FBI on Trial
Jury awards $4.4 million to a pair of Earth First
by Christine Keyser
In These Times magazine, July 22, 2002
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 Chemey, 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 Chemey, 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 clearcutting 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
Chemey, 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 Chemey, 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 Chemey 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
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
At the time of the bombing on May 24, 1990, Bari and Chemey
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 Chemey 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. lnstead
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 FBl's sordid history of surveillance and disruption
of radical groups. Moreover, in 1997, Wilken dismissed a number
of FBl officials from the lawsuit, including lead defendant Richard
Held, chief of the San Francisco bureau, who had directed the
COlNTELPRO program against the Black Panther Party, the American
lndian Movement and other radical groups. Dozens of FBl files
documenting the agency's use of the same covert tactics against
Earth First! mysteriously disappeared before the trial.
Attorneys for the FBl and Oakland Police are expected to file
appeals. The plaintiffs also plan to bring a new lawsuit against
Held and other FBl officials dismissed from the case. "Now
that the Oakland Police and the FBl 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