Filed under: Community Organizing, Editorials, Incarceration, Land
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by Panagioti / Earth First! Newswire
Hopefully by now you’ve returned safely home from a quaint letter-writing potluck or an epic road blockade in solidarity with the incarcerated environmental activists and eco-revolutionaries of the world. Perhaps you’re now ready to sit and reflect, and maybe even start thinking about what we should do next year. If that sounds like you, please read on.
It’s been 11 years since the first time that activists coordinated an international day of solidarity action around the case of environmental prisoner Jeff Luers. Luers was charged with a relatively small crime, damaging several SUVs in a car dealership lot, but sentenced to 22 years in prison with the explicit intention of sending a chilling message to the environmental movement. It’s a history that could easily be forgotten, given how quickly the webpages that document these things tend to come and go. It felt lucky to find an existing link on Portland IMC that so thoroughly captured that event (and it felt disconcerting that the majority of hyperlinks embedded in there were dead.) The date in that call-out was actually June 12, and people planned actions throughout mid-June in response to that call.
The article included reportbacks from 23 events including places as a far as Russia, Norway and Australia, with a focus on the event in Jeff’s hometown prior to incarceration, Eugene, OR. His parents showed up to greet a crowd of several hundred with this message:
Good evening… .Thank you all for coming… .Today is intended to be a day for public education and awareness about Jeff and his case… .The FBI, in it’s bulletin to law enforcement agencies, has chosen to make it sound like an ELF (Earth Liberation Front) call to action. That’s wrong, but it got Jeff and his case some good publicity in places such as Morgantown, West Virginia and Palm Beach, Florida that may not have developed otherwise….My wife, Judy, and I want to thank all of the organizers and attendees at this event and similar events around the world designed to bring attention to the injustice done to our son, Jeff “Free” Luers.
Aside from getting Jeff’s parents to turn out for it, there were some other unique and important components to the first “June 11″ event.For one, people from diverse struggles attended and spoke at the event, making connections between the repression of Black and Indigenous communities and rise of repression against environmentally-motivated action that Jeff’s case represented. In addition, the event included a explicit position on the broader issue of mass incarceration and specifically opposition to Oregon’s “Measure 11″ mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines. For participants who knew of Jeff’s case from his environmental motivations and local involvement, this discussion of prison policy was likely some new territory. But environmental activists in that region were headed for a crash course on the politics of repression and incarceration.
The year 2005 would become a very significant moment in both the environmental and the prisoner support movements. This was the year that the Green Scare hit the headlines, with dozens of environmental activists being arrested or indicted and accused of domestic terrorism, unveiling what the FBI called Operation Backfire for what amounted essentially to high-dollar vandalism cases (with no physical injuries to people even alleged.)
“We have seen a trend of using the terrorist label and federalising a lot of criminal activities that would have gotten a far less stringent sentence before,” said the former director of the National Lawyers Guild, Heidi Boghosian, referencing the status of the Green Scare cases in 2009.
Regardless of how one felt about the particular actions that individuals were charged with in Green Scare cases, the point that many observed was that the punishment for the environmentally-motivated actions was disproportionate with punishment for comparable non-political, non-environmental acts.
In 2009, Jeff was released in a re-sentencing hearing. Upon his release, he lent his support to the continuation of June 11 as a day of solidarity with other eco-prisoners. Although there have been some significant disagreements on how June 11 has been presented—largely related to differences in political semantics—momentum around this day has been maintained. For the past 5 years, there have consistently been 30+ events in a dozen different countries honoring June 11.
As a result, the concept of an environmental prisoner, or eco-prisoner, has begun opening an arena of political activism to a broader audience by connecting efforts for ecological protection with work towards prisoners’ rights, criminal justice reform and civil liberties. Take efforts like Daniel McGowan’s fight for the Good Time Bill and exposing the CMU that he was in or, more recently, Kevin Olliff’s support for the fight against book bans and exorbitant phone rates for prisoners. These have been amazing moments of building cross movement relationships.
Not to mention, eco-activists were starting to learn a thing or two about prisons.
Earlier this year, a new development arose in the arena located at the intersection of environment and incarceration: the Prison Ecology Project (PEP). The project was initiated by Paul Wright of Prison Legal News and the Human Rights Defense Center.
While much of the June 11 organizing around eco-prisoners has centered on support for individuals charged with ecologically-motivated actions, the PEP offers the potential to expand the connections between ecology, environmental justice and the mass incarceration policies that some eco-prisoners may have gotten the misfortune to witness first hand.
PEP offers guidance for environmental activists to take a step towards fighting the prison system that put our compañeros there, alongside 2 million-plus others who are locked away from their friends and families.
June 11 wedged the door open on this intersection between prisoners and environmentalists. The PEP could help to propel an environmental anti-prison movement forward, similar to the way that organizers with the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s got to see the jails and prisons from the inside and, as a result, push forward the movement for prisoners’ rights.
In short, the PEP is an opportunity for environmental activists to join the effort of challenging the prison industry, bringing the skill sets of the ecology movement into this long-standing movement for prisoner’s rights, criminal justice reform and prison abolition.
The following are a few initial, practical ways to plug into this concept:
*Tell the EPA to recognize environmental justice impacts to prisoners in their EJ 2020 plan. (The deadline for public comment is June 15, so don’t delay.)
*Support organizations who are fighting existing facilities, like the Abolitionist Law Center dealing with prisoners getting sick from a coal ash dump next to the prison in Pennsylvania, or the Black Warrior Riverkeepers fighting sewage pollution coming from an overcrowded prison in Alabama.
Proposal for June 12, 2016: Day of Eco-Action Against Prisons
Hopefully the main point is coming across here, but to reiterate: the June 11 traditional of writing letters, raising money, and doing symbolic actions in the name of eco-prisoners is important. Strategic, effective organizing against the prison industry is also important. We understand the two are inseparable, but we need to find ways we can manifest this understanding.
One way to do so is to view the constant stream of environmental and health violations flowing from overcrowded prisons around the country as a weak point in the system of mass incarceration. By June 12 next year, let’s figure out what we can do with that.
In closing, some words from Jeff Luers’ letter to the crowd gathered in Eugene, Oregon 2004:
Look around you. The people you see are your hope. They are your community, they are your allies and they are your source of strength. One person in this room has the power to make a difference. Imagine the difference you can make by working together. You want to be free from the control of multinational corporations that only care about profit? You want to be free from a police force that protects the corrupt? Do you want an alternative to a society and civilization that is destroying its own world? Then take the initiative and create it, build it, and fight for it. Lead by example. If you want change, then take it street by street, community by community until power has been reclaimed.
Panagioti is a former editor of the Earth First! Journal, and currently coordinates the Prison Ecology Project. He wants to give a shout out to whatever local eco-activist crew busted out the sweet banner drop against the companies destroying the Briger Forest in the wee hours of this June 11 morning. The following is a report from the Lake Worth June 11 participation in 2004, for the nostalgic types:
We got hit pretty hard by the FBI media hype, but used it to our advantage the best we could. The video was shown, along with a brief talk, to a group of Quakers after their Sunday service on June 6th, then again to a group of 16-18 local/regional activists. It was also lent out to other interested people throughout the week. Due to interest generated by the media, we will have a follow up public screening on July 7th, at the local Quaker Meeting House. We also had a local direct action (tripod blockade) against Luxury Condo Development on June 11th which the news juxtaposed with the larger movements against over consumption and over-development. It helped generate curiosity about our local efforts as well.