Earth First! Activist Killed In Headwaters Forest

I flash back to 1990. Isn’t this what we were fearful of when we exclaimed, “Jesus, they almost killed Judi Bari! That shows they’ll use lethal force”–they were whipping up a frenzy of animosity against Earth First!ers among the loggers with dishonest rhetoric about jobs, –”Someone could get killed!”, we said. Yeah. And someone did.

Just after noon on Thursday, September 17, Headwaters Forest defender David Nathan Chain, known to his friends as Gypsy, lost his life when a tree cut by a Pacific Lumber logger crushed him to death.

Gypsy and eight other Earth First!ers had ventured into an active timber harvest plan in the Grizzly Creek area of Headwaters Forest complex to protest reported violations of Forest Practice Rules, bring the violations to the attention of the logging crew, and to get the state forestry agency to come out and inspect the site. On the 17th and the previous day, a small group of people had been engaging the loggers on site in dialogue in an attempt to slow the logging down. PL had not amended their logging plan to reflect the road building they were conducting next to marbled murrelet habitat. The day following Gypsy’s death, the California Dept. of Forestry did inspect the site and subsequently issued a finding that a violation had occurred.

After the tree that crushed Gypsy was felled, the small group of people in his affinity group scrambled out of the brush where they had taken cover, yelling at the logger that he could have killed them when one of the group started frantically calling out for Gypsy, saying “Where’s Gypsy, he was right behind me, I can’t find him, Gypsy!” When the logger who felled the tree found Gypsy, he fell to his knees and prayed. Gypsy’s friends prayed and cried near where he lay while one of them ran to the state park phone about a mile and a half away.

The timber company immediately dove for cover, issuing a statement calling the death a “tragic accident”, claiming the loggers were not aware of protesters’ presence and citing what they called their “best in the industry” safety record. They also claimed Gypsy was hit by a “domino tree”, a second tree downed by the tree cut by the logger. These claims had nothing to do with the truth, but were issued before any details emerged.

The fact that the loggers were indeed aware of protesters’ presence was corroborated by a video tape recorded less than an hour before Gypsy was killed, containing threats and admonitions by the logger to ” Get the fuck out of here or there’s going to be a tree coming your way!”

Pacific Lumbers’ disingenuous claim that the loggers didn’t know they were endangering anyone was followed by comments to the media suggesting that it’s time to stop these protests, that organizers are putting young recruits in harm’s way, etc. These media feeds culminated in what looks to be the first volley in a “blame the victims” smear campaign: a press packet containing 2 pages of Earth First!’s Direct Action Manual describing “cat and mouse” woods actions. PL president John Campbell’s comment in the accompanying press release was “If you read the rules, … it’s just a game. Only the people who work in the forest and their families are supposed to be hurt”, seemingly suffering a memory lapse in terms of just who had lost their life.

A vigil and blockade quickly evolved at the site, people locking down to a junked car blocking the access road the next morning. People locked to equipment at the ridgetop where Gypsy was killed, and an alter was set up in the middle of the road near the entrance. Had this blockade not been in place, PL crews arriving for work the morning of Sept. 18 would have hauled out the trees, rendering an investigation of the site impossible. It is not clear what PL’s policy is for workers encountering protesters in the woods but this is certainly not the first time loggers have acted menacingly towards protesters.

The blockade/vigil continued until early in the morning of Oct. 7 when 42 members of several law enforcement agencies descended on the Grizzly Creek site to break up the blockade. They forcibly removed those at the site, breaking up the barricade and moved up the hill to where several activists were attached to a loader. They proceeded to douse two young women who were locked to equipment with pepper spray, pouring the caustic substance directly into their eyes from their hands. These two women, once taken to jail, were denied medical attention for more than 24 hours. The following morning, a group of 30 people returned to the site and set up a road blockade consisting of 9 people linked together across the road. To intimidate those taking part in the blockade into unlocking, sheriff’s deputies singled out one woman and subjected her to three applications of pepper spray, using her pain as a warning to the others. Finally, at the end of October, PL hauled their yarder (the equipment used to remove downed trees) out of the area, indicating that they won’t be clearing the site soon.

While Gypsy’s death is not as overtly political an act as the bombing of Judi Bari was, as the attacks on the Black Panthers were, it was surrounded by, immersed in, fed by and caused by a political attack that has been going on for a number of years, peaking in 1988-1990 and in recent years escalating again.

What happened in 1990 when the bomb was planted in Judi Bari’s car, (a bomb that was meant to kill) was carried out as part of an on-going agenda that was calculated and deliberate. What happened to Gypsy happened rather spontaneously in that the logger didn’t wake up that morning and say, “Hey, I’m gonna go kill me a protester‚Ķ” but the two incidents warrant comparison in that both were promulgated by the climate of violence, by the tolerance of violence against Earth First! that has been bred and fed by Pacific Lumber & the other corporations, and the law enforcement agencies. (That’s here in California‚Ķin Idaho it’s Shearer Lumber and Forest Service personnel in Florida it’s Procter and Gamble, in Maine it’s International Paper; in Nigeria it’s Shell and Chevron.)

Whether or not the logger had fully come to terms with the fact that he could be responsible for taking someone’s life, it is clear he had directly threatened to fall trees in the direction of protesters, and then followed through on that threat. On the video tape are his shouts, “Better wear a hard hat, because this one’s coming for you” Earlier he had screamed “Oh fuck! I wish I had my fucking pistol! I’m going to have to start packing my pistol” .

The Humboldt Sheriff’s Dept. also has a long record of non-enforcement and non-investigation of incidents of violence, harassment and threats of violence when the targets are people associated with Earth First! or Headwaters defense. The backdrop for Gypsy’s death is the tolerance and encouragement of animosity and violence towards Earth First!

Clearly, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Dept., the law enforcement agency currently under litigation for a previous incident of swabbing pepper spray into the eyes of Earth First! activists is not the fair and impartial agency to conduct an investigation.

Scores of organizations and individuals have rallied around a call for an independent investigation in the wake of this killing, including Action for Community and Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America, the Action Resource Center, the Sierra Club, many members of the clergy, and 100 signers on to a letter circulated by EPIC calling for an independent investigation of the incident and of Pacific Lumber’s and Humboldt county law enforcement’s policy of encouraging violence against environmentalists. Humboldt attorney Steve Schectman is preparing a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family.

The list of incidents that have been unprosecuted and uninvestigated in course of forest campaigns here is long–they’ve brought snipers out, threatened to shoot people, driven a logging truck into a crowd, broken a nose with a full punch to the face, assaulted people, hog-tied c.d.ers, etc.

But it’s worth recognizing that with the exception of the bombing of Judi Bari and the killing of Gypsy, (BIG exceptions, granted) the level of violence against eco-preservationists has been much worse in places other than Northern California, like Idaho…and Nigeria!

When we decry this tragedy and say it must not happen again we have to grapple with why it happens. It’s not because loggers have the bad seed gene, or because there’s a ‘natural’ animosity between loggers and enviros. It is because the greed-driven profit motive seeks a reduction of the numbers of people defending the earth and holding the earth sacred.

Logging is not a safe job. Mill work is not a safe job. That’s why they have safety standards. Protesting is not necessarily a safe job. That’s one of the reasons we have non-violence preps. We’re defenders in a WAR that is being waged against the earth and casualties can be of several species. I’m not suggesting it’s inevitable–I’m contending that’s why it happened. They’re at war.

Let’s neither make a martyr of Gypsy nor a villain of Arlington Ammons, the logger. Gypsy deserves to be a hero, who died fighting for what he believed in. And while blame needs to be laid at the feet of the logger, the bulk of blame needs to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the corporation: Maxxam/PL.