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Burning zeal for change

In torching SUVs or construction sites, do extremists help or hurt the effort to protect the environment?

October 13, 2003|Kevin Donegan | Special to The Times

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Rows of gleaming chrome grills give way to vivid promotional images of kayakers, cyclists, rock climbers and skiers. As the sun sets over the headlands on a quiet Tuesday evening, this Hummer dealership in wealthy, outdoors-loving Marin County may represent one of the more unusual fronts in the war over the environment.

But unlike the recent firebombing of a Hummer dealership in the San Gabriel Valley, about the most memorable act of protest on this lot was the time some SUVs got egged.

Here at Team Hummer of Marin, salesman Albert Giragossia said he used to joke with prospective buyers that "the only thing they don't come with is a .50 caliber." And though customers don't seem concerned about harassment from environmentalists, he said, nowadays the sales team is more likely to stress that these military-style vehicles are becoming "more civilian."

Still, these gas-guzzling Hummers -- a Forbes magazine test rates them at 10 miles per gallon in town, slightly higher for freeways -- make a prime target for some radical environmental activists.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Pipe-bombing aftermath -- In a story in Monday's Calendar about radical environmental and animal rights activists, the reaction of employees at a Bay Area biotech firm that had been pipe bombed was mischaracterized. The story said employees at Chiron have grown nervous since the attack. Company spokesman John Gallagher said employees are "obviously concerned, but they have shown remarkable resilience and focus on their work."

And not just SUVs are targeted. This year in California, damage to private property as a form of protest has grown more costly: Apart from the $1 million in damage at the West Covina SUV dealership, homes and apartments under construction in San Diego were torched at a cost of more than $50 million. In Northern California, animal rights activists have claimed responsibility for pipe bomb attacks that did minimal damage on a biotech firm and a cosmetics firm in the Bay Area. The FBI filed an arrest warrant last week for a suspect in relation to those two incidents.

Are such attacks, labeled domestic terrorism by the FBI, justifiable as a means of change? Or does their extremism alienate people from the very cause activists are trying to push?

Followers of the Earth Liberation Front, a movement dedicated to sabotaging companies perceived to be "exploiting the natural environment," are thought by the FBI to be responsible for the recent destruction at the SUV dealerships as well as the San Diego arsons. An e-mail inquiry to the ELF press office was answered anonymously because of FBI interest in those attacks.

Part of the ELF philosophy, wrote the respondent, is to make it unprofitable to produce, develop or research products that could be harmful to people and the planet. In the case of the attacks on Hummers and SUVs, the goal is to increase insurance costs for both dealers and owners to make the vehicles "more of a liability to own than they are now at 12 miles to the gallon," said the ELF member.

Is that approach effective? "The ELF has brought a lot more attention to the issue with a few actions than a decade of pamphleteering at shopping malls ever could," the e-mailer replied.

Engendering favorable public opinion is not of particular concern to radical activists, said Rik Scarce, author of "Eco Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement" and a sociology professor at Skidmore College in New York. Their actions, as they see it, are for a greater good. From their point of view, "the destruction of a bunch of SUVs is a way of preventing those SUVs from ever being on the road," he said. That in itself is worthwhile to activists.

Those actions, countered Amy Ridenour, president of the Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative Washington think tank, are both ethically wrong and tactically damaging. "It's only a matter of time before somebody is killed," Ridenour said. "If I were in the environmental movement, I would do everything I could to stop these guys. They're turning off the public and reducing the credibility of a serious environmentalist," she said.

Eric Antebi, national press secretary of the Sierra Club, said activists sometimes get discouraged with threats to the environment by real estate developers and energy and timber industries. But Antebi said peaceful protest and democratic organizing has helped protect much of California's coastline, parks and open spaces. He strongly condemned the ELF's actions.

"The activities of groups like the ELF undermine the efforts of hardworking Americans ... to protect their communities," Antebi said.

Damaging property to make a political point takes its place in an activist's playbook somewhere between violent personal conflict -- which all but the most zealous of activists oppose -- and nonviolent civil disobedience tactics such as rallies, marches and hanging banners. Defenders of destruction say that is part of an American tradition dating to the Boston Tea Party. They credit aggressive protest, like rioting, with helping win many political reforms, from the 40-hour workweek to the Civil Rights Act.

But Ridenour pointed out that the civil rights movement mostly championed peaceful disobedience. Attacks on SUVs today, by contrast, are taken very personally by average citizens "to a degree that the environmentalists don't understand."

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