Q&A with Tre Arrow on His One-Year Anniversary
June 8, 2010, marks the one-year anniversary of Tre Arrow's return to Portland.
A year ago (June 8, 2009) Tre Arrow greeted a small group of well-wishers at PDX's Arrival terminal, climbed onto a tandem bicycle and merged into a sunny Portland afternoon. He wasn't home free, but--after two years as a fugitive and five and a half years of incarceration--he was home.
If you had been at Arrivals that day, you may not have recognized the biblically long-haired man with the slightly stern blue eyes. After all, it's been eight years. You may not have remembered the trebly voice that is somewhat out-of-sync with his more baritone-ish musculature--or even the tightly wound laugh that sometimes goes on just a bit long.
You may not have recognized Tre, until you looked down. Tre was characteristically bare foot. It's this podiatrical peculiarity that is Tre's most attributable feature.
Symbolically speaking, his feet are as busy as PDX traffic. They represent both an appreciation of a sacred earth and penance for it. They're are at once child-like--even Hobbit-esque--but also an explicit affront to social and even financial pretensions. They're an idealistic indulgence and yet a practice of asceticism. They're a lesson in the practicability of a return to a pre-industrial, neo-pagan more nature-centered state of mind (whew, let me catch my breath) while also, more practically speaking, a snubbing of OSHA regulations.
You never quite know the exact meaning of Tre's bare feet--declaration of peace or social affront?--but the one thing they clearly are is so nakedly conscientious that they're extreme.
Bicycling out of PDX's concrete canyon that day--barefoot--Tre, the consummate bicycle proponent, was surely cringing at the complex's automobile-centricity but he also might have been feeling its . . . well . . . scalability.
After all, this is a man who spent a David Blaine-ish 11 days living on a 9-inch ledge.
Yes, back to the now legendary Ledge Incident.
In 2000 Tre captured the moral imagination of the country with a athletic display of resolve--11 days is a long time--and now like a childhood tv star who can never escape that early sitcom success, Tre is forever bound in the public mind with the Ledge Incident.
Controversy over a Mount Hood timber sale called Eagle Creek Timber Harvest had pitted the loggers against environmentalists. The heat of the "timber wars" could still be felt as protesters gathered under the office windows of the U.S. Forest Service in downtown Portland. It seemed the day would follow the usual script until a young man unexpectedly climbed 35 feet up Robert Duncan Plaza's red brick wall and into the national attention.
Later, Tre would describe his climb as spontaneous and--more oddly to me--as obvious to him. It seemed a given that somebody should climb up to the ledge. He even waited for someone else to do it first.
Even more than his run for Congress in 2000--in which he gained a Ralph Nader-ish 6% of the vote--it is the Ledge Incident that defines Tre Arrow's public persona. It is that image of the physically embrazening, hands-over-head champion that helped reverse the Eagle Creek harvest. Tre's ex-wrestler's physique was, well, frankly sexy, and the ever-present danger of his potential 35-ft fall mesmerizing.
Two years later, Rolling Stone Magazine, hearkening back to the Ledge, would call Tre an "environmental rock star."
To the PSU students and activists on the ground, that display of sheer tenacity and Tre's physicality must have seemed a concretization of their own inner feelings and also would have supplied them with their moral champion.
And the flower Tre wore in his hair during his descent held enough 60's countercultural symbolism to draw in the aging hippie community as well.
Tre would make many public appearances and give campus speeches, he would be cut from a Hemlock and fall 60 feet, he would spend three weeks in the hospital recovering from a hunger strike, but it is the Ledge that most people remember.
That and the arsons.
The next time Tre Arrow appeared in the national media it was as a fugitive on tv's "America's Most Wanted."
In 2002, the FBI was calling him an arsonist. In a written communique read by another of Portland's well known eco-radicals, Craig Rosebraugh, the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) took responsibility for $200K worth of damages to Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co. cement trucks. A second arson a month later on Estacada's Schoppert Logging ($60K) would not have a communique, but would have the same suspects. With the eventual arrest of three other conspirators in those crimes, it now seemed that Tre's charisma--which had helped to win the Battle of Eagle Creek--was now a legal liability.
One of the accused was calling Tre the mastermind. Court documents called him a "leader and instigator." The court of public opinion was even less restrained.
The Willamette Week ran an article (Grooming An ELF 11.26.03) calling Tre a "pied piper" of local youth and drew comparisons between Tre and Al Quada.
Tre's charges included not just criminality, but increasingly he became known as a "terrorist." The term only slightly qualified with an "eco-" prefix.
And that's when he went on the run, fleeing to Canada as a fugitive.
Only a year into his return and only 6 mos since he left the halfway house, it's still too early to tell what Tre will become to the public in the coming years. Will he again rise to the level of legitimate environmental leader? Or will he become Portland's answer to Berkeley's Wavy Gravy--a colorful but harmless bit of local personality who livens up local events and occasionally appears in tire commercials? Or will he disappear from the public eye entirely? Whatever the case, the "eco-terrorist" rap does seem to be softening with age.
Though Tre's message hasn't changed in a decade, he and the world around him have.
The country is no longer in the grip of that conceptual framing device of the "War on Terror." Bush--our self-titled "War President"--is not only out of the White House but is in disrepute. Not only by opponents but by one-time supporters. And the new guy is--get this--a "community organizer."
The word "terrorist" isn't quite what is used to be in the days following 9/11. Obama has avoided words like "terrorist" and "violent extremism." And the press has taken cues.
Time has also mainstreamed a lot of Tre's anti-corporate sentiments. The belief that something is awry in the boardroom is pretty much the norm now, thanks to a series of financial crises--see: "Financial Crisis of 2007" and "Enron Scandal of 2001."
Tre's "militantly radical" rep is further softened by the fact that one of his most fanatical ideological tenants--pedal power--is shared by our current Mayor.
The ELF is not what is used to be either. Back in early '00's, the ELF seemed to be gaining momentum with ever bigger attacks, culminating in a $50-million arson at a condo construction site in 2003 in San Diego. The FBI was calling the ELF the "no. 1 domestic terrorist organization" back then, and in 2005, we first learned of something called "Operation Backfire" when they and the ATF rounded up eleven people--all with ties to Portland--and charged them with over 65 acts of what was loosely called "eco-terrorism." TV's 60 Minutes took note and ran a story.
Today, news of the ELF is infrequent and damages local in scale. For a while the ELF website was in such disarray that it had become little more than a vehicle for Viagra ads.
Tre himself has changed since the Ledge Days too. The one-time youthful face of Portland's radical politics is now a thirty-something. Even Tre's severe vegan diet could not keep him from becoming a bit more stout and creased. While he plans to continue speaking on college campuses, he will have to contend with a widening age gap between himself and the students he speaks to.
May 8, 2010, I arrive late in the morning to Tyron Life Community Farm (TLC) in SW Portland to interview Tre. I actually passed him on the way in. Me in my car and Tre on his mountain bike pulling a kids trailer that he uses to carry food. The hand-me-down condition of his bike and trailer reveals a kind of financial vulnerability.
I wait for him at a turn-out that TLC shares with Tryon Creek State Park. He's affectionate. He's sweating from the ride but hugs me openly. And, yes, he does ride barefoot. Not only that, but his bike pedals have round cleats. I'm reminded of an anhedonistic Sadhu holy man.
We talk briefly. Tre has committed himself to helping build a stage for TLC's "Bloom" celebration. He's already late. We will talk later.
This is one of the first things I learn: Tre's comfortably at odds with the media. It's nothing personal, but his priority is with his volunteer work, not the interview. In fact, I never will get a full interview from him.
In the parking lot, there is a socially awkward confluence of two distinct groups: Nike-billed, hyper-fit trail runners from nearby Lake Oswego and the TLC "Bloom" volunteers garbed in a what can be called "Woodstock" circa 1969. It's awkward because the two groups share many of the same beliefs--a love of the outdoors, a strong commitment to their health and the health of the planet--but look so dissimilar.
TLC is the kind of place that you would expect to find Tre. It's a former single-family acreage that has been retrofitted into a communal demonstration farm. Cob buildings with corrugated roofs have been built around the more conventional main house. The outhouse posts a sign asking that, if you feel comfortable, please just pee outside in the woods.
A rope swing hangs from a steel cable strung between trees. The height of the cable is a reminder of local climbing talent--a necessary skill for waging tree-sits. As is the cargo net and tie-dye flag hanging 100 feet up a hemlock. In giving me a tour, Tre will tell me that he sometimes spends the night in the cargo net.
Stretching downhill from the clearing where the stage is set are acres of farmland that sort of nebulously flows from crop to crop without customary visual cue of rows. It's here in the field that Tre will finally--late in evening--consent to an interview.
He cautions me. "Watch where you step. I don't know what's growing here." We both sit in the grass next to a jerry-rigged water heater. Up the hill, the Bloom celebration is in full swing. Mic'd accoustic guitars and chorus echo. After waiting most of the day to talk with him, the first thing Tre tells me is that he doesn't have much time. He's very busy. It's a refain I will hear repeated over the coming weeks on my answering machine.
I ask Tre a general question about what he's been doing the last year. He wants me to know that he's only really been free for 6 months.
T: "I was only officially released December 4, because the halfway house is still under the Bureau of Prisons . . . it was still way better than being in prison, but I was restricted and kept under the thumb of the government. Every little thing I wanted to do I had to write down in order to get permission to leave. Even to go look for work, it had to be approved. So, it's still relatively recent--within the last five months--that I've been able to taste a little freedom.
"And so I was somewhat limited in what I could do those first 6 mos. I was living in the halfway house and I was looking for work.
"Essentially what they want you to do is be a wheel in the cog in this machine of consumerism and so they pretty much--the halfway house that is--only want you to leave for work and when you find work, they want you to leave only to go to work. And they make it difficult to do anything else.
"I put in request to go to a wedding and they wouldn't even let me do that.
"I put a request to go into a spiritual healing type of conference, that I think was at the First Unitarian Church in Southwest Portland, and they denied that. So it's pretty stressful, having this pseudo-freedom but still having to answer to this management.
"I was very very limited in what I could do and who I could see. During the last two and a half months of the incarceration--which was the end of Sept to the beginning of Dec--I was able to live in a residence. They had to do background checks on the people I was living with. They had to go to the house and inspect it and approve it. And even then I pretty much was allowed to leave only to go to work.
"I was working at Blossoming Lotus, a vegan organic restaurant on NE 15th and Broadway.
G: "Is that where you're working now?"
T: "Yeah, I'm back there. I was going to go Hawaii in January or February, so I wasn't working there for a few months. I was going to work on an organic farm. That didn't pan out. The PO over there--I'm on probation--the PO over there wouldn't accept my transfer. Because I have to basically get my probation transferred to a different state . . . the PO over there, for whatever reason, didn't want me to be there, so . . ."
G: "Was this your choice to come back here to Portland. Is this where your roots are?"
T: "Yes, this is my home. It was pretty much my choice. If I had requested a different place, I would have been released there, released to a different state.
G: "How did things change while you were gone?"
T: "Things changed a lot. Especially all the technology . . . with these ridiculous cell phones and now like iPhone and iPods, Skype, and like Facebook and MySpace . . . all these things that surfaced, not just surfaced, but expanded exponentially. It's kind of a surreal experience coming back to the way our culture is.
"But a lot of things haven't really changed. A lot of things are still the same, in some regards worse . . . all the people that drive, even though there's a lot of amazing bike routes and a lot of people that bike. All the cars, all the SOV's--the Single Occupancy Vehicles.
"And more consumption, more gadgets . . . we cant' buy ourselves out of this climate change catastrophe that we're in the midst of. We're heading toward a cataclysm and unfortunately I see a lot of greenwashing. Buying a hybrid car is not the solution. Fundamentally the way we interact with the planet and the way we consume has to shift drastically in order for us to avoid cataclysmic change."
G: "Was it legitimitizing in a way, the prison experience? One of the criticisms of the environmental movement is that it's just a bunch of middle class kids? Isn't it a kind of legitimizing experience. . . or is it more like the opposite where people look at you as if you are a criminal?"
T: "It's kind of a mixed bag really. Because the thing is, is that not all my friends and all the people I interact with are considered middle class.
"Yeah, I think to those who didn't think I was radical enough, or was the stereotypical middle class white male the charges and incarceration legitimized me. I mean there's some people that believe the media and the government brainwash people and label people who take a stand for the environment or animals terrorists, when the real terrorists are the government and corporate officials that are literally murdering people, murdering animals, pillaging the planet and making billions of dollars off of it. And anyone who gets in the way of that commerce, that establishment, is labelled as terrorist.
(He points at my note pad where I'm scribbling.) "And if you want, you can write on the back, to save trees."
G: (Laughter) "All right, I'm writing on the back."
T: "Right on."
T: "I think that the government has certainly tried to label me with big T word. And so has the media with all of its misinformation and sensationalism, in order to sell newspapers.
"There's a whole section of people that regard me as a criminal--that's a big word--and there's a lot of people that regard me as a political prisoner . . . or former political prisoner. And certainly supported me throughout the entire ordeal and during the time I was on the run and incarcerated. I've been very grateful for all the love and support I've had. From all around the world really. Various people that have written to me while I was incarcerated. People I've never met, really. That really helps. It definitely helped while I was in prison, to stay focused and stay grounded.
G: "Somewhere you said that prison was the hardest thing you've ever done."
T: "I've been through some ordeals in my life. But mentally and emotionally prison was definitely the most challenging experience of my life. Definitely. Because it was so sustained. Nearly six years, day after day, of having to be on my guard and having to be subjected to all kinds of psychological warfare. It was the amount of time.
"Maybe if it has been a month or 6 months, it wouldn't have been the worst experience of my life, yet over time it just day in and day out of, you know, almost 6 years of a certain level of oppression, There was a lot of violence, hostility and aggression."
G: "From the guards or from the prisoners?"
T: "Both fellow prisoners and the staff. I mean I'm grateful that I was protected in the way that I was. There have been other prisoners that have certainly endured far worse conditions and experiences. Yet I had my share of assaults. I was physically assaulted more than once.
G: "What was your reaction, as a man of peace?"
T: "For the most part I retained a position of peace. I didn't fight back. I just tried to avoid the punches as they were coming and dodge them as such. But that actually doesn't work very well in prison because there's a lot of times where other prisoners will support you and back you up if someone's picking on you or someone's targeting you. But they won't back you up if they don't consider you taking a stand for yourself. And so taking a stand for yourself means fighting back.
"It's a tricky little dance. I didn't go on the offensive, yet I started to defend myself when I was put into a situation where people were coming at me. I had to use protective use of force, if you will."
G: "What did that look like?"
T: "Protective use of force? I basically started wrestling with this guy who was throwing punches at me. I got on top of him in a position where I had him in a headlock. I didn't throw any punches. I just defended myself and kind of proved to him that I wasn't a pushover and I wasn't someone to mess with. He left me alone after that.
"I still did my best to follow a path of peace, but it was definitely very, very challenging in prison. It was seen as a weakness and weaknesses are preyed upon. It's like a mob mentality and people start picking on you because they can. Or they have these pent-up, untended wounds that they've been carrying from childhood when they were picked on and now it's their turn (laughs) to be the bully. Very challenging."
G: "I'm wondering how people--your opposition, for lack of a better word--feel knowing that you've spent 6 number of years in prison. How does that play in?"
T: "I don't really know. I haven't been put in that position. I think for some people, especially loggers, they would think, Good, that's what you deserve. I don't think they would have any more respect or sympathy for me. A lot folks that kills trees have the mentality that you should join the military and you murder people in the Middle East for oil so that you can drive your car here in this country. That's what you do. If you love this country, you join the military. And if you do something against this government, then you don't love this country and you deserve to be in prison. A lot folks that kill trees have that mentality.
"But I don't like to generalize and stereotype, because it's not a blank board where everyone fits into the same category. I've had conversations with loggers where they've had a certain level of respect for the things that I do and they themselves agree that clearcutting is heinous and unacceptable, and that the logging companies really don't care about anything but profit, including workers' rights. And they'll do what they can to mechanize the operation so that they have to pay and hire fewer humans. That's reality. Over time, mills have shut down and loggers have been laid off because they've taken almost all the big trees. So a lot of the mills that process the big trees are rendered obsolete. All the mechanization of the logging process has increased so extensively that there's a lot fewer loggers needed on the ground these days than there were even 20 or 30 years ago.
T: "I do know that these people are human and there's a way to reach them, even if they're performing an action that I don't agree with . . . perhaps they're being part of an oppressive system and they are drawing a paycheck from it, they're still human. And they still have a capacity to feel. So there's always a chance to reach their heart and mind to a bigger picture."
G: "Tell me about your daily activities, such as what you're doing with Food Not Bombs."
T: "We collect food that is otherwise going to be discarded or wasted and turn it into free meals for the community and serve it in public spaces. Everyone is free to come. Right now we're serving every Monday Tuesday Wednesday at 5:30 at SE and 17th. And then on Saturdays we serve under the Morrison Bridge on the West Side.
"So I'm doing that and I'm still working at the Laughing Lotus Restaurant.
"And I've been doing a lot of music, playing different benefit shows, things for the environment and for animals, like the Animal Defense League and for Sea Lion Defense Brigade. And for Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project. And I'm doing speaking engagements. Speaking about my passion for the environment and my time in prison, my life on the run.
"My next engagement I'm going to be speaking at a PSU class. I'm not sure when. I'll be doing different things throughout the summer. Early in the fall I'm going to be doing a speaking tour, going around to different universities and colleges."
G: "Can I ask? How about romance?"
T: "Well, for one, I would not say."
G: "I'll press you for it later."
T: "Yeah, maybe later."
G: "I'll get you a few beers and then I'll ask you about it."
T: "I don't drink beer though."
G: "Oh, yeah. Right."
G: "You don't drive cars at all. You're moving to a new place and you're transporting everything by bike? Will you take a ride of if somebody gives you a ride, or do you just not do petroleum at all?"
T: "Well, I don't drive an automobile. I'll ride in an automobile. I'll hitchhike. I'll take the bus. I'll ride with someone if they're going from point A to point B, but I'll make a point of having them not go out of their way for me. I prefer to trade food, because I don't like giving them gas money because I don't like to support the oil companies, especially with what's just happened in the Gulf. You know, so as a thank-you, or as a trade, I like to share some healthy vegan/organic food with them."
G: "What's the big thing you would tell people they need to be worried about? Something they should be thinking about that maybe they're not thinking about?"
T: "There's lots and lots of things. It's a lot of the same things I was saying a decade ago while I was on the ledge and that is we must change the way that we consume. We need to put the word "eco" back into the word "economy" and have a truly sustainable, egalitarian, conscientious way that we make money and have goods and services provided.
"One of the major things people can do is stop driving their automobile and eat a plant-based diet and be very conscious about what they put in their mouths and where it came from. Local, organic. Keep in mind that every time we purchase something, we're voting for that good or service. We have an enormous amount of power, simply by what we choose to buy or boycott.
"The system is still supply and demand. The corporations need us to buy their shit, so let's stop buying the shit, the crap, the garbage, that which is destructive, and let's spend our money and invest in things that are truly healthy and sustainable. For our health and the health of the planet."
G: "Are you voting? Are you even allowed to vote?"
T: "It's different in every state. I'm undetermined."
And so he is.
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