When Property Destruction is Treated the Same as Murder, That Is a Sign of a Truly Sick System

I’ve thought about this issue before, especially when contemplating the fate of Jeff "Free" Luers, who was sentenced at the age of 23 to 22 years and eight months in prison for setting fire to a few SUVs. Given that this kind of sentence is much more severe than most sentences given out for very violent crimes or even certain instances of murder, one would think that all activists and other people who are concerned about guarding our rights against state oppression would be disturbed by this. There can be no question on anyone’s mind that 23 years in prison constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for the burning of a few empty cars, especially when care was even taken to make sure that there was no risk of violence to any human being. When a young adult’s whole life is ruined - when he is sentenced to his whole age in jail – because of a little property destruction, just as if he had committed a murder (or even worse than if he had committed murder), that is one sign of a truly sick system.

This is the sort of legal injustice that even liberals should be up in arms about, not to mention radicals and anarchists. But as it turned out, more often than not, when liberals, radicals, and even certain anarchists were asked to speak up against the injustice committed against Free, or endorse a statement doing the same, they hesitated, refused, or greatly qualified their own statements (watered them down, made them ambiguous, or made a big deal about how much they didn’t like Free’s ideas, tactics, etc.). Too often, activists have to decide on whether they agree with someone’s philosophy or tactics (and/or even feel that it would be safe to be associated with such philosophy or tactics) before they’re willing to speak out against a clear violation of that person’s rights or liberties. Needless to say, that approach is simply not right – and especially not left, one would think.

For a while, Free’s sentence seemed pretty extreme, even for the state of the United States, as a response to eco-sabotage. However, in the current political climate, this situation isn’t even shocking anymore. The state has exploited the greatly increased fear of terrorism during the past few years to vilify militant eco-saboteurs as “terrorists.” Personally, I don’t think that property destruction is terrorism at all, especially when the property being destroyed is directly related to the issue being acted upon. Terrorism involves harm committed to people, usually the destruction of lives, usually the lives of people who have no direct connection to, or influence upon, the issues or injustices that (supposedly) motivated the terrorists. In other words, it involves physical violence committed against innocent human beings. This sort of game, as far as I’m concerned, is very different from the acts of eco-sabotage that our government is choosing to call "terrorism."

In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about these matters again because of the recent FBI raids against, and arrests of, alleged eco-saboteurs that have taken place in a few towns in the U.S. On one occasion, the individual arrested was Daniel McGowan, whom many of us knew during the RNC organizing as "Jamie" or "Jamie Moran." I didn’t really know Jamie, except for a couple of exchanges of e-mail related to an anti-RNC site. However, I heard his name come up quite a few times in the local context, and I knew a few people who worked with him on the RNC protests and other projects, so it was particularly disturbing to me when I read about his arrest and the life sentence that he is being threatened with because of alleged connections to two acts of arson committed four years ago. According to Jed Brandt at NYC Indymedia:

McGowan is under a 16-count indictment related to his alleged involvement in the 2001 Poplar Farms arson, and a separate incident earlier in the same year at the offices of a lumber company. Federal prosecutors are further alleging that he is a member of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a decentralized direct-action movement responsible for over $100 million in damages to urban "sprawl" developments and SUV dealerships. The ELF has made the top of the FBI's list of domestic threats.

McGowan faces mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years each on two major charges, which, if pressed to trial, threaten a life sentence. Stanislas Meyerhoff, 28, was also charged in the tree farm fire and is being held in Virginia. According to the Dept. of Justice, he also faces life in prison. Additional arrests and raids happened in Prescott, Arizona and Springfield Oregon in related cases.

McGowan and Meyerhoff are facing the most severe sentences for non-violent sabotage in United States history.

Now, I should add that there is no reason to assume these charges are correct. As Jed points out, "McGowan totally denies any involvement with arson, and denies membership in the ELF." Personally speaking, I would take Jamie/Daniel’s word on this matter unless and until there is evidence produced at a fair hearing that proves such connections beyond a reasonable doubt. The regular bourgeois laws of our republic demand that consideration – at least in principle - and that’s one feature of our bourgeois laws that I actually like (if only many left radicals, anarchists and the like followed those same principles when problems came up within their own groups – but, of course, the stakes and consequences are always much more serious when we’re dealing with the official legal system and the power of the state.) There is no guarantee, either, that any of these activists will get a fair trial in the present atmosphere – though we should certainly hope that they do, and if they don’t, there should be plenty of demand, within the legal system and out in the streets, that they get a fair trial on appeal.

But getting back to the original point of this post, even if all or any of these activists were proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have committed these alleged acts of eco-sabotage, the sentences being threatened are entirely unjust and obscene. People who are concerned about fairness and justice should not passively accept the "most severe sentences for non-violent sabotage in United States history," if these kinds of sentences are ever actually carried out. It would be an extreme violation of justice for someone to serve life in prison when he did not hurt any people, he did not hurt any animals, and the only living things that he might have damaged were a bunch of genetically engineered trees.

Hopefully, it will never come to this, and most or all of these activists, including Jamie, will be acquitted. If any are convicted of anything, the threatened sentences might not be anything this severe. As "one activist has noted" (per Jed’s article), "minimum and maximum sentences threatened by prosecutors are just a way of 'putting the fear of God' into movements, and as a means of denying bail." (And by the way, per Bombs and Shields and other sources, Jamie was denied bail). It may be that "the actual charges will not be known until the upcoming arraignment in Eugene, Oregon." But if any activists ever face such severe sentences for non-violent eco-sabotage, the entire "social justice community" should object to that, and they should clearly and loudly make those objections known. It doesn’t matter whether people are "red" or "green." whether they’re liberals or revolutionaries; when people are faced with that kind of state oppression, all these differences and divisions should be beside the point.