Interview with former Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan by Susie Day
What is violence? Daily, millions of people see global environmental destruction; fossil fuel companies work tirelessly to extinguish ever-widening varieties of life; Pakistan is still under water… Yet almost twenty years ago, the Earth Liberation Front [ELF], a clandestine environmental organization in the Pacific Northwest – which took care, in its guerrilla actions destroying corporate property, not to hurt, let alone kill, any human or animal — grabbed headlines as the nation’s foremost violent terror threat. This happened because of Operation Backfire, the FBI’s code name for its bust of the ELF.
Daniel McGowan, a 30-something from Queens, who had fallen in love with what majesty remained of the Northwest’s wilderness, was one of the ELF activists swept up by Operation Backfire. In 2006 Daniel pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson in two sabotage actions, one against an old-growth logging company, the other against a GMO tree farm. He was given a seven-year prison sentence with a terrorism enhancement and ordered to pay $2 million in restitution. His case included some 18 other “ecoterrorists,” one of whom, Daniel remembers, killed himself in prison.
Others, he says, “were presumed to have fled the country and were apprehended or turned themselves in years later. Roughly eight people cooperated with the feds against the others. About 12 or 13 of us went to prison in 2006…” Daniel ended up doing six years, mostly in communication management units [CMUs], a carceral innovation inspired by the US response to the 9/11 attacks. CMUs control – 24/7 – “terrorists,” whose every attempt to connect with other humans, in or out of prison, is surveilled and recorded.
Daniel, released in December 2012, was returned in 2013 to a Manhattan detention center for writing a HuffPo article criticizing his CMU treatment. Since his 2013 release, he has since lived a politically radical life – quietly, with a job and family.
Quietly, that is, until a few months ago, when Daniel’s past came back in the form of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which asked to interview him for “Burn Wild,” a credulous, liberal podcast about Operation Backfire’s obliteration of the ELF. I asked Daniel why he said Yes to the BBC. What follows is only a fraction of what the BBC didn’t – couldn’t – get about Daniel; about prison; about violence…
Daniel McGowan: They hit me up on Twitter. I thought maybe I should do damage control and take one for the team. I also fall for the accents. So I said: “Sure, BBC – that’ll be credible.” I knew these individuals had covered rightwing extremists; I didn’t realize they were saying, “Now, we’ll look at left-wing extremists!”
When you talk about extremism, you are, by default, saying that the center is the correct position. But the center is the status quo, right? The center is COVID, homelessness, climate crisis, government inaction, people in prison. Their frame allows us to make the right and left equivalent. I asked this BBC journalist, “Do you think we’re the left-wing version of Nazis?” And she was: “Absolutely not!” I said, “But you’re talking about us like we are.”
Trump or Pol Pot would never say they’re extremists, right? Nobody considers themselves extreme, but when the term came up in the “first podcast, I felt there’s this Othering process going on. When you say, “ecoterrorists,” “domestic terrorists,” you’re talking about people like they’re fucking crazy. If you can make them nonhuman, you can do whatever you want with them. I dealt with that in my case, when prosecutors would go for the “terrorism” thing. I’d look at my lawyer, like, “Who are they talking about?” I’m aware of what I did. I know that destroying property, or people coming to their office to see their shit trashed is upsetting. My problem with the movement is we pussyfoot around the issue of violence. In my case, it progressed to the government’s boldface lying:
“This is the number one domestic terror threat in the United States! These people should go to prison for life!”
To see a credible journalist parrot that phrase…
sd: Should we stop talking about this podcast?
DM: They’re gonna get attention anyway. They’ll get their clicks and promote their careers; I’ve resigned myself. But this is like the whitest podcast I’ve ever listened to in my life, which is saying a lot. It’s so Oregonian, that overwhelmingly white state, founded as a settler Utopia by fucking crazies.
sd: Since you left prison, what political work have you done?
DM: For over a decade, I’ve been working on a calendar project called Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners. It was started in the late ‘90s by three now-former NY State political prisoners: Robert Seth Hayes, Herman Bell, and David Gilbert. We work with a currently held political prisoner in Texas named Xinachtli, formerly known as Alvarado Hernandez. Every calendar has 12 original pieces of art and 12 articles. We just launched the 2023 calendar.
sd: Are you still involved in climate activism?
DM: To be honest, the eco thing has not been a main part of my life for some time.
sd: But the emergency has never been more dire.
DM: True. Environmental activism is totally worthwhile. In the last ten years, you’ve seen the confluence of Indigenous people at the forefront – that’s so important. But, for complicated reasons, I don’t have much involvement with it.
sd: You said that we pussyfoot around the issue of violence. How would you want us on the left to discuss it?
DM: I find that people often split violence and nonviolence as code for good and bad when, in fact, they’re just different descriptions. If people put themselves in the nonviolent camp, then anything outside that camp is bad. We tell stories that any good change in society happened because people politely asked for it.
We pretend that social change will happen if people are very polite, or we put forth the best piece of legislation, or our arguments are perfect. But if we’re real students of history, we’ll see social change as about coercion and force in a lot of ways. I find it annoying when people veer away from discussing violence.
sd: Speaking of good/bad: When the left is criticized for being violent, people often argue – Angela Davis and Vijay Prashad do this, for instance – that we should look instead to governments, especially the US government, as perpetrators of the real violence. Personally, I think they’re right, but doesn’t this also shut down the conversation? Like, they’re evil; we’re the good ones?
DM: Right. That answer doesn’t really address the question. If your premise is Violence Is Bad, then I understand why you don’t want to answer. But seeing violence as bad is ahistorical. Movements I’ve been a part of have critiqued the civil rights movement: you march and allow yourself to get beat up.
But you also had groups like the Deacons for Defense that advocated for armed action. Not to know about those groups or to pretend the movement was all kumbaya is disingenuous. I’m not comfortable with the idea of violence; I’m not some person that wants to hurt others. But even mainstream people can see that there’s a time and place for it, right?
sd: Do you do any work on behalf of prisoners these days?
DM: I’ve been doing abolitionist projects that don’t leave people behind. For example, fighting solitary confinement or supporting care packages – issues that don’t exceptionalize. It always bothers me when political prisoners are seen as exceptional. When I was in prison, I had to remind myself: Are you being singled out as political? Sometimes I was, but many times the shit I was forced to eat was the shit everyone was forced to eat. That doesn’t make it better, but you can take solace knowing you’re treated like everyone – so everyone should organize against this horrible treatment.
Like, Eric King is held at ADX [supermax US penitentiary near Florence, CO]. They sent him there, saying he’s “the worst of the worst,” which is a bullshit way to define people. Eric’s a political prisoner, but there’s also 353 other people there in those 24-hour-a-day lockdown units.
sd: Remembering that Eric’s not exceptional, what are his conditions?
DM: Eric barely speaks to anyone in a given day – he’s not even at the most restrictive part of ADX, where perhaps Ramzi Yousef or El Chapo are. But it still means he lives in one cell and can’t interact with anyone. What does that do to you? He’s just over a year from release. Actually, that is something I haven’t seen before – they’re doing this to him on his way out. It feels like payback.
sd: Payback? Now we do need to talk about Eric, specifically.
DM: Eric threw a Molotov cocktail at a congressional member’s empty office during the Ferguson uprising. The congressperson – your mainstream Democrat-type – was making disparaging comments about the Ferguson protests. Eric targeted his building when nobody was in it and got ten years for attempted arson. Went to prison at FCI Englewood. You don’t have any privacy in prison so Eric had some thoughts scrawled in his journal, and ended up getting 90 days in the SHU [special housing unit]. Got sent to FCI Florence and one morning, another prisoner punched another prisoner punched a guard. So Eric wrote an email to his wife saying something like, “That was the Punch Heard Around the World.”
A guard got punched; no big deal. Actually, for the person who punched him, it was probably a massive deal – three years later, he’s probably still in the SHU.
Anyhow, they didn’t like Eric’s email. They called Eric into the lieutenant’s office, then brought him into an off-camera room and started a fight. He defended himself and for that was indicted, then sent to an East Coast penitentiary where Nazis told him that he’s not allowed to walk the yard. He was held there pretrial over a year. When his case came up, his lawyers helped defend him and he was acquitted by a jury. They sent him back to that same prison, despite the standing Nazi threat, then back to ADX. So he’s buried at the supermax with 353 other people. This is what the BOP does to people that resist their bullshit.
sd: What was prison like for you?
DM: I was 32 when I was sentenced to seven years. I was working on a master’s degree, using government computers, and I blogged about current events. They read it and got pissed off. So when they opened this CMU and were looking for people that weren’t Muslim but had terrorism cases, I stood out: “Let’s get rid of this pain in the ass.”
I had far less harassment than Eric. But doing seven years has obviously had a big impact on me, my mental health and outlook in general.
sd: How so?
DM: Prison seems to accentuate aspects of your personality, good or bad; it’s a catalyst. When I was inside, my tendency to be super-particular and obsessed with lists was amplified. I’m a go-getter and high-energy, but prison was like: Coach benched me – I wanted to play so BAD…
There’s also the problem of forgetting that people outside have lives and jobs. I notice now how long it takes me to have lives and jobs. I notice now how long it takes me to answer someone in prison. I’m ashamed, because I used to complain constantly: “Oh, why won’t you write me back?”
Now I’m eating it. I apologize, “I’m sorry I was so demanding.”
sd: How do you think the public sees people who’ve been to prison?
DM: I went to a coffee festival in Brooklyn – I love coffee – and I found this thing called Jailhouse Coffee, with varieties like Solitary Sumatra. People think it’s funny. Why would you brand your coffee on the backs of people in prison?That’s punching down. When crime and prisoners come up, people like to pretend they’re TV prosecutors on Special Victims Unit: Throw away the key! They don’t know what they’re talking about…
Now I’m dealing with this BBC podcast. Thousands of people will listen. I’m not going to stem the reach of some British corporation, no matter what I do. I just tell myself, “You can push back a little, but you know it has to be collective, right? Members in your collective can help you.
You’re OUT now – you’re not going back in there.” Hopefully.
Susie Day has written about prison issues since 1988, when she began reporting on the cases of people charged with political protest acts, one of them, Marilyn Buck. Her book, The Brother You Choose: Paul Coates and Eddie Conway Talk About Life, Politics, and The Revolution, was published by Haymarket Books in 2020.