Saturday, October 8, 2011

If a Tree Falls

"If a Tree Falls" is a documentary that looks at a trio associated with the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) who used arson as a political tactic. It starts with background - personal background about Daniel McGowan, one of those ELF members, and situational background as to why people railed against feelings of powerlessness.  The film begins with stomach-turning images of two, thin, all-American-looking, teenage girls involved in the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle getting pepper sprayed in the eyes by the police. During their torture, the girls pleaded: "We are peaceful.  Why are you using violent methods against peaceful people?" A pigtail swings across her face as she squirms in pain.  The film also covers the story of patient environmentalists planning to persuade the legislature to save a majestic, skyscraping redwood.  And shows the turmoil as the bulldozers materialize ahead of schedule to plough down the tree for the purpose of a parking lot for a corporate building. The fast-tracked bulldozers silence any potential feedback and signal disrespect for those who stand for the trees.  Plus, a man who scaled a tree got pepper sprayed in the eyes by authorities while he was still clinging to a branch and stories above the ground.  These images and such stories incite anger.

What did the featured ELF members do?  They burned down three buildings in the Northwest in the late 90s.  They protested deforestation and slaughterhouses with fire.  Yes, they took care to ensure every person had long left the targeted buildings.  So, property, not people, went up in flames. Nevertheless, the destruction became the media focus, and the spectacle of destruction overshadowed their effort to draw attention to environmentally unfriendly industry.  After the third building, they reassessed their tactics, recognizing that they were scaring people rather than encouraging environmental responsibility.  They scattered and ended their affiliations with the group.

Skip ahead six years or so.  A breakthrough in the arson cases happens when a person who was tangentially involved with the ELF gets arrested and makes a deal by selling out his former friends.  He wears a wire, tapes confessions, and gathers evidence to stay out of prison.

The film, then, follows Daniel McGowan, one of the busted ELF activists, as he waits for sentencing.  He appears on screen as a multi-dimensional human being with a family and a fiance. CONTEXT.  During the documentary, we see Daniel as a teen, playing sports and spending time with his police-officer father.  Daniel moving away from New York.  Daniel appreciating the redwoods.  Daniel missing his family in New York and wanting to return there in search of greater stability.  Daniel feeling remorse.  The film humanizes McGowan without condoning the arsons.

The film offers balance by sharing multiple perspectives.  The filmmaker interviews the prosecutor who, instead of being a conviction-seeking, jail-pushing persecutor, comes across as concerned about McGowan. He admits that he originally expected the arsonists to all be monsters.  An FBI agent shares his excitement over the break in the case and pride in his work. A mill owner revisits his shock in seeing his business in ash and complains of the job loss related to the arson.  He regards the mill as part of his family heritage and future.

I went to a Positive Force book discussion a few weeks before seeing the movie.  We talked about the book "Green is the New Red."  The author Will Potter came.  Just like "If a Tree Falls," that book questions the government branding environmentalists as "terrorists."  Do crimes against property in which no one is killed or injured constitute acts of terrorism?  The government is categorizing people who destroy property as terrorists.   People in the discussion group divided over McGowan, though. McGowan had disassociated himself from ELF by the time of his arrest.  Any criminal activity on his part was a relic of his past.  Unlike anti-abortion activists, he never intended to hurt a single person. Why are environmentalists who only damage property categorized as terrorists while violent activists from the religious right evade such a label?  Well, burning buildings scare people.  Fire has always intimidated people, because it can get out of control.  Plus, on some gut level, a fire outside of a fireplace or campsite is threatening.  So, some people in my book group sympathized with McGowan's desire to preserve the environment, but felt that his tactics ultimately helped to portray environmentalists as radical, fringe nuts.  

Being regarded as a terrorist subjects a person to increases in potential jail sentences to be served in higher-security prisons.  Mr. McGowan was arrested in New York and sentenced to seven years at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill.; in February of this year he was moved to a similar prison in Terre Haute, Ind.  He was facing life in prison and the prosecutor's plea deal sheltered him from living longer behind bars.  Still, as a "terrorist," he landed in super-maximum-security prisons.  

The government must not erratically brand activists as "terrorists."  The government must analyze the content of a person's actions and his/her dangerousness before demonizing that person.  

Personalizing, I'll admit fire scares me.  Recently, a huge fire ravaged Bastrop, Texas and threatened to char parts of the gorgeous landscape around Austin.  I lived in Austin a long time ago and I still have friends there.  They panicked as dry grass and high winds stoked the flames.  I worried about them and their homes. 

Nevertheless, we cannot legislate based on fear.  The ELF arsonists made mistakes, which they admit.  Their cause and their motivation, preserving American treasures such as centuries-old trees, is noble.  In my opinion, their tactics weren't. 

I saw "When a Tree Falls" at E Street Cinema in August and meant to write something about it then. I'm now writing off of old memories.  My friend Rachel from Boston was there and, as a photographer, commented on the power of the images in the film.  Lush landscapes.  Enclosed spaces.  I highly recommend this film, which has now aired on PBS.