The Rise and Fall of America’s Environmentalist Underground

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The Rise and Fall of America’s Environmentalist Underground

With Ferguson now their main suspect, investigators sought evidence linking him to Romania. For the next six months, Harvey, still in his Jesus-wig disguise, followed Ferguson constantly, up to 14 hours a day. Ferreira and Engdall brought Ferguson in for questioning and presented him with evidence that he had perjured himself when speaking to federal investigators — he’d claimed not to know Overaker — which carried a five-year penalty. According to Harvey, they also bluffed, hinting they had enough evidence to charge him for arson and send him to prison for a long time. Still, Ferguson resisted. The investigators knew that Ferguson had a son born during the Warner Creek occupation, and they knew that his father had spent time in prison when Ferguson was a child. Did he really want his own son to grow up without a dad?

In 2004, Ferguson made a plea deal: little to no jail time in exchange for full cooperation. The government also agreed to pay for heroin-addiction treatment. At the time, investigators still didn’t know the extent of Ferguson’s involvement in the ELF. When Ferguson told them he had participated in over a dozen arsons, they were stunned. (The Romania S.U.V. arson, in fact, was one of the few in which Ferguson played no role.) Investigators were surprised again when Ferguson started naming his associates, most of whom they had never heard of. Harvey assumed Ferguson’s colleagues would be like him — in a word, “punks” — not college-educated people with jobs.

After Ferguson came on board, the F.B.I. designated the ELF investigation a major case, branding it Operation Backfire, freeing up more money and resources. Dozens of agents were soon working the case, with President Bush said to be receiving regular briefings on their progress. Ferguson also reluctantly agreed to wear a wire, and the agency started flying him around the country, arranging for him to bump into his former ELF colleagues, most of whom had moved away. Ferguson soon showed up in Portland, where Chelsea Gerlach worked as a D.J., and a college in Virginia, where Stan Meyerhoff was taking engineering classes. The one person who Ferguson refused to tape, at first, was Kevin Tubbs. It would be, he told investigators, like betraying a sibling. Harvey and Ferreira tried to assure Ferguson he was doing the right thing. They also reminded him he’d only received immunity in exchange for full cooperation.

The arrests happened in two main waves, the first in December 2005, the second a month later. In total, 19 Elves were charged in connection with 20 incidents, causing over $40 million in damage. In the indictments, prosecutors referred to the group ominously as “The Family,” a name, with its mobbish and Mansonian connotations, that was seldom, if ever, used by the ELF. The F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller, announced the arrests at a televised news conference. “Terrorism is terrorism,” Mueller said, “no matter what the motive.”

The backlash against environmental sabotage, meanwhile, was continuing to intensify. In 2006, the House of Representatives passed a bill that meant environmental activists could spend up to 20 years in prison for property destruction, based on language provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a group known for drafting laws with the input of major industries and lobbying for them in Congress. Later that year, a version of the bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. By 2007, 30 state legislatures had passed statutes specifically addressing eco-terrorism, many also drafted by ALEC. Republicans used the attacks to scold and chasten mainstream environmentalists.

At his sentencing in 2007, Tubbs began by apologizing for his role in the fires. He had come to realize, he told the court, that arson was both reckless and politically ineffective. But, Tubbs continued, the ELF was born of desperation. Mass extinction, deforestation, eroding soils and melting ice shelves — climate change, he said, would soon bring with it an Old Testament plague of droughts and floods. The actions he had taken, Tubbs acknowledged, were wrong, but they were also a reprieve from overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, despair and cynicism. More than that, though, the fires, he said, were lit to raise an alarm about the state of the world.

“It’s as if the ecological destruction and the cataclysmic events that follow it are a huge train bearing down on us, and we are asleep on the tracks,” Tubbs said, in tears. “I was just trying to do my part to help wake us up.”

Source: New York Times

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