Eugene Rising, Part IV

Welcome to The Anarchist Capital of the World

This is the fourth installment of a seven-part series on the history of activism and protest in Eugene, Oregon. To start from the beginning, click here.

We’re doing something different with this story, because that’s what we’re all about – trying new things.

As you read through this story, you’ll notice a series of formatting choices that, at first, may appear really obnoxious. But don’t worry: this is intentional, and will help you understand the way we’re approaching it.

Here in the middle, where there’s no formatting at all, is where you’ll find the neutral narrative that we’re engaging with throughout the story. 

A savvy reader might consider this the closest approximation we, as journalists obsessed with historical documents and public records, could find to an objective truth.

When you see this toxic green color, you’ll be reading the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-in-Chief MG Belka.

And when you see this pink color that happens to match his protest helmet and nails, you’ll have the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-at-Large James Croxton.

We did this because we believe that it is important to engage with history as we uncover it, and that engaging with history means constantly critiquing it, challenging it, and–when deserved–making fun of it, too.

But we don’t want to make the mistake of passing off those critiques and analyses as objective, since so many people still seem to believe that such a thing exists, and we don’t want to mix our own biases and perspectives with the hard research that we used to put this story together.

Now, on to the 1980s!

Will We Ever Do It Big?:
Eugene During the Reagan Years

The early 1980s in Eugene saw another downturn, as both the city and state’s economy once again collapsed, causing unemployment to hit 12%. The collapse of timber prices and manufacturing wiped out entire towns and restructured Oregon’s predominant industry for good – while also setting the stage for the next generation of activism in the Emerald City.

But first, Eugene had to survive the presidency of Ronald Reagan and another decade of reactionary politics at the local level. 

Despite the faltering economy, the city’s government was dominated by conservative, pro-business Republicans throughout the 1980s, including Jeff Miller, who coasted to victory in 1988 after promising to increase police spending by $600,000 – or $1.3 million today.

Thanks to these Reagan-aligned local leaders, much of the decade came with controversy and drastic changes in local policing.

In late 1982, the Lane Interagency Narcotics Team was disbanded after news broke that narcotics agents were stealing cocaine from evidence lockers and illegally wiretapping alleged drug dealers. Despite this, the agency returned in 1987 thanks to the War on Drugs and increased federal funding for local anti-drug task forces.

In March 1984, EPD was involved in a shootout following a botched robbery at Izzy’s Pizza, during which Agent Mark Krupar and Officer Rick Allen were both shot multiple times. The shootout–along with a tragic sniper attack at Autzen Stadium later that year and an overall increase in what the department considered violent, drug-related crimes–led EPD to upgrade from revolvers to the semi-automatic handguns used by the department today. 

And, in 1986, EPD struck a deal with 4J schools to begin placing armed police officers in Churchill and South Eugene High Schools, which later spread to all district schools. There’s no record of protests against the move, which was touted by the department and local officials as an essential step to combat drug traffic in the schools.

But as far as protesting and activism goes, Eugene remained relatively quiet for most of the 1980s. 

There were callbacks to the city’s recent revolutionary past, like when Silas Bissell—a leader of the SDS’s revolutionary offshoot, Weather Underground—was arrested by the FBI in Eugene in 1987. Seventeen years prior, he, and four others—including his since estranged wife—were charged with attempting to blow up the University of Washington’s ROTC building. At the time, he was at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list.

Clipping of an Associated Press article about Silas Bissell printed in the Salem Statesman-Journal in 1987.

There were signals of its future, like when an Animal Liberation Front cell attacked a laboratory at the University of Oregon, in Oct. 1986, freeing over 200 animals and causing over $120,000 in damages.

And there were growing movements among the migrant laborers that continued to represent the backbone of the Willamette Valley’s agricultural economy – most notably the formation of the Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers Union) in 1985.

Other than that, the scandals and crimes of the Reagan administration did not seem to engender much outrage in the Emerald City beyond occasional marches against the Iran-Contra Affair, the invasion of Grenada, and the bombing of Libya. The recession of the early 1980s, much like those that had come before, seemed to take the wind out of Eugene’s sails, for the most part.

But one notorious event at the tail-end of the decade opened the door to Eugene’s radical future.

On Easter Sunday 1989, a small group of environmental activists confronted a timber crew heading up to cut a stand of trees near Breitenbush Hot Springs. The stand was the subject of a lawsuit that disputed the legality of the sale, and the logging company was attempting to cut down the old-growth trees before a judge had a chance to rule on the case.

The activists, who’d been loosely organized by Earth First!–more on them later–barricaded the road to the timber sale with logs and other debris, which successfully fended off the first wave of loggers. But the U.S. Forest Service showed up soon after with heavy equipment and took down the barricades, clearing the way to the sale. 

That’s when one activist buried himself in rocks to prevent the equipment from getting through.

Twelve people were arrested for disorderly conduct that day, but it bought the group enough time for reinforcements from Eugene and Portland to arrive. Over the next two days, environmentalists repeatedly barricaded loggers and Forest Service officials from the timber sale using non-violent methods, despite considerable opposition from law enforcement and pro-logging groups in rural Oregon. Loggers claimed that their equipment was sabotaged by Earth First! activists, while at least one logger admitted to nearly cutting a tree that was occupied by a tree-sitter.

Black and white photograph of a dead spotted owl above a plywood sign that reads "have you shot a spotted owl today?)
As one might imagine, the reaction amongst Oregon timber workers to the growing forest defense movement was not exactly nuanced and civil. (Source)

Ultimately, the environmentalists lost the battle–a federal judge in Portland unsurprisingly ruled in favor of the logging company and allowed the sale to proceed–but the event became one of the earliest high-profile standoffs between the growing environmental movement, timber companies, and the State. Tactics used during the so-called “Easter Massacre” of 1989–tree-sitting, forest road barricades and court injunctions, just to name a few–would become hallmarks of Eugene’s forest defense tradition into the coming decades.

It also sparked a growing backlash among loggers and other timber-related workers toward environmental activists that would lead to decades of resentment and conflict.

And, most importantly, the standoff sparked some lifelong friendships and partnerships that would alter the course of Eugene’s history forever.

Better Anarchists Than You:
Arsonists & Forest Defenders in the “Anarchist Capital of the World.”

In the summer of 1999, Jim Torrey, the Republican mayor who had already drawn the ire of local radicals after his police department pepper sprayed tree-sitters in the genitals, declared that Eugene had become “The Anarchist Capital of the World.” 

For a time, he appeared to be right.

There are countless examples of protests, activism, and direct actions centered in and around Eugene in the ‘90s. Though local anarchists never quite escalated their actions to the level of serial bombings inside the city limits, their actions throughout the decade put Eugene on the radical map for good.

The 1990s began with rowdy protests against the Persian Gulf War. On Jan. 16, 1991, nearly 1,500 people rallied outside the Wayne Lyman Morse Federal Courthouse, where student activists dramatically placed a body-bag containing a live 10-year-old girl on the steps to represent the war’s unseen death toll. Police arrested 51 people that day, including 15 juveniles. They also arrested someone for honking their horn while driving by the protest. Later that day, someone torched the Marine Corps recruiting station on Division St.

Building on the momentum earned from the Easter Massacre in 1989 and the student-led Persian Gulf protests in 1991, countless radical groups from all over the left side of the political spectrum found strong bases of support in and around the city. Earth First! had a strong following in the city; Eugene-based activists helped build the environmental organization’s reputation for direct action by organizing all sorts of roadblocks, tree-sits, and other acts of resistance across the Oregon Cascades. 

The above video is from Tim Lewis, who documented much of the Eugene green anarchy movement in the 90s and 00s, including their excursion to Seattle for the WTO protests in ’99.

By the middle of the decade, Eugene had built a strong infrastructure of radical organizing and culture. Radical anarchists and other left-wing activists flocked to the Whiteaker, where they met at friendly outposts like the Out of the Fog coffeehouse on the edge of the neighborhood. Whiteaker-based pirate radio stations like Radio Free Cascadia broadcast the words of, among others, anarcho-primitivist godfather John Zerzan, while DIY publications like Break the Chains, Disorderly Conduct, and later Green Anarchy! circulated anarchist and abolitionist ideas throughout radical circles in the city and across the Northwest. 

MG Belka:
Out of the Fog was so anarcho-friendly that they even made a point to exclusively sell coffee grown by Zapatista rebels in the Mexican state of Chiapas. This fact is mocked in a very annoying-but-nevertheless informative Rolling Stone profile of Eugene’s anarchist community.

And in between 1995 and ‘96, after years of honing their skills, members of EF! and other affiliated groups undertook arguably the most successful forest defense in Oregon history: the Warner Creek Occupation.

For 343 days, a couple dozen environmental activists, most of them from Eugene, blockaded a remote forest road leading to a small timber sale deep in the Cascades, not far from Oakridge. The occupation, as chronicled in the documentary “Pickaxe,” included a 79-day hunger strike and the employment of all sorts of nonviolent defense tactics that the activists had practiced on far smaller scales for years. In addition to using their bodies as obstacles, the blockade featured ten-foot deep ditches cut into the road and a literal fort built of old logs.

The occupation ended when rangers finally overwhelmed the blockade with bulldozers and arrested seven people, but the occupiers had already won. The Clinton administration agreed to halt the logging of Warner Creek and thousands of acres of old-growth forest in Oregon and Washington. Nationwide public opinion, for a time, turned against the logging of public lands, especially after heavy crackdowns on similar blockades across the Pacific Northwest.

MG Belka:
As far as environmentally centered direct actions go, Warner Creek was about as well-executed as it gets. It was an action that required true grit, resilience, and–most of all–an almost religious faith among and between the co-conspirators that their cause was worthy and just. 

But the more radical members of the occupation were not content to rest on their laurels after Warner Creek. 

The successful action, which both saved a chunk of forest and embarrassed the-hell-out-of the federal government, instilled a strong sense of confidence in the young eco-activists. If a couple dozen hippies could make a stand on a remote logging road in rural Oregon, imagine what they might be capable of if they had a couple hundred people, or even a couple thousand people.

Imagine what they could do if they stopped playing defense and went on the attack.

Black and white photograph of some of the occupiers at Warner Creek, who are leaning on the wooden barricade they've built to prevent bulldozers and loggers from reaching a timber sale deep in the Oregon Cascades.
The Earth First! occupiers at Warner Creek, 1995. (Source)

On Christmas Eve. of 1995, the Animal Liberation Front returned to Eugene, taking credit for setting three ice cream trucks on fire and signaling that the coming years would see more action than ever.

1996 proved to be a watershed year for radicals in Eugene. That year, the FBI finally arrested Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whose manifesto would end up having a strong influence on the city’s green anarchists and future anarcho-primitivists. The rest of 1996 saw several high-profile cases of vandalism directed at the U.S. Forest Service facilities in the Oregon Cascades, including the burning of a USFS pickup truck at the Detroit Ranger Station. 

The Detroit vandalism was followed two days later by the infamous torching of the Oakridge Ranger Station, which caused over eight million dollars in damage. 

The Oakridge arson is regarded as one of the earliest major acts of sabotage undertaken by members of the Earth Liberation Front, who would remain prolific over the next decade across the United States. Eugene-based members of the group were allegedly involved in multiple arson attacks all across the Northwest, but their identities would not be known until much later.

Some early ELF graffiti allegedly done by eco-saboteurs sometime in the late 1990s. (Source)

MG Belka:
I find the ELF to be extremely fascinating, especially as it relates to our current historical moment. 

Though the ELF exists in the very recent past—with their actions occurring as late as 2008—they’ve already become mythologized among a certain subset of today’s radicals. Their activities, philosophy, and organization has proven highly influential among today’s would-be revolutionaries, especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

Much like their spiritual comrades in the Animal Liberation Front and Canada’s Earth Liberation Army, the ELF operated as autonomous cells beneath a collective banner – a clever tactical choice largely influenced by the group’s anarchist leanings. By operating as individual cells, the ELF proved difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate and even harder to track down. It’s impossible to know how many people were involved in ELF activity at any given time, but seeing as how they claimed responsibility for attacks from the Cascades to the Netherlands, it’s fairly safe to assume they numbered at least a couple thousand at peak strength, the vast majority of whom were never caught.

And they scared the hell out of people! It’s easy to forget that, in the years just before 9/11, anarchists and eco-terrorists were public enemy number one in the United States. While America was gawking at the Monica Lewinski scandal, ELF cells were burning down ski lodges in Colorado while ALF cells were freeing animals from testing facilities in Orange County. 

But it’s important to note that these groups have accounted for exactly zero deaths over the course of their existence.

Protesting the cutting of 40 large trees on June 1, 1997, to make way for the apartments and parking garages that now sit at Broadway and Lincoln St. in downtown Eugene, hundreds gathered to witness what would happen with members of Earth First! and Cascadia Forest Defenders in the trees. It was reported, too, that “while the cops outside the fence pushed back the crowd, those inside plucked the protesters out of the trees with a firetruck lift, blinding them with pepper spray.”

One activist responded by intentionally vomiting on Torrey during a City Council meeting on Aug. 6.

In Nov. 1998, a handful of self-declared anarchists trashed the inside of a Nike store in Eugene, causing minor damage but attracting a lot of media attention. And in May 1999, the ALF took credit for an arson at Childer’s Meat Co. on Hwy 99 that caused 150,000 dollars in damages.

A few months before the chaotic protests at the World Trade Organization summit–or otherwise known as the infamous “Battle of Seattle”–Eugene’s bustling anarchist movement clashed regularly with local cops in the streets of downtown. During one anti-globalization protest on June 18, hundreds of people showed up and smashed VCRs and computers in the street. After a few hours, EPD confronted the crowd at Washington-Jefferson Park and shot tear gas canisters at them. 

James Croxton:
Ahhh. I can smell it.

Twenty-one people were arrested in connection with the protest, including Rob “Los Ricos” Thaxton, who was hit with riot charges as well with 2nd degree assault, 1st degree attempted assault, and even an attempted murder charge – all for allegedly striking an EPD officer on the shoulder with a rock. 

In the aftermath of the Battle of Seattle, Eugene was firmly in the national spotlight as a hotbed of anarchist activity. Seattle’s Chief of Police, Norm Stamper, blamed “Eugene anarchists” for the chaos in his resignation speech, and big-name journalists continued to descend on the city for stories of unrest and rebellion.

At the dawn of Y2K, it seemed like nothing would quiet Eugene’s anarchists. On April 24, 2000, more than 100 people gathered in front of the Lane County Jail to protest and hold a vigil for Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal after he’d been convicted of killing a police officer. EPD responded in what witnesses described as “robo-gear,” fired rubber bullets at someone, and arrested eight people in total.

Jeff Luers cir. 2009 (Source)

On June 16, 2000, two local eco-anarchists—Jeff “Free” Luers” and Craig “Critter” Marshall”—torched three SUVs at the Romania Chevrolet dealership on Franklin Boulevard in protest of an overly gas-dependent culture. They, followed by EPD, were eventually arrested by the Springfield Police Department after being pulled-over for a broken headlight. 

MG Belka:
Never ever ever ever ever ever do something illegal without first making sure that your car’s lights aren’t broken!

James Croxton:
That being said, since moving here, I have never seen so many cars with broken headlights. 

Judge Lyle Velure sentenced Luers, who’d become a sort of martyr for the cause, to over 22 years in Oregon State Penitentiary. He was later released in late 2009 after being incarcerated for over nine years. About him, an article said he “recalls being smitten by the natural beauty of Oregon, including old growth forests; the friendliness of people in Eugene; and the willingness of activists to protest.”

In September of that year, arsonists set fire to EPD’s West University Public Safety Station. And in April of 2001, another arson attack–apparently inspired by Luers and Marshall’s action–claimed an additional one million dollars in damages.

Luers and Marshall’s arrests and subsequent incarceration became a rallying cry for the local eco-anarchists, but it also signaled the beginning of the end of Eugene’s time in the radical limelight. Infighting and bad-jacketing sowed mistrust in local anarchists while the media attention on the city put pressure on local, state, and federal law enforcement to quell the unrest.

And quell they did. The early to mid-2000s, with 9/11 having given the federal government new tools to crush terrorism at home and abroad, saw a massive crackdown of the green anarchy movement by law enforcement. Between 2004 and 2006, 18 people were arrested in connection with ELF and ALF attacks across the country as part of the FBI’s “Operation Backfire.” 

Among those of those arrested–and later charged with terrorism under the still-new Patriot Act–was Daniel McGowan, a Eugene-based ELF conspirator whose story was explored in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “If A Tree Falls.” 

MG Belka:
The film is essential viewing for anyone interested in how effectively the federal government can crush a left-wing movement when they feel like doing so – and essential for understanding what happens when even one person in your circle decides to cooperate with the Feds.

With their most radical members either incarcerated or on the run, Eugene’s anarchists were effectively knee-capped. The movement was not completely run out of town, but the crackdown forced would-be revolutionaries to temper their public activities. The mutual aid and street organizations formed during the period continued to operate, but it would be a long time before anarchists in the city would go on the offensive again. 

These are the “good old days” that many local agitators look to for inspiration as this latest wave of civil unrest dances around Eugene. Many of the major players from the ‘90s are still around – I’ve met at least a couple of them. You can still listen to John Zerzan’s radio show on KWVA. There are still forest defense groups opposing logging operations and other environmental hazards. 

But between yet another economic collapse, the rise of neoliberalism on the back of the election of Barack Obama, and the challenges presented by the technological boom, Eugene’s reputation as the Anarchist Capital of the World soon become more mythos than history.

James Croxton:
Then, a decade later, Occupy happened.

Thanks for reading–we wouldn’t have attempted such an expansive project if we didn’t believe that there was some merit to learning about the history of a place, both good and bad.

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