Earth Liberation Front Activist Released After 7 Years in 'Little Guantanamo'

Daniel McGowan is not a household name. Even among people who have devoted years of their lives fighting to protect the natural world from the predations of capitalism, his role in the history of the environmental movement is marginal and obscure.

It shouldn't be. McGowan's story tells us too much about the desperate situation we're in -- politically as well as ecologically -- to be dismissed as a sideshow in the struggle to curb the excesses of human consumption before they destroy us.

Outside of radical circles, McGowan's story is best known from its telling in last year's Oscar-nominated documentary "If A Tree Falls." McGowan was one of a dozen underground environmental and animal rights activists with the Earth Liberation Front and its sister movement, the Animal Liberation Front, who were swept up in a two year, multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional investigation called 'Operation Backfire,' which culminated in a series of high-profile arrests and prosecutions at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006. (Two weeks ago, Rebecca Rubin, one of the three remaining fugitives in the investigation, turned herself in at the U.S.-Canada border.) The activists were charged with committing a series of arsons and other property crimes against numerous targets that they deemed to be agents of environmental destruction and animal exploitation, including U.S. Forest Service ranger stations, a horse slaughterhouse, a dairy farm, lumber company facilities, SUV dealerships, wild horse corrals, a university horticultural research center, a meat company, and, most famously, the Vail Ski Resort.

Though none of the crimes targeted people nor resulted in human death or injury, the Justice Department wasted little time in publicly declaring the arrestees "terrorists." At a 2006 press conference announcing the defendants' indictments, FBI Director Robert Mueller referred to perpetrators of environmental and animal rights-related crimes as one of the agency's "highest domestic terrorism priorities." Congress passed legislation later that year specifically singling out animal rights activists for enhanced criminal penalties, classifying property crimes against industries that exploit animals and even, in some contexts, First Amendment activities directed at agents of those industries, as "terrorism." No such special legislation has ever been passed to selectively brand white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists, anti-immigrant vigilantes and right-wing militias -- all of which have targeted, injured and killed humans -- as terrorists.

In an interview with the Eugene Weekly in 2007, David Iglesias, the former federal prosecutor for New Mexico who was terminated by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the 2006 U.S. Attorney firing scandal, called the terrorism charges "political" and "overreaching." "It seems to me what happened here should not fit my traditional definition of what terrorism is," Iglesias explained.

McGowan was detained in two different prisons, both of them belonging to a category of new experimental facilities called "Communications Management Units," or CMUs (he also spent a brief period of his incarceration in general population). CMUs were built to contain low-level terrorists rounded up in the War on Terror; most of their inmates are alleged to be connected to Islamic networks. They are designed to severely restrict and control the amount and nature of prisoners' communications with the outside world, earning them the nickname among inmates and prison staff of "Little Guantanamo," according to journalist Will Potter. For several years, their existence was kept secret. There are only two CMUs in the United States, in Illinois and Indiana; McGowan served time in both.

Last week, after seven years in federal prison, McGowan was released. For the next six months, he will be living in a halfway house in New York City, and then be under supervised release for three years before he is finally free from the terms of his sentence.

It's easy to ignore McGowan's story, to write it off as a criminal psychodrama a world away from the mainstream currents of today's environmental movement. At the time when McGowan's ELF cell was still operational, many advocacy groups were subjected to enormous pressure to make that chasm as wide as possible, or risk being marginalized themselves. To help discredit the political content of their crimes, prosecutors, politicians, law enforcement officers and the media have demonized ELF and ALF activists as terrorists, sociopaths, ordinary criminals hiding behind an ideology or, at best, naïve kids with overly romantic notions of what it means to fight for a cause.

A more disinterested, less agenda-driven observer, however, might recognize the near inevitability of the ELF movement's dialectical emergence out of a prevailing political culture that has stubbornly refused to even begin to address some of the most dire and vexing problems facing every living thing on the planet. When mainstream political institutions fail to rise to the scale and urgency of epochal crises like global warming, deforestation or massive species extinction -- in some cases, even failing to acknowledge their reality -- among those who understand what's at stake, there will be some who are driven to desperate acts.

The ELF and ALF could never be the solution to the problems they point to, but neither are they merely incidental to them: radical movements tend to be harbingers of the struggles to come when ossified political systems bury their heads in the sand instead of measuring up to the profound challenges they face and to their own internal contradictions. Rather than vilify McGowan as a terrorist or mythologize him as a martyr for the earth, we should consider his story for what it tells us about a civilization so blind to its circumstances that it provokes individuals to engage in extreme political acts and risk serving years in Little Guantanamos in order to do something to stem an unfolding catastrophe.

Leighton blogs at Dog Park Media.