violent social movements, a comment on “if a tree falls: a story of the earth liberation front”

“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” is a documentary about Daniel McGowan, a member of the Earth Liberation Front. McGowan was convicted of arson and now serves time in a high security federal prison. He was convicted of participating in a series of fires set by ELF, which tried to draw attention to various environmental issues such as logging old growth forests.

Social movement researchers should find this film interesting for a number of reasons. First, there are few decent films about violent social movements. The participants, understandably, don’t really want to talk about them and film makers often gravitate towards groups that have more positive images, like the Civil Rights movement.

Second, the film focuses on one person’s biography. You get a deeper sense of how people get into movements and how they become radicalized. According to friends and family, McGowan didn’t start off as a black mobbing kind of guy. Rather, he was mildly interested in activist kinds of things, hung out in a collective for a while, and then got really angry as conflicts between activists and police escalated. Soon, he fell in with a group of people who got *really* angry over old growth logging. Then it just slowly grew from petty crimes to major arson. The group finally broke up over a dispute over increased radicalization – some folks wanted to move from arson to assault. This is consistent with Ziad Munson’s work, which shows that pro-lifers are only radicalized when they come into contact with the movement. Many don’t even have strong opinions until the associate with activists.

The ELF was eventually busted by an accident. They bluffed an ELF’er  and told him that they knew everything already. They weren’t even sure they guy was involved, but their gamble worked. They soon had enough material to arrest and convict the group.

Social movement researchers would be interested in the legal proceedings. No one should be surprised that arsonists go to jail, but the Federal government invoked a new set of statutes aimed at curbing terrorism. Using these rules, McGowan was sent to a maximum security prison and now lives in near solitary confinement. There’s a legitimate case to be made that these laws exist for symbolic purposes, since we have more than enough laws about burning buildings down.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 2, 2011 at 12:04 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

22 Responses

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  1. “There’s a legitimate case to be made that these laws exist for symbolic purposes.” Yep, but the conditions of his imprisonment are more than “symbolic.” I had a few encounters with the subject of the documentary and, without revealing too much of a personal nature, lets just say that there is a bit of docudrama in that documentary, w/ the filmmakers settling on a narrative “that works,” almost as if they have been reading some recent social movement research. In short, he had “strong opinions” before ELF.



    November 2, 2011 at 1:16 am

  2. Completing my BS in criminnology in 2008, I took an elective in “Terrorism for First Reponders” offered though my university’s School of Staff and Command for training police management. For that, I wrote my term paper about ELF and the related Animal Liberation Front. Their acts were crimes.

    That said, some in ELF/ALF claimed a “green scare” analogous to the Red scares of the 1920s and 1950s and they pointed to rightwing terrorism that went largely unpublicized, citing research by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I followed that up on my own for reasons of my own.

    I cite tangential narratives from two books by former FBI managers, No Heroes by Danny O. Coulson and On-Scene Commander by Weldon L. Kennedy. (Kennedy and Coulson meet professionally at one point.) The easy truth is that while right wing terrorists were engaged in shoot-outs with law enforcement, the ELF was declared America’s worst domestic terrorist threat for interrupting businesses.

    Law enforcement shares cultural intersections with the radical right: Christianity, monogamy, historic frontier values including traditional patriotism, and prior military service. In conflict negotiations, they speak the same language. On the other hand, the hippies, commies, and Earth Goddess worshippers had nothing sensible to say to law enforcement – and admittedly did not want to hear what was coming back at them.

    In fact, the rebuilding of the Vail, Colorado, ski resort and the suicide of Vail arsonist Bill Rodgers in an Arizona jail pretty much ended the activities of “The Family.”

    Perpetrators and their Sentences
    1. Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff (age 29) – 156 months
    2. Kevin Tubbs (age 38) – 151 months
    3. Chelsea Dawn Gerlach (age 30) – 108 months
    4. Nathan Fraser Block (age 26) – 92 months
    5. Joyanna L. Zacher (age 29) – 92 months
    6. Suzanne Nichole Savoie (age 29) – 51 months
    7. Kendall Tankersley (age 30) – 41 months
    8. Darren Todd Thurston (age 37) – 37 months
    9. Jonathan Mark Christopher Paul (age 41) – 51 months
    10. Daniel Gerard McGowan (age 33) – 84 months


    Michael E, Marotta

    November 2, 2011 at 6:25 am

  3. I’m curious to know why you are describing ELF activism as “violent.” I’ve only scanned the Wikipedia page–and briefly at that–but I see no reference to violence. Some property damage, sure, but no violence. Indeed, given the close association between ELF and ALF, I’d have to assume that they have ideological and moral commitment to non-violence!


    Craig McFarlane

    November 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm

  4. Craig: The film goes into a lot of detail. A lot of ELF people were not violent, but there were cells that engaged in *dozens* of arsons. I’d consider that violent. Also, at some point, the group had seriously considered violence against people. Yes, many environmentalists are non-violent, but there were branches going in other directions.



    November 2, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  5. Also, Craig, the film is about one person and his immediate group, it is not a criticism of the entire environmental movement.



    November 2, 2011 at 7:07 pm

  6. Thanks for the clarification. I’m not convinced that property damage constitutes violence. It is certainly threatening and menacing, but the purpose is not to cause direct or indirect physical harm or suffering to a living being; i.e., to do violence to a living being. If they were throwing acid in the faces of loggers, that would certainly constitute violence. But burning down–say–a construction site when no one is there isn’t violence, no matter how many discrete acts of arson there were. I don’t see any argument that could possibly support the view that one arson isn’t violence, but a dozen is. What’s the threshold? After five arsons you become violent? Six? Three? A quantitative increase of this sort does not cause a qualitative change in the nature of the act. (Compare: I swear a lot and a lot of people don’t like swearing; does my swearing become violent at some point because I’ve said “fuck” four dozen times today? This is silly.) Political arson might be regrettable and ill-conceived, but I don’t see how it can be called violence without doing (dare I say it!) violence to the concept of violence.

    Will Potter’s Green is the New Red is perpetually on my “to-read” list. You might be interested in it as well.


    Craig McFarlane

    November 2, 2011 at 7:18 pm

  7. That’s a fair argument. It was made also by McGowan’s attorneys. Since he never hurt or tried to hurt anyone, they argued that he should not get the same treatment as people who actually killed people. I agree on that count. Personally, I think that repeated arson, however carefully planned, creates the risk of unintentional damage to humans. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but it also means that the ELF arsons deserve more punishment than the activist who breaks a few windows during a protest.

    The sociological point is that the ELF’ers tended to focus on symbolic actions. That means that the Feds will come down hard on you.



    November 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm

  8. On the topic of whether or not arson is violent, I’m wondering whether the intimidation factor is considered. Some acts of burning are done with the intent or effect of causing fear (burning crosses or churches), though I’m not sure of the intent or effect in this case. I look forward to checking out the movie (whether or not it will help me answer that question).


  9. When militaries bomb strategic sites in foreign countries such as factories, weapons depots, etc., if no one is injured, is this violence? The state on the receiving end of the attack (note that we use the word attack) would certainly view this as an act of aggression if not of war. What about if the lack of injury or death is only incidental and not a result of careful planning? Is the distinction between violence and non-violence intention or is it outcome?



    November 2, 2011 at 8:50 pm

  10. Fabio: I’m not sure how the increased risk of unintentionally harming someone after repeated attempts–given that no one was hurt–figures in to the case at hand. That someone might possibly be hurt one day (or not) doesn’t increase the “violent-ness” of the act. Consider a case that occurred recently in Ottawa: a woman opened the door of her car, the cyclist either swerved to avoid it or smashed into the door, and then was flung into traffic where the cyclist was run over and killed. Repeated attempts at opening the car door increases the probability that this time is going to be the time that a cyclist smashes into the door and is flung into the road thus being killed, but no one in their right mind would suggest that opening a car door is, in itself, a violent act, regardless of how many times you do it. Similarly, someone who practices birth control by withdrawal, but results in a pregnancy cannot be said to have intended the pregnancy, regardless of how often they have sex. We might say that a person is moderately irresponsible for practicing birth control in such a way, but it still doesn’t mean that the outcome was intended–it’s still an unexpected or accidental conception

    Trey: I don’t think anyone would dispute that a state dropping a bomb on a dam, a weapon depot, or a building on the property of another state constitutes an act of violence. After all, we are dealing with the coercive wing of the state making official use of the means of violence: not killing or injuring someone is likely a good outcome, but I doubt that has ever been the goal of an attack of this sort–after all, weapons depots, communications centres, and the like tend to be staffed at all hours. An attempted murder is still a violent act. It is just one that fails.

    Besides, in the case at hand, we are dealing with arsons that caused no physical harm to a human being (outcome) and were intended as such (intention). Either way, the arsons are absent violence. Had someone been in the burnt buildings, we’d still be in a situation where it wasn’t clearly violence even though someone was injured if not killed–and we have laws to deal with harm of this sort, just as we have laws to deal with arson.


    Craig McFarlane

    November 2, 2011 at 9:58 pm

  11. I fail to see the distinction as you’ve laid it out. By defining the military as the official means of violence, you have constructed a tautology. Surely arson by the ELF to halt construction constitutes coercion through intimidation and force? Second, “an attempted murder is still a violent act. It is just one that fails” is in tension with “Had someone been [hurt] … it wasn’t clearly violence.” As a thought experiment, suppose the bombing run by the state was carried out with careful planning to avoid injuries or deaths. (indeed, this has happened and arguing that it probably never has dodges the question). Replace the word “arsons” in your second paragraph with the word “air strikes.”

    Or, put another way, take your statement “That someone might possibly be hurt one day (or not) doesn’t increase the “violent-ness” of the act.” This is only true if you have defined ex ante that arson is not violent. What if we phrased your statement as ‘That someone might possibly not be hurt one day doesn’t decrease the “violent-ness” of [an air strike].’ Arguing that intention is what determines the level of violence rather than outcome is a normative statement, not a positive one. I don’t disagree with some of your comparisons, but they have a “I know it when I see it” character.



    November 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm

  12. Trey, pragmatically, sometimes “I know it when I see it” is the best answer we can give, even if it is unsatisfying. I think it is prima facie the case that acts undertaken by the state are qualitatively different than acts undertaken by individuals and small groups. This is why the assassination of Bin Laden–whether legal or not–is far more troubling than any regular murder or even capital punishment.

    I don’t think your example of the bombing the does the work you want it to: if military planners intend to minimize death and injury in their attack (even to the point of not causing death or injury), it is still the case that planning (1) takes those deaths and injuries into account because it is reasonable to assume that a weapons depot is staffed and (2) is likely cynical to begin with–the whole concept of collateral damage, “we didn’t intend to kill anyone and–oops–we did but, we assure you, we made every attempt not to kill someone.” And, of course, we are dealing with actions committed by the designated coercive apparatus of the state. By comparison, burning down a construction site in the middle of the night, i.e., a building that is not staffed at all, is qualitatively different than the bombing.


    Craig McFarlane

    November 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm

  13. Craig: There’s a legitimate argument about what constitutes violence. My point, however, was much more simple. The ELF cell in the movie engaged in behavior that at the very least destroys property – and a lot of it. People were put out of jobs, universities and businesses had to remake buildings, etc. That’s no laughing matter. Also, these arsons put people in danger.

    The cases you presented – a woman accidentally causes a lethal bike crash by opening a car door – fall into the category of risk that we have learned to accept. Most actions carry some probability of causing harm but we accept the risk because we need to live our lives. We understand that people opening doors will sometimes cause great harm. But having a door is otherwise a morally neutral action.

    Serial arson is completely different. Burning other people’s property is not a normal activity whose risk we should tolerate.



    November 3, 2011 at 1:39 am

  14. Craig: Here is how the OED defines violence:

    “1. The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this; treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.”

    So burning houses and buildings satisfies the definition of violence.



    November 3, 2011 at 2:00 am

  15. Fabio, please don’t quote a dictionary for a conceptual definition. I keep trying to get my students not to do this. It can be a starting point, but a lexical definition is never the end point of the definition of concepts.

    As a side note, Edward Abbey who coined the term ‘monkey wrenching’ defined violence in his master’s thesis as the “illegal or extralegal use of force…to obtain political ends,” which he admitted could include legitimate resistance as well as terrorism, war, repression, etc. He didn’t seem to have a problem with the label, but today’s ecotagers do. That’s probably a study by itself (and perhaps connected to the rise of human rights discourse and legal regimes which seems to increase the legitimacy of nonviolence in all sorts of movements as Mark Beissinger once pointed out to me in conversation).



    November 3, 2011 at 6:24 am

  16. Christopher Walken (cwalken) has convinced me of many things – that Russian roulette is always a bad idea, that I probably don’t want to shake your hand after awaking from a five-year coma, that when Capt. Koons comes to give you a watch, look out, etc. – but he hasn’t convinced me that the OED does not reflect the regular meaning of words.



    November 3, 2011 at 12:26 pm

  17. The danger to firefighters is real. Back in 2007, nine died at once, fighting a blaze at a furniture warehouse in Charleston, South Carolina. Police die one at a time (usually). Firefighters go out in squads. It is the nature of the job.

    “As William Rodgers was igniting his emplaced cans of gasoline and diesel (which he called ―vegan jello‖) he opened a door on a cabin to check its contents and found two hunters sleeping. He passed on, not igniting the incendiary. (Stoner 2007) ELF and ALF are careful not to bring harm to living things, certainly not to people. However, the potential for death is always present; and there have been close calls. In April 1989, an ALF firebomb went off at a meat company in Monterey, California, when the butchers were working inside. They fled. The night watchman at a Utah store for trapping gear was inside when it was firebombed. (Denson and Long 1999)”
    “Senator Inhofe. So you call for the murders of researchers and human life?
    Dr. [Jerry] Vlasak. I said in that statement and I meant in that statement that
    people who are hurting animals and who will not stop when told to stop,
    one option would be to stop them using any means necessary and that was
    the context in which that statement was made.”

    My paper is online here. A jump lead to Google Docs.


    Michael Marotta

    November 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm

  18. Fabio: that’s a weak move quoting a dictionary to make a theoretical point. We aren’t interested in what the average person takes violence to be, but in what the social scientist, especially the sociologist, takes violence to be and, perhaps more to the point, what the sociologist ought to take violence to be. I’m not convinced that property damage constitutes violence; at least not in all cases. I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me and my memory fails me on this point: but does, say, Collins include mere property damage under the rubric of violence? How about Pinker in his recent book? (Which, admittedly, I have not read.)

    And, again, forcing corporations, universities, etc to rebuild is clearly coercive–that is, assume costs above normally operating costs–but it isn’t clearly violence. Is a picket violence? Is a boycott violence? Did the protestors in Oakland engage in violence yesterday when they blocked access to the port?

    We aren’t discussing whether the acts of the ELF were illegal–it would seem they were, otherwise they wouldn’t have been charged, prosecuted, and convicted–but we are discussing your characterization (along with the FBI’s) of them as violent acts. Recall, you opened your post with the claim that the ELF is a “violent social movement.” And I opened my comments asking why you deemed acts that were not obviously violent in that they caused no physical harm to living beings to be violent. What is it, specifically, about the policy of targeted arsons that make them violent when the perpetrators go out of their way to ensure that no one is physically harmed? What is it about such a policy that makes the entire organization–indeed, the movement–violent? That an act is criminal does not make it violent; likewise, that an act is violent does not make it criminal. Indeed, it seems from the above that we’ve agreed that acts when people are physically injured and/or killed are not violent (opening a car door and flinging a cyclist into oncoming traffic), but we remain unsure whether an act which is explicit intended to not cause physical harm to another living being is violent. And all of this is beside the question of whether or not a policy of targeted arsons is political efficacious.

    Ben: your reply to Walken is just lame. Straight up. Unless you are trying to make an etymological point, drawing upon a dictionary to sustain an argument is just plain bad scholarship and should be actively discouraged.

    Michael: isn’t dying in a fire an assumed risk on the part of the firefighter? Indeed, isn’t that why we celebrate them as heroes? This is, I would imagine, a large of part of the psychological reward of being a firefighter: going in to a blaze knowing that you might not come back out. Likewise, police assume the same risk any and every time they respond to a call, conduct a random search, or stop a car on the side of the road. In this regard, the firefighter and police is no different than the soldier.


    Craig McFarlane

    November 3, 2011 at 10:58 pm

  19. Craig McFarlane: I was only drawn into this by the opportunity to riff on the great Christopher Walken. Well, that and the fact that Fabio’s point seemed rather elementary – torching houses and buildings is “violence” in a commonly accepted sense of the term. I’ll let Fabio speak for himself, but I don’t think this signals the “the end point of the definition of concepts” (cwalken), much less “using a dictionary to sustain an argument” (craigmcfarlane). There is no argument – torching houses and buildings is “violence” in a commonly accepted sense of the term. I think that this has any implications for “what the sociologist ought to take violence to be,” though I am intrigued by the idea that sociologists “ought” to operate with a definition of violence that differs from that of the “average person.”



    November 3, 2011 at 11:35 pm

  20. Ben, you misunderstood my comment. I did not claim–to the best of my knowledge–that sociologists ought to use language different than the “average person.” I did, however, say that there are definitions of concepts that we ought to use and definitions of concepts that we ought not to use. If we are interested in studying violence, it is important for us to have a definition of violence. I take this as uncontroversial. And it is likely the case that our specialized sense of the word will not accord with the “average person’s” sense of the word, as is likely the case with every single concept.

    Take a definition that most first year sociology and political science students are exposed to:

    “In formal terms, the characteristic of the modern state is that it is a system of administration and law which is modifiable by statute and which guides the collective actions of an executive staff: this executive staff is regulated by statute likewise, and claims authority not only over the members of the association (those who necessarily belong to the association by birth) but within a broader scope over all activity taking place in that territory over which it exercises domination. It is thus an institution with a territorial basis. Furthermore, however, in modern society force may only be ‘legitimately’ used to the extent that it is permitted or prescribed by the regulations of the state.”

    Here’s another version of the definition from the same guy:

    “Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is a one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.”

    Here’s another definition of the same concept from another guy:

    “the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests”

    Or, more instrumentally:

    “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs
    of the whole bourgeoisie.”

    Point is, we have a single concept–state–with four divergent definitions even though two of each are derived from the same person. And, more to the point, I doubt the OED has any of these definitions in it.

    And, again, we aren’t interested in the “average person,” but in the professional sociologist who just happens to study social movements. I doubt “social movement,” let alone “violent social movement,” is in the vocabulary of the “average person.” Do you have a good reason why mere property damage should be included in the definition of violence, or you are just interested in tossing red herrings about?


    Craig McFarlane

    November 4, 2011 at 2:26 am

  21. Craig – Setting aside the discussion about definitions making sense to the average person, I don’t think it would be controversial at all to say that bombing buildings is a violent tactic. When classifying tactics as violent or nonviolent, we typically categorize based on damage to property or person. For example, a certain Prof. Rojas once wrote, “Violent tactics destroy property and reduce a firm’s wealth” (2006, “Social movement tactics, organizational change and the spread of African-american studies,” Social Forces, 84, 2149). Olzak and Uhrig (2001, “Ecology of tactical overlap,” American Sociological Review) classify the following tactics as violent: minor damage to property, severe damage to property/arson/bombing, aggressive bodily contact, personal injury, murder. Koopmans (1997, “Dynamics of repression and mobilization,” Mobilization, 2: 155) used the following scheme to code violent protest events: “An event was classified as violent if there was evidence of actual and substantial use of physical violence against objects or persons.”

    According to all of these definitions, which I think are relatively uncontested among social movement scholars, the tactics in question here were unambiguously violent. Now it’s important to note that calling something violent isn’t a normative statement from the point of view of the scholar; however, from the point of view of the general public violent tactics are associated with normative judgments. Inasmuch as the public perceives that a movement’s tactics are violent, the movement is likely to suffer reputational damage and lose authority among potential adherents.


    brayden king

    November 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  22. Brayden’s right. Just because a dictionary definition is not a conceptual definition doesn’t mean that common usage is irrelevant. From Beck’s 2007 piece in Mobilization on radical environmentalism: “while one may debate whether property destruction is violence, arson and extensive vandalism are commonly considered violent.” And further “Vandalism of property during protests, sit-ins and intimidation of targets by crowds are common forms of collective action. However, extensive destruction of property undertaken secretively during the night, as much ecotage is, is not routine political action.”



    November 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm

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