My wife and I went to the September 18 opening of the county museum exhibit of the 1990 Judi Bari car bombing. The exhibit was the work of Earth First!er Darryl Cherney and KZYX program director Alicia Littletree Bales, in conjunction with the Willits branch of the Mendo county museum system.
The last time I stayed in Willits to cover an Earth First! event, it was when they were protesting the Willits bypass construction, and my colleague Will Parrish had locked his arm to a piece of heavy construction equipment, a drilling machine used to drain Little Lake Valley, with a special protester’s implement called a “sleeping dragon,” which is a steel sleeve that can only be cut off with an acetylene torch. I slept rough, under a sheet of cardboard on the porch of the Environmental Center for a few hours and spent the coldest part of the night sipping coffee at McDonalds, the only place that was open all night.
This time, in contrast, I stayed at the Baechtel Creek Inn, among the best accommodations in town, and had dinner at a tony Willits bistro – both recommended by helpful AVA readers – and I dare say the difference was measurable.
Participating Earth First!ers contrasted with their younger former selves, as well. They were several years older now, as we all are, but now they were massing for an action other than environmental protesting or tree sitting. This was their time for mutual congrats and back slaps, a chance to reminisce and relive their glory days.
There was nothing new added to the story of Judi Bari and the infamous car bomb: nothing emerged, no new evidence of any kind. All that went on, and will be going on for more segments over the coming month, doubtless contributed to the county museum’s determination that this car-bombing was historically significant enough to be installed as a permanent exhibit, adjacent to an old stage coach, a draft wagon, and the hippie van of the New Settlers (this exhibit was closed for cleaning, according to the sign on the dark glass, but when it reopens and the lights come on, all the hippie stuff will be sort of exhibited in the same place).
The panel and festivities were set up in the museum’s courtyard, with folding chairs under pop-ups to protect attendees from the rain. Having worked the security detail as a volunteer for various events at the Mateel Community Center in Redway, I knew how this was done, in the Humboldt Way, so I clipped a walkie-talkie to my belt, put another one in my wife’s pack, set to the same channel, got her comfortably seated in a dry chair with her notebooks and went on roving patrol, keeping to the perimeters of the event.
Around back I found the mobile recording trailer from the Mateel all set up with cameras and their cords running, all properly protected – this was the same equipment used for Reggae on the River and other Mateel-sponsored events outside the Mateel building in Redway. The techies were there and everything ran smoothly with a Darryl and the Chernobles CD playing over the PA system. Darryl was coming and going and I nodded a greeting but he didn’t seem to remember me. I, too, could scarcely recall any of the people I used to know quite well. Time passes.
My caution for the safety of my wife can be understood in light of the fact that the AVA, for which we both write, is strictly forbidden in Garberville, and available exclusively at Redway Liquors, across from the Mateel. Readers will be familiar, if not intimate, with our editor-in-chief’s longstanding dispute with Mr. Cherney and his followers, who today openly despise the AVA and by extension, anyone associated with it. More on this later. Cherney asked everyone to maintain a civil tone and hold their questions until the end.
But there was neither trouble nor harsh words, and the kick-off was smooth and uneventful, if not downright sedate.
The opening of this Redwood Summer retrospective at the county museum may best be remembered for the rain, the first rain in who-knows-how-long. It was more than a sprinkle, so heavy at times that someone used the tip of an umbrella to empty pools of water that collected on the blue plastic awning hastily assembled in the museum’s courtyard to protect the 50 or so attendees who came to hear a panel of key Earth First!ers of yesteryear.
We humans have a propensity for reunions like this one. There was lots of hugging, how the hell have you beens, long gray hair and beards, and casual jocularity. It was 1990 all over again.
The panel was kicked off by Darryl Cherney, not only principal of the band Darryl Cherney and the Chernobyls but also CEO of his Redway-based non-profit Environmentally Sound Promotions. His signature thick, frizzy gray hair was gathered in a neat ponytail and he sported a Who Bombed Judi Bari t-shirt. Bari was an Earth First! leader and activist who was nearly killed in Oakland in May of 1990 when a bomb exploded beneath the driver’s seat of the car she was driving. Cherney was in the passenger seat and sustained minor injuries. The bombing, unsolved to this day, galvanized Earth First! activists and Bari became a martyr to the cause of saving old-growth redwoods in Northern California. I unfortunately did not have an opportunity to speak with him; when I introduced myself and told him I was writing this piece for the AVA he refused to talk to me. “They lie about me and Mike Sweeney [Bari’s ex-husband],” he said, by way of justifying his refusal to talk with me. The earnest, leggy young woman sitting next to me, who described herself as a video producer at work on – you guessed it – yet another Judi Bari documentary, was disappointed that I was one of the AVA reporters. “I was hoping to see Bruce Anderson,” said Laura Bieckman, who added that she interviewed Anderson “a couple of months ago.” Fortunately reporters are accustomed to such rejections, and the very wet black dog snoozing at my feet seemed happy to see me.
Third District Supervisor John Haschak made introductory remarks, lauding the museum staff for “working [on the retrospective] for many years” and making it possible “for all the world to see the artifacts” of the Earth First! heyday. It’s the first time I’ve heard objects half my age described as “artifacts,” but they must have seemed that way to those reminiscing about them at a time when it still seemed possible to change the world.
Cherney’s remarks were unsurprisingly a (long) litany of thanks to Earth First! organizers and stalwarts, Bari supporters and friends, and others involved in the anti-old-growth-logging environmental movement. According to the museum he pitched the idea for the multi-part exhibit and was not paid for his efforts. In his remarks Cherney noted the complexity of the many aspects of the Redwood Summer story and said, not for the first time that afternoon, that this kick-off event was about Redwood Summer generally and not about Judi Bari, specifically; Bari is scheduled to figure more prominently in the five future gatherings of different aspects of the movement scheduled at the museum through October 27.
But separating Judi Bari from Redwood Summer is a little like trying to separate Saturn from its rings; Bari’s life, the bombing, law enforcement’s botched non-investigation into the car bomb that nearly killed her, and her subsequent death a few years later at 47 of breast cancer, intensely colored that time.
As a charismatic martyr she was described as a kind of secular Joan of Arc, erstwhile friend to many who remain eager to describe the depth of their friendships with their late comrade-in-arms. Had Bari lived she probably would have been just another panelist. But because of the bombing and her subsequent young death from cancer she is in our minds forever frozen at the peak of her influence and power. She’ll never suffer the indignities of old age like the rest of us.
Panelist Earth First!er Karen Pickett noted that early organizers were mostly women, and that the organization sprang from an imperative to stop liquidation logging. “They were running crews 24/7 to get ahead of looming changes to the industry,” she said, adding that the car bombing was the catalyst for broadening the organization from “an organization that was without hierarchy and operated on a shoestring” to one that had to suddenly grapple with the media, legal, and other issues. “We learned a lot about solidarity,” she said.
Museum curator Karen Mattson, who grew up in Laytonville and came home to her present position via Roseville, where she was curator of education for Placer County museums, said that the Redwood Summer exhibit was never intended to solve the question of who bombed Bari, but was rather conceived as a civics lesson and an opportunity to display Bari’s car, the gigantic “puppet” of her face created by Art & Revolution, in San Francisco, and a lot of other materials donated to the collection. Seeing the car up close was chilling with its twisted frame and burned-out interior; it’s a wonder that anyone sitting in the driver’s seat survived. The “puppet” was eerily reminiscent of a shot from my favorite film Fargo, where the camera pans up to a foreshortened shot of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe.
Many seasoned reporters covered these events exhaustively, all the way up through the eventual trial years later where Bari’s estate and Cherney won a multi-million-dollar unanimous jury judgment against the FBI and the Oakland police for violation of their constitutional rights. Mendo DA public information officer Mike Geniella, who was a reporter at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat for 30 years, was one of them.
To this day Geniella decries the shoddy police work by the FBI and the Oakland police. “I sat on the trial for 6 or 7 weeks. I was there every goddam day,” he said. “They smeared those people and they didn’t have anything!” Geniella said that in law enforcement’s rush to judgment to label Bari and Cherney terrorists that no likely avenues were ever truly investigated. Like the potential role of Bari’s ex, Mike Sweeney, in the bombing. “He threatened to sue me,” said Geniella. “He was very threatening. There’s something very cold and icy about Mike Sweeney.” He added that it’s standard procedure to either go after or rule out the partner. “But because of the perception of radical environmental terrorism, it was never done. It really irritates me, I’m not sure we’ll ever know.”
Geniella, who sits on the board of the Grace Hudson museum, said he also thinks that the county museum had a responsibility to offer new information before creating the Willits exhibit. “The museum gives [the exhibit] the imprint of legitimacy,” he said. "It’s a whitewash. All the cast is from the Judi Bari side of the street.”
Geniella said that the only thing he knows for sure is that Bari would not have sat in the car had she known there was a bomb under her seat. “Would you?” he asked.