By Steven Boone
Press Play Contributor
Terrorism is plain stupid. I reaffirmed this belief halfway into If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, a documentary chronicling the titular organization’s rise and fall. It’s one thing to protest in the streets, sit down in front of bulldozers and stage direct “actions” to draw media attention to a particular issue; it’s another thing entirely to commit violent crimes with the same ends in mind. But did the Earth Liberation Front actually perpetrate any terrorism? Their 1200 or so “incidents,” as a lawyer representing some members calls them, resulted in zero deaths or injuries (other than maybe a booboo sustained while vaulting a fence before the cops came). The violence was restricted to private property.
But the crimes covered in this film were prosecuted in the wake of 9/11, when its principal subject, radical environmental activist-arsonist Daniel McGowan, found himself branded a terrorist in the media and on trial. “I think people look at my case and think, ‘What if that motherf**ker burned down my house?'” he says in the film. “They think it’s just a bunch of young crazies walking around with gas cans, lighting shit on fire and that pisses them off.”
“These facilities” were the offices of park rangers, loggers, an SUV dealership and a horse slaughterhouse. In the ’90s and ’00s, the E.L.F. targeted a range of businesses and organizations it saw as powerful agents of environmental destruction. The members were mostly very young protestors radicalized by brutal police response. Footage of cops beating and pepper-spraying non-violent activists who refuse to disperse does resemble classic civil rights/counterculture tumult. (Scenes of confrontation with loggers, from an E. L.F.-made documentary ostensibly shot in the mid-90s, look as if they could have been shot in the late ’60s.) This was a classic, bright-eyed, idealistic strain of the environmental movement, led by resourceful twenty-somethings.
You can read the rest of Steven’s piece here at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.