Dangers of Being Green

Recently retired from Bethlehem Steel, R. P. Lilly thought he was simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he began fighting a hazardous-waste system planned for his town of Romulus, Mich. Someone disagreed. Last month Lilly found a small white box on his car; it contained a cat's head -- and a note ordering him to stop going to zoning-board and city-council meetings, or ""next time we will deliver your wifes [sic] or one of your grandchildren [sic] heads.''

It has been almost 20 years since anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood was murdered, and today it is no easier being green. Attacks on environmentalists in the 1990s number in the hundreds. Some stop at harassment: from nasty phone calls to death threats. Others are physical attacks: rapes, bombings, knifings and arson. Because they take place mostly in rural communities and target little-known grass-roots activists, argues David Helvarg, a private investigator who has worked in Belfast and Central America and is new to green politics, the assaults go largely unnoticed. Helvarg is trying to correct that with ""The War Against The Greens'' (512 pages. Sierra. $25), published this month. The book relies on police records, interviews and historical research -- sometimes tediously reprised -- to shed light on tactics more often associated with union-busting goons and anti-civil-rights vigilantes. ""[Violence against greens] is much more serious in the '90s than ever before,'' Helvarg told Newsweek. ""You've got a lot of people [who are] losing their hold of the American Dream'' -- and lashing out at those they think stole it.

Most of the attacks seem to be spontaneous and unorganized. The culprits tend to be small-town neighbors, local residents who fear that conservation will cost them their jobs. That rage was probably behind the torchings of the houses of three anti-logging activists in New Hampshire and Maine in 1991. At the height of the spottedowl wars in Oregon, the house of a timber worker who sympathized with anti-logging groups was riddled with bullets during nighttime drive-by shootings; his wife was twice driven off the road by log trucks. In Oakland, Calif., Earth First! activist Judi Bari and her two young daughters were run off the road by a log truck that Earth First! had blockaded the day before.330 And as Bari was organizing the 1990 ""Redwood Summer'' protests against logging in ancient forests, a bomb exploded beneath the front seat of her car, maiming her for life. As ""the Lord's Avenger'' wrote to a reporter, ""Bari spread her poison to tell the Multitude that . . . it was a sin to cut [trees]. . . . I knew I had been chosen to strike down this demon.'' He was never caught.

Most opponents of environmentalism, of course, confine their attacks to op-ed pages and legislatures. But just as hyperbolic right-to-life rhetoric inspired the murders of two Florida abortion doctors, so anti-green rhetoric seems to trigger violence, too. (Example: ""We're out to kill the f---ers,'' as an anti-environment leader told a reporter in 1992.) But anti-green leaders reject any link between their work and such crazies. ""It is nonsense to think that we're associated with violence,'' says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association.

Other attacks bear the fingerprints of ""professional security agents,'' writes Helvarg. In 1992 an antitoxics activist in Cincinnati was knifed on the street after having earlier been stoned and her house set on fire. That same year, a Florida activist protesting water pollution from a Procter & Gamble plant was raped and tortured by three men in camouflage jumpsuits. In 1991, the Arkansas cabin of Pat Costner, director of toxics research for Greenpeace U.S.A., was torched by someone using accelerants. Last year, on the anniversary of the arson, her phones went dead. Someone, said the repairman, had shot out the lines.

Some environmentalists quit in the wake of the threats and attacks. Others turn fatalistic. Anti-logging activist Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, who was hung in effigy in Joseph, Ore., this month, has lost count of the death threats. ""It's the price of being an environmentalist now,'' he says. Free speech can be costly.