ACTIVISTS FACE HARD TIME // free radical #17
Jeff "Free" Luers is sentenced to 23 years for arson, as the clampdown against activists in the U.S. continues
FREE RADICAL: chronicle of the new unrest
by L.A. KAUFFMAN
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HARD TIME . . . . . . . . . . .#17 (June 2001)
The clampdown continues: On June 11, Jeff Luers,
a 22-year-old radical environmentalist who goes
by the activist name Free, was sentenced to a
jaw-dropping 22 years and 8 months in prison for
two arson incidents in Eugene, Oregon. His
co-defendant, Craig "Critter" Marshall, is serving
5 ½ years, after having accepted an earlier
plea-bargain in the case.
"It just tore a piece of me out," said my friend B.,
who spent many days and nights in a treesit with
Free, 200 feet above the ground in a stand of
ancient Douglas firs about 25 miles east of Eugene,
as part of an ongoing campaign to prevent logging
in the Fall Creek watershed. "This guy is like a
gift to humanity - I mean it, full on, a gift to this
world - and this is what they do to him: he's
To the authorities - and much of the general
public, no doubt - Free is an eco-terrorist, pure
and simple. Before his sentencing, the young
activist admitted lighting a June 2000 blaze at
Eugene's Romania Chevrolet dealership, which
destroyed three pickup trucks, causing $40,000
in damage. (Most of his sentence - 15 years, with
no possibility of parole - is for this incident.) Free
was also convicted of attempting to ignite an
empty gasoline tanker at Tyree Oil Company in
May 2000, which he denies.
"I want to make clear why I set a fire at Romania
Chevrolet," Free told the court. "I didn't do this
for anarchy or because I'm anti-government. And
I didn't do this because I enjoy property destruction.
I don't. I did this because I'm frustrated that we are
doing irreversible damage to our planet, our home..
I'm not going to justify my actions. I can't do that
any more than one can justify the destruction of the
environment for profit. They are both wrong. I take
responsibility for what I've done."
Jeff Luers was 19 when he hopped a freight train
to Eugene from Los Angeles in the spring of 1998.
He was already interested in environmental issues,
having worked as a canvasser for Greenpeace.
But raising money door-to-door didn't satisfy his
growing political passion. Once in Oregon, he
quickly volunteered to be the first treesitter for
the nascent Fall Creek campaign.
Living high in the ancient forest canopy transformed
him - and a great many other activists, perhaps
several hundred in all, who spent time in Fall Creek
over the ensuing years, supporting a treesit village
that came to be called Red Cloud Thunder
( http://www.efn.org/~redcloud/). The media cliché
of "Eugene anarchists" misses one of the most
important radicalizing influences on the area's
activist scene: the forest encampment 25 miles
outside of town.
"Fall Creek was a turning point for the movement
in a lot of ways, and Free helped make it that way,"
says B. "There was a new generation of punks and
anarchists coming into the woods, a lot of young
blood, and a lot of city activists, getting out of the
city into the woods, making those connections, and
bringing a really anarchist perspective to the
Explains Warcry, a New York activist who
befriended Free at Fall Creek, "Coming from
urban places, you see this phenomenal natural
beauty - a majestic, primeval world of old-growth
- and a kind of entrancing, eye-opening relationship
takes place between you and that natural wonder.
You realize, without too much rhetoric, exactly
why you're there and what you're defending and
what you're protecting, and you start to identify
I arrived in Fall Creek on Free's 38th day in the
trees, in May 1998. I was deeply involved at the
time in the direct-action fight to preserve New
York City's community gardens; we were
borrowing tactics from Earth First! forest
blockades, and I was visiting Oregon to check
out some backwoods actions firsthand.
There were seven people in the camp at that point:
three in the trees, three on the ground, and to my
surprise and delight, B., shuttling back and forth.
He tried to convince me to climb up and see the
elaborate platforms that Free and the other sitters
had built, but I was too chicken. Instead, I watched
with amusement as they winched up an old exercise
bike - apparently, one's legs get all rubbery up
there from disuse - and then with trepidation as
they strung traverse lines from tree to tree.
I wouldn't have actually met Free at all were it
not for the appalling personal hygiene of the camp
cook, who never washed his hands and
consequently gave everyone who ate one
particular dinner (I didn't touch it) a nasty case of
food poisoning. Free was so sick, the poor guy,
that he felt compelled to come down for a short
time from his tree. In my brief and haunting
memory of him, he's quiet and very pale - exactly
how the Portland newspaper described his
demeanor when he was convicted.
"When these kids are reacting [to environmental
destruction] with sabotage or whatever," says
Warcry, "it seems like, oh, they're crazy, they're
vandals. But there's no context about why they
feel as deeply as they do, what they see
disappearing, what they see threatened. They
know their future is fucked, they realize that, and
they may not always have an in-depth economic
analysis, but they know that they're not the ones
in control and they're reacting to it with whatever
targets there are available."
The disparity between the scale of Free's crime
and the length of his sentence has left his friends
and supporters stunned and outraged. "I think it's
pretty obvious that, yeah, he fucked up, but he
doesn't deserve to be robbed of his entire life,"
says Warcry. "Maybe [what he did] is criminal
mischief or vandalism or something, and he
should be accountable for that, but I hardly think
23 years is a sane way to hold him accountable."
It seems clear, though, that Free is being held
accountable for something well beyond those
three pickup trucks he destroyed. Particularly
over the last year (when Free was, it should be
noted, in jail awaiting trial), there has been a
steady escalation in ecological arson in the
United States. Most recently, on May 21,
underground cells of the Earth Liberation Front
(ELF) burned down a tree farm in Oregon and
a horticultural center at the University of
Washington that were engaged in genetic
engineering research; the combined damage
estimates topped $5 million. A week later,
ELF pointedly published a manual on its website,
"Setting Fires With Electrical Timers," that
promises "down-to-earth advice and
comprehensive how-tos about devices, fuel
requirements, timers, security and more."
"The intent with [Free's] sentence was definitely
to set an example to deter other actions, but
I don't really think that it's going to have a big
effect on the continuation of acts of economic
sabotage," says Gumby Cascadia of the Free &
Critter Legal Defense Committee in Eugene. "I
think that what it does is it makes people
understand the deadly seriousness of choosing
to do that kind of action, and it may weed out
the people who think it's a game from those
who are really serious."
Prosecutorial overkill is becoming more common
for much milder actions, too; the stakes are getting
Two Denver activists, Doug Bohm and David
Martin, were recently jailed after refusing to
answer a grand jury's questions about some
vandalism that took place at a Kohl's store
during an anti-sweatshop demonstration last
December, when four people dressed in Santa
suits damaged thousands of dollars of clothing
with spraypaint. The two men may serve as much
as six months unless they testify.
In Northern California, a 19-year-old Earth
First!er, David Wehrer, is facing eight counts of
felony child endangerment and eight misdemeanor
charges of contributing to the delinquency of a
minor for taking eight students, aged 15 to 17,
to a backwoods protest against Pacific Lumber
Company, where they were arrested for trespassing.
Twenty-six activists were sentenced to six-month
federal prison terms in May for trespassing at
the U.S. Army's notorious School of the Americas
during a nonviolent civil disobedience protest
organized last year by SOA Watch. ( http://soaw.org)
And of course there's the famous case of the
Vieques Four - the Rev. Al Sharpton, Bronx
Democratic Party chair Roberto Ramirez, and
New York City politicians Adolfo Carrion and
Jose Rivera - who (along with many less famous
protesters) are doing 40 to 90 days in federal
prison for trespassing nonviolently on the Navy's
Puerto Rican bombing range.
Free plans to appeal his case, while Critter hopes
to qualify for a boot camp that could reduce his
sentence to two years. "A lot of us are in shock,
we're at a loss, because it's such a harsh
sentence," says Warcry, "but we're also trying
to gather ourselves and strategize."
Free and Critter very much welcome
correspondence and reading material. Letters must
be typed or written in either ballpoint pen or pencil
(not felt-tip marker, who knows why). Writers must
include their name and return address on both the
envelope and the letter. No photocopies of
copyrighted material allowed. Books
must be sent directly from the publisher or from
Amazon.com - contact Gumby Cascadia at
email@example.com for details.
For the time being, letters can be sent to them
c/o The Free & Critter Legal Defense Committee,
P.O. Box 50263, Eugene, OR 97405.
The Defense Committee is requesting donations to
appeal Free's case, and to stock the two activists'
commissary funds, their only means of access to
writing paper, envelopes, fresh fruit, and other
key items (at inflated prison prices). Make checks
or money orders payable to FCLDF.
The Defense Committee web site is
FREE RADICAL: chronicle of the new unrest
is a column on the current upsurge in activism,
written by L.A. Kauffman ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
It appears about once a month.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
L.A. Kauffman ( email@example.com) is perhaps
the first person in U.S. history to be arrested
for allegedly committing a crime by fax machine.
(The Manhattan D.A. declined to prosecute.)
She is currently writing DIRECT ACTION:
THE ROOTS OF THE NEW UNREST,
a history of U.S. activism since 1970.
A longtime radical journalist and activist,
she was a principal organizer of the direct-action
campaign that saved 115 New York City
community gardens from development in 1999.
Kauffman is a frequent speaker on protest
movements past and present, and her writing
has appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation,
The Progressive, Spin, Mother Jones,
and numerous other publications.
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