Judi Bari Biography: Immortal Voice

Judi Bari was born November 7, 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised in Baltimore, and attended college at the University of Maryland, where she majored in “anti-Vietnam War rioting,” as she once said.

With no real direction and already in her fifth year at the school, she decided to drop out and took a working-class job as a clerk at a corporate-owned grocery store in the area. While Judi had been somewhat of a peace activist in college, her leadership qualities as an activist began to shape up in the early 1970s at the grocery store, as she worked to organize the workers’ union.

During this time, Judi studied karate for self-defense purposes and achieved a black belt, the highest level of mastery in the martial art.

A few years later, she broke gender barriers by passing a civil service test requiring her to lift and shoulder a 70 pound mail bag for carrying. She then got a job as a bulk-mail handler at a mail center near Washington, D.C. and continued her organizing and activism in labor unions. She published the employee newsletter and put to use some of what she had learned in her five aimless years in college, namely graphic design principles. At this job, she also led a successful union strike to demand better working conditions.

After meeting her husband, Mike Sweeney, she left the East coast and moved to Sonoma County, California where she and Mike were married and had two children, Lisa and Jessica. Around the time of the move, since Judi was no longer working, the focus of her activism shifted from labor unions to a political group called Pledge of Resistance, which stood in opposition of the United States governmental support of repressive regimes throughout Central America. She and Mike divorced several years later and shared custody of the two children.

Judi’s most important and most noted work began in 1988, when she became the contact person for an organization called Earth First! in Mendocino County, California. The group aimed to tackle environmental issues and work for the protection of the environment through direct, nonviolent action and protest. Judi says she was inspired to pay more attention to environmental issues while working as a carpenter, building a home for a wealthy business executive. She noticed the beauty and quality of the boards she was working with and began to ask questions, only to find out that the wood had come from ancient Redwood trees. Judi was enraged to find out that such a part of our natural heritage was being exploited this way. She was first attracted to Earth First!, she said, because they were the only ones willing to sacrifice themselves, and put themselves in front of chainsaws and bulldozers in order to save the giant trees. She was also greatly drawn to the organizations philosophy of biocentrism, the idea that Earth is not here purely for human consumption, and that as a part of the whole, human beings need to learn to live in balance with nature rather than attempting to mold nature to suit their lifestyles.

Most of her work aimed at organizing demonstrations and protests to stop timber companies from logging and exploiting the forests, and to speak out against the way the companies were operating.

Her first campaign was a blockade of logging on public land near Cahto Park in California. She and the other protesters helped to save several thousand acres of forest, which in turn was added by the state to the protected Cahto Wilderness Area. She was also a prime organizer of efforts to save the famous Headwaters Forest in Humbolt County, California, which I’ll talk more about later.

Also in 1988, Judi was introduced to Darryl Cherney after a mutual friend suggested that she help him with the graphic design of the brochure he was making to support his run for Congress. The two quickly became a couple, and a team, and worked together on everything.

Judi was also a feminist, and is credited with feminizing the Earth First! organization. According to Mendocino Environmental Center Coordinator Betty Ball, Judi’s influence allowed many more women to become involved in ways that they could have more of an influence on the organization than ever before. She also said that Judi understood the importance of activism being a community activity, and understood the level of organizing required to make this happen. Judi is credited, in turn, with helping to make Earth First! a community campaign, moving it away from the nomadic way it used to be, as a few people bouncing from place to place and demonstrating. “When Greg King and I were organizing demonstrations, dozens and maybe hundreds of people came, but when Judi got involved, thousands of people came,” said Cherney, in regards to her prowess as an organizer.

Judi continued other types of activism throughout her environmentalist action. In 1988, she defended an abortion clinic from an anti-abortion demonstration. In 1989, she returned to her work as a labor union activist and fought for the workers of the timber industries that she so opposed. She saw the corporations as an enemy to humanity, the environment, and their own workers, and worked to convince the workers of this. In 1990, she and many timber industry workers organized and convinced the county to take back 300,000 acres of forest from the Louisiana-Pacific timber company and operate them according to public interests, so that they would not be destroyed.

In all of her activism, two things that Judi regarded as powerful were nonviolence and music. She wrote music and was almost never at a demonstration without her violin, which she had learned to play in high school and used as a unifying tool at demonstrations, and as a weapon against what was being demonstrated against by singing her the charged songs that she wrote. Likewise, she taught and practiced nonviolent direct action, leading demonstrations that aimed to show the timber workers through peaceful action that Earth First! was not a threat to their jobs, and that the corporations they worked for were the real enemy.

Her ability to organize workers against their own employers gave her the inside edge in the so-called Timber War. Her power to unite and build alliances between timber industry employees and the massive following of environmentalists she had as followers scared the corporations and made Judi a target. She was first targeted in 1989, when her car was rammed by a logging truck, hospitalizing her and six others, four of which were children. Although Judi was able to show through photographs that the truck that had hit her was the same truck which Earth First! activists had stopped in a blockade less than 24 hours prior, authorities refused to treat it as anything more than a traffic accident.

In 1990, California state senate had proposed that Preposition 130, the Forests Forever Initiative would appear on their fall ballot. The Initiative, if passed would create preventative measures against the over-cutting of Redwood forests, and would slow logging by the giant timber corporations. Of course, the companies opposed the Initiative greatly. Judi and Darryl stepped into action once again and began to organize one of their largest projects yet, the Redwood Summer project. They drew inspiration from the Mississippi Summer Civil Rights Campaign, in which students were recruited by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to demonstrate and fight for civil rights. The project’s plan was to protect the forests with manpower to ensure that they weren’t all chopped down before the initiative could actually be passed. So, Judi and Darryl set off, touring colleges to recruit fighters for their cause. Timber companies began to launch campaigns against Earth First!, trying to discredit their name by labeling them eco-terrorists, despite the fact that the group practiced only nonviolent action. The company tried to label the initiative as the eco-terrorists’ work, to sway public opinion in their favor. Judi and other activists also began receiving death threats by mail, telephone, and even left hanging on the door of the Earth First! offices at the Mendocino Environmental Center. Attached to the last threat was a picture of Judi’s face with a target drawn on it, as well as a yellow ribbon—the symbol of the corporate-sponsored support groups of the timber companies. Judi reported the threat to the county sheriff, only to be told, “When you turn up dead, then we’ll investigate.”

On May 24, 1990, while Judi and Darryl were driving through Oakland, a car bomb exploded underneath her driver’s seat. The explosion shattered Judi’s pelvis and tailbone, and caused extensive tissue and nerve damage. Judi was left paralyzed and in pain for the rest of her life.

The Oakland Police Department and FBI terrorist squad came to the scene and began investigating. Within hours, while Judi and Darryl were both hospitalized, they were arrested for knowingly transporting the bomb, and bail was set at $100,000. The authorities said that the pair had intended to use the bomb in their fight with the timber companies, and it had accidentally exploded.  Though the pair maintained that they had nothing to do with the bomb, the FBI and police kept giving interviews to the media claiming that they did, and that there was evidence to show that Judi had built the bomb. As attention to the story built to a national scale, the public was hearing all over that Judi and Darryl were to blame. However, after two months, no evidence had turned up. The District Attorney refused to press charges due to the lack of evidence, and substantial evidence that showed the FBI had fabricated the whole investigation in the first place. No other suspects have ever been identified or even looked for, and the two were still considered to be suspects by the FBI, even though agents would later testify in court that no evidence had ever existed to incriminate Judi or Darryl in the first place.

Many saw the bombing as a final attempt to take Judi out and discredit Earth First!, trying to further label them as violent extremists and stop the Redwood Summer project from proceeding, as well as Preposition 130 from passing. Ironically, the FBI Special Agent in charge of the area at the time was Richard Held, who had headed COINTELPRO in the 1960s and ‘70s. COINTELPRO’s objectives were to disrupt the Black Panther and American Indian Movements. Held’s work led to the arrests of Geronimo Pratt and Leonard Peltier, both widely considered political prisoners, held for crimes that they did not commit. Consequently, Held resigned once Judi filed suit and presented evidence that the FBI’s investigation was a fraud.

Judi and Darryl brought suit against the Oakland Police and FBI for falsely arresting them on the grounds of an illegal, politically-charged and falsified investigation by the FBI.

Though paralyzed, Judi continued her activism, fighting for many different causes. She also remained an organizer for Earth First! “They blew up the wrong end of me,” Bari said, referring to the fact that the blast caught her legs but not her head. On September 15, 1995, Judi was the first of hundreds to be peacefully arrested at Headwaters Forest, bringing the situation to national attention. One year later, Bari was the keynote speaker at a similar demonstration at a similar spot, where over 1000 nonviolent activists were arrested for peacefully crossing onto timber company land.

Judi died on March 2, 1997 of sudden, severe breast cancer.

In 2002, the suit that she and Darryl had brought on the FBI and Oakland police department finally ended. A jury awarded Judi and Darryl $4.4 million for the violation of their first amendment right to free speech, by way of arguing that the attempt to frame them and discredit their voice limited their free speech.

Even though she’s passed, the same thing is still happening. Judi’s friend Kelpie Wilson says that Kate Coleman’s so-called biography The Secret Wars of Judi Bari is a blatant attempt at character assassination, disguised as a biography. She says that Coleman never met Judi, and didn’t bother interviewing any of her close friends or associates. Instead, her major sources are four of Judi’s opponents from the Timber War.

It is indeed a strong voice that attempts at character and actual assassination can’t kill. Judi’s legacy lives on in her 1994 book, Timber Wars, as well as through the many articles and songs she wrote during her time as an activist, and the many fighters out there who were inspired by her and still fight the struggles that she created.

“She was a wonderful inspiration to all of us and a steadfast champion of our natural heritage,” said California Senator Tom Hayden. “She was instrumental in bringing the plight of the ancient redwood forests to national attention. We will sorely miss the energy she provided, particularly in the negotiating fog that envelopes the Headwaters forest today, but she has left a legacy of dedicated activists who will carry her banner flying high.”

Wilson, Nicholas. Judi Bari Dies But Her Spirit Lives On. Judi Bari Website of the Redwood Summer Justice Project. Dec. 3, 2002.

Wilson, Nicholas. Jury Awards $4.4 Million Damages to Bari and Cherney. Monitor Publishing. June 11, 2002.

Wilson, Kelpie. Judi Bari Survives Character Assassination. t r u t h o u t. Jan. 19, 2005.

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