Federal investigators and prosecutors gathered on the steps of a courthouse in Central Islip, Long Island in February to announce that they finally had caught up with the shadowy Earth Liberation Front. The ELF’s “campaign of violent crime has stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains to the Midwest,” an FBI official said. “That streak has ended here in New York.”
But some observers found the little group of “eco-terrorists” who had been arrested less than impressive. They consisted of three teen-agers – Jared McIntyre, Matthew Rammelkamp and George Mashkow Jr. – who confessed to arson and vandalism of some suburban homes under construction, but had no clear links to any activist organizations. The fourth member of the group, a 19-year-old named Connor Cash, is a well-known local activist. But Cash is a member of the Modern Times Collective, a local anarchist group that has publicly opposed such extreme actions.
Prosecutors say Cash bought gasoline and talked the three into using it to burn four homes – although the U.S. Attorney’s office in Central Islip admits they did not mention anyone specific in their pleas. The three minors pled guilty as adults; Cash pled not guilty to arson conspiracy, and aiding and abetting arson – charges that could land him in jail for 40 years, while the others could be imprisoned for up to 20 years each. “The FBI has used these three kids to frame an innocent activist,” says Kevin Van Meter, a member of the Modern Times collective.
Far from being a terrorist, Cash has become the focal point in what Modern Times members charge is a pattern of police harassment and “profiling” of activists who have participated in large-scale anti-globalization protests across the country. They say police and FBI agents have intimidated, surveilled, arrested and offered large bribes to Modern Times members.
Always a hard place for the left to organize, Long Island nevertheless has become the home of a lively, youth-oriented anarchist scene in recent years. Much of its energy is centered on Modern Times, which publishes a newspaper, holds conferences and educational meetings on issues like globalization and women’s rights, and is trying to open an organizing center. Cash is one of this group’s most active members. A high school dropout, he is now an organizer working with migrant workers and day laborers who have been the target of local hostility, and even beatings, in recent months. He was instrumental in opening Long Island chapters of the Food Not Bombs! hunger relief program.
Modern Times dates its troubles to May 6, 2000, when it held an unpermitted street festival in the town of Huntington. The action took over Huntington’s main thoroughfare to protest globalization, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and lack of space for youth on Long Island, where kids have little more than parking lots to hang out in for entertainment. The 90 protesters held a drum circle, handed out newspapers and threw up a 28-foot tripod – which Cash climbed, preventing it from being removed. Befuddled police, who had never seen anything like this in their town, arrested Cash and 15 others. Thirteen, including Cash, were sentenced to 10 hours of community service.
Then on August 1, Modern Times participated in a street blockade at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Cash and 50 others were arrested. Soon afterward, Cash and other Modern Times members found FBI agents turning to them for leads in their investigation of ELF-inspired arsons on Long Island – despite the fact that Modern Times has not been active in campaigning against urban sprawl, which was the apparent motive behind the burnings.
Cash was one of several group members who were threatened with retaliation if they did not help the agents, according to Van Meter and two witnesses. Officials at the U.S. Attorney’s office decline to comment on case specifics.
Modern Times responded with a long statement in its newspaper in early February, charging that the ELF investigation was actually something more sinister. “The FBI was not just interested in intimidating and investigating those involved in the ELF, but ‘fishing’ into the activities of youth community activists,” it said.
The statement also strongly opposed ELF’s tactics: “Creating an environment of fear and intimidation by means of arson is not conducive to the development of an empowered community. ä Furthermore arson puts at risk the lives of volunteer firefighters and innocent community members who are not profiting from urban sprawl.”
As a member of the Modern Times collective, Cash consented to this viewpoint. Just days after the statement appeared, however, he was arrested. His family had to put up their house to free him on $250,000 bail, and he has had trouble finding work as he awaits trial, which is expected to come up before the end of the year.
Cash is not discussing his case with the press. But his family, co-workers and neighbors proclaim his innocence. Civil rights lawyer Fred Brewington, who represents Cash, says there is not “a shred of evidence that his client broke any law or did anything improper.”
Brewington finds it sadly predictable that police intimidation threatens to derail Modern Times – which claims its members are still under surveillance. “They’re the young people that we were yesterday,” Brewington says. “As they grow older they’ll be the people who we look up to in the community, who raise issues.”
However, the publicity around Cash’s case has helped rally support for Modern Times. Van Meter reports that the collective is planning local protests against the IMF and World Bank, and hopes to open its organizing center and a radical, youth-run school within the next year.