If you saw If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, the award-winning 2011 documentary about the radical environmental movement that blazed a path of targeted property destruction through the Pacific Northwest in the late 1990s, then you’ll remember Daniel McGowan. Though the film offered a snapshot of the movement as a whole, it focused on the activities—and eventually the arrest and prosecution—of the cadre with which McGowan was involved for several years.
After a massive and expensive investigation bolstered by new anti-terrorism funding and statutes implemented post 9/11, McGowan was arrested in 2005. He served seven years in prison, including significant time in a communication management unit, or CMU, in which his interaction with other prisoners and family was severely restricted.
McGowan will give a talk this Thursday, September 8, 7pm, at Burning Books (420 Connecticut Street. (Leslie Pickering, co-owner of the bookstore, was also featured in If a Tree Falls, for his role as an unofficial spokesman for the ELF.) McGowan’s visit celebrates the shop’s fifth anniversary; there will be birthday cake.
Earlier this week we spoke with McGowan, a New York City native who attended the University at Buffalo from 1992 to 1996, to discuss the path that led him from concerned citizen to activist, from civil disobedience to arson.
After leaving UB, McGowan traveled for a spell; in Thailand, he came into contact with a group of activists protesting wholesale destruction of rainforests and displacement of hill tribes by Myanmar’s military government. “Something awoke in me,” McGowan says. “I was just this traveler, but seeing what was happening there, and how others responded to it, felt inspiring to me.”
When McGowan returned to New York City, he took a long-term temp job with the PR firm Burston-Marsteller and began looking for outlets through which to promote his convictions. But he was turned off by the internecine struggles and less-than-radical positions of, for example, the Sierra Club. Soon he was drawn into the community of activists who revolved around Wetlands, a Tribeca club that funneled its profits into environmental activism.
“One day I was at Union Square Park, and a woman came up to me and tried to get me to sign a petition about spaying and neutering cats. I was like, ‘Sure, okay, that’s seems a reasonable thing to do.’ We talked, and after about five minutes, she said, ‘You seem like you’re more of the Wetlands variety.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t sound like the Sierra Club or Friends of Animals are really your speed, but you should check out Wetlands.’
“I think it was my age, but also the opinions I was expressing—about the Sierra Club being kind of weak, for example.