FBI on Trial

Jury awards $4.4 million to a pair of Earth First! activists.

Christine Keyser

A portrait of Yasser Arafat lies among the ruins of a Palestinian radio and television station after it was torn down by the Israeli army.

Twelve years ago, Earth First! organizer Judi Bari lay in traction in an Oakland hospital bed fighting for her life, critically wounded by a nail-studded pipe bomb that exploded under the driver’s seat of her Subaru station wagon as she drove to an anti-logging rally. But instead of searching for the bombers, the FBI and Oakland Police immediately arrested Bari and fellow Earth First! organizer Darryl Cherney, smearing them in the media as eco-terrorists who were transporting explosives to blow up power lines.

On June 11, a federal jury in Oakland finally vindicated Bari and Cherney, finding six FBI and Oakland Police investigators liable for violating the pair’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. The 10-member jury ordered the defendants to pay the two environmentalists $4.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages for false arrest, illegal searches of their homes, defamation and discrediting their nonviolent campaign to halt the clear-cutting of California’s ancient redwood forests. Significantly, the jury awarded 80 percent of the damages, or $4.15 million, for infringing on the activists’ First Amendment rights.

This stunning victory for free speech over suppression of political dissent came at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to expand FBI powers and revive the worst elements of the notorious COINTELPRO program, which Congress outlawed in the mid-’70s after exposing egregious FBI abuses against radical groups. Judi Bari and I sued the FBI on behalf of all social activists whose rights have been violated by the FBI,” says Cherney, who won $1.5 million in damages. Hopefully this lawsuit will serve as the first step in rectifying the horrible crimes of the FBI.”

Bari, a former labor organizer who worked relentlessly on the lawsuit, died of breast cancer in March 1997. But Darlene Comingore, a close friend of Bari’s and the executor of her estate, says the verdict sends a clear message that law enforcement agencies cannot trample on civil rights in the name of combatting terrorism. The jury got it,” she says. They understood how important it is to protect our constitutional rights. The people of the state of California and Oakland today said, No, you can’t. You can’t get away with it.’ ”

The verdict followed a six-week trial and three weeks of painstaking deliberations by a jury of predominantly suburban professionals who had known nothing about Earth First! During the trial, the FBI and Oakland Police blamed each other for rushing to judgment and arresting the activists. Defense attorneys argued that the officers had ample reason to suspect that Bari, the mother of two young daughters, and Cherney, a troubadour and satirical songwriter, were transporting their own bomb.

The FBI and Oakland Police had based the arrests and search warrants on three falsehoods that fell apart under scrutiny: that Bari and Cherney were violent eco-terrorists; the bomb was clearly visible on the floor behind the driver’s seat; and the nails wrapped around the homemade pipe bomb matched a bag of nails found in Bari’s car.

But an FBI bomb expert from the agency’s Washington crime lab ascertained that the motion-triggered device had been hidden under the driver’s seat. And when the jury was shown the demolished Subaru, they could clearly see the large crater where the blast had blown out the front floorboard and driver’s seat, while the backseat and door were left mostly intact. They also saw that the nails attached to the bomb were long, skinny finishing nails, not the short, fat roofing nails that Bari used at her carpentry job.

At the time of the bombing on May 24, 1990, Bari and Cherney were organizing Redwood Summer, a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. They hoped to recruit thousands of environmentalists and college students to travel to Northern California to help save the imperiled redwood forests. Seeking an alliance with timber workers, Bari and Cherney publicly renounced the practice of tree-spiking, which had been used elsewhere in the country to deter clear-cutting of old-growth trees.

After announcing Redwood Summer, the pair had received numerous death threats from vigilante groups, with pictures of nooses and rifle crosshairs superimposed over a photo of Bari’s face. But when the activists reported the threats to local authorities, they were told: If you turn up dead, then we’ll investigate.”

After the bombing, the FBI and Oakland Police likewise refused to investigate the death threats or interrogate individuals whom Bari and Cherney had implicated as possible suspects. Instead they declared that the two environmentalists were their only suspects. Yet seven weeks after the bombing, the Oakland District Attorney dropped the case, citing insufficient evidence. The FBI never cleared the two activists or further investigated the crime, and no one has ever been apprehended for the bombing.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken prohibited the plaintiffs from mentioning the FBI’s sordid history of surveillance and disruption of radical groups. Moreover, in 1997, Wilken dismissed a number of FBI officials from the lawsuit, including lead defendant Richard Held, chief of the San Francisco bureau, who had directed the COINTELPRO program against the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement and other radical groups. Dozens of FBI files documenting the agency’s use of the same covert tactics against Earth First! mysteriously disappeared before the trial.

Attorneys for the FBI and Oakland Police are expected to file appeals. The plaintiffs also plan to bring a new lawsuit against Held and other FBI officials dismissed from the case. Now that the Oakland Police and the FBI have been brought to justice, they owe it to my family to explain what cause they had to hold my sister’s civil rights in such contempt,” Martha Bari said in a family statement. Judi’s political message was adamantly nonviolent. Yet for 12 long years she has been wrongly connected with terrorism. … The verdict reminds us that protection against terrorism should never outweigh the protection of our own civil rights.”

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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