A New Bogeyman Word
“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—premiering 13 September on POV, and available online beginning on Wednesday—is premised on director Marshall Curry’s extraordinary access to McGowan. The filmmaker 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, not to mention the subjectivity of everyone’s memories. What happened, when and how, begins to look like less a matter of historical record than legal wrangling. Trials and convictions aren’t a means to truth, necessarily, but a way to leave the past behind.
For McGowan, of course, nothing is past: he lives with it every day. More broadly, for the corporate bodies involved, the past is an obstacle to be overcome, to be manipulated. 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.
More pointedly, as If a Tree Falls follows McGowan’s increasingly difficult legal case, it comes to increasingly disheartening conclusions. As language might be used to produce desired effects, to inspire fear or assert interpretations, it’s clear that individuals have little recourse. As the agencies making the cases against McGowan and others deemed “terrorists” are determined to win, sometimes at terrible costs, they lose sight of what words and systems can mean, and how means can undermine ends.