The Secret Wars of Judi Bari is
On May 24, 1990, Judi Bari, a long-time labor and environmental activist, was nearly killed when a pipe bomb exploded in her Subaru station wagon while she and fellow Earth First! Activist Darryl Cherney, were traveling through Oakland, California. Bari, who was seriously injured, and Cherney, who was also hurt, were immediately taken to Oakland's Highland Hospital.
There, the two were questioned, and then arrested by the Oakland Police Department. The OPD, with aide and assistance from the FBI, theorized that the bomb had been placed in the car by Bari and Cherney, and that it unintentionally went off while they were transporting it to some unknown target.
Later, for lack of evidence, the Alameda County district attorney dropped the charges against the pair. In 2002, a jury found the FBI and the Oakland Police Department liable for violating Bari and Cherney's constitutional rights. Last year, a settlement was reached; the estate of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney will divide $4 million, less the considerable legal fees.
Judi Bari died of cancer in 1997.
Published in January by Encounter Books, the book unleashed a firestorm of criticism. Some of Coleman's reviews became mini-Crossfires, with defenders of Bari clashing with supporters of Coleman. Enough words have been produced both in print and online to nearly fill another book.
In an early February interview with the San Francisco Chronicle's Edward Guthman, Coleman referred to Bari as “Our Lady of the Forest.” Responding to criticism from Bari's friends -- called “Bari-ites” in the book -- Coleman told Guthman that, “they're furious ‘cause I said ‘The End of Earth First’ in the subtitle. They're not talking ideas. They have nothing that they're doing that's building a movement. These are dead-enders. The only way they have a forum is to attack me.”
Shortly after the book was released, Bari's ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, whom Coleman tries to link to the bombing, set up a Web site called ColemanHoax.com, which documents 351 errors and falsehoods contained in the 232-page book. The entire list is here; there is also “Coleman's top 26 lies”; and an “Instant Proof” feature where “With a click of the mouse,” you can “see for yourself if Coleman's statements are true.” Unfortunately, Sweeney's Web site, like Coleman's book, suffers from excess vitriol.
Encounter Books, a San Francisco, CA-based publishing company headed by Peter Collier, has a not so-secret right wing political agenda. It is well-funded by the Milwaukee-WI-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a foundation that for the past twenty years has supported conservative think tanks, fellowships, policy centers and media outlets. According to Media Transparency, a Web site tracking “The Money Behind The Media,” between 1998 and 2002, Encounter received more than $4.5 million from Bradley with most of the grants earmarked “to assist the in the creation of” and “support [for] an education book project.”
On February 16, I interviewed Kate Coleman from her home in Berkeley:
Bill Berkowitz: Who came up with the idea for doing the book? There have been reports that David Horowitz pitched the book to Collier?
Kate Coleman: I did not generate the book; I'd been offered the book after writing an article about the split in the North Coast community in the wake of Judi's death. I did the article and Peter Collier asked me to do a book. At first I turned him down, and he asked me if I knew someone else who might write it. On the second time around I said I would do it. Horowitz did not pitch the book to Collier, whom I've known since the free speech movement. Many of the people I went to college with have remained my friends, and I've been moved and touched by the support I've received from my years in Berkeley.
It [the controversy over the book] is the same as when I wrote about the Black Panther Party. I wrote a measured book. It's a nuanced piece although sometimes I get shrill. It's a critique of a kind of politics on the left.
I think that there's environmentalism written into the book. It's a discussion that is past time to engage in. I've been reading some of the broader discussions about environmentalism as a failure since its conception. Some of the ideas about integrating environmentalism into a broader discussion of politics Judi did well; some was a sham.
BB: Do you think the book can be used as a tool for Collier's and/or Encounter Books’ anti-environmental agenda?
KC: I don't think people are using my book. If anyone is using my book it's the Judi Bari people. I don't see Peter using the book; he may feel that way, but that's not the deal I made with him. I said that the environment is not to be an issue in the book and I don't think he edited me with a political agenda. In fact there were things that I thought he'd like but he cut out. I think he sees himself more as a literary figure. I don't think he's a provocateur. I see him as inconsistent on his ideas.
I'm not responsible for Encounter's book list and that's not a part of my book. That has nothing to do with me. I really don't care about his other books.
[Encounter has published a number of books attacking liberals and leftists: The Hillary Trap and The World According to Gore by Debra Saunders, The Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by both Collier and Horowitz, and Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left by Ronald Radosh.]
BB: What do you think the impact of the book will be on the environmental movement?
KC: That's not for me to say. Let the readers decide about that. Overall, I think it's a nuanced biography; I'm not pushing any political agenda in this book. I both criticize and praise Judi Bari as a leader. I think I give a fair criticism of her as a political leader.
BB: In the San Francisco Chronicle piece, Edward Guthman described you as "a lifelong liberal, former Yippie, affirmative action advocate and John Kerry supporter." How would you describe your politics?
KC: I agree with those things that he wrote and there's a lot more. I'm in favor of universal health care, narrowing income disparity in this country, free education, abortion rights. I have always been some type of socialist. Last night [February 15] I did an interview with a conservative radio talk show host in Portland. She said something about global warming, and asked me if my book doesn't prove that environmentalists are distortions the truth and misleading the public about global warming. I said no, not at all. I believe much of what they're saying. I think there are some serious problems. I wouldn't quarrel with Judi Bari on that point or on her wanting to save the forests.
BB: How would you describe the tone of the book?
KC: I'm not going to sit here and talk to you about the tone of the book. But if you have any examples you want to ask me about, go ahead.
BB: Early on in the book you call Utah Phillips, a man who has spent many years on the road singing at political rallies and spinning yarns about labor and the unemployed in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, a "graying Peter Seeger knockoff." Why use such a pejorative term?
KC: Have you ever read the New York Observer...
BB: Yes. But what has that got to do with your book. This is supposed to be a factual book...
KC: Look, I've seen the dude perform and I've heard his music. Actually I liked his show on KPFA with the railroad stories. But he's a knockoff...
BB: But "knockoff" is a term used to describe something that is phony.
KC: It was a quick thumbnail sketch that communicated who he was.
BB: What do you think of Mike Sweeney's Web site, colemanhoax.com? And why are there so many errors in the book?
KC: I should have sent it around to more people. There are mistakes and I'm going to fix them. Since I was denied access by the family and friends, some of the family stuff is wrong. The central points of the book about Judi Bari [are] accurate. There are questions about: 1) allegations of domestic abuse; 2) her behavior as a leader, and the politics of the North Coast; 3) her secret wars as it relates to her ex-husband Mike Sweeney.
If you are inclined to read Coleman's book, also bring along a printout of the citations at ColemanHoax.com to use as a companion reader. But that won't help you understand Northern California's timber wars.
“It's probably an impossible task to really honestly sort out the events and facts of what took place during the timber wars,” observed Sunil Sharma, editor of Dissident Voice. A college student at Sonoma State University during the early and mid-1990s, Sharma, who participated in various eco-defense actions at the time, told me in an e-mail interview that “The most reliable accounts can only really be found among the participants, but the problem is that many, if not all of us aren't entirely clear ourselves as to what went down at the time.” Much of the extant materials are “self-aggrandizing”, stuff “written after Judi's death by friend and foes alike, which only obscures things further.”
According to Sharma, Bari's “writing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser provides “a one-sided account of the goings on within Earth First!” On the other side you need to take the writings of Bruce Anderson -- the editor of the AVA who was a good friend of Bari's until a well-publicized and bitter falling out, and whose version of events are represented in the book -- “with a huge grain of salt given the circumstance,” says Sunil.
“Anderson's justifiable criticisms of Bari and Earth First! were laden with too many cheap and petty potshots, and his mean-spirited way of tackling the Who Bombed Judi? question doesn't allow for many folks to really assess his, in my opinion quite tenable, claim that Sweeny did it. Many of the folks I've met over the years who were friends of Judi and/or involved in the activism have such wildly varying accounts of the history that it's often exasperating to listen to.”
At this time, Bari's “foes feel emboldened under the present political climate to completely smear her, especially when she's not in a position to defend herself (and she was quite an able warrior), and when too many of her followers are too incapable of rationally defending her in a non-kooky, non self-congratulatory way.”
Susan Faludi, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Backlash and Stiffed is currently writing a book about Judi Bari, which will be released next year. Hopefully, Faludi will do a better job of getting the story straight. Given Encounter Books’ anti-progressive bent and anti-environmental mission and record, one can't help but wonder whether journalistic standards were plowed aside in the rush to publish a pre-emptive strike against environmentalists and Faludi's work.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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