorting out how the ELF understood and sometimes misunderstood itself, how public responses to the actions changed from to fear to support to revulsion, in large part because of representations in the media of violent police measures against protestors. His stories are compelling, no doubt, illustrated by TV news footage, including Forest Service employees arresting protestors who have camped out to protect a forest, and a dramatic 2007 video of authorities cutting down a heritage tree in downtown Eugene—a video that went viral. The effect is what you’d imagine: the authorities look like bullies and the ELF members are finding ways to challenge them, if not exactly stop them.
As McGowan and his fellow activists (including a former girlfriend, Suzanne Savoie) recall their own actions, the film shows black and white animated sequences resembling schematics. These suggest both the secretiveness of the schemes and the murkiness of their ends, for while some companies were surely thwarted, the industries in question—in particular, in Oregon, logging—persist and thrive. While the FBI and police put together an elaborate investigation (“Why they weren’t caught sooner?” asks Greg Harvey of the Eugene PD, “They were really good at what they did”), the activists are also re-framed by media, as “ecoterrorists.” are accused to using violence to stop what they see as violence against the environment.
As If a Tree Falls reveals, all of the activists have multiple and complicated reasons for what they do and their thinking evolves even as the ELF organization falls apart (Savoie notes, “It’s a sad thing about a lot of social movements, but especially ours, we sometimes are extremely critical of each other, and that was definitely part of our downfall as a movement”). Even one of the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall laments near the end of his work in the case against McGowan, that “I know now that the world is not black and white, it’s not that simple.” Lewis points out that big oil companies might cause big oil spills, “But you don’t see the FBI raiding executives’ homes.” Instead, they pay a fine and head off toward another contract.
As both If a Tree Falls and Better This World follow the intricate legal cases, they come to dishearteningly similar conclusions concerning what McKay calls “the injustice of the justice system.” As the agencies making the cases are determined to win, sometimes at terrible costs, they lose sight of what words and systems can mean, and how means can undermine ends.
Better This World
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front