The Weight of the World: The Charges against Daniel McGowan
by Tim Doody

When I think of Daniel McGowan, one of the first things I usually think about is all the time I spent working with him back in 2004. That was the year the Republicans were coming to New York to exploit the September 11th tragedy for their National Convention. We all wanted to stop the Republicans and to stop the war profiteers and oil executives who filled their campaign coffers. But I think there’s a really good chance that Daniel did more than anyone to amplify our message of dissent.

There’s one day in particular that reminds me of how dedicated Daniel was that summer. I was walking to St. Mark’s Church for a giant meeting of anti-RNC groups. Near the church, I looked half-way down the block and saw Daniel walking towards the same meeting.

Actually, what I’m about to describe is probably a familiar sight that many of you out there have probably also witnessed—if not on this particular street, than on another.

So Daniel was walking along the street, all laden down with several bags and a heavy backpack on his shoulders. He balanced a small folded table under one arm and dragged a two-wheeled cart stacked with boxes behind him. He was carrying so much stuff that his shoulders were stooped, his pace slowed way down. In fact, I’d never seen an activist schlep so much propaganda down the street before in my life, didn’t even know it was possible with only two arms.

Anyway, once I got closer, I saw that the bags that Daniel carried were filled with t-shirts featuring an image of King Kong’s body with George Bush’s head and this monster-like figure was invading the Big Apple; the text advertised a website called RNCNotWelcome, which Daniel had launched to rally everyone against the Republicans. The boxes that Daniel had stacked on the cart were filled with stacks of flyers and stickers, pamphlets and posters and xeroxed lists of where people could find housing in the city during the protests. Daniel was literally surrounded with all this information that, by the time the Convention began, hundreds of thousands of people had accessed.

Daniel turned around and saw me on tat street corner. He said, “Are you just gonna stare or can I get a hand?” He sounded a little annoyed but he was grinning too.

All of the materials that Daniel was carrying on the sidewalk that day, along with his website, helped to launch huge demonstrations, and helped to form long-lasting coalitions and helped to raise money for activist groups, including I-Witness video, who used their video footage to counter the perjured testimony of cops and save innocent people from trumped-up charges. And all of these materials that would lead to so many amazing things were right there, piled up on two wheels and Daniel’s two feet.

I’ll never forget December 8th, 2005, the day that I found out that Daniel was arrested. I was walking along Astor Place and ran into Cory, a friend of Daniel’s who was selling books on the street corner. Cory told me that federal agents raided the office where Daniel works. He told me they were charging Daniel with two arsons and that he faced a sentence of life in prison plus 335 years.

I later learned that Daniel was facing more jail time than anyone in the United States had ever received for a crime of sabotage in which no one was injured.

Since then, Daniel pled guilty to two arsons. One was directed at a timber corporation that logs old growth forests. The other was directed at a facility growing genetically modified trees.

Rather than go to trial, Daniel accepted responsibility for his actions. And he did it in a manner that allowed him to keep his integrity. Instead of turning in his friends, he, along with three other defendants, made a non-cooperation agreement in which they would reveal their own personal histories but not talk about the actions of anyone else. Daniel faced down the threat of a life sentence and still stuck to his principles.

It isn’t just the threat of a life sentence that has made Daniel’s case raise eyebrows across the nation. Since his arrest, spokespeople for the Justice Department have been calling Daniel a terrorist to tarnish his reputation.

But let’s be clear. Daniel is not a terrorist. He isn’t facing any charges of being a terrorist. Terrorists target people—not by harming their property, but by injuring and killing them. Terrorists leverage the fear of civilians in order to paralyze government.

There's no dispute that Daniel and the other people involved in these actions used arson to make a point and to stop particular corporations from continuing activities that were harmful to the environment. There’s no dispute that everyone involved was extremely careful not to harm anyone’s life. And the sentences the government is going to recommend actually show that even they know this is not a terrorism case, because if it was, they wouldn’t have reduced their recommendations from life without parole to as little as three years.

But that hasn’t stopped Justice Department officials from calling Daniel a terrorist—specifically, the word they most commonly use to refer to Daniel and the other defendants is “ecoterrorist.” And they refer to the actions of Daniel and the other defendants as “eco-terrorism.” The New York Times, The Washington Post and the vast majority of print and TV media in this country not only quoted government officials as saying the words “eco-terrorist” and “eco-terrorism” but used these words in their own discourse without any kind of critical examination.

The more I heard the word “eco-terrorism,” the more I wanted to know its etymology: who created this word? when did they create it? and for what purpose?

It turns out that, not surprisingly, a public relations firm created the word “eco-terrorism.” The public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, created the word in the early 1990s. And they created it because they were contracted by timber, mining and oil corporations to run a PR campaign that would marginalize the environmental movement.

Actually, I think the term “eco-terrorism” is being used rather inappropriately. The “terrorist” portion of this word is being applied to people who, as I have already said, never intended to and never did cause anyone physical harm.

And when you slap “eco” onto “terrorism,” the whole thing becomes downright confusing to me. I mean, doesn’t it sound like “eco-terrorism” should refer to the actions of people who are terrorizing the environment? Shouldn’t “eco-terrorists” refer to the people who clearcut old growth forests, who cause widespread asthma in the Bronx, who form front groups to deliberately skew the man-made origins of global warming?

In this day and age, we’re very aware that corporations and their representatives are only too willing to continue business practices that they know are hurting the planet and leading to the deaths and injuries of many. We have only to think of the shift in climate, to think of the 35,000 people in Europe who died during the 2003 record-breaking heat-wave; or to think of the 1,000 people who died in 2005 during the record-breaking floods that submerged Mumbai in less than 24 hours; or to think of Hurricane Katrina and all those relief agencies that did nothing while people of color died and suffered.

I mean, think about all the front groups and corporations who are continuing to make these environmental problems worse. And think about how they fund PR campaigns to deliberately spread disinformation about the causes of the very problems that they’re creating.

This sounds like what “eco-terrorism” should mean to me. These CEOs and industry hacks, these lobbyists and PR people know that they’re destroying the planet and that their actions are hurting and killing people. And yet they do it anyway. These are your real eco-terrorists and the tragedies they cause will only get worse and will be with us for at least several generations.

During July, 2006, a record-breaking heat wave of triple digit temperatures slammed California for a week. 100 people in the agrarian belt died so fast that the morgues had to double stack the bodies. 16, 500 cows dropped over dead in the fields. The heat-wave moved east and 50 U.S. cities reported record-breaking temperatures.

And climate change isn’t just about increased temperatures. I’ve never seen so many intense storms in a row as what we experienced this year on the East Coast. I saw 10 minute storms so severe that the sewer grates of Manhattan overflowed and Dorito wrappers and cigarette butts and shiny oil swirled in the streets. Our septic systems were clearly designed for a past that is gone.

Flooding in the Northeast has increased dramatically. In fact, this past summer, Washington, D.C. got flooded so badly that even the Department of Justice had to shut down. And if that didn’t send a message to them about their priorities, about who the worst criminals are, I’m not sure what will.

Future generations are going to look at us with dropped jaws. They’re going to be angry. They’re going to want to know why it took so long for us to organize to stop the people who have been terrorizing entire civilizations and the life support systems that we need to exist.

There’s a lot of progressive change that needs to happen if we’re going to have the kind of future that we’d be comfortable getting old in. And a lot of people talk about the ideas they have to help make these kinds of changes. But what makes Daniel McGowan special is that he’s got the vision, the dedication and the discipline to turn those words, those ideas, into action.

You know, several months before Daniel’s arrest on December 7th, 2005, he looked out the window of the collective house in Brooklyn where he lived and saw, for the thousandth time, military recruiters walking into the high school across the street. He saw kids, mostly kids of color, being roped into an illegitimate war. He wanted to provide resources to those kids to show them that they had other options besides military service once they got out of high school.

So Daniel started a counter-recruitment campaign that would keep most of its focus in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live, where the military patrols for new recruits, promising a steady job and a bright future. We had our first demonstration at a recruiting station on Flatbush, a few blocks away from that high school that Daniel was watching out his window. Kids hi-fived us, soldiers in camouflage milled about the entrance. Parents took our fliers and said thank you, I’m gonna give this information to my son, I don’t want him dying for Bush.

There were zero recruits that afternoon because we had created a dialogue where there was only the empty promises of a military recruiter before.

I think about that campaign that Daniel started and how, after his arrest, it fell apart. We reached a lot of kids and parents that day on Flatbush Avenue and I wonder how many more we could’ve reached.

Daniel is going to prison. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop working for social and environmental justice. I know that Jeff Luers continues to advocate for change from prison. So does Mumia abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Some of these men and many other men and women have made their greatest contributions to society from behind bars.

I have no doubt that Daniel will join this tradition, that he will continue to organize for social and environmental justice from prison, that far from abandoning his principles or turning inward, he’s going to reach out beyond those bars and organize like he never has before.

Which, if he’s going to keep up with his old track record, means that he’ll probably have to give up sleeping.

In prison, Daniel is going to keep making those connections, between the Iraq war and global warming, between the scourge of asthma attacks in the Bronx and the destruction of old growth forests.

But you know what? He’s going to need our help. He’s going to need people to check in on him, to write him letters and visit him. He’s going to need people to act as his eyes and ears about what’s going on outside of the prison. He’s going to need people to continue working on the campaigns he cared so much about. He’s going to need all of us to keep fighting for social justice, for environmental sanity, so that when he walks back out of those prison doors, just maybe he can walk out into a world that’s better than the one he left behind.

I think of today as being just like that moment two years ago, at the corner of St. Mark’s Church where I saw Daniel all stoop-shouldered and carrying those anti-RNC fliers and pamphlets and t-shirts. Just like that day, the weight of the world is on his shoulders again. And now, more than ever, he’s going to need a helping hand, someone to lighten the load that he must bear.

Like Daniel, Leonard Peltier has been a long-time advocate of both the Earth and her people. After a sham of a trial in the 1970s, he’s been incarcerated for the last three decades. Amnesty International recognizes Peltier as a political prisoner and demands his immediate release. Today, he is making yet another appeal at the federal courthouse over there. I’d like to close with some of his words that he wrote in prison:

Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
But silence is impossible.
Silence screams.
Silence is a message,
just as doing nothing is an act.
Let who you are ring out & resonate
in every word & every deed.