[Ppnews] Caged Lion: Article about Rod Coronado
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 9 11:25:02 EDT 2006
The Caged Lion
Environmentalist Rod Coronado returns to prison a
decade after his radical heyday
By SUSAN ZAKIN
Tuesday, August 8, 2006 - 6:05 pm
Rod Coronado's hair is cropped so close to his
skull it takes a while to notice its more gray
than black. His face is gaunt, his cheekbones
surfacing from the planes of his face like the
masts of those whaling ships he sunk as a young
man. While Johnny Depp entered his 40s playing a
pirate onscreen, Rod Coronado is hanging up his
cutlass, metaphorically speaking. You could say
the onetime boy wonder of the radical
environmental movement is having a midlife
crisis. At the very least, he is growing up.
Going back to jail can do that to a guy, even a
guy whos known as the poster boy for radical
environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, ecoterrorism.
Coronado was sentenced Monday to eight months in
federal prison on what many decry as trumped-up
conspiracy charges, and hes facing the prospect
of serving as much as 20 years if a federal judge
in California doesnt look kindly on a motion to
dismiss charges here. He weathered prison pretty
well the first time, but now hes got a
4-year-old son. This time, prison wasnt part of the plan.
Coronado seems shell-shocked when I meet him at a
café in Tucson, where he has made a home and a
life after spending much of the 90s either
living underground or behind bars. It is so hot
this time of year that even an environmentalist
who walks Coronados walk has agreed that the
most important criterion in choosing a place to
talk is air conditioning. He orders a tamale pie
made of sweet potatoes, cheese and mushrooms, and
hes drinking coffee Im not a vegan anymore, he announces.
We meet a couple of weeks before Coronado is to
be sentenced. Im one of the last journalists he
will speak with before doing time. During the
interview, Coronado calls himself naive and
says he was surprised by the vehemence of the
governments reaction to his more recent
political activities, innocuous compared to the
daredevil stunts of his youth. But times have
changed, and the word terrorist now functions as
carte blanche. Rod Coronado is the last of a
generation, and his story is a bell curve of the
radical environmental movements rise and fall in America.
Coronado, lithe, handsome and articulate, with
the dark skin of his Yaqui Indian forebears,
spent four years in prison for damaging
laboratories in the Midwest that were
experimenting with ways to make minks more
amenable to becoming coats. After his release,
hed become the equivalent of a retired athlete
selling insurance or modeling underwear. He
hovered at the edges of the radical environmental
movement, but, as far as anyone knew, his days as
a hardcore monkey-wrencher were over.
You could say that his midlife crisis started
with an appearance on 60 Minutes in November of
2005. Less than six months before that John
Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director for
counterterrorism, had testified to Congress that
radical environmentalists were the countrys
number-one domestic-terrorism threat. The
statement practically begged Ed Bradley to ask
why, if these guys were so dangerous, there had been no arrests.
The implicit question being, of course: If the
feds cant catch a bunch of skinny vegans, how
could they stop terrorism? Real terrorism, that
is. It made them look like they were still chasing the ghost, Coronado says.
In December 2005, the FBI made the ghost flesh
when it arrested more than a half dozen people
believed to be members of the Earth Liberation
Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front
(ALF). The FBI made the arrests in the usual way
it cracks down on radicals, by using informers.
In this case, agents persuaded Jake Ferguson, a
former heroin addict and heavy metal guitarist
who had gravitated to ELF circles, to wear a
wire, a repeat performance of the way theyd
infiltrated the radical environmental group Earth
First! in 1990. The arrests were the culmination of a 10-year investigation.
There is always a sad tale in these FBI cases,
the crack in someones personality that allows a
radical cell to be infiltrated. According to the
Seattle Times, Ferguson told a former bandmate
about his difficult upbringing without his
father, who spent time in prison. Ferguson
reportedly said he hoped his cooperation with the
Justice Department would spare his own son the same.
The FBI reported that animal-rights advocates
have been responsible for $110 million in damage
since the 1970s, including the $12 million arson
that destroyed the massive Two Elk Lodge at a
Vail, Colorado, ski resort, which some
environmentalists claimed was encroaching into
lynx habitat. Up until then, this was the single
biggest act of arson eco-sabotage in the history
of the radical environmental movement, and it
focused national media attention on the
arsonists. But for several years, neither media
attention nor the ministrations of the FBI
stopped the symbol-laden campaign of destruction.
The eco-saboteurs burned down a slaughterhouse to
protest the roundup of wild horses. They torched
a Hummer dealership. And they escaped, until 2005.
One of those caught in the sweep, a 40-year-old
named William C. Rodgers, described as a balding,
soft-spoken man who liked to hike and read,
committed suicide rather than face life in
prison. Another ELF saboteur, a woman named
Chelsea Gerlach, pleaded guilty last July to
eight counts of arson related to the Vail fires,
plus involvement in various arson fires around
Oregon, including fires at a meatpacking plant, a
police substation and a Boise Cascade office. By
comparison, Coronado hadnt done much more than
talk in recent years. Apparently, that was enough.
At an age when other kids were heading off to
college, Rod Coronado was hanging around the San
Francisco Bay Area, listening to the historic
figures of the radical environmental movement.
Dave Foreman was preaching the gospel of Earth
First! The New Mexico native, who had worked as
the Wilderness Societys top Washington, D.C.,
lobbyist, invoked the Boston Tea Party in his
rhetoric. The situation was direr than we had
realized, Foreman told audiences. Three-fifths of
the worlds mammal species were likely to go
extinct in the next generation, and there was no
time to waste on niceties like lawsuits or
lobbying. Quoting far-right presidential
candidate Barry Goldwater, another nature-loving
son of the Southwest, Foreman was fond of saying:
Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.
Also on the scene was a florid Canadian named
Paul Watson, who had been expelled from
Greenpeace in 1977 for his less-than-strict
adherence to the tenets of nonviolence. He bought
an English trawler and christened it the Sea
Shepherd, and named his anti-whaling group the
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson left
the parleys at International Whaling Commission
meetings to others. His job was to put whaling ships out of commission.
I had been reading this material, Coronado
tells me, picking at his tamale. I approached
Paul and said, I want to go to Iceland and sink
some ships. He didnt say, Youre crazy. He said, What do you need?
Coronado became the eco-equivalent of a
Dickensian boy thief, a seemingly fearless young
man who wriggled in and out of impossible
situations, always managing to triumph. By the
account of one member of the Sea Shepherd crew,
Paul Watson steered the boat, raised funds and
talked to reporters. The daring (and thinner)
Coronado climbed aboard Japanese and Norwegian
whaling vessels in the dark of night and opened
the shuttlecocks, clambering back aboard the Sea
Shepherd as the whaling ships slowly took on water.
Coronado's activism, as with a majority of 1960s
radicals, was not so much a rebellion against his
parents as an extension of their ideals and their heritage.
Coronado grew up in a family of Yaqui Indians
from the borderlands of Sonora, Mexico, and
Arizona. The Yaquis have the distinction of never
having been conquered. The Toltecs, Aztecs and,
later, the Spanish failed to bring them to heel,
although the Yaquis were converted by Jesuits and
engaged in thriving commercial pursuits in tandem
with the priests. Once the Mexican government
expelled the Jesuits, the Yaquis became outlaws.
In the 1870s, one of the Yaqui leaders actually
declared Yaqui territory a country independent from Mexico.
In 1903, the Porfirio Diaz government expelled
the Yaquis, sending them to southern Mexico to
work as slaves on the haciendas. Those who
remained became known for their refusal to bend
to the laws of the U.S. or Mexico, crossing and
re-crossing the border to escape persecution,
often becoming bandits or soldiers who fought on
the U.S. or Mexican side, depending on the
politics of the moment. In the mid20th century,
many came to the U.S. to work in the agricultural fields.
Through all of this, the Yaquis maintained many
of their old beliefs. These included the
collective memory of an earlier way of life, a
time with no war, when they communed with
animals, particularly deer, and with flowers.
These were the traditions Coronado learned from
the late Anselmo Valencia, a tribal elder in
Tucson who took him in when he was living underground in the mid-1990s.
Coronado says that his grandfather was an
apostolic minister, and his parents were, in his
words, dirt-poor farm workers, who instilled in
him the ideals of social service, traveling to
Mexico in the summer to bring clothes to poor
people. Coronado started working with Yaqui kids
and, in his own words, felt whole. But it was
not his Boy Scout demeanor that made him famous; it was his tactical skills.
During lunch, I ask Coronado to tell me about his
time with the Animal Liberation Front.
I was a leader of my own ALF cell, Coronado
says. I started one cell in California, and I
moved to the Pacific Northwest to create another.
There are two to eight people in a cell at any
one time. Theyre very independent. And anyone
could propose and carry out an action. The person
who had the idea would do the recon, the
intelligence gathering, and sell the idea to the
rest of us, he says. I was generally that person.
Before bombing the mink labs, Coronado had
traveled around for 11 months as an investigator
for Friends of Animals, pretending to be a
businessman interested in getting into the mink
industry. He was an undercover agent, only for
the animal-rights movement instead of the
government. Coronado was, by his own account,
very good at what I did. But he quickly grew
disenchanted with the mainstream groups
bureaucracy. I gave them the information, he
says. They pretty much used it for fund-raising.
I felt like I owed those animals I watched die a lot more than that.
Borrowing from his Sea Shepherd experience,
Coronado decided to target laboratories
researching the domestication of minks, which he
had learned about during his Friends of Animals
undercover stint. Coronado and his ALF colleagues
rescued 60 mink legally buying them from a
small farm in Montana. The animals had been bred
in captivity, but once the ALFers fed them live
animals, they refused to go back to dry food.
Once they tasted blood, their instincts came
back, he says. We would always release them
near water. Theyd be swimming like mad, using
their bodies like they never had before. It was a
part of us too, that experience of living that
way. We saw that it was a part of us.
The ideal of absolute freedom at any cost was a
young mans fantasy, and a profoundly American
one, familiar to readers of Edward Abbey and the
Western writers who preceded him. But the members
of Coronados ALF cell were pragmatic enough to
realize they could never afford to buy all the
mink being raised on farms, or all the lynx and
bobcats. Coronado was eventually convicted of
torching a researchers office at Michigan State
University and destroying years of research data
at an off-campus mink laboratory. He was sent to
prison in 1995, where he served 48 months of a
57-month sentence, with time off for good
behavior and time served. But he had started a
movement. Before Coronado, nobody had raided a
mink facility. There were 70 raids on fur farms
from the time I went to prison to when I got out, Coronado says.
This may help to explain why, when animal-rights
activist David Agronoff was questioned by a grand
jury last year, ostensibly about the arson of a
condominium complex in San Diego, all the
investigators wanted to talk about was Coronado.
In March 2004, Rod Coronado, accompanied by a
writer from Esquire magazine, was arrested by
authorities in Sabino Canyon. The canyon, a
scenic thoroughfare of rock and water in the
highest of the five mountain ranges surrounding
Tucson, Arizona, had been closed so state Game
and Fish Department officials could trap and kill
five mountain lions. Uncontrolled sprawl had
brought condos and trophy houses up to the lions
doorstep, as it were, and the lions had been
sniffing around. When state officials were about
to shoot the mountain lions, Coronado found
himself in a position familiar to anyone whos
volunteered: He was the only one willing to show
up every single day and keep interfering with the
hunt by springing the traps set for the lions,
and, if necessary, placing himself between gun
and animal. Then he was busted, and his life threatened to fall apart.
We saw all those other guys get rounded up, he
says, referring to the Vail saboteurs. They were
targeted for serious criminal offenses. There
were informers giving solid evidence. He leans
forward, putting down his coffee cup. Hunt
sabotage is usually a ticket, maybe a $500 fine.
Coronado and the reporter were arrested and
charged, but only with misdemeanors. A few months
later, the feds added a felony conspiracy to
interfere with or injure a government official
to Coronados charges. The state of Arizona added
two misdemeanor charges of its own. But the worst was yet to come.
On February 15, 2006, a grand jury indicted
Coronado under a little-used law prohibiting the
distribution of information related to the
assembly of explosives and weapons of mass
destruction. His crime? Hed spoken at a
gathering called Revolution Summer in San Diego
in 2003. After his standard inspirational speech,
someone asked how hed blown up the mink labs. He
grabbed a plastic juice bottle from a table and
explained that hed filled a similar bottle with
gasoline, set a timer, and that was pretty much
that. Or it was until a photo of Coronado
brandishing the juice bottle made an appearance before Congress.
I was pretty naive, Coronado says. I got out
of prison and said, okay, its the Age of Bush. I
told myself, okay, I can lecture, I can do
aboveground organizing, but thats all I can do.
It didnt help that hours before Coronados
arrival, arsonists had set fire to a San Diego
condominium complex, causing $50 million in
damage, and leaving behind an ELF banner.
Although Coronado apparently had nothing to do
with the arson, the political climate was
becoming distinctly dangerous for anyone who
could be labeled a terrorist even an
ecoterrorist. And the definition of terrorism
seemed to shift depending on the governments
priorities and the Bush administrations need
to keep the Christian Right on its side. The U.S.
Department of State defines terrorism as violence
against noncombatants, while other agencies,
notably the FBI, put crimes against property in
the same category. Yet the FBI does not consider
abortion-clinic bombings terrorism, despite the
fact that they have resulted in six deaths.
Although radical environmentalists are, by the
FBIs own account, the agencys top
counterterrorism priority, no one has been
injured, much less killed, by radical
environmentalists. By contrast, individuals with
ties to white-supremacist and other
anti-government groups have killed six people and
injured more than 135 since 1996, according to
the Southern Poverty Law Center. The FBIs
decision to investigate radical environmentalists
through its counterterrorism office has been
questioned by its own Office of Inspector
General, which in a 2003 report recommended that
eco-sabotage should be handled by its criminal division.
If there was any doubt that the feds are
targeting Coronado, it was dispelled just a few
weeks ago, when he faced yet more charges, this
time for possessing eagle feathers, prohibited
under the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Bald
Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Eagle
feathers are used in Native American religious
ceremonies. Coronado had refused to register as a
tribal member for political reasons, which
increases his liability to prosecution.
In December, Coronado was found guilty in federal
court on all the charges stemming from the hunt
sabotage outside Tucson, and this week, U.S.
District Judge David Bury said he wanted to send
a message that if you use force and violence in
civil disobedience, you are going to be punished
for it; its anarchy. In addition to eight
months of prison time, Coronado must pay
restitution and is prohibited from associating
with activists involved with Earth First!, the
ALF and the ELF. At the end of August, his
lawyers will be making a motion to dismiss the
charges related to the San Diego incident on the
basis of freedom of speech. If they dont
succeed, Coronado could face 20 years in prison.
As he faces years of separation from his son and
his partner, Coronado seems to be in an argument
with himself about whether it was all worth it.
His son wants me around to go to the museum, he
says. He remembers when I was going to the
mountains to protect the kitties. But he wants me to find another way.
Prison changed me, he says. But not as much as
it should have, in retrospect. Every time I go to
court, there is very little said about Sabino
Canyon. Its all about my criminal history.
These days, Coronado talks about acting with
compassion and love, says that a violent
political action will merely beget more violence.
We should never be against rescuing innocent
victims, he says. But any aggressive action on
our part is too easily characterized as terrorism.
When Coronado talks about the mountain lions of
Sabino Canyon, he gets feisty for the first time,
as if breaking out of depression.
I dont wish I hadnt done it, he says,
referring to the hunt sabotage. Too much of my
spirit and the spirit of the wild would have
died. The fact that they could go into this
protected area, a place where the natural world
is supposed to be whole, and kill the largest
predator in the desert . . . Good old boys can
kill lions everywhere else but not here, not in
Sabino Canyon. It was one of those times when you
had to take a stand. Youre gonna have to make
some personal sacrifices. Thats part of American history.
Perhaps its merely a painful irony and not a
statement about America. But it must mean
something when an informers son gets to grow up
with his dad, while the son of a man who tried to
stop violence against animals will be sending letters and drawings to prison.
Ive felt like Don Quixote, he says. Ive been
banned from going to meetings. The same effect I
had burning down a building I had by walking into
a Game and Fish meeting, being who I am, having done what I did.
Ive given 20 years of my life, he says. Im
intimidated. Im scared. Ill quit. Im probably
going to move to the Midwest and just focus on raising a family. Theyve won.
The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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