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Movie Review: If A Tree Falls

Posted in Editorials on July 5th, 2011

When I was a teenager, I remember reading about the radical actions of “Earth First!” I was both horrified and fascinated at the same time. I wondered who its members were and what they were like. Were they young? Were any of them women? I devoured all of the articles on Salon about them and anything else I could find on the internet of the late 1990’s. This perverse interest was what first made me question the idea of radicalism, a skepticism I haven’t yet abandoned.

It was this adolescent curiosity that made the latest documentary from Marshall Curry absolutely irresistible to me.

I was more than surprised to learn that the infamous “eco-terrorists” were not quite the white-people-with-dreadlocks clique from college who made me feel conspicuous for shopping at the mall and not being vegan. They were instead political activists who worked day jobs at places like Burson-Marstellar, the public relations firm that consulted with the likes of Exxon and Phillip Morris.

The movie follows Daniel McGowan, arrested in 2005 on charges of arson, while he is out on bail awaiting his fate. McGowan became involved in Earth First! after coming to believe that traditional forms of activism were not effective – as they hadn’t prevented the Forest Service from selling old growth forest to loggers. Increasing episodes of police brutality against tree sitters and similar protesters also led many to the conclusion that current tactics were not going to work anymore.

A harrowing moment of the film shows two women during a sit-in having their eyelids forced open by cops and cotton swabs dipped in pepper spray stuck into their eyes. One of the women squealed that violent force should not be used against peaceful protesters. I wondered if her cries haunted the police officers as they will many people who watch this film.

The film centers around two questions. Is what Daniel McGowan and his Earth Liberaton Front cell did terrorism? They did destroy millions of dollars of property, but not a single human being was injured or killed as a result of their actions. The same cannot be said for other radical groups in the United States that they are sometimes compared to, like pro-lifers or the white power movement.

In my opinion, terrorism requires violence, and violence requires harm to a person. I understand arguments about mental or emotional harm, but I am not swayed that this standard is met by ELF’s actions. A law enforcement officer interviewed by the filmmakers said “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” I don’t really think that “freedom fighters” is an apt description either. I see them as deeply misguided vandals, who, while deserving of some punishment in prison, are not terrorists. They are criminals.

The second issue the movie explores, is the idea of the prisoners dilemma. Six members of the cell had been arrested. The ones who would cooperate and agree to testify against the others were told that they would be given immunity. The ones who don’t face life in prison. (Today I Learned: Arson can carry a life sentence.) Each time Daniel insisted that he could not turn against his former colleagues, I wondered cynically, “Why is he trusting arsonists with his life?” Especially when, according to him, the group broke up because of an argument over whether or not to begin assassinating people.

“If A Tree Falls” illustrates the failure of radical environmentalists who used destructive and criminal means to draw attention to their cause. At the same time peaceful activists had won gains, forcing corporations like McDonald’s to stop using styrofoam, for example. In New York State, we have finally passed the bottle bill, which will increase the rates that plastic water bottles get recycled because of grassroots activism and good old fashioned lobbying. Radicals today are more adept at using the media than they once were. The Yes Men do quite a better job of communicating their ideals via creative activism than the ELF ever did in their anonymous press releases.

Do we need a more powerful environmental movement? Yes. But I remain unconvinced that the radicals – especially criminal ones – will give us traction that more legitimate outlets will not.

“If A Tree Falls” is a spell-binding, well researched documentary that I highly recommend. Screening information is available here.

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3 Responses to “Movie Review: If A Tree Falls”

  1. Ebonmuse Says:

    I thought the movie did a commendably fair job presenting both sides of the argument, but I’m inclined to side with the people who say that what the Earth Liberation Front did, by the legal definition, was terrorism. Violence against property is still violence – if I shoot the windows out of your house or burn a cross on your lawn, those are unquestionably violent acts even if no one is actually harmed. (And it was just dumb luck on their part that no one was ever harmed. Even if that wasn’t their intention, those fires could easily have spread to residential areas, or firefighters could have been killed while battling them.)

    Most importantly, their arsons were unquestionably intended to serve a political goal by making polluting or non-eco-friendly businesses fear that they could be next. Crime with an ideological purpose, to my mind, is the defining characteristic of terrorism.

  2. Vegan Hypocrisy 101 Says:

    “The same cannot be said for other radical groups in the United States that they are sometimes compared to, like pro-lifers or the white power movement.

    Sounds like this agitprop piece did a good job indoctrinating you.

    Ecoterrorist groups like the ELF and ALF are responsible for a siginificant higher rate of violence and property destruction that anti-abortion bombers or the less-than-dwindling white power movement.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    My point was that even though they might have destroyed more property, they didn’t kill any people. To me this is a significant distinction.

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