Tragedy in the Trees

The Death of David Chain

On September 17, Earth First! activist David Chain was killed by a logger. The logger, who works for Pacific Lumber, the world’s leading deforester of ancient redwoods, falled a tree that landed on the protesting Chain.

The logger was videotaped just an hour before, hurling curses and threats at the protesters: “Get the fuck out of here! You’ve got me hot enough now to fuck! . . . Get outta here! Otherwise I’ll fuckin’, I’ll make sure I got a tree comin’ this way! . . . Ohhhhh, fuck! I wish I had my fuckin’ pistol! I guess I’m gonna just start packin’ that motherfucker in here. ‘Cause I can only be nice so fuckin’ long. Go get my saw, I’m gonna start fallin’ into this fuckin’ draw!” He soon began revving up his saw, and shouting, “Fuck! Yee-Hoo!”

I later spoke to a friend whose ex-husband used to be a faller. She said, “Fallers can drop trees on a dime. If you can’t drop it precisely where you choose, you don’t last long in the woods. This sounds like murder.”

Of course the mainstream media (including so-called public radio), Pacific Lumber, and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department have all gone into high gear to present this as an accident, or more precisely as David Chain’s fault.

I first heard about David Chain’s murder on Jefferson Public Radio. I don’t normally listen to the radio, having long ago discovered the truth of the words of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century historian Henry Adams: “The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where the interests are concerned.” In this regard the journalists did not disappoint: first, they announced incorrectly that Chain had been killed not by a tree the logger cut, but by another tree knocked over in a domino effect. Second, after a brief and moving statement by a tearful Earth First!er, the journalist asked three basic questions. They were, in essence (I don’t have the direct quotes because I was driving, and so couldn’t write them down): 1) Members of Earth First! are aware that their activities are dangerous, aren’t they? And isn’t it true that this activist was engaged in an especially dangerous form of activism? 2) Of course the logger didn’t do this on purpose, did he? 3) In the aftermath of this death, how is Earth First! going to change its tactics so this won’t happen again?

I almost drove off the road.

The response by Pacific Lumber was equally predictable. John Campbell, President and CEO of Pacific Lumber, vehemently denied that his loggers knew protesters were in the area. The predictability of this lie is the exact reason the Earth First!ers had brought the videotape recorder. Later, Pacific Lumber released a press statement which had as its primary purpose the same goal as the questioning by the journalist: to shift responsibility for the death onto the victim: “It is a tragedy that this young man lost his life. And this was a shattering experience for our work crews, who labored for more than three hours yesterday to free Mr. Chain’s body,” Campbell said. “Clearly, it is time for these groups to stop putting their members in harm’s way.”

Under California law the logger should be charged with second degree murder. If a person recognizes that an action will likely cause a substantial danger to another, and proceeds with a conscious disregard for this danger, so causing another’s death, that person has, under the doctrine of “implied malice aforethought,” committed second-degree murder.

Not only the logger, in this case, could and would under a just system be held accountable. If others, including the man’s employers, suggested he intimidate the activists by falling trees close to them, these employers and supervisors too are guilty of second degree murder. Even a cursory examination of Pacific Lumber’s treatment of those protesting their often illegal cutting practices reveals a consistent pattern of harrassment and endangerment against the protesters. This is not the first time a tree has been falled near an activist: it is merely the first time an activist has been killed. Even since Chain’s death loggers for Pacific Lumber continue to fall trees near tree sitters. The law is clear in what should happen to these lawbreakers.

Of course the law is of no importance to those in power. A primary purpose of the sheriff’s department, as has been shown time and again, is to protect the interests of Pacific Lumber, and to assist the corporation when citizens get far enough out of line to even slightly impede the company’s processes of deforestation. This is the same department that gained international notoriety last fall when they daubed concentrated liquid pepper directly onto the eyeballs of nonviolent environmental protesters locked down in the office of Frank Riggs, a Congressman from Eureka, California, who is deeply beholden to big timber corporations. That the department did so is not unusual: what is unusual is that they were proud enough of their work to videotape themselves doing it (to show they were following proper procedure). Their behavior in the present case is, if possible, even more despicable. The logger who killed Chain is being treated not as a suspect but as a star witness. He goes along with the police to the “accident scene,” (the police do not call it a crime scene: only an environmentalist was killed, which means no crime was committed). He has not been arrested, and to my knowledge that possibility has not occurred to the investigators. Something that has occurred to the investigators has been to use this as an opportunity to gain more information about the protesters: a detective sent a note to an Earth First! organizer requesting “access to records or individuals who are involved in the training of the activists. . . .” Contrast this to the investigation of the crime itself, which has been primarily nominal: no official investigation team even inspected the scene of the death until ten days after the crime.

In the meantime, the Sheriff’s Department did not prohibit employees of Pacific Lumber from continuing to cut at the site, and left any potential destruction of evidence entirely up to the discretion of the corporation and its employees. In response, Earth First!ers set up a blockade to keep Pacific Lumber out.

At last the Sheriffs had a crime they chose to deal with: between forty and sixty officers conducted a military-style dawn raid on sleeping protestors. Activists who got up were forced back to the ground. Warned by the sounds below, some of the activists at blockades closer to the murder site were able to lock themselves to logging equipment. One of the young women, Noel, was heard screaming “pepper spray” shortly after authorities reached her. She had been locked down high on a cable yarder boom. The boom was lowered, and officers then held her head back and poured liquid pepper spray over her face from a cup. A second woman was doused the same way.

Pepper spray is available in concentrations of 1, 3, and 10 percent. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department purchases the largest containers available of the highest concentrate sold.

That night the protesters reformed their barricades, and the next morning the sheriffs were back. This time the protesters were ready, and had locked themselves down. The sheriffs wasted no time, immediately pulling out the pepper spray. Officers strung a large tarp in an attempt to keep observers from witnessing their actions, but the tarp didn’t prevent people from hearing the screams of the young women being doused with pepper concentrate. Police applied pepper-soaked gauze to the activist Carrie “Liz” McKee. When she refused to unlock, the gauze was wrung out directly onto her eyes. When still she refused, again the police applied the concentrate. Pepper was applied a third time, and she began to vomit from the pain. Still she refused to submit, and police cut her loose from the lockdown.

Why was David Chain there in the first place? Because he cared about the ecological integrity of the planet, he cared about saving ancient forests, and because the California Department of Forestry, like the Sheriff’s Department, refuses to enforce laws that would seriously impede the activities of Pacific Lumber. The company’s logging license was revoked last year because the company had been cited for more than 200 rule violations (given the routine capture of regulatory agencies by the industries they purport to oversee, the issuance of more than 200 citations implies a nearly unimaginable number of violations). But of course this did not hinder operations, because the corporation was then issued a conditional operating permit, similar to probation, which provided that the company could continue to cut so long as it obeyed the rules. Don’t stake your life on whether the citations issued at the site of Chain’s death the day after the murder (Chain and others had been asking loggers to stop until CDF arrived, because, among other things, the loggers were cutting too close to marbled murrelet nesting sites) cause CDF to force Pacific Lumber to stop cutting. It won’t happen.

I don’t know which hurts most: the murder itself; the ongoing murder of the ancient redwoods that Chain was trying to protect; the ongoing murder of the planet of which the murder of the ancient redwoods is but one manifestation; or the willful stupidity of all of us, myself included, who continue to participate in a system that rewards those who deforest and kills or tortures those who resist.

Contrast the fate of David Chain, or of Liz McKee, or Noel, or any of the others, or the redwoods themselves, with that of Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz owns Maxxam, the company that took over Pacific Lumber. The money he used to do this had been stolen from taxpayers, gained from his looting of over $1.6 billion from the Texas Savings and Loan. Recently Hurwitz’s close friend Senator Dianne Feinstein shepherded through Congress a deal whereby Californian and American taxpayers will give Hurwitz around $480 million to acquire only 10,000 acres of Headwaters (of which only 3500 acres are old growth redwoods). In exchange, Hurwitz has been given essential permission to do whatever he wishes on the remainder of the 210,000 acres he “owns.”

Given the direction of our culture–given the values that are inculcated into us from birth on–how could we expect any different? Our culture has been deforesting, and rewarding deforesters, for some 6000 years now, and for that same amount of time our culture has been killing those who resist.

Once, here in what is now California, there was no such thing as old growth redwoods. There was merely home. No one could have conceived of something so absurd as to cut them all down. Once, the rivers were full of salmon. Once, humans lived here in dynamic equilibrium with their surroundings.

What did we do to these people? We shot them. We enslaved them. We placed bounties on their heads. We stole their land. We hunted many groups to extinction.

Why should we expect that today things will be different? Things will not change until we demand they change. Things will not change until we force change on those who would deforest, and on those who torture to facilitate the deforestation. Things will not change because we ask nicely. Things will not change because we lock arms peacefully in the offices of our so-called representatives. I believe these protesters know that, and I believe they are hoping that the rest of us can learn from their courage and from their refusal to submit to those who deforest, even when they are tortured, and even when they are killed. I believe they are hoping that the rest of us will finally rise up to stand with them, to resist next to them, and to fight for our lives–for that, really, is what is at stake for each one of us–against those who are destroying the planet.

John Campbell, President and CEO of Pacific Lumber, said, “Clearly, it is time for these groups to stop putting their members in harm’s way.” Clearly, he is right. It is time that we begin to take care of ourselves, and to take care of our human and nonhuman neighbors. It is time we begin to dismantle this entire system of oppression, and the institutions such as the Pacific Lumber Corporation that are its primary engines and manifestations, that is putting all of us–human and nonhuman alike–in harm’s way.

Originally published in “Sentient Times”

Filed in Essays
No Responses — Written on October 1st — Filed in Essays

Comments are closed.