[Ppnews] GREEN Flaming SUVs

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Wed Jun 22 11:24:42 EDT 2005

Flaming SUVs
A conversation with convicted ecoterrorist Jeff Luers
- <mailto:gregory at sfgate.com>Gregory Dicum, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

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  Five years ago this month, Jeff Luers set fire to three SUVs at a 
dealership in Eugene, Ore., to protest America's heedless contributions to 
global warming. He was promptly arrested and put on trial for arson.

Refusing to plea bargain, as his accomplice did, and with a past record 
that includes 30 days in jail for a scuffle with a U.S. Forest Service 
agent, Luers was sentenced to 22 years and 6 months in prison, the longest 
sentence ever handed down in America for environmentally motivated sabotage.

The FBI estimates that in 2002, about 100 acts of ecoterrorism, which the 
agency <http://www.fbi.gov/congress/congress02/jarboe021202.htm>defines as 
"the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against 
innocent victims or property ... for environmental-political reasons," are 
perpetrated each year. Though these acts have included spectacular actions 
such as the 1998 
<http://www.hcn.org/servlets/hcn.Article?article_id=4598>incineration of a 
ski lodge in Colorado and a number of more recent SUV torchings (including 
an incident at the same site Luers had targeted, which took place while he 
was on trial), 
few perpetrators have ever been caught, and only about 10 people in the 
United States are serving time for this kind of crime. (No one has died in 
any of these attacks.)

Luers' supporters say his sentence is far longer than the act of simply 
burning three cars would seem to warrant, and he continues to appeal. 
Supporters have <http://www.freefreenow.org>organized chapters in 35 cities 
and 11 countries, and they say Luers is a political prisoner rotting in 
prison because of the way he expresses his political beliefs.

This month marks the start of Luers' fifth year behind bars. Though he's 
imprisoned, Luers is still active in the radical environmental movement. 
Since successfully fighting an effort to censor him, he has participated in 
interviews, written articles and letters from prison and contributed to a 

Meanwhile, the specter of "ecoterror" has, in the eyes of the federal 
government, become more dire than ever: In March, a list of domestic-terror 
threats from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security 
<http://www.cq.com/public/20050325_homeland.html>included environmental 
extremists right behind groups such as al Qaeda. Indeed, a number of local 
environmental activists have been subpoenaed to appear today before a 
grand jury investigating a pair of 2003 bombings in the East Bay.

I first contacted Jeff Luers in writing at the Oregon State Penitentiary, 
in Salem, and last week I spoke with him by phone.

Did you consider yourself engaged in terrorism when you set fire to those 

No. Really, when you look at the use of the word today, terrorism is 
nothing more than a way to define armed struggles that you disagree with.

We were trying to draw attention to the use of resources in America that 
are contributing to climate change and global warming. Obviously, during an 
act of property destruction, objects are smashed, burned or demolished. 
That happens. But what makes an individual act of sabotage more heinous 
than crimes committed by governments and transnational corporations? If 
we're going to look at the definition of terrorism or the definition of 
violence, then we need to put it in its proper perspective. We certainly 
ought to open the definition up to corporate destruction of rivers, 
forests, oceans and all ecosystems, because those certainly aren't acts of 

The SUV caper wasn't your first attempt to bring attention to environmental 
issues. What other efforts had you been involved in prior to that action?

I had been involved in civil-disobedience direct action. I spent a year and 
a half in an endangered old-growth forest outside of Eugene. I've done tree 
sits, roadblocks, lockdowns and some more confrontational things. I've been 
involved in street protests. I've met with and lobbied members of Congress. 
I've debated with timber-industry officials.

Was burning the SUVs the most extreme thing you'd done?

Yeah, I'd say it was.

Were you conscious of it being a step in a new direction for you?

I was trying to move into the realm of more radical actions. If you compare 
arson actions that have happened in the U.S., the majority of them were 
quite major. That's the goal that I was working toward -- to be more of an 
underground guerrilla activist. The SUVs were kind of a baby step.

Even so, the judge threw the book at you. Was this an effort to make an 
example of you, or was it just the start of tougher sentencing in general?

About six months ago, there was 
<http://www.registerguard.com/news/2005/02/25/c1.cr.arson.0225.html>a man 
from Springfield[, Ore.,] who took his case to trial -- he didn't take a 
plea bargain. He was accused of multiple counts of arson in the City of 
Springfield for lighting apartment buildings on fire. And in every single 
one of his fires, people actually had to be evacuated. The fire department 
had to do door-to-door searches to ensure that no one was in the buildings. 
He very, very clearly put people in danger, and he was sentenced to 15 
years -- seven years less than me.

I'm obviously biased, but I have to say that my sentence is out of the 
norm. The only official explanation that has ever been given came from Kent 
Mortimore, chief deputy D.A. in Lane County [the county in which Eugene is 
located], who says, basically, bottom line, I'm a terrorist and I got what 
I deserved.

At the same time, the sentence has increased your platform and your 
notoriety. I wouldn't be talking to you if it hadn't been so unusual, for 
one thing.

Yeah, I think their idea backfired. I think the goal was to make me serve 
as a deterrent to anyone else that wanted to be involved in radical actions 
and dissent. And I think that they failed to understand that all they did 
was galvanize my position.

With the <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Liberation_Front>growing trend 
toward eco-tage in this country, I think that they looked upon me as 
representing that as a whole. But I didn't back down. I didn't plea out, 
and I didn't make apologies.

And even after you were sentenced, since you've been in prison, you've had 
to face unusual restrictions.

Yeah. Back in 2003, the [state Department of Corrections (DOC)] told me 
that I would not be able to write about or express my political ideology, 
or write about environmental- or social-justice movements or issues. I was 
told that every time I did, it would be considered a gang member-type 
thing, and that I would be punished accordingly. I quickly filed suit 
against the DOC for violation of my First Amendment rights, and they very 
quickly decided to settle out of court.

And, as a result, you can talk to me today.

Actually, they're censoring me again. They're censoring my outgoing mail 
when they consider it endorsing or supporting anarchist or environmental 
activity. CNN and "60 Minutes" have recently been denied access to 
videotape me. I just recently filed a notice of intention to sue because of 
this. If the DOC knew that I was talking to you, I'm not sure how they 
would view it.

I take it these are <http://www.adl.org/civil_rights/prison_ex.asp#q6>not 
ordinary restrictions in American prisons?

If they are, I have not seen it in Oregon.

Going from the life of an eco-anarchist in the Oregon woods to the 
top-down, rules-focused life of prison must have been quite a change for you.

It sucks really bad. All the stereotypical things that you see in the 
movies -- that stuff happens here. But it hasn't broken me, and it can't 
break me. I just accept this environment as home -- my ability to deal with 
it has really surprised me.

Part of it's just survival. But the other part is trying to remain active 
and inspirational to the folks on the outside that are working for change. 
I want people to know that prison isn't the end of being able to be 
involved; it's not the end of your life.

It really warms my heart to know that all those people around the world are 
supporting me and are getting active. It lets me know that everything I did 
wasn't in vain, that what I did made a difference.

As you know, the Department of Homeland Security has recently identified 
eco-sabotage as one of the top domestic terror threats the United States 
faces. Do you think the government is justified in seeing the type of 
action you took as a serious threat to the nation?

It's interesting, because you have to look at the ideals behind our 
government. It's very well known that the government, time and time again, 
tries to side with corporate interests. Those corporate interests have 
trumped environmental protection, they have trumped endangered species, 
they have trumped 
communities trying to keep toxic waste dumps out.

This [eco-sabotage] movement has specifically targeted corporate entities. 
They have found those transnational corporate entities that are polluting 
and destroying and wreaking havoc on the environment, and they have 
targeted them with property destruction.

Now, compare that with the arrest a few years ago in Texas of a man named 
<http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1229/p02s01-usju.html>William Krar. He was 
arrested and sentenced to 11 years for possessing machine guns, pipe bombs 
and a 100-pound cyanide bomb -- a weapon of mass destruction, as defined in 
the USA Patriot Act, which existed at the time. He was a white supremacist 
and part of a white Christian group, but he was never labeled a terrorist.

So, it goes back again to what the political agenda is. If you target 
property -- you target corporate interests -- you are somehow more of a 

In before-prison pictures, you look like the stereotypical anarchist punk. 
Do you consider yourself an anarchist now?

Yeah, but probably not in the way that most people define anarchist. I 
believe in autonomous self-rule. My definition of anarchy includes the 
ability of other people to choose to live nonanarchist lifestyles. I think 
that people need to choose the lifestyle that's best for them, as long as 
it doesn't impinge on the freedom of others.

How does your brand of eco-sabotage fit in with mainstream environmentalism?

Like every other historical movement, all facets of the movement work 
together, even if sometimes they don't agree or even understand that 
they're working together. More and more, even mainstream environmental 
activists are understanding and recognizing the need for direct action. And 
while they don't necessarily condone it, they understand why people partake 
in it.

Plus, radical actions make other groups seem more moderate. In the late 
'70s, the Sierra Club was viewed as a bunch of environmental wackos. In the 
early '80s, Earth First! came along doing tree sits and lockdowns and all 
sorts of other really far-out stuff, and suddenly the Sierra Club looks 
moderate. Nowadays, the Earth Liberation Front makes Earth First! look 
moderate. They all fit hand in glove in creating social change.

But a lot of the environmental movement is based on the idea of 
nonviolence. In their abhorrence at the violence being done to the Earth, 
many -- perhaps the majority -- of committed environmentalists have 
renounced any sort of violence.

Well, education and ethical debate is a powerful force for change, but it 
can only sway someone whose problem is that they don't know. It can't reach 
someone who doesn't care. Industry and government have institutional and 
monetary biases against protecting the Earth, and no amount of education is 
going to change their viewpoint.

Now, people need to be outspoken, and everyone who believes that we need to 
change should do everything in their power -- writing letters, protesting, 
talking to their neighbors -- but we also need people to go out and commit 
acts of direct action. We have reached a point where simply being outspoken 
is not enough.

There is no equality between the average person and a corporate entity. 
Good, solid communication cannot occur when people are not equal, and 
that's where we find ourselves. We need to take corporations that aren't 
willing to listen and force them to listen, or hurt their pocketbooks. 
Losing money is the only thing that ever seems to affect a billion-dollar 

I can anticipate some of the e-mail this column will generate, and I'm sure 
you've heard it before. People will say, "Why are you giving this guy a 
platform? He's just a criminal."

I think that anyone who is quick to judge me for what I did should, at the 
very least, be quick to judge corporations for what they do. They look at 
my activities and say that they're wrong because they break the law. But I 
believe in a higher law: We have a responsibility to future generations and 
a responsibility to ourselves to challenge injustice. The destruction of 
the world is injustice. The exploitation of indigenous peoples and peasants 
in underdeveloped countries is injustice.

I've gone down the road of aboveground activism, I've gone down the road of 
lobbying Congress, of meeting with corporate entities -- I know what kinds 
of results they get. If anyone can point out something that works better 
than what I did, I'll be more than happy to listen. Until then, here I am 
five years later for burning an SUV, and that one single action seems to 
have worked out pretty well for me so far. I don't have a problem doing 
time for my beliefs, because I believe strongly enough in them to accept 
it. I think that's what some people out there don't understand. The dangers 
that we're facing -- they're real.

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