It's only appropriate, perhaps, that the future of the First Amendment takes shape in a hippie law office in San Francisco's North Beach district, surrounded by strippers. A light April rain falls on furtive patrons of the Lusty Lady and the Roaring 20s on the street below as legendary radical environmentalist Rodney Coronado sits in a conference room in the Pier 5 Law Offices, strategizing with some of this country's finest civil-rights attorneys.
Coronado's no stranger to this scenario, having emerged only days before from his second stretch in federal prison, this time for eight months. He listens attentively, his dark Yaqui Indian heritage shining through as he munches on a veggie burrito. The glow on his fiancée Chrysta's face says everything you'd need to know about how good it is to be out. But the joy may be short-lived. Now Coronado is caught up in a prosecution he never could have foreseen and which has the environmentalist community, in particular, digging in for a long fight with the federal government.
That's because his alleged crime doesn't involve something he actually did. Rather, it only involves something he said.
In 2003, Coronado gave a public speech about animal rights in Hillcrest attended by about 100 people and hosted by a vegetarian group. It was, he says, his 'standard' speech at the time, talking about his own extreme efforts to protect wildlife, including a 1991-92 arson campaign against fur farms as an agent of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), for which he served 57 months in prison. During a Q&A period after the speech, someone asked him how he once made his incendiary devices. Having long retired from that kind of action, and having paid for it with prison time, he answered the question.
U.S. attorneys now say Coronado's brief response-the actual words themselves-is a federal crime. Not only that, it's terrorism.
And that word-'terrorism'-is new to the environmental movement when it comes to punishment for crimes. The word 'eco-terrorist' was coined in 1982 by Ron Arnold, a prime mover in the anti-environmentalist 'Wise Use Movement,' but only recent laws make ecologically motivated speech a terrorist crime. The attorneys aren't even totally certain how it works. I ask the question, cognizant that Coronado and his fiancée are in the room, and opinions fly. Ben Rosenfeld, from the offices of famed attorney Dennis Cunningham, says the government's plea offer, which they turned down, was 21 months. Tony Serra, the silver-haired lion who is a resident of these offices and who has successfully championed everyone from Black Panther Huey Newton to the Hells Angels to Earth First!er Judi Bari, says he always figures the judge could go twice the offer, so 42 months.
But Jerry Singleton, the attorney who is defending Coronado's case in federal district court in San Diego, shakes his head.
'The government is holding out that there's this bogeyman,' says Singleton, who is based in San Diego. 'They're saying that the guidelines, which would put him at, I think, 18 years, would be the ones that apply. Those were post-9/11.' That stuns the room for a minute.
'I don't think those sentencing guidelines are applicable in this case, not the way it's been charged,' opines another Pier 5 attorney, Omar Figueroa.
'Well, there's an argument that they are,' says Singleton, shooting a look at Coronado. 'They're trying to use them.'
Eighteen years would be a shocking sentence for a speech, even if Coronado were the only one facing time like this, but he's got company. Since 2005, the government has brought more than 20 cases against environmentalists that have not only redefined free speech, but also redefined environmentally motivated property destruction-like torching Hummers or tree-felling equipment-as being on a par with the murderous assaults of Al Qaeda.
On May 21, a federal judge in Oregon announced she was sentencing 10 animal activists there as 'terrorists' for burning SUVs, among other crimes, under post-9/11 revisions of the federal sentencing guidelines that can add as much as 20 years to a sentence if the crime was meant to coerce or influence the government. Singleton says he's not sure how this will apply to Coronado's case, since the Oregon defendants sentenced thus far have pleaded guilty to actual arson-not just talking about arson. But Lauren Regan, an attorney representing the defendants in the Oregon cases, says this landmark ruling has redefined terrorism, saying: 'The unintended consequences of this judge's ruling is that anyone who damages property opens themselves up to a terrorism prosecution. They burned SUVs on a private car lot, never physically injuring anybody; to think that's equal to killing 168 people in Oklahoma City is a stretch.'
Twenty eco-radicals on trial might not sound like a lot, but it's almost as many as had been arrested for major crimes in the 18 years previous, while 1,200 known attacks by ALF or its younger twin, the Earth Liberation Front, caused as much as $200 million in damages. It is important to note that no persons have ever been injured or killed in these attacks, but industry lobbying groups have forced the government to make prosecuting them a top priority.
Environmentalists are calling it the 'green scare,' in reference to the 'red scare' that characterized the hunt for communists during the McCarthy era. The wave of prosecutions have sent a shock through the part of the movement that engages in direct action, like activists bicycle-locking themselves to bulldozers.
In another case in New Jersey, six activists were given sentences as long as six years for running a website that posted information about vandalism attacks-without connecting them to the vandalism in any way. In the meantime, even the Democratic-controlled Congress keeps ratcheting up the laws, passing in November the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes attacks against the profits of animal-based industries, once again, terrorism.
'You have to look at Rod's case in conjunction with the whole spate of vindictive cases that the government has been bringing against radical environmentalists, who the government carelessly lumps in with terrorists, and members of ELF or ALF and sometimes just anarchists,' says Rosenfeld. 'The government has been on record as admitting it's made a domestic priority out of going after this movement writ large.'
True enough, the U.S. Department of Justice has said in congressional testimony since at least 1999 that it considered ALF and ELF to be 'top priorities' in the fight against domestic terrorism. But that has never included people who make animal-rights websites. Or widely published activist leaders like Coronado who make speeches. Until now. Rosenfeld says he's started to field concerned calls from other environmental groups.
'It is having a huge chilling impact on people,' he adds. 'The government has shown its willingness to go after people based purely on speech and ideology. People don't know anymore what they can safely even say, let alone what they can safely do. This is at complete variance with what most people believe is protected activity.'
Boom! Just like that
The facts of what Rodney Coronado did and said in San Diego are not in dispute. On Aug. 1, 2003, he rose in the pre-dawn darkness at the offices of the Earth First! Journal in Tucson, where he was crashing, and boarded an early plane to San Diego. He was only 36 years old but could have been considered, even then, an elder spokesman of the radical movement, having been involved with groups like Earth First!, the Sea Shepherds and ALF since he was 18. He was met at the airport by David Agranoff, his host, then 29, who had invited him to speak that evening as one of a series of events Agranoff's vegan advocacy group was calling 'Revolution Summer.'
Despite the name, Agranoff and his cohorts were hardly the stuff of violent overthrow. Agranoff is a laughing, easygoing horror fiction writer and a teacher of kids with autism, and the four or five people in the group, including his wife, called themselves Compassion for Farm Animals. 'Mostly what we did was pass out dairy-free ice cream in Balboa Park, maintain our website and do community potluck dinners. That was our terrorism,' Agranoff chuckles.
And Coronado himself was, as he insists, retired from felony action. After finishing a long stint in prison in 1999, and having a son who needed his daddy, he was no longer available for fur-shop smashups or arson or other major offenses. He was, he says, satisfied with being a spokesman for the movement and maybe participating in marches or civil disobedience-nothing more.
Someone else in town, however, was using more hardcore tactics. Before Coronado's plane arrived in San Diego that morning, a huge blaze began at an unfinished, but controversial, 206-unit La Jolla condominium complex that caused $50 million in damages. Four hundred people had to be evacuated from nearby homes. A banner hung at the site read: 'If you build it, we will burn it. The E.L.F.s are mad.'
Agranoff and Coronado claim they never heard about the fire until around 6 p.m., when they went to The Center, a gay and lesbian community complex in Hillcrest, for the planned talk and were met there by reporters who filled them in. Coronado says he had 'no goddamn idea' who started the fire but gave them some remarks about arson as a tactic. To one reporter, he said, 'I would rather see an apartment complex burn to the ground than developers making money off the environment.' The feds have never charged him with involvement in the fire.
'Anybody who did that arson knew that the last thing they should be doing was hanging out where I was,' says Coronado. 'Because they knew that the feds were going to be all over my shit.'
Coronado assumes that agents regularly attended his talks, and it seems they did; agents later subpoenaed and questioned people who attended that lecture after allegedly recording their license plate numbers outside. But he made a practice of never toning down his lectures.
'I'm not going to sanitize my speeches for fear of throwing them a bone,' he says. 'Let them listen. I was pretty known for a standard lecture about animal and earth liberation, Deep Ecology, and then contexting it within my own personal experiences, with my own Native American heritage.'
Coronado had delivered this talk scores of times, all over the world. In it, he recounted selected bits of his own history as examples of what he considered non-violent action in defense of threatened wildlife. He grew up as a middle-class kid in San Jose, hunting and fishing and learning about his Yaqui ancestry. But his monkey-wrenching became legendary in 1986, when he and another sailor from oceangoing radicals the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sank two unmanned Icelandic whaling vessels in Reykjavik Harbor. Later, in 1989, he began a video investigation of fur farming with a partner, Jonathan Paul, the footage from which was used in a 60 Minutes segment. In 1990, he helped launch 'Operation Bite Back,' a sweeping campaign that torched fur farms and research laboratories in Oregon, Washington, Michigan and Utah, causing millions in damages. Eventually, after two years underground in mountain cabins and Indian reservations, Coronado was caught living on a Yaqui reservation outside Tucson and sentenced in 1995 to 57 months in prison for burning a Michigan State University animal-research lab.
This was the apex of Coronado's life as an arsonist. Living on the lam and in prison, Coronado says, led him through a series of spiritual and strategic epiphanies. Over the years, his cast of personal heroes had expanded to include not only Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but also the Apache warrior Geronimo, but he knew armed resistance was not his destiny. He vowed, though, to always speak out in defense of wilderness and wildlife.
Agranoff says about 100 people were at the San Diego talk, and he was thrilled. 'Usually, we'd get about 15 people. We'd publicized the hell out of this.' It was a public event, and he didn't know most of the attendees. Finally, someone asked a question: How did you build the incendiary device you used in Michigan?
Coronado never missed a beat. He'd answered this before. Trying to recall his wording, he says now: 'I was like, ‘Oh, well, I did this: I made a crude incendiary device'-and I walked over to a table where we had the food set up, grabbed an apple-juice jug, saying, 'a device like this,' and then I turned around, there was a chalkboard behind me, and I made a really brief line drawing of how an electronic circuit works: here's the battery, here's the timer, here's the igniter. And then you create a circuit, and that ignites underneath this [the jug, which would have been full of a mix of gasoline and motor oil] and-boom! Just like that.'
Boom. Got that? No, evidently nobody else did, either, because no known person ever made a bomb from the instructions Coronado gave that night. The feds waited two and a half years to make sure and then arrested him anyway, in February 2006. Agranoff remembers the description as being even less detailed, saying Coronado never drew it on any chalkboard. 'No, he didn't draw a diagram. He just kinda quickly answered the question and moved on,' he says.
That night, Coronado hopped on a bus to Los Angeles to give another version of his standard speech at a big annual animal-rights conference. In San Diego, however, his words were lingering.
Under 18 USC § 842(p)(2)(A), which was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph Biden, 'It shall be unlawful for any person to teach or demonstrate the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device, or a weapon of mass destruction, or to distribute by any means information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction, with the intent that the teaching, demonstration, or information be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a federal crime of violence.'
That's the whole law under which Coronado is charged. It was meant to get bomb-making instructions off of the Internet, where they are widely available. The troubling word, here, though, is 'intent.' Ben Rosenfeld can't see how the government can claim Coronado intended anyone in San Diego to commit a federal crime. Commenting on Coronado's case in a widely distributed 2006 legal essay, he writes: 'Make no mistake. This is a pure free speech case. Measured against any historic test of free speech, Coronado's behavior-that is to say, his speech-was alarmingly innocuous and uncriminal [his emphasis].'
Two days after the speech, Agranoff and his pals returned from a planned non-violent demonstration at a Norco dairy farm to find their van was gone and their house had been ransacked by the feds. Eventually, Agranoff and many others were dragged in front of a grand jury, which was convened to investigate the fire but which ended up mostly asking questions about Rod Coronado. Agranoff's house was raided again, this time when he was present, as was the home of another activist, Michael Cardenas, and the only things taken were videotapes of Coronado's speech. Neither tape, however, showed the question-and-answer period.
Agranoff and fellow activists Danae Kelly and Nicole Fink refused to speak to the grand jury and were jailed for about 80 days each on contempt charges.
'I'm perfectly willing to testify,' says Agranoff, 'because there's nothing I can say that would hurt Rod. But I'm not going to do it in a secret proceeding. They have to do this in open court.'
San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam-who was later fired by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, which hasn't affected the case-announced Coronado's indictment on Feb. 22, 2006, in a press release that seemed to purposely conflate Coronado's speech and the fire he didn't commit.
'Teaching people how to build explosives in order to commit violent crimes is unacceptable in civilized society,' she is quoted. This is followed by a quote from agent John Torres of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), who says, 'When organizations such as ELF/ALF engage in these senseless acts of violence, it threatens us all. ATF will continue to aggressively pursue these types of cases and bring this type of criminal activity to a halt.'
'What strikes me as being so wrong about this statute is that there's no requirement that there be any kind of agreement between the person furnishing the information and the listeners, either explicit or implicit,' says Singleton. As such, he sees it as protected speech. In his view, it fails the historic test for incitement, which requires intent and/or imminent action.
There are only three exceptions to free speech, as carved out by the Supreme Court:
* 'Fighting words'-the direct incitement to violence
* The exception for 'clear and present danger.'
Ben Rosenfeld, in his essay on Coronado's case, feels none of these applies to this speech. In the case of 'clear and present danger,' for instance, he notes that Supreme Court Judge William Brandeis wrote: 'If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.' In other words, if someone has time to think about the crime, the speech describing it does not represent a clear and present danger.
'[This is] really asking the court to outlaw a type of speech that has never been outlawed before,' says Singleton. He filed a motion to throw out the Feinstein law as unconstitutional, but the judge declined earlier this year. 'All the case law talks about is an individual having criminal liability for aiding and abetting in the commission of another substantive crime. Or if you are inciting violence to such a degree-crying ‘fire' in a crowded theater-that harm is imminent. That's the Brandenburg test,' Singleton adds.
If this statute stands, however, the government is saying the standards established by the 1969 Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, are outflanked; no imminent crime is needed anymore. In fact, as in Coronado's case, no substantive crime need ever occur. It is, literally, a speech crime.
U.S. attorneys prosecuting Coronado's case are unable to comment on the question of intent, but the FBI's San Diego spokesperson, April Langwell, says via e-mail: 'By definition, Domestic Terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use [emphasis hers], of violence by a group or individuals.... Mr. Coronado has the right to establish and organize an advocacy group.... He does not have the right to teach others how to instill fear and destroy property in our community.'
Actually, he does. Or, at least, he used to.
'Certainly, the law has not changed since the Brandenburg case those many years ago,' says James Wheaton, senior counsel with the First Amendment Project in Oakland. Although he cautions that free-speech cases are extremely detailed and one shouldn't generalize, he adds, 'Mr. Coronado, if I understand it, made a speech in a public place and responded to a question. I think it will be difficult for them to establish that he, at the time he made that speech, intended that somebody act upon it immediately. And they will have to establish that.'
The new terrorism
Coronado is finding out right now exactly how far the government is willing to go to make this case.
The sprawling Oregon case includes 65 different counts of arson and conspiracy related to 18 different incidents of environmentally motivated sabotage in the Northwest, and charged to 13 defendants, plus two other related defendants charged in Washington state. All but one of the incidents were attacks on private property or companies, not government facilities. Jonathan Paul, for instance, is charged with being the lookout at a fire that burned a horse slaughterhouse in 1997. Another activist, Suzanne 'India' Savoie, allegedly served as a lookout for a 2001 fire that gutted the offices of a lumber mill.
'This is the first time in the history of the United States that the federal government is seeking this enhancement for property crimes that did not result in injury or death to humans-to equate property destruction with terrorism,' says Lauren Regan.
The sentencing enhancements, Regan explains, were never intended for this purpose. Add-ons of up to 20 years were available in cases of international terrorism but then extended to domestic acts after the Oklahoma City bombing by the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Still, the added time pertained to acts that caused bodily injury or death to humans, or threatened federal infrastructure like the power grid or waterways. That all changed with the 2001 USA Patriot Act. Under that law, a judge may add decades if 'the offense was calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government' or 'was calculated to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.'
If these enhancements apply to acts of private-property destruction-or, in the case of Coronado, merely talking about how property is destroyed-what, then, are the limits of 'influence'? Protests, another form of talking, are meant to 'influence' the government. So is democratic debate. What if Oprah goes on a campaign for cruelty-free cosmetics?
'When everyone is a terrorist, no one is,' says Regan. 'The further we broaden the language of what a true terrorist is, the less security we really do have. If a monkey-wrencher is the same as Osama bin Laden, where is the distinction drawn?'
Jerry Singleton and other attorneys agree with her but worry about the political climate. These Oregon cases, as well as Coronado's, have been orchestrated by a Bush administration starved for political victories. The prevailing thought is that at least one of these cases will go to the Supreme Court, where its reception is wholly uncertain.
The first cases to get that far might be the New Jersey cases, which involved six activists who called themselves Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, and who openly sought to put the major animal-testing corporation, Huntingdon Life Sciences, out of business. Their crime consisted of putting the time and location of legal protests and personal information about company employees on a website. Several of the employees were victims of irritating vandalism, including having their windows smashed and even cars overturned-but none of these acts were connected to the SHAC defendants themselves. They were committed by persons unknown.
SHAC's attorney, Andrew Erba, was stunned last September, when the activists were given sentences of up to six years in federal prison under the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
'The truth is, if you carry this forward, this logic, almost any group that does activist activities, particularly using the Internet, is in terrible shape,' says Erba. 'The government took the position that the various postings on the website... incited people to take action. But, absent the proof of imminent action, you really can't just prosecute ideas. It's unconstitutional.'
'Now, they've just criminalized running an above-ground campaign,' says Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon and spokesman with the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, who does exactly what Coronado has done for years: talk to the press. 'All this is going to do is drive people underground. And chances are [they] won't get caught for that.'
Test case: Sherman Austin
Sherman Austin is the only person who has been jailed under the statute being used against Coronado. On Jan. 24, 2002, when he was 18 years old, he was napping at the Sherman Oaks home he shared with his single mom, his twin sister and his brother, when FBI and Secret Service agents with assault rifles drawn swarmed the house. They were looking for the computers that held Austin's website, Raisethefist.com.
Austin is a bright, dreadlocked African-American kid who was politicized by meeting lots of anti-corporate anarchists protesting L.A.'s Democratic National Convention in 2000. Austin says he's neither a 'green' nor a 'red' anarchist, and it's just as correct to call him a socialist or 'libertarian socialist.' One look at his website would reveal that his image of the anarchist is one engaged in liberation struggles like those of the Zapatistas in Chiapas; plus there is lots of info on L.A. area police-brutality cases like the videotaped beating of 16-year-old African American Donovan Chavez in Inglewood. The imagery on the site is pretty sensationalistic-it looks a lot like Fox News. He also used to offer free hosting for other activists. One of them posted a document called the Reclaim Guide.
The guide was an amateurish manual prepared for a protest against the International Monetary Fund that never happened because of 9/11. The entirety of its 'smoke bomb' recipe, for example, reads: 'Mix 4 parts sugar with 6 parts salt peter. Heat this over a low flame until it melts, stirring well. Pour into a container. When pouring place a few wooden matches into it for a fuse. About a pound of this will smoke up an entire block.'
'I looked at the Reclaim Guide but never thought much of it,' says Austin. 'It didn't seem like it was that big of a deal. You could get this kind of information at any number of white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites.'
Instead of warning Austin to remove the material, the FBI had him and his family under surveillance for months. Then, in August 2002, federal prosecutors began offering him a plea deal on 18 USC § 842(p)(2)(A). Austin's mother, Jennifer Martin Ruggiero, was astonished at the government's attempt to turn her son into a terrorist.
'I don't care about anarchism. He can be an anarchist,' Martin says. 'I care about violence. And I know Sherman is non-violent. That's part of his politics.'
Weeks before any plea negotiations began, the FBI interviewed the kid who actually wrote and posted the Reclaim Guide, a white teenager from Orange County. In his FBI interviews, he admitted the work was his. But the feds called Austin the 'author' anyway.
'I told the FBI at least seven different times when they questioned me at my house, if I'd authored this information, and I told them no,' says Austin.
A federal probation officer preparing pre-sentencing reports on Austin's case assured his public defender that the federal terrorism sentencing guidelines would not apply, so Austin opted for a trial. After months of haggling, however, the government seemed to get peeved. The probation officer did a new pre-sentencing report and announced that the terror guidelines would, indeed, apply and could add 15 to 20 years to his sentence. Austin signed the plea. The judge then broke the plea agreement and gave him a year in prison, where he had to be isolated after receiving persistent death threats from the Aryan Brotherhood.
'That's what it's all about-free speech,' says Austin. 'Because if it was just about explosives, they'd have plenty of other websites to go after. I mean, Raisethefist.com wasn't a website you'd go to if you wanted to know how to build a bomb.'
No. For that, you'd probably go to The Anarchist Cookbook, which is available every day on that radical website, Amazon.com.
Get a new spokesman
Hours after meeting the lawyers, Coronado sits in a late-night Berkeley coffee shop, wishing Chrysta hadn't heard that bit about getting more years in prison.
'Part of me didn't want Chrysta to hear it,' he says. 'To have me back now, after eight hard months in prison, and to be hearing another possible three or four years-or more-and only a few months from now. That's hard to hear.'
The case against him is 'a stretch,' he says. 'But at the same time,' he adds, 'I've already been convicted of two past, quote, ‘ecoterrorism'-related offenses. The last thing I want to do is be talking to the jury about how I didn't do this third thing.'
His second felony offense was something of a fluke, but it has put the fear into Coronado. In keeping with his plan to only do civil-disobedience-like actions, Coronado has been keeping a low profile in Tucson and not even acting as a spokesman anymore. In 2003, he was helping to organize a chapter of Earth First! in Tucson when he participated in the dismantling of a mountain lion trap in popular Sabino Canyon park, believing this was a misdemeanor offense. Because the federal government considers him a serious threat, however, they re-jiggered the prosecution into a felony and sent him away for eight months. At his trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst argued that Coronado 'is a danger to the community.... I know he wasn't tried here for being a violent anarchist. This trial wasn't about Rod Coronado being a terrorist, but he is one.'
He got out of prison again just in time to take his 5-year-old son to the ritual deer dances on the Pascua Yaqui reservation south of Tucson. His priority now, he says, is to take care of that boy and Chrysta's 4-year-old daughter, and while he knows the younger hotheads in the movement might dismiss him as a sellout, he's hoping they'll offer him one final gesture of respect and find a new spokesman.
'I don't want to do that role anymore,' he says of eco-radicalism. 'I would like to see that people understand that the struggle for me is about simpler things. The greatest goal of my revolution now is simply to have a family! Ha-ha! If I can't make real, in my own life, my principles and beliefs, then what chance is there of them ever expanding outward to the greater world?'
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