Earth First! Wins Civil Rights Lawsuit Against FBI

OAKLAND, California, June 11, 2002 (ENS) — The late redwood forest activist Judi Bari and activist Darryl Cherney always maintained their innocence, and on Monday a jury agreed. Cherney and Bari's estate were awarded $4.4 million in their federal civil rights lawsuit against four FBI agents and three Oakland Police officers.

The summer of 1990 was Redwood Summer for Earth First! activists who were trying to protect the redwoods of northern California from logging. On May 24, 1990, Bari and Cherney were in Bari's car travelling through Oakland on their way to a musical performance connected with Redwood Summer when the car exploded.

car

The bombed car in Oakland immediately after the device exploded. (OPD photo)
The explosive device was located under Bari's seat, and she was hurt the worst. Cherney suffered lesser injuries.

During their investigation of the incident, the Oakland Police and FBI blamed Bari and Cherney for the explosion, accusing them of being terrorists who were carrying the explosives to use as a bomb.

In a deposition taken for this lawsuit on January 30 and 31, 1997, Bari swore her innocence and detailed the explicitly nonviolent nature of the Redwood Summer campaign. She characterized the explosion this way, "On May 24th of 1990, I was bombed and nearly killed in a car bomb assassination attempt."

The jury found that six of the seven defendants violated the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution by arresting the activists, conducting searches of their homes, and carrying out a smear campaign in the press, calling Earth First! a terrorist organization and calling the activists bombers.

Bari

Judi Bari, 1949-1997 (Photo courtesy Judi Bari Home Page (JBHP))
Bari, an Earth First! and labor organizer in Mendocino County, died March 1997 of cancer. Her estate is a plaintiff in this case. Cherney is a musician and Earth First! organizer in Humboldt County.

In U.S. District Court before Judge Claudia Wilken, their attorney, Dennis Cunningham, tried to persuade the jury that the activists were framed. In the first aftermath of the bombing when it was learned that they were with Earth First, he said, the FBI agents on the scene told lead investigator Oakland Police Sergeant Michael Sitterud that "the FBI was familiar with these people already as terrorist suspects, as people who in his words, the kind of people who would be carrying a bomb."

Cunningham told the jury "a purpose immediately arose" that "was instigated by the FBI because of a preexisting desire to harm Earth First in the First Amendment context, harm this group to disrupt its work, to misdirect its work to smear the group in the public mind."

The law enforcement officials saw the explosion as a "golden opportunity" said Cunningham, for "the people in the car who had been bombed to be represented as bombers. And the headlines could reflect that fact, and the world would be told that Earth First had bombers in it and these environmentalists were dangerous and had to be feared."

Cherney told ENS that he first knew the FBI was trying to frame him three hours after the explosion while they were interviewing him in the hospital. "They accused us of being bombers," he said.

Cunningham told the court that the "frame-up was based on false evidence, fabricated evidence," that was "cooked up more or less on the spot."

plaintiffs

Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney play some music at Fort Bragg, California (Photo by Alicia Littletree courtesy JBHP)
Bari and Cherney were arrested but never charged with any crimes in the case, nor was anyone else ever charged. The actual bombers have never been apprehended. Cunningham told the court the FBI investigation "was in fact really a sham." There was no serious attempt to solve the bombing with the two activists either as the victims or the perpetrators, he said.

Cherney says the jury's decision is a vindication "of Judi, myself and Earth First."

"The jury clearly blamed the FBI for violating our First Amendment rights under the Constitution," Cherney said, "which means the FBI blamed us for bombing ourselves based on Judi's and my's politics, as opposed to being based on any kind of evidence. It was all a smear campaign."

FBI agents Frank Doyle, John Reikes, Philip Sena and OPD officer Mike Sims were found to have violated Bari and Cherney’s First Amendment rights. In addition, Oakland Police Department (OPD) officer Sitterud was found to have violated Cherney’s First Amendment rights. Doyle was found to have violated Bari’s Fourth Amendment rights related to the search of her home, and Doyle and OPD officer Chenault were found to have violated Cherney’s Fourth Amendment rights.

FBI agent Doyle and OPD officer Sims were found to have violated Bari’s Fourth Amendment rights in relation to her arrest. The jury returned an “undecided” verdict with respect to violations of Cherney’s Fourth Amendment rights for his arrest.

Doyle was the agent in charge of the 1990 bomb scene, and taught an FBI bomb school at a Louisiana Pacific clearcut a month prior to the bombing. Doyle was also the Squad 13 relief supervisor. Squad 13 was the joint terrorism squad made up of FBI and Oakland officers and collected extensive files on political groups in the Bay Area, according to the plaintiff's attorneys.

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FBI bomb expert agent Williams holds replica bomb in Bari's car. (Oakland Police evidence photo 1990)
Reikes was the head of the FBI’s terrorist squad who came to OPD headquarters the day of the bombing to give what the plaintiff's attorneys termed "an inflammatory briefing on Earth First!"

Sena was already engaged in a secret investigation of Earth First! and concocted a fake informant tip.

Cherney says that Earth First! is an activist organization, not a terrorist organization, and that there is a big difference. "Earth First! is a loosely knit somewhat international movement of different groups and individuals who subscribe to the philosphy of biocentrism - that biology must be at the center of concerns as environmental activists."

"We have the motto 'No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.' We don't think the Earth is ours to compromise, Cherney explained. "And in order to be an Earth Firster you have to take some form of action. So you can't be a member of Earth First, you can only be an Earth First activist."

Nonviolence is the policy of Earth First!, Cherney says, and it is evidenced by their deeds. "Earth First has a 100 percent track record of never injuring a human being in 22 years of existence," he said. "Every group that I'm aware of teaches nonviolence training, and nonviolent ethic. That's my experience in the field, touring the United States, meeting with scores of Earth First groups, knowing the people as I know them."

Cherney sees civil rights groups, social justice groups and environmental groups as being "defenders of national security," and the FBI as "the threat to national security."

"The FBI has no business calling anybody a terrorist," Cherney said. "They have turned their backs on murders and bombings and acts of terror in order to protect their own informants, and as far as I'm concerned, the FBI is closer to a terrorist organization than the activist groups they're pointing fingers at."

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Headwaters Forest, the forest Bari and Cherney were working to protect, is now partially protected under federal and state law. (Photo © Djuna Ivereigh courtesy EPIC)
If Judi Bari were alive today, Cherney says she would be "exceedingly pleased and laughing her head off at this victory against the FBI. But she would also want to be appealing the dismissal of special agent Richard Held and some of the other FBI top brass," who, Cherney says, have worked for years to destroy various activists and activist organizations.

"Held was a defendent in our lawsuit, and we want to bring him back in."

Cherney was awarded $1.4 million, which he says will be down to $900,000 once his lawyers are paid. He expects the FBI to appeal the case "into our old age," which would delay his award until the appeal is decided. But if he ever receives any part of the award, Cheney says he would "do the same thing I've been doing with all my money all along which is working to make the world a better place and protect the environment."

Cherney has plans to write a book documenting the history of the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County that is now partly protected by law. He has plans for a film about the case that has taken 12 years of his life, and says he has been received with interest in Hollywood. A songwriter, and a performer since the age of five, Cherney says he would like to find time at last to record some music.