February 28, 1997
I found Nicholas Wilson's February 25 (Albion Monitor) article on the FBI and Judi Bari especially interesting in two aspects.
On the one hand, I have for years known of Bari as an early defender of the great Redwood Forest. When I came to California in January to focus on saving the Headwaters Redwod Forest in a religious ceremonial meal held on the traditional Jewish "New Year of the Trees," I had hoped to meet Bari. She had told the Redwood Rabbis who organized the ceremony that she hoped to take part, but her metastatisized cancer had already weakened her far too much.
The other aspect of the article that interested me was its report of Bari's belief that the FBI tried to frame her for bombing her own car. For some people, that aspect of the article may have seemed stunning; for others, obvious. My sense is that most people of the '40s and '50s generations can hardly believe the FBI has ever done wrong; for many of the generation of the '60s and '70s, it seems obvious information; for those of the '80s and '90s, it may seem odd or ludicrous.
I bridge two of those generations. I was born in 1933. I grew up respecting the FBI. I became an historian, and wrote a book on a series of race riots in the summer of 1919. By doing research in the National Archives, I learned that what was then the General Investigation Division of the Bureau of Investigation, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, was convinced that the riots had been organized by Bolsheviks — that is, by revolutionary Communists. I found absolutely no evidence that this had even a smidgin of truth to it.
Then, in a somewhat different spiral of my life, in the mid-1970s, I joined with eight other Washingtonians who sued the FBI in Federal court for unconstitutional active harassment of and interference with (not just passive illegal surveillance of) our work to organize the anti-war movement, thus depriving us of our rights of free assembly under the First Amendment. We uncovered tons of evidence. The federal jury, with the judge's approval, found for us and awarded us damages. After years of FBI appeals, our victory was affirmed and we were paid damages. Caroline Kennedy's book on the Bill of Rights, In Our Defense, includes a detailed history of that case, including interviews with some of us.
(Parenthetically — a delicious outcome — from these damages I was able to afford both to enter the computer world, and to offer my two kids what I called “The J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Awards” to make it workable for them, if they wanted, to spend time doing grass-roots political work of their choice that otherwise they could not afford to do. One of them worked in a tenants’ rights group and the other with a shelter for battered women.)
So the point is, I have no trouble in all, both out of my historical research concerning 1919 and my personal experience in the ’60s and ’70s, in believing that the FBI may have — not did for sure but certainly may have — manufactured evidence against Judi Bari.
I'm taking the trouble to send all this because I think we should take seriously that our work matters — matters enough that sometimes it brings enraged responses by some of those who have power in the world we are trying to change. It also matters enough — sometimes — that it changes people and changes society.
I am not suggesting that we walk around in a constant state of fear and suspicion; I don't. I simply do what I think needs doing, with as much gentleness and good sense as I can muster, and also know that sometimes the result of this is that people and society change, and sometimes the result is that someone gets nasty, and often the result is that both happen.
One of the things I learn from all this is that perhaps the most decent and the most powerful form of social change is simply acting in the present to create a miniature of the future we are seeking. Integrated sit-ins today = integrated restaurants tomorrow. Planting redwood seedlings today = replanting the great redwood forest of tomorrow.
Then we can know we are deeply in tune with our own deepest values, have not betrayed God, ourselves, or each other, and have taken one little step in the good path, no matter what happens after.
From what I know of her, Judi Bari seems to have walked this path. May the rest of her life be filled with the joy of knowing she has taught others to walk it as well.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow