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From Defender of Nature to 'Eco-Terrorist'

Did Tre Arrow take environmental activism too far, or is the FBI desperate to make arrests in its domestic 'war on terror?'
 
 
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Tre Arrow's unwitting trajectory from candidate for Congress to the FBI's most wanted "eco-terrorist" began on Easter Sunday in 2001, when a firebomb equipped with a fuse destroyed $200,000 worth of gravel trucks belonging to Ross Island Sand & Gravel, a company operating near a national forest in Oregon.

Two months later, on June 1, another arson attack destroyed a logging truck and damaged two others belonging to Schoppert Logging, a company involved in watershed logging operations near Eagle Creek, Oregon. The damage was estimated at $50,000.

Soon the FBI was looking for Tre Arrow, a local green activist who'd made a name for himself as an in-your-face eco-defender, a man the feds said was linked to the Earth Liberation Front (something Arrow denies). Born Michael Scarpitti, Arrow had a reputation to match his passion. He'd once spent eleven days perched on a nine-inch ledge atop of the U.S. Forest Service building in Portland, Ore., protesting the proposed sale of timber rights in Eagle Creek. He was the consummate non-stop activist, a barking dog who in 2000 ran for Congress as a Pacific Green Party candidate, managing to win some 15,000 votes in a bid for Oregon's Third Congressional District.

For his straight talk and ballsy belligerence, Rolling Stone would call him an "environmental rock star." The feds had a different name.

By December 2002, Arrow was an "eco-terrorist" on the FBI's ten most wanted list. Facing a minimum of 40 years to life for his alleged role in the bombings, Arrow had already slipped into Canada earlier that year. He assumed the name Josh Murray (sometimes Josh Rivers) and spent nearly a year traveling, playing music and volunteering until he was arrested by Canadian police during what Arrow says was an activist mission.

Now a cause celebre among many environmentalist, he's fighting extradition and has applied for political refugee status in Canada. But a Canadian judge last month ruled that enough evidence existed to send the thirty-something, yoga-practicing musician back home to stand trail. His lawyer is appealing the decision.

Avoiding the "T-Word"

In two telephone interviews from the North Fraser Pretrial Centre, a prison east of Vancouver, Canada, Arrow talked to AlterNet about his innocence, the FBI's focus on eco-terrorism, corporate excesses, institutional vendettas and the criminalization of dissent in the name of corporate interest.

The obvious first question is, Did he do it?

"I have been emphatic in declaring my innocence," Arrow says. "The kind of activism I engage in has been well documented as being non-violent civil disobedience." He said he's only run afoul with the law for civil disobedience, for which he has received community service. Never anything violent. Besides, Arrow says arson is incongruent with his beliefs. His law, he says, is that of the Iroquois: "In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation. That's how I live my life, so even when I sleep in the woods, I don't burn twigs because of the carbon dioxide," he said. "I would never endorse arson because of the pollution involved in burning tires and plastic."

Arrow doesn't hesitate when asked about why he got locked up. "Basically, the FBI targeted me because I'm an activist," he said. "That's the FBI's modus operandi : They target anyone who gets in the way of the status quo, anyone they view as a threat, or as subversive. They view me as a threat because I talk about truth and expose lies. And my civil disobedience has been effective." As for the three witnesses that testified against him, "they received less than three and a half years in exchange for implicating me. The FBI wanted them to say I brainwashed them into doing it so they would have an excuse to bring the hammer down on me."

Arrow is particularly frustrated with how officials misuse the terrorist label. "I refuse to even say the 't-word,'" he says. "These days anybody that doesn't follow the corporate agenda in the United States is labeled that."

The FBI claims that he was working with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) , one of the government's prime targets. He denies any links to the group, but he also won't condemn their methods.

"I'm not here to say what's right or wrong," he said. "You have to look at several things when you're talking about groups that engage in actions that focus on property destruction while making efforts to see that no living thing is hurt. But here you have right wing groups that murder people and somehow are viewed as less of a threat. So our civil rights and human rights are being violated, and that's less of a priority than corporate profit and government greed. Humans are killing each other and that's seen as a lesser threat than activist trying to stop degradation of the environment by using arson as a tactic. It's indicative of the times. Again, anybody who stands in the way of a corporate agenda to protect air, water and soil is labeled with the t-word ... I recognize ELF practices hurt corporations where it counts, in their pocketbook. And that's why they are at the top of the FBI's domestic terrorist list."

The fact that Arrow is facing life in prison for a crime that caused no human casualties is, in part, a result of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. U.S. lawmakers stiffened sentences for domestic terrorism in the aftermath of the attack, and the FBI is increasingly focusing its domestic anti-terrorist campaigns on environmental activists.

Arrow's Oregon-based attorney, Paul Loney, told AlterNet that Arrow is charged with 14 counts, including conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by means of arson, as well as using destructive devices, namely the fuse-equipped plastic gasoline jugs used in the Ross Island truck bombing. In a July interview with Agence France-Presse, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer in Portland said Arrow's alleged actions are considered domestic terrorism. "It is a systematic attempt to use the threat of violence to instill fear for political or social purposes," he said.

"They're trying to allege that I had this incendiary device so they can fit my case into this code," says Arrow. "That's why this spectacular charge."

Life on the Run, Life Behind Bars

While authorities were hunting him in the U.S., Arrow traveled from Ontario to British Columbia, continuing an activist lifestyle and volunteering for a non-profit that collected discarded food for the needy. He was arrested, he said, for using bolt cutters to unlock dumpsters that contained reusable resources.

In prison, Arrow says there's no grass, "no wild things," and he's confined to a double-bunked cell 18 hours a day. His supporters help lift his spirits. His sister and a group of friends stay in contact and raise money. His website, TreArrow.org, helps cultivate support from all over the world, from a German housewife to film and television executives in Los Angeles to fellow activists such as Julia Butterfly Hill. (Though he won't mention names, he says a movie project about his life is in the works).

Pressed by a 30-minute call limit, Arrow talks fast, passionately, emphatically but conspicuously devoid of anger, not even swear words. His yoga and meditation keep him centered, he said, but he lives with near constant anxiety on some level. He never gets bored, keeping constantly busy writing (a possible book), composing music (though no instruments), tidying his cell or reading (whatever's in the book cart -- currently the prison writings of jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier). He says that some nights, without warning, the lights flip on, guards enter and toss his belongings on the floor, take his food, and cop big attitudes. "Not all the staff are like that, though," he says, calmly.

Then, as if shooting for understatement of the year, he says, "I guess you could say this is a pretty difficult situation to endure sometimes."

Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington DC and Latin America. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Prospect, and other publications.