Activist who survived bomb leaves a legacy

  • Judi Bari

    Eugene Louie

Judi Bari listened to a special call-in show on Mendocino County public radio Feb. 21, and said afterward that it sounded like a funeral eulogy - her own.

The Earth First! activist had hosted a weekly "Punch and Judi" public affairs show at the station for years. Now, dying from inoperable breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver, it was Bari's turn to listen from her cabin near Willits, Calif.

"It's important that we pay tribute to our heroes, and Judi Bari is definitely one of those heroes," said one caller, former California Rep. Dan Hamburg.

Bari died peacefully at home a week and two days later, surrounded by family and friends. Those close to her said they will remember Bari as a brilliant strategist, a woman of great wit, a devoted mother, an expert fiddler and a "great imp."

But Bari is perhaps best known as the activist who survived a pipe bomb that exploded in her car in 1990.

The explosion happened on the eve of Redwood Summer, one of California's largest logging protests. Thousands were expected to converge on Humboldt County's Headwaters Forest, and the atmosphere in timber country had become tense.

According to Jim Flynn, co-editor of the Earth First! Journal, Bari and other Earth First! activists had received anonymous death threats that spring. One showed a picture of Bari with a rifle scope drawn over her face. The year before, Bari had survived a "Karen Silkwood" kind of accident: Her vehicle was rammed from behind by a logging truck.

Fake press releases with the Earth First! logo had also appeared in 1990 at a Louisiana-Pacific mill, calling for tree spiking and other acts of violence. Then, just months before the car bombing, someone cut down an electrical transmission tower in the Santa Cruz mountains. Fingers pointed at Earth First!ers, including Bari, who denied any involvement. "I was home in bed with five witnesses," she quipped at the time.

"Judi was a threat because she was crafting an alliance between labor and environmentalists," says Karen Pickett, an activist and writer who works at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, Calif. Bari, who had been a labor organizer in her native Maryland, often had a good rapport with timber workers. She helped in 1989 to organize workers at a Georgia-Pacific sawmill after a chemical spill. She was also extremely effective at organizing forest protests, something she'd been doing since 1988. Colleagues said that when she organized, thousands came instead of dozens.

It was in the midst of this charged atmosphere that a bomb blew through Bari's car seat in Oakland, Calif., spraying hundreds of nails into her body and shattering her pelvis and lower backbone (HCN, 6/18/90). After the bombing, Oakland police and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested both Bari and her friend, Darryl Cherney - known "terrorists" according to the FBI - for possession of explosives.

After charges against them had been dropped due to lack of evidence, Bari and Cherney fought back by filing a lawsuit in 1991 against Oakland police and the FBI, charging civil rights violations. The lawsuit accused the FBI of arresting the two activists to discredit Earth First! members by portraying them as terrorists. Bari and Cherney also said that the FBI failed to investigate the case. In seven years, there have been no suspects other than Bari and Cherney, and some Earth First!ers say the FBI itself may have been involved in the bombing.

"Dumb enough to carry a live anti-personnel bomb under my car seat," wrote Bari sarcastically in a 1994 issue of the Earth First! Journal, "but apparently too clever to catch."

Her friends say the lawsuit became almost an obsession for Bari. After six years of trying to get the case heard in court, Bari had gathered more than 10,000 pages of transcripts and documentation. "She's the real brain behind the lawsuit," said Earth First! Journal co-editor Jim Flynn before Bari's death. "Whoever planted that bomb blew up the wrong end of her. She's been on the bandwagon ever since."

Even after being diagnosed with cancer less than six months ago, the lawsuit was one of three things she chose to focus on. The other two were her family and her radio show.

Although Bari had hoped that the case would go to court before she died, her lawyer, Dennis Cunningham, said they taped her testimony just in case. Another of her lawyers, Michael Deutsch, said the FBI has one more chance to appeal to dismiss the case. But even if it goes to trial, both lawyers agree it will be a hard case to win since they must prove the FBI knowingly mishandled the case. Still, Cunningham said, they have "a really strong case with really hard evidence."

"For all these years, it's been always been "Judi Bari for Justice," but now it's time for "Justice for Judi Bari," " Betty Ball of the Mendocino Environmental Center told the Albion Monitor.

Meanwhile, friends and activists are confronting their loss.

"People are grieving and trying to cope, but they know damn well they better keep going," says Ball. At Bari's request, a wake-party was planned. While Ball wondered how to squeeze the expected 1,000 people into the Willits Grange, another friend was printing T-shirts with a picture of Bari and the slogan made famous by labor organizer Joe Hill: "Don't mourn, organize."

"What a fabulous being," adds Ball. "Very rarely does someone like Judi surface."

Bari is survived by two daughters, Lisa, 16, and Jessica, 11. Anyone interested in making a donation to Bari's family can send checks to the Judi Bari Trust Fund, c/o the Mendocino Environmental Center, 106 W. Standly St., Ukiah, CA 95482. Or, to help continue Bari's lawsuit, send checks to Redwood Summer Justice, P.O. Box 14720, Santa Rosa, CA 95402.

Elizabeth Manning is HCN's assistant editor.

High Country News Classifieds