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A 'Terrorist' with Lots of Local Fans

When does activism cross the line to terrorism? The arrest of eco-radical Tre Arrow is sure to re-ignite that debate.

Barbara McLintock 16 Mar

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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The Tyee.caVictoria City police officers thought they were going to another routine call on Saturday afternoon - a shoplifter who was becoming quite agitated at one of the local Canadian Tire stores. Agitated shoplifters are very small fish in the average police officer's pond.It was only after the officers had done some checking with immigration officials that they realized their shoplifter was, from a law enforcement point of view, a fish the size of a great white shark - one of the people on the FBI's famed Most Wanted List.Think of the Most Wanted List, and most people think of the sorts of heinous criminals described on TV shows like "Unsolved Mysteries" and "America's Most Wanted" - murderers, rapists, kidnappers. No one is going to take their side in any public debate.The man arrested by Victoria police, however, has hundreds of fans throughout the Pacific Northwest. His arrest is sure to re-ignite the debate over when political activism becomes "domestic terrorism."The legal name of the man arrested in Victoria is Michael Scarpitti, aged 30, on the run from the U.S. federal officials for the past 18 months. In the activist community, however, he is better recognized as Tre Arrow, a man well-known for his exploits to try to save old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.Failed Green joins Earth Liberation FrontTre Arrow was well-known long before he was accused of having become so radical as to be willing to commit criminal acts. In 2000 he ran for Congress for the Green Party, describing himself as "a true voice for positive, just change." He got about six per cent of the vote. That same year he attracted major media attention when he spent 11 days perched on a nine-inch ledge outside a third-floor office of the U.S. Forest Service to protest a timber sale. At that time he described himself as having had "a spiritual awakening" several years earlier in which he began to look at the environment entirely differently.But his protest didn't change the government's mind. Six months later the events occurred with which he now faces criminal charges. Those charges are arson, relating to two separate fires apparently deliberately set to damage equipment that the fire-setters believed was being used to harm the environment. Tre Arrow and others who were charged in connection with the 2001 blazes are considered by the U.S. authorities to bemembers of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which is variously described as a "radical environmental group" or, by the FBI, a "domestic terrorist group."The Earth Liberation Front would never say whether Tre Arrow was a member - even if there was anyone to ask."The Earth Liberation Front is an international underground movement consisting of autonomous groups of people who carry out direct action according to the ELF guidelines," the movement's website explains. There's no official central organization, no formal leadership, no "membership list." The individual groups have no idea who members of other groups may be."There is no way to contact the ELF in your area," the site explains. "It is up to each committed person to take responsibility for stopping the exploitation of the natural world."The ELF guidelines do make clear that harming humans or animals in any direct action is not allowed, but that property damage and economic sabotage, are in the ELF's collective mind, quite acceptable.Indeed, the organization (if you can call it that) openly boasts that since 1997, its cells have carried out actions that have resulted in almost $100 million damages. It has targeted everything from SUV dealerships to university research facilities with much of its current attention focusing on defeating "urban sprawl" - often by burning down construction sites or half-built buildings on the edges of urban areas.Fingered by cell memberThe first arson in which Tre Arrow is alleged to have been involved took place at a sand and gravel plant in Portland on Easter morning 2001. In a written claim of responsibility, ELF wrote that: "In their Easter baskets we decided to leave four containers with gasoline and a time delayed fuse placed under two of their cement trucks. Let this be a warning to all the greedy corporations who exploit our Earth's natural resources,especially those who plan on doing it under . . . the title of 'free trade.' "The second case happened just six weeks later, on June 1, 2001, the night before a logging company was to start cutting trees from a site of old-growth forest known as Eagle Creek. A number of more mainstream environmental groups had been battling for years to try to save the piece of forest - much as Clayoquot and Great Bear Rainforest supporters have done here in B.C. - but had to that point been unsuccessful. Just hoursbefore the logging was to start, three of the logging firm's trucks went up in flames.The arson had been performed using milk jugs filled with gasoline - the same method as on the sand and gravel trucks.As a result, the FBI suspected the same persons were involved in both events - but they didn't have any information as to who those persons might be. FBI agents have said publicly in the US that it's not much easier trying to deal with these sorts of cells than it is of foreign terrorist ones. Information is shared only on a need-to-know basis, and it's just about impossible to infiltrate a cell because to do so would require the agents to be willing to commit significant crimes. And one of the strongest norms of such groups is that they will never give their fellow cell-members away.But in the case of the truck arsons, it appears, one of the other members of the cell broke one of the other cardinal rules of such groups - he talked about what he had done to someone who was not a member of the cell. In fact, he told his girlfriend what he had done - and the girl's father worked in law enforcement. Police were soon hard on the group's trail.Soon after the arrest of the young man, he also made it clear he was willing to break that group norm of not ratting out your cell - in return for a short sentence instead of the 30 or 40 years he might have otherwise been facing. It was apparently largely on the basis of information he supplied that the FBI issued its arrest warrant for Tre Arrow.Arson and sabotage 'victimless'?Ironically, had the information come to them a few months earlier, they would have had no trouble tracking Tre Arrow down. In October 2001, he was on the front page of nearly every Oregon newspaper when he fell from a 10-metre tree platform to which he was clinging in the hopes of preventing logging in another hotly-contested area in Oregon. He suffered serious injuries, including a broken pelvis and punctured lung, but survived.His supporters say he fell because loggers had been tormenting him for two days - blaring music at him, shining lights in his face all night, and even chasing him around the trees with chain saws. No charges were ever laid. The supporters say they find it ironic that someone can face lengthy prison terms for burning down a truck where no human life was at risk, but those who put a live in serious peril were never charged atall.But those involved in the business side of logging and development say it's quite unfair to look at offences like arson and sabotage as victimless crimes. It's always possible something could go wrong, putting life at risk or setting a forest fire, they note. But even if the action goes as planned, the ripple effects of the damage can be substantial - on regular working folks who are denied access to their jobs, temporarily or permanently; on small logging operations that can't handle the costs of the damage or the increased insurance premiums; of many residents living near the sites of actions who are frightened and traumatized by the apparently random violence.Mainstream environmental groups are also bitterly opposed to the tactics used by ELF and other equally radical movements. They complain, quite correctly, that these actions tar the whole environmental movement with the brush of violence, making it that much harder for the non-violent groups to attract public and political support.The police in Victoria say that the plan is for Scarpitti to be deported as soon as the relatively minor Canadian charges are dealt with. But what's the betting that Scarpitti won't go back to the U.S. quietly, and won't go back without stirring up a major debate in environmental circles as to whether he should be seen as hero or villain.Barbara McLintock is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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