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Former ELF Eco-Saboteur Speaks at the UO

Daniel McGowan will discuss his time in prison and political activism
Daniel McGowan. Photo by Brandon Jourdan.

In June 2007 Daniel McGowan was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his role in two environmentally motivated arsons. The feds labeled him a terrorist for his part in the Earth Liberation Front’s eco-sabotage, and Judge Ann Aiken, who sentenced McGowan and his fellow participants in what the FBI called “Operation Backfire,” applied a “terrorism enhancement” to his sentence in a hearing at the federal courthouse in Eugene.  

McGowan, who is returning to Eugene to give a talk April 8, went on to become the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls. He was released on probation in June 2013 and has been living in New York City.

The arsons and acts of sabotage committed by McGowan and 12 other people indicted by the FBI took place between 1996 and 2001 in Oregon, Wyoming, Washington, California and Colorado. They ranged from arsons at a Eugene police substation and a local meatpacking company to burning the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado that was expanding into endangered lynx habitat. 

At the time of his sentencing, McGowan’s lawyers argued that a terrorism label could land him in a high-security prison. They said that such a label should be reserved for “the most dangerous types of offenses that threaten the fabric of our society,” not people who went out of their way to make sure animals and humans were not harmed through their actions. The government targeting of environmental activists came to be known as the Green Scare.

Several of McGowan’s years in prison were in fact spent in Communications Management Units in Terre Haute, Indiana and Marion, Illinois, where his communications were restricted and monitored and where he was not allowed to physically come in contact with his visitors. 

McGowan says that while he was in the CMUs he encountered many immigrants with dashed dreams and many who were “victims of overreach” and entrapped.

“I legit did most of what I was accused of,” McGowan says. But he met Muslims whose charity work for children was seen as providing material support for terrorists and who were sentenced to 65 years, and he says his seven years and the sentences of his fellow white co-defendants paled in comparison.

At his talk, McGowan says he will address his time with the ELF and in prison. He will talk about why activists should broaden the scope of radical movements and supporting prisoners as well as discuss why leftists should fight the growing “alt-right” and defend work with marginalized communities. “I’m a white, cisgendered man,” McGowan says, and when it comes to the rise of fascists in the lead-up to Trump’s election, “I hadn’t taken things as seriously as I should have.”

He plans to address the confusion activists have between short-term tactics and long-term strategies and why it’s important to not lose sight of the end goal. 

Daniel McGowan “prisoner rights activist and former political prisoner” speaks 7 pm Saturday, April 8, 115 Lawrence Hall on the University of Oregon campus, hosted by the Radical Organizing Activist Resource Center (ROAR). FREE.