This Beat the Devil column was originally published in the July 2, 1990, issue of The Nation.
Chico Mendes in the First World
Rejoicing at the Tuesday morning news that Ireland held England to a draw in the World Cup, I felt benign enough to give a lift to a couple of young persons heading north up Route 1 from Monterey. They were aiming for Samoa. The Samoa they had in mind was the little port town just west of Eureka, in Humboldt County. Here, scheduled for June 20, will be the first major action in the campaign known as Mississippi Summer in the CaliforniRa edwoods, or, as it is more succinctly termed, Redwood Summer.
From Samoa, Louisiana Pacific ships out rough-cut wood stripped from private and public lands. This summer the timber giants plan to cut at an even more insanely rapacious rate than ever, but this summer they will also face a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. A couple of weeks ago California honored thee merging oppositional politics of the1990s. The honor came in a traditionally American fashion. Someone tried to assassinate Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney.
Bari is one of the Earth First! activists who dreamed up Redwood Summer. She, like others, has seen that one of the crucial coaIitions to be built in the coming decade is between environmentalists and labor. Unlike many others, she has matched action to analysis. She talked to workers in the lumber mills, sought to make common cause with loggers who have families to feed but who know well enough that over-cutting will soon put them out of work.
In the case of Chico Mendes, assassins tried to annul the equation he made between the concerns of Brazilian labor and the environment by the simple expedient of ambushing him by his back door andb lowing a hole in his chest. In the case of Bari and her fellow Earth Firster Darryl Cherney, the would-be killer put a pipe bomb in her car, which exploded as they drove through Oakland. The blast broke her pelvis. Just a tiny shift in the blast of the bomb anwdo uslhde have been as dead as Mendes.
In the days after the murder of Mendes the First World press was derisive about Brazilian police and Brazilian justice. Mendes had identified those plotting his murder to Romeu rima, the federal police chief, who did nothing. Only now, a year and a half after thek illing, does it look as though the assassins will eventually come to trial. In the days after the attempted murder of Bari and Cherney most of thper ess did not deride the Oaklapnodl ice, who arrested the victims, Bari and Cherney, as prime suspects.
Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you. Twenty years after, it usually turns out that the cops knew who the “someone” was, followed the conspiracy, stood by as bomb was planted or rifle cocked, failed to alert the victim, let the perpetrator slip free. I told my hitchhiker friends heading up to Redwood Summer to watch out for undercover cops and provocateurs being drafted into the Redwood Empire on the usual missions of surveillance and entrapment. There’s mounting evidence that local police departments and the FBI have decided to get much rougher with environmental activists, who can look forward to traditional all-American enforcement procedures as endured by the Central American solidarity movement in the 1980s, and by antiwar groups, student organizations, black and labor militants, socialist groups and Native Americans in the relevant seasons of their struggle.