Interview with an â'Ecoterrorist'

Blowing up injustices near you


by Rikki Hall

Last month I went canoeing with an ecoterrorist. Actually, my friend John Johnson is not a terrorist of any kind, except perhaps in the minds of those who take power and authority a bit too seriously. Knox County Deputy Tom Walker tried to convince Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Liebowitz to treat Johnson as a terrorist or a gang member at his sentencing July 12 on two misdemeanor counts stemming from his involvement in a protest at a National Coal Corporation shareholders meeting in 2005.

Judge Liebowitz would have none of it. She listened to Walker, a member of the sheriff's Homeland Security task force, list the criteria by which domestic terrorists are categorized, and she decided that not just John, but several people in the courtroom, herself included, would qualify as gang members or security threats. Writing about the hearing, the News Sentinel' s Jamie Satterfield said, â“The judge lamented the fact that real terrorists have fostered a culture of fear in America, a culture that demonizes dissidence that once was honored and puts protesters like Johnson on Homeland Security lists.â”

John was charged with numerous crimes, including a few felonies, for being part of a group of about 30 protesters who drummed and chanted at a Holiday Inn Select in West Knoxville while shareholders in a conference room tried to discuss how much money they were making extracting coal from the mountains of Appalachia. The only charges that stuck were disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting, routine civil-disobedience penalties. John got six months probation and must pay over $1,200 in court costs, a big deal for a student who works odd jobs just to cover the basic costs of living. If attorney Mike Whalen had not represented John pro bono, his costs for free assembly and speech would have been higher.

I am sure the protesters were disruptive, especially the ones dressed as a bird, a bear and a salamander, but dust from coalmines disrupts breathing. Blowing the tops off mountains to get at a coal seam disrupts the forest that had been growing there since the last glacier receded. It disrupts the forest that would have grown there until the next glaciation. It disrupts the natural contour. Rubble and runoff from mining operations disrupts aquatic life in nearby streams. Burning coal to make electricity disrupts the climate.

The most destructive thing John and I did on our canoe trip was pluck a leaf and a cluster of berries from an unfamiliar shrub so we could identify it later. It was a blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium . John has been taking botany classes at Pellissippi State for the past two years, and we are both perpetually eager to find unfamiliar plants or animals and expand our knowledge of the natural world. Our float down the Little River was annotated by pointing and identifying.

â“There's a pawpaw.â”

â“Look, a spotted sandpiper!â”

â“That mayfly just emerged from the river. Oh! And became a meal for that cedar waxwing.â”

We stopped for a swim and some jumping off of rocks, but even amid our play we were distracted by wildflowers growing along the riverbank. Our love for the planet is not motivated by abstract concerns for distant rain forests or cuddly pandas. It is firmly rooted where we live, in afternoons filled with sunshine and the loping, ancient wingbeats of great blue herons, afternoons we want to share with everyone, even the owners of coal companies, because it might help them understand that the drums and costumes at protests are meant to evoke a world more vital than carpeted hallways and remind them what their numbers and pie charts are really about.

I would like to think that when people ridicule men like Al Gore for talking about the dangers of a changing climate while living in a large home with a large energy bill, what they are saying is that we should listen to people like John Johnson instead. But they ridicule him, too. Our legal system does not prevent National Coal from causing long-term damage to forests, streams and even mountains themselves. It does not stop them from tainting drinking water and air, but it does impose significant costs on those who dare speak out and those unfortunate enough to live near their mines. Our political culture labels activists like John Johnson as kooks or, more ominously, as terrorists. Whether the cause was ending slavery or allowing women to vote, those who struggled were ridiculed by those in power right up to the moment when they finally overcame.

In a democracy, power allegedly derives from the people. Whatever form of government, the best leaders exercise power with great care, tempered by benevolence and wisdom. In America, we know that power must be checked so the balance does not tilt toward tyranny. John shared with me a remark from Judge Liebowitz, one I hope the Homeland Security task force takes to heart: â“People who blow up mountains might be ecoterrorists, but you're not.â”

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.


All content © 2007 Metropulse .

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