If a Tree Falls: Enforcing the Green Scare
By Michael Dean Benton
North of Center
Curry Marshall, with a degree in Comparative Religion from Swarthmore College and experience as a senior producer at a New York multimedia design firm, got his start in filmmaking by shooting, directing and editing the 2005 documentary Street Fight. The documentary followed the grassroots, underdog candidate Cory Booker’s attempt to unseat Sharpe James, the longtime mayor of Newark, NJ. Marshall impressed audiences and critics with his dogged determination to cover the campaign despite James’ attempt to control all media coverage of his public appearances. The film, which ran as part of a series on PBS and was later recognized with both an Oscar and Emmy nomination, remains an essential document of an actual grassroots campaign running against entrenched party machine politics.
Marshall’s newest documentary, made with cinematographer and co-director Sam Cullman, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) tells the complex story of environmental Earth Liberation Front activist Daniel McGowan, who faced life in prison for his participation in the burning of two timber facilities. The film has received Best Documentary awards at multiple film festivals, and a Best Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Just as Street Fight is essential viewing for grassroots campaigners seeking to intervene in entrenched local power structures, If a Tree Falls is a vital film for committed environmental activists. Not only does the documentary capture embattled environmental activists in the age of the Green Scare opening up to the filmmakers, but most impressive was the filmmakers’ ability to convince law enforcement officials and government lawyers to talk on-record about their perspectives. With that in mind, this is also a film that should spur all American citizens to consider the impact of our current heightened post-9/11 law enforcement policies.
The Green Scare
First introduced into the lexicon in 2003, the Green Scare is a term used by environmental activists to describe the orchestrated campaign to paint their movement as a form of domestic terrorism. With a self-conscious nod to the political repressions of the last century’s numerous “Red Scares” that swept the nation, the Green Scare describes the U.S. government’s use of legal and police tactics to suppress the radical environmental movement. The term seeks to explain why so many environmental activists appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, why the jail sentences of environmental activists seem disproportionately long, and how some activists end up in maximum security prisons.
Though If a Tree Falls does not mention the term Green Scare by name, the film dramatically documents the process in action. A key tactic involves using corporate media to influence public perception of environmental and animal rights activist groups as “domestic terrorists.” This designation may seem like a stretch of the imagination. After all, in the past two decades, the United States has experienced multiple assaults on the twin towers in NYC, the horrific bombing of government offices in Oklahoma by Timothy McVeigh, and an incredible increase in violent armed militias and hate groups as Barack Obama became president–none of which have been perpetrated by environmental activists. Nevertheless, starting in the 1990s both local and national news stations amazingly started to apply the loaded term “terrorists” to environmental activists who never harmed or killed a human being in their actions.
When it comes to groups advocating direct environmental actions, law enforcement tactics have likewise focused directly (and often violently) upon environmental activists, intimidating those activists peacefully protesting in the streets while discouraging any citizen attempts to confront the corporations that are destroying the environment. If a Tree Falls provides vivid, difficult-to-watch scenes of police assaulting peaceful, albeit resistant, environmental protesters with strong-arm tactics and chemical weapons. Most memorable is the scene where police officers hold the heads of young female activists who sit with their arms linked together, while other officers apply liquid pepper spray directly to their eyes with Q-Tips. Another scene captures a law enforcement officer who reports that when activists do something that he doesn’t like, it becomes personal for him. Later we hear another officer relate that, with the institution of Post-9/11 Homeland Security policies, the easiest way for law enforcement officers to rise up through the ranks and increase their pay scale is through terrorism enhancement cases. (Jules Boykoff, in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (AK Press, 2007), details how this intimidation of activists extended to police infiltration of groups that never committed a crime, and the unleashing of paid informants who acted as agent provocateurs–facilitating and encouraging the acceleration of activist actions while reporting back to their home agencies.)
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