Judi Bari makes news posthumously--again
By Bruce Robinson
Berkeley-based writer Kate Coleman calls her unauthorized biography The Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, the Fight for the Redwoods and the End of Earth First! ($25.95) "a quick read," but it's hard to say the same about the exhaustive online rebuttal her book has prompted at www.colemanhoax.com. Taken together, however, they provide a perversely contrapuntal portrait of the determinedly controversial North Coast activist and the ongoing debate over her political legacy.
Coleman, who considers herself a member of the political left ("Even if nobody wants me," she quipped ruefully at Copperfield's Books in Sebastopol last month), has come under fire, not just for what she wrote, but for the company she's keeping.
Secret Wars is published by Encounter Books, a San Franciscobased imprint that has also put out a slam against Hillary Clinton (The Hillary Trap), as well as releasing titles by such well-known archconservatives as William Kristol and David Horowitz. Her book had its origins in a 1999 article, "The Ghost of Judi Bari," published in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, a paper known for its combative stance and tone, but hardly for being a bastion of neoconservatism. Encounter publisher Peter Collier, with whom Coleman had previously worked when he edited Ramparts magazine (and when his politics were decidedly more liberal), suggested expanding the article into a biography.
"The publisher and I agreed on the book," Coleman elaborates in a telephone interview from her East Bay home. "No one restrained me, no one told me what to say ideologically. There are many things about my publisher that we don't agree on. But he's a First Amendment guy, and he believes in giving a writer freedom."
If Coleman's writing was not constricted by her publisher, her reporting was certainly hampered by a lack of access to many of Judi Bari's closest associates, including most of her family members, her ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, and Darryl Cherney, the Earth First! eco-agitator who was injured along with Bari in the 1990 Oakland car bombing. Consequently, the portrait provided is drawn largely from the recollections of numerous former friends and allies, virtually all of whom had experienced some kind of falling out with Bari before her death from breast cancer in 1997. While Coleman cites sources for everything she is told, she fails to make clear which sources were estranged from Bari and when, or to offer any independent assessment of their relative credibility, even when contradictions arise.
Although the juicy hearsay is augmented by extensive citations from Bari's own writings and published interviews, and third party reporting from the Press Democrat and other sources, the net result is a fragmentary mix of empirical fact, Bari's own hyperbolic rhetoric and dishy gossip. This all might be easier to accept were it not for the disdainful tone that creeps into Coleman's prose. Repeated references to Bari's bralessness, for example, become almost comic, especially when the rest of her wardrobe scarcely warrants comment. But gratuitous insults to even minor figures (IWW union storyteller and folksinger Utah Phillips is dismissed as a "graying Pete Seeger knock-off") reinforce a disparaging tone inconsistent with genuine journalistic objectivity.
Asked at last month's Sebastopol reading about her book's "tone of disrespect," Coleman demurred. "I think I was fair," the author replied. "I think there are things to admire in her and things to criticize."
In fact, it is Bari's politics that Coleman seems to most admire. She approvingly notes that the activist's parents were both communists in the early 1950s, and traces her history of activism back to anti-war demonstrations at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s, long before she moved to Northern California. "She was a Maoist who fell in love with the trees," Coleman says. But Bari's personal life, as portrayed by Coleman, was a series of "secret wars"--a mess of trashed relationships and estrangements, from her parents, her sister, and most of all, from her husband. Sweeney is accused, at various times, of planting a bomb at a Santa Rosa airfield, hitting or threatening Bari, writing the infamous "Lord's Avenger" letter that sought to take credit for the car bomb and even of being the bomber.
No wonder he's pissed.
Sweeney is reportedly the uncredited voice of outrage behind ColemanHoax.com, which offers an almost paragraph by paragraph refutation of Coleman's text, from major assertions about the extent and effectiveness of Bari's environmental activism after the bombing to quibbles over such minor details as whether Philo's Hendy Woods is a national forest or a state park. The sheer number of alleged errors--more than 350 in a 232-page text--is certainly imposing, even discounting the numerous repetitions, and Coleman has acknowledged that her book was rushed into print without adequate fact checking. Still, one wonders how many mistakes might have been averted had Sweeney or other Bari intimates consented to be consulted as the manuscript was being drafted.
Looming over all this is the still unanswered question of who was actually responsible for the car bombing, a mystery that law enforcement appears to have abandoned long ago. Coleman cites various theories but expends little effort exploring them. She makes a point, however, of clarifying the popular misconception that Bari and Cherney's eventual court victory against the FBI and the Oakland police affirmed the duo's frequent speculations that law-enforcement officers had planted the bomb. The 2002 court judgment instead focused on charges that Bari's and Cherney's rights were violated during the investigation of the blast, and that they were defamed by police and FBI statements that portrayed the pair as violent radicals injured by their own bomb.
While there can be little doubt that her court battles sapped some of Bari's time and energy that might otherwise have gone toward what she hailed as "the fight for the redwoods," it was her very public wars--against Maxxam and Pacific Lumber, as well as the FBI--that made Bari an iconic figure. Coleman's flawed but intriguing portrait has served to renew interest in Bari's role and influence, and perhaps set the stage for a more thorough telling of her life's story in the forthcoming biography from feminist writer Susan Faludi.
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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.