Anti-Union Terrorism: The Judi Bari Story

Yesterday marked the 30th year since American environmentalist and IWW labour organiser Judi Bari, along with fellow activist Darryl Cherney, were the victims of a terrorist attack in which a pipe bomb was detonated in Judi’s car as they were driving in Oakland, California. Judi was a key figure in the Earth First! group, a radical environmental advocacy organisation that, at the time, was trying to arrange protests to protect the ancient redwood forests in Northern California. Unfortunately the bomber has never been caught and the FBI response to the incident was suspicious from the start and led many to believe that they had something to do with the bombing or were wilfully mishandling the investigation to hurt the labour activists. They even went so far as to accuse Judi and Darryl of being the bombers themselves, but more on that later.

Throughout the 1980’s Judi Bari was a prolific activist and in 1988 was instrumental in starting a local group of the Industrial Workers of the World that would ally with the Earth First! group in protesting the cutting of old growth redwood trees. The idea was to bring environmentalists and timber workers together to oppose the increase of the rate of harvesting that was introduced by new management, as it was completely unsustainable in the long run.

Unfortunately, many timber workers felt antagonised by the activists and they were seen as threatening their livelihoods. Many protests would turn violent and Judi would be targeted as a problematic figure in the protesting and so suffered more than most. In 1989 a logging truck rammed her car while her children were inside, the driver of the truck is said to have left the truck and rushed over shouting “I didn’t see the children!” implying that it was no mere accident that he run into Judi’s car. She also regularly received death threats with one being sent on the lead up to the bombing stating it was her “last warning”.

Judi was a firm believer in non-violent protest so her chosen mode of demonstration was through music. She and Darryl would perform original protest songs that became quite controversial for their use of loaded language. For example, one song was named “Spike a Tree for Jesus”, tree spiking was a careless form of sabotage that included driving a long metal spike into a log so as to damage chainsaws or saws at lumber mills. While effective in sabotaging machinery it was also the cause of serious injury to timber workers. Such an incident happened on May 8th, 1987 at the Louisiana Pacific mill in Cloverdale, California. A large saw blade struck a spike in a log being milled causing shrapnel to fly off and one mill worker, George Alexander, nearly died as a result of the injuries he sustained. At the time, the Earth First! group still had “monkeywrenching” as its main strategy (monkeywrenching being sabotage) so they were blamed for the incident causing them to publicly disavow the practice of tree spiking.

In 1990 Judi was one of the main organisers of the Redwood Summer demonstrations that were supposed to take place to protest the careless logging practices. On May 22nd of that year she would meet with local loggers to agree on ground rules for nonviolence during these demonstrations. A couple of days later she left a house in Oakland that she had been staying at with Darryl Cherney on their way to more organising activities when a pipe bomb would explode in her car.

Both Judi and Darryl survived the incident, but Judi would come away from the explosion seriously injured. The first of many actions taken by the FBI that caused suspicion happened just after the bomb went off. They arrived on the scene at the same time as first responders, suggesting that they knew about the bomb beforehand. Judi herself is quoted as saying it was as if the investigators were “waiting around the corner with their fingers in their ears.” This would be explained later that there had been a tip to law enforcement that “some heavies” were transporting a bomb for sabotage. This, apparently, was the reason for their quick response and the fact that they targeted Judi immediately as a suspect.

Due to Earth First!’s previous known involvement in sabotage campaigns, when the Oakland Police and the FBI immediately accused Judi and Darryl of carrying the bomb to use in an act of terrorism the incident would make headlines all across the nation with the group being labelled as ‘radical’ and tying in potential bombing to their history of ‘monkeywrenching’. While still being treated at a local hospital Judi would be placed under arrest on the same day that the bomb went off. The FBI would exclusively focus on targeting Judi Bari as the main suspect, raiding her home, and pestering anyone they knew she had been in contact with. They claimed to have irrefutable evidence that Judi Bari was guilty and so ignored any evidence that pointed to Judi being the victim. Once it came time to present any of this evidence to a court the FBI did not produce any and the district attorney had no choice but to drop all charges against Judi and Darryl due to a lack of evidence.

There have been many theories as to who was responsible for the bombing. Although never thoroughly investigated by the FBI there was someone that claimed to be the bomber. Just five days after the bombing staff at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat received a letter signed by “The Lords Avenger” claiming responsibility. They went into great detail about the bomb in Judi’s car, as well as a second bomb that had been unsuccessful in blowing up the Cloverdale mill. It was concluded that it was indeed the bomb maker that had written the letter but due to the fact that how they described planting the bomb was implausible in light of evidence it was most likely a way to divert attention away from the actual bomber.

Judi Bari herself believed that the bomber was an acquaintance of hers that was suspected of being an FBI informant. It was revealed that earlier in 1990 the FBI had run a ‘bomb school’ in redwood country showing how to investigate car bombing that bore a striking resemblance to the bombing of Judi’s car. As well as this, Bari’s attorney handed over numerous death threats aimed at Bari to the FBI after the bombing but none of the threats were ever investigated.

Unfortunately, Judi Bari would not live long enough to see some semblance of justice carried out. While she and Darryl opened a civil lawsuit against the FBI when she was still alive, claiming that their first and fourth amendment rights had been violated, she would die due to breast cancer in her home on March 2nd, 1997. Darryl continued the fight and 5 years later in 2002 it was confirmed that their civil rights had indeed been violated. The verdict was that Darryl and Bari’s estate was to be paid a sum of $4.4 million and once the trials gag order was lifted on of the jury members was quoted as saying –

“Investigators were lying so much it was insulting… I’m surprised that they seriously expected anyone would believe them… They were evasive. They were arrogant. They were defensive.”

Although during the trial the theory that the FBI was involved in the bombing was dismissed; it was agreed that the case was restricted to investigative malpractice on the part of the FBI as instead of looking for the real terrorists they instead persecuted the victims simply on the basis of their political activism.

The memorial service held for Judi Bari was attended by around 1000 people. On her request they were all there to have a “party” and to celebrate her life and activism. One of her friends claims that before she died, she asked people to remember what legendary IWW organiser Joe Hill said just before he was executed in 1915: “Don’t mourn. Organize!”