Once upon a time I thought it would be super cool to join Earth First! and be on the front lines protecting the redwoods. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I was feeling really passionate and somewhat aimless. The idea of showing the world how beautiful and important these forests were through (my romantic fantasy of ‘60s-style) activism was very appealing to me. Camaraderie! Purpose! Changing the World!
I was 18, in Arcata on my first traveling adventure, and my friends and I were invited/recruited by some kids who were on a supply run for the nearby base camp. We followed them down the highway to the campground where the group had set up a small tent village. They went over the ground rules with us: no drugs of any kind (there were often raids with drug dogs, looking for a reason to break up the camp), no real names (the less anyone knew about everyone else the less they could give up under interrogation), and no freeloading (if you were there, you had to participate in actions). Also, don’t drink the water—not a rule, just a warning (they should’ve also warned us not to wash our hands with it, anyone with cuts or scrapes got painful staph infections). About an hour after we arrived and set up our tents and such we were called to the evening circle. New people like us were identified, and instructed to take part in several training workshops the next day.
I was disappointed that our training was solely in the art of getting arrested during protests—resisting for as long as possible first, of course—but ultimately with the goal of clogging the jail, where we were to continue protesting by holding hunger strikes and seeking maximum press for the cause. It was a good way to test our loyalty and commitment, a tactic probably related to the fact that nobody trusted anybody there—the assumption was that you were a plant sent in to spy or sabotage actions or go rogue as a way of undermining the message. If you were willing to become jail-fodder it didn’t matter whether you were a plant or not, you’d still be useful.
I considered it. It had a certain smack of martyrdom that appealed to me. But then I got to thinking about the effectiveness… Our ultimate goal was twofold: slow down (or ideally stop) the evil logging operation, and sway public opinion and awareness until there was a wholesale commitment to preserving old growth forests. A steady stream of us getting arrested for blocking the logging road would slow down operations (though it would also prevent people from earning a paycheck, pissing them off pretty thoroughly and putting their families in a bad situation), and it would consume a lot of small-town police resources, possibly overwhelming their ability to keep arresting us (or anyone else who might be committing crimes and causing problems).
Public opinion in the area was strongly against the movement; those aggressive tactics only served to polarize people away from considering preservation at all. It just seemed pointless at best, and counterproductive at worst. We opted out, our fickle young hearts swayed by new causes that we felt more capable of effecting.
I still struggle with the same questions that arose for me during that time—how can we make direct action more than an expression of upset? How can we best accomplish our ultimate goals?