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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Activists vs. Law Enforcement

Air Date: Week of

A jury recently turned in a verdict in the trial of Earth First! members Darryl Cherney and the late Judi Bari against the FBI and the Oakland police, finding that the actions of the police and the FBI had violated the activists’ civil rights. Cheryl Colopy reports from San Francisco.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. When a pipe bomb ripped through the Subaru station wagon of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney back in 1990, the local police and FBI leapt into action by accusing the Earth First! activists of carrying the bomb themselves. The charges were quickly dropped but no one else was arrested. Now, a jury in Oakland, California has awarded almost four-and-a-half million dollars in damages to Bari’s estate and Mr. Cherney on the grounds that the FBI and Oakland police had violated the activists’ civil rights and defamed them. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Cheryl Colopy has our story.

COLOPY: On the day of the bombing, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were in the thick of planning Redwood Summer, a series of rallies throughout northern California aimed at saving old growth redwoods. At the time, timber companies were harvesting redwoods at record rates, and the famous Headwaters Grove, later purchased by government agencies for conservation, was still at risk. Judi Bari described what happened that May morning 12 years ago in a videotaped deposition played a few weeks ago in an Oakland courtroom. The testimony was taken shortly before Bari died of cancer in 1997.

BARI: I felt a huge force that came from directly below me. It was the hugest thing I’d ever felt in my life. It was the most violent force I’d ever felt. I felt it rip through my body. My legs both were immobile at the time. I knew that my body was ruined. I knew that I was paralyzed. I felt that I was dying.

COLOPY: The bomb, which shattered Bari’s pelvis, exploded as she and Cherney were passing through Oakland on their way to a rally. Bari says she begged doctors to let her die because of the intense pain. When she awoke after surgery she learned she was being blamed for the bombing.

BARI: I remember that there were two uniformed police standing next to me as soon as I opened my eyes. They told me that I was under arrest for transporting explosives, I guess-- I don’t remember their exact words.

COLOPY: Oakland police also arrested Cherney, whose face and eyes were cut by shattered glass. FBI agents were already on the scene advising local police and telling them Bari and Cherney were affiliated with Earth First!, a group that was suspected of terrorist activities. Charges were never brought against Bari and Cherney but over the next few weeks, law enforcement officials held press conferences saying they were the only suspects in the case even though a local reporter had received an anonymous letter claiming responsibility for the bombing. In addition to arresting the pair, FBI and police conducted multiple searches and failed to follow up on any other leads in the case.

A year later in 1991, Bari and Cherney sued. They said their rights had been violated and their environmental work undermined. After countless delays, the trial finally began this past April. When federal jurors deliberated for three-and-a-half weeks, attorneys on both sides feared they were deadlocked. But finally, last Tuesday, the jury found that police and FBI had violated the activists’ civil rights. Outside the courthouse Earth First! supporters howled in victory.

The jury awarded the activists two million four hundred thousand dollars from the FBI and two million dollars from Oakland police. Darryl Cherney says he’ll use any money he finally receives to continue his environmental activism. After living under a cloud of suspicion for 12 years, he says the verdict is a vindication.

CHERNEY: This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do since we watched Judi Bari pass away. This has been an unbelievably difficult process.

COLOPY: The jury rejected claims that there was a conspiracy to violate the activists’ rights, but the hefty damages for First Amendment violations showed jurors felt law enforcement had squelched Bari and Cherney’s work on behalf of the environment. Lead attorney Dennis Cunningham said the verdict should send a strong message to law enforcement.

CUNNINGHAM: People can see when activists are attacked for their activism by the government, by the police.

COLOPY: Attorneys for the defense had little to say after the verdict. FBI lawyers have repeatedly declined to be interviewed. The Department of Justice says only that it’s reviewing the verdict and will decide soon whether to appeal. Maria Bee, who defended the three Oakland officers, says she was particularly surprised by the damages assessed against one of her clients, a former lieutenant who supervised the other offices.

BEE: Punitive damages requires malicious intentional conduct and there was no evidence of that whatsoever as to Lieutenant Sims.

COLOPY: Bee says she doesn’t think any of the jury’s findings make sense and she still believes all the Oakland officers acted reasonably given what they knew at the time of the arrest and searches. Meanwhile, activists say much of what they predicted in the 1980’s would happen on the north coast has happened. Most of the available timber has already been cut and mills have shut down. Still, Karen Picket says there’s plenty of work to be done and the verdict has renewed her energy for environmental activism.

PICKET: This makes me feel like there is hope (laughs) in this world where it’s so easy to get very cynical. I feel like there’s hope and I feel like, you know, there is a constitution standing up there. And I’m proud of that; I’m proud of this jury.

COLOPY: For Living On Earth, I’m Cheryl Colopy in Oakland.



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