(Jul 23, 2007)

Radical environmentalist movement declines

By William McCall
From AP

''It's very clear to me now that if you want to live in a world of peace and equality, you need to embody those qualities in your own heart and actions,'' Gerlach, now 30, told the judge. ''I am grateful I have been given this opportunity to reconcile my past.''

Gerlach was among eight of the 10 members of ''The Family'' who apologized or repudiated their roles _ including Meyerhoff, who had been her boyfriend at South Eugene High School and got involved with ELF because he had fallen in love with her and wanted to prove himself to her as an ''eco-warrior.''

Meyerhoff also had a desperate need to be accepted, seeking a surrogate family with his activist comrades before he abandoned the cause to find a life for himself, eventually enrolling in college in Virginia to study biomedical engineering.

Kevin Tubbs, a Nebraska native who once worked for PETA organizing demonstrations against killing livestock, also got involved in arson as a way of proving himself, in his case, to win back a girlfriend who began an affair with another activist.

When Tubbs found a new love in 2001, he told his fellow arsonists he was leaving the movement to start over and have a family.

Others also chose different paths after what they considered mere flirtation with the radical tactics of their small, tightly knit cell.

Kendall Tankersley was about to enter medical school when she was arrested in 2005.

Daniel McGowan, a latecomer to ''The Family'' who also began his activist career in animal rights, went back home to his native Brooklyn to work for social justice causes, such as prisoner rights. He had married and says he had put his brief experience in Oregon behind him.

Thurston, a Canadian animal rights activist turned environmentalist, presented letters from family and friends saying he dreams of returning to Canada and working with computer technology.

The portrait that emerges is a band of young people, compassionate toward animals, seeking direction in life, looking to impress each other and reinforce their own sense of self-worth as much as they were looking for a cause. Mostly, they were desperate for attention for that cause.

''I think that's really what all these actions are about - is really getting public attention to some of these issues,'' said Flynn, who was once repeatedly splashed with pepper spray as he doggedly resisted arrest during a 1997 protest to prevent the removal of some old trees considered a landmark in Eugene.

''If we were able to affect policy change through more legal means, then certainly that's the way these people would go,'' Flynn said. ''Nobody enjoys being underground, and that lifestyle.''

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales saw ''The Family'' in a much different light, calling the case ''the largest prosecution of environmental extremists in U.S. history'' who were responsible for ''a broad campaign of domestic terrorism.''

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken agreed - to a point. She ruled some of their crimes fit the federal definition of terrorism but others didn't; she imposed sentences ranging from 37 months for Thurston to 13 years for Meyerhoff.

McGowan, the son of a New York City police officer whose family witnessed the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, says comparing burned trees and SUVs to terrorism cheapens the meaning of the word.

''It's hard to stomach being from New York and seeing the effects of terrorism ... and then to be called that and to know that's going to chase you the rest of your life,'' McGowan said.

He points out that nobody was ever hurt in any of the 20 fires set by ELF members, although McGowan agreed with prosecutors there was always a risk.

''But the reason people were not hurt, aside from luck, is because great care and attention was taken,'' McGowan said. ''These are a group of people who are very, very much about preserving life.''

One of the lead investigators in the multi-agency ''Operation Backfire'' task force was Bob Holland, a veteran Eugene police detective who spent years tracking down ''The Family.''

Holland said there are radical activists who are still underground, although he predicted that any violent protests in the future would more likely be carried out by individuals rather than groups, because groups are only as strong as their weakest member - a lesson learned from the Eugene case that he also hopes serves as a deterrent.

But he agreed that the Eugene group was driven largely by their need for camaraderie and a common cause at a unique moment in the history of the environmental movement.

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