Green is the New Red
An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege
by Will Potter
Chapter 1: Blacklisted
June 3, 2007
For a few seconds at a time, today feels like any other day, maybe even like a vacation, and Daniel McGowan forgets what he knows will happen tomorrow. The wind blows west through Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, rustling the dense lower patchwork of vine maple, dogwood and red alder. The rodlike Douglas firs pay no attention to the breeze as they reach over two hundred feet to the sun, just as they have for three hundred, four hundred, five hundred years. If he breathes deeply enough, McGowan might smell tansy in the wind, or perhaps it’s camphor; so many wild things have grown over each other and into each other for so long it’s hard to tell which. If he breathes deeper still, he might taste the white water of Fall Creek before seeing or hearing it. He breathes in, pulls the wind and creek and forest deep into his lungs, and slowly releases them. Then McGowan remembers that at nine o’clock on Monday morning he’ll be wearing his best suit, the black one with three buttons, and he’ll be sitting quietly with his hands folded in his lap, staring blankly ahead, while a U.S. District Court judge sentences him to prison as a terrorist.
He steals a few more seconds and fights off thoughts of tomorrow. He tries to forget that his statement to the court needs another practice reading, that his press release needs editing, and that his dad, his sister and his wife, Jenny Synan, will be sitting on rigid pews in the front row of the courtroom, silently crying. Right now McGowan has paused on the trail to Fall Creek, with his nose three inches away from a stegosaurus of an ant walking along a smooth moist stone. He yells to his wife, standing right behind him. “Jenny, check this out!” He is crouching, hands on his knees, mouth open and smiling, tongue poking out the left side. “My niece Lily would be so excited,” he says. “Lily loves bugs.”
This is one Daniel McGowan, Daniel the Uncle. The Daniel who knows everything Lily loves and doesn’t love, all of her favorite stories and favorite jokes and who says, in one excited breath, “Did I tell you what Lily did the other day seriously she is so goddamn adorable I can’t even tell you.” There may be a thousand more Daniels. How many depends on who you ask. Federal prosecutors say there are Djenni, Dylan Kay, Jamie Moran, Sorrel, Rabid: the aliases he used during his underground life when he destroyed genetically engineered crops and helped commit two arsons as part of the Earth Liberation Front. McGowan earned one of the names after hiking near this same creek years ago, when a friend showed him the edible, heart-shaped leaves of the sorrel herb. McGowan ate the plant by the handful. “It gave me the shits,” he says. His mouth is now full of the green foliage, and as he follows the trail he periodically reaches for more, having either forgotten the past or made a concerted effort not to remember.
At least two more Daniels walk through the forest this afternoon, Today’s Daniel and Tomorrow’s Daniel. Like the others, they curse like sailors, the sons of an Irish New York City cop from Queens. Today’s Daniel takes center stage, cracking jokes and performing for his small audience, a handful of somber friends. Most of all he tries desperately to make his wife smile. As if bracing for her husband’s terrorism sentencing were not difficult enough, Synan has had sneezing fits, watery eyes and shortness of breath since stepping off the plane yesterday. Burr-ragweed, mugwort, vetch, fireweed, smotherweed, knotweed, smartweed, barnyard grass, cock’s-spur grass, false rye grass, quaking grass, panic grass. They may not all be here in the forest right now, but they are somewhere in the wind, finding their way to Synan’s nose. Brooklyn has less-than-pristine air, full of taxicab exhaust and godknowswhatelse, but at least concrete doesn’t make you sneeze. Not as much, at least. On their first date, back in New York, McGowan brought Synan a bouquet of allergy medicine. “This is nature, Jenny, na-a-a-ture,” he says to her now, grinning. Synan looks too exhausted to laugh, but he persists. “Jenny! Jenny!” he shouts, pointing to the trees behind her. “Watch out for pygmies!” She rolls her red eyes.
Today’s Daniel must also remember the two-man camera crew that has followed him for six months, trying to film every fund-raiser, happy hour and family gathering for a documentary about his case. Their clock is ticking. Once McGowan reports to prison they will have limited opportunities to tape him, even fewer if he reports to a maximum-security facility. McGowan does not want their only footage to be of Defeated Daniel. What message would that send to the FBI? What message would that send to the movement?
McGowan wears a wireless microphone that peeks out of the top of his black T-shirt. The battery pack hooks onto his black shorts, cut well below his knees. He approaches the water. He keeps his game face on, giving the filmmakers the sound bites, monologues and close-ups they need, but never letting them too close. If the mood feels too heavy, he redirects the conversation. He pulls a six-pack of microbrewed beer from a nook made by two rocks in the creek, where friends had placed it to chill. He hoists it triumphantly. “Look, we caught some wild beer!” Sometime in the same act, different scene, McGowan pauses briefly and turns back to the camera crew. “I think we’re getting some interference. Do you want me to ask the river to be quiet? Want me to unplug that shit?”
Tomorrow’s Daniel is always nearby, though, and now he takes a seat on the river rock. He rails against activist groups like the Rainforest Action Network and Ruckus Society, groups he has volunteered with for years, groups that refused to speak out against the government labeling him a terrorist. McGowan and his attorneys volunteered to write a letter to the court if only the groups would lend their name and credibility. But these national organizations didn’t want to publicly support a saboteur. That’s understandable, McGowan says, but can’t they at least say destroying genetically engineered crops is not the same as flying planes into buildings?
McGowan’s friends try to fight off tomorrow. Talk of creeks and water prompts someone to ask if McGowan has ever been to the nude beach off the McKenzie River. “I really love nudie rock,” he says. “You throw yourself in and man you just go shooting down this whitewater and you pop up and it’s totally amazing.” Someone in the group has jumped into the water, and McGowan’s friends coax him. Jump! JUMP! Someone says this may be his last opportunity to swim in fresh water for six to eight years. “Maybe you should just throw yourself in,” Synan says, “and see where it takes you.”
While his friends pop open another round of beers and begin to speculate about what prison life will entail, McGowan breaks away from the group and meanders along the cold creek, letting his skin feel the damp moss. He is between worlds. Having stepped out of the forest, but not yet touched the water, he walks softly, balances carefully, step by step along the edge. A few more steps and he pauses on a large riparian stone. It has been carved into a gentle parabola not by drastic action but by steady, patient pressure. McGowan sits, then folds his arms across his knees as he pulls them to his chest; he turns and stares upstream. Enough sunlight falls through holes in the old-growth forest canopy to make the creek shimmer like broken glass. He could listen to water all day, he has said before. He listens. Listens to the tone, pitch, melody and rhythm of the current. A song playing far too softly to penetrate thick walls of concrete and steel and remorse to reach McGowan, sitting alone, in a prison cell.
He returns to the group, now in the midst of yet another conversation about prison life, prison location, prison sentences, prison behavior and prison food. McGowan’s attorneys will request that he report to the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, New Jersey. It’s a low-security facility not the usual stop for a convicted terrorist, but McGowan has no violent history and thinks the Bureau of Prisons will grant his request. At Fort Dix, Synan and his family could make the hour-and-a-half trip south to visit. After McGowan’s sentencing, though, paperwork and protocol could last five or six weeks before prison. His friends worry that instead of spending those weeks free, with Synan, he’ll have to report to the Metropolitan Detention Center “The Abu Ghraib of Brooklyn.” Arab men rounded up after 9/11 have accused the guards of beating them, violating them during body cavity searches, parading them naked before female guards and calling them “Muslim bastards.” The government later deported the detainees, but admitted they were not terrorists.
As the forest darkens, McGowan announces to the camera that he has decided on his sentencing statement. “I am sorry, Your Honor,” he’ll say. “I have an overacting part of the brain where bad-assness is located.” He gets a few laughs, but gray dusk approaches, followed by darkness, making it harder and harder to forget tomorrow.
On the way back to Eugene, Oregon, the group stops at a gas station for snacks. A small sign that reads “Solar Power” hangs near pumps that, upon closer inspection, contain reservoirs for fuel connoisseurs: various microbrews of gasoline and bioethanol crafted to reduce emissions and, through domestic production, perhaps reduce unsavory wars for oil. The roof is a dense thatch of greens, yellows, oranges, purples and blues, an organic insulating layer of local flowers that keeps the store cooler in warm times and warmer in cool times. The flowers sink roots into what they must think is Oregon soil, only at some point to meet a rubber water barrier, and underneath that, steel or aluminum or wood, and underneath that, a convenience store gone green.
In similar areas not quite suburban, not quite rural gas stations often sell hunks of deer jerky, fresh cured and sitting in a tray on the counter. Coolers along the wall contain Lone Star, the national beer of Texas, and Bud or Miller Lite. Shelves hold toilet paper, more jerky, and motor oil. Behind the counter, nudie magazines and, if you ask the clerk, probably some shotgun shells. This gas station outside of Eugene sells vegan donuts and brownies, sitting in a wicker basket on the counter. Coolers along the wall contain fresh, local, organic greens and cheeses. Shelves hold 100 percent recycled toilet paper, more vegan brownies and peppermint toothpaste not tested on animals. Behind the counter, a full-service espresso bar, and the beans are all organic, fair trade, shade-grown.
“Please,” Synan says.
The barista eyes the group, including the two filmmakers who walk in to shoot McGowan perusing organic tortilla chips and salsa. Synan sees an opportunity and tells the woman about her husband’s case. The barista says she thinks she heard about that somewhere, and didn’t it involve torching some Hummers? Well, Synan says, some things like that have certainly happened, but not in McGowan’s case. Oh, the barista says, she really hates those jerks in their Hummers. Synan doesn’t miss a beat, urging her to visit SupportDaniel.org and to attend the hearing tomorrow. McGowan will need all the support he can get.