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Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison

News ArchiveRod Coronado's hair is cropped so close to his skull it takes a while to notice it’s more gray than black. His face is gaunt, his cheekbones surfacing from the planes of his face like the masts of those whaling ships he sunk as a young man. While Johnny Depp entered his 40s playing a pirate onscreen, Rod Coronado is hanging up his cutlass, metaphorically speaking. You could say the onetime boy wonder of the radical environmental movement is having a midlife crisis. At the very least, he is growing up. Going back to jail can do that to a guy, even a guy who’s known as the poster boy for radical environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, ecoterrorism. The Caged Lion
Written by SUSAN ZAKIN

Environmentalist Rod Coronado returns to prison a decade after his radical heyday

Rod Coronado's hair is cropped so close to his skull it takes a while to notice it’s more gray than black. His face is gaunt, his cheekbones surfacing from the planes of his face like the masts of those whaling ships he sunk as a young man. While Johnny Depp entered his 40s playing a pirate onscreen, Rod Coronado is hanging up his cutlass, metaphorically speaking. You could say the onetime boy wonder of the radical environmental movement is having a midlife crisis. At the very least, he is growing up. Going back to jail can do that to a guy, even a guy who’s known as the poster boy for radical environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, ecoterrorism.

Coronado was sentenced Monday to eight months in federal prison on what many decry as trumped-up conspiracy charges, and he’s facing the prospect of serving as much as 20 years if a federal judge in California doesn’t look kindly on a motion to dismiss charges here. He weathered prison pretty well the first time, but now he’s got a 4-year-old son. This time, prison wasn’t part of the plan.

Coronado seems shell-shocked when I meet him at a caf(c) in Tucson, where he has made a home and a life after spending much of the ’90s either living underground or behind bars. It is so hot this time of year that even an environmentalist who walks Coronado’s walk has agreed that the most important criterion in choosing a place to talk is air conditioning. He orders a tamale pie made of sweet potatoes, cheese and mushrooms, and he’s drinking coffee — “I’m not a vegan anymore,” he announces.

We meet a couple of weeks before Coronado is to be sentenced. I’m one of the last journalists he will speak with before doing time. During the interview, Coronado calls himself “naive” and says he was surprised by the vehemence of the government’s reaction to his more recent political activities, innocuous compared to the daredevil stunts of his youth. But times have changed, and the word terrorist now functions as carte blanche. Rod Coronado is the last of a generation, and his story is a bell curve of the radical environmental movement’s rise and fall in America.

Coronado, lithe, handsome and articulate, with the dark skin of his Yaqui Indian forebears, spent four years in prison for damaging laboratories in the Midwest that were experimenting with ways to make minks more amenable to becoming coats. After his release, he’d become the equivalent of a retired athlete selling insurance or modeling underwear. He hovered at the edges of the radical environmental movement, but, as far as anyone knew, his days as a hardcore monkey-wrencher were over.

You could say that his midlife crisis started with an appearance on 60 Minutes in November of 2005. Less than six months before that John Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, had testified to Congress that radical environmentalists were the country’s number-one domestic-terrorism threat. The statement practically begged Ed Bradley to ask why, if these guys were so dangerous, there had been no arrests.

The implicit question being, of course: If the feds can’t catch a bunch of skinny vegans, how could they stop terrorism? Real terrorism, that is. “It made them look like they were still chasing the ghost,” Coronado says.

In December 2005, the FBI made the ghost flesh when it arrested more than a half dozen people believed to be members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The FBI made the arrests in the usual way it cracks down on radicals, by using informers. In this case, agents persuaded Jake Ferguson, a former heroin addict and heavy metal guitarist who had gravitated to ELF circles, to wear a wire, a repeat performance of the way they’d infiltrated the radical environmental group Earth First! in 1990. The arrests were the culmination of a 10-year investigation.

There is always a sad tale in these FBI cases, the crack in someone’s personality that allows a radical cell to be infiltrated. According to the Seattle Times, Ferguson told a former bandmate about his difficult upbringing without his father, who spent time in prison. Ferguson reportedly said he hoped his cooperation with the Justice Department would spare his own son the same.

The FBI reported that animal-rights advocates have been responsible for $110 million in damage since the 1970s, including the $12 million arson that destroyed the massive Two Elk Lodge at a Vail, Colorado, ski resort, which some environmentalists claimed was encroaching into lynx habitat. Up until then, this was the single biggest act of arson eco-sabotage in the history of the radical environmental movement, and it focused national media attention on the arsonists. But for several years, neither media attention nor the ministrations of the FBI stopped the symbol-laden campaign of destruction. The eco-saboteurs burned down a slaughterhouse to protest the roundup of wild horses. They torched a Hummer dealership. And they escaped, until 2005.

One of those caught in the sweep, a 40-year-old named William C. Rodgers, described as a balding, soft-spoken man who liked to hike and read, committed suicide rather than face life in prison. Another ELF saboteur, a woman named Chelsea Gerlach, pleaded guilty last July to eight counts of arson related to the Vail fires, plus involvement in various arson fires around Oregon, including fires at a meatpacking plant, a police substation and a Boise Cascade office. By comparison, Coronado hadn’t done much more than talk in recent years. Apparently, that was enough.

At an age when other kids were heading off to college, Rod Coronado was hanging around the San Francisco Bay Area, listening to the historic figures of the radical environmental movement. Dave Foreman was preaching the gospel of Earth First! The New Mexico native, who had worked as the Wilderness Society’s top Washington, D.C., lobbyist, invoked the Boston Tea Party in his rhetoric. The situation was direr than we had realized, Foreman told audiences. Three-fifths of the world’s mammal species were likely to go extinct in the next generation, and there was no time to waste on niceties like lawsuits or lobbying. Quoting far-right presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, another nature-loving son of the Southwest, Foreman was fond of saying: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Also on the scene was a florid Canadian named Paul Watson, who had been expelled from Greenpeace in 1977 for his less-than-strict adherence to the tenets of nonviolence. He bought an English trawler and christened it the Sea Shepherd, and named his anti-whaling group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson left the parleys at International Whaling Commission meetings to others. His job was to put whaling ships out of commission.

“I had been reading this material,” Coronado tells me, picking at his tamale. “I approached Paul and said, ‘I want to go to Iceland and sink some ships.’ He didn’t say, ‘You’re crazy.’ He said, ‘What do you need?’ ”

Coronado became the eco-equivalent of a Dickensian boy thief, a seemingly fearless young man who wriggled in and out of impossible situations, always managing to triumph. By the account of one member of the Sea Shepherd crew, Paul Watson steered the boat, raised funds and talked to reporters. The daring (and thinner) Coronado climbed aboard Japanese and Norwegian whaling vessels in the dark of night and opened the shuttlecocks, clambering back aboard the Sea Shepherd as the whaling ships slowly took on water.

Coronado's activism, as with a majority of 1960s radicals, was not so much a rebellion against his parents as an extension of their ideals and their heritage.

Coronado grew up in a family of Yaqui Indians from the borderlands of Sonora, Mexico, and Arizona. The Yaquis have the distinction of never having been conquered. The Toltecs, Aztecs and, later, the Spanish failed to bring them to heel, although the Yaquis were converted by Jesuits and engaged in thriving commercial pursuits in tandem with the priests. Once the Mexican government expelled the Jesuits, the Yaquis became outlaws. In the 1870s, one of the Yaqui leaders actually declared Yaqui territory a country independent from Mexico.

In 1903, the Porfirio Diaz government expelled the Yaquis, sending them to southern Mexico to work as slaves on the haciendas. Those who remained became known for their refusal to bend to the laws of the U.S. or Mexico, crossing and re-crossing the border to escape persecution, often becoming bandits or soldiers who fought on the U.S. or Mexican side, depending on the politics of the moment. In the mid–20th century, many came to the U.S. to work in the agricultural fields.

Through all of this, the Yaquis maintained many of their old beliefs. These included the collective memory of an earlier way of life, a time with no war, when they communed with animals, particularly deer, and with flowers. These were the traditions Coronado learned from the late Anselmo Valencia, a tribal elder in Tucson who took him in when he was living underground in the mid-1990s.

Coronado says that his grandfather was an apostolic minister, and his parents were, in his words, “dirt-poor farm workers,” who instilled in him the ideals of social service, traveling to Mexico in the summer to bring clothes to poor people. Coronado started working with Yaqui kids and, in his own words, “felt whole.” But it was not his Boy Scout demeanor that made him famous; it was his tactical skills.

During lunch, I ask Coronado to tell me about his time with the Animal Liberation Front.

“I was a leader of my own ALF cell,” Coronado says. “I started one cell in California, and I moved to the Pacific Northwest to create another. There are two to eight people in a cell at any one time. They’re very independent. And anyone could propose and carry out an action. The person who had the idea would do the recon, the intelligence gathering, and sell the idea to the rest of us,” he says. “I was generally that person.”

Before bombing the mink labs, Coronado had traveled around for 11 months as an investigator for Friends of Animals, pretending to be a businessman interested in getting into the mink industry. He was an undercover agent, only for the animal-rights movement instead of the government. Coronado was, by his own account, “very good at what I did.” But he quickly grew disenchanted with the mainstream group’s bureaucracy. “I gave them the information,” he says. “They pretty much used it for fund-raising. I felt like I owed those animals I watched die a lot more than that.”

Borrowing from his Sea Shepherd experience, Coronado decided to target laboratories researching the domestication of minks, which he had learned about during his Friends of Animals undercover stint. Coronado and his ALF colleagues rescued 60 mink — legally — buying them from a small farm in Montana. The animals had been bred in captivity, but once the ALFers fed them live animals, they refused to go back to dry food.

“Once they tasted blood, their instincts came back,” he says. “We would always release them near water. They’d be swimming like mad, using their bodies like they never had before. It was a part of us too, that experience of living that way. We saw that it was a part of us.”

The ideal of absolute freedom at any cost was a young man’s fantasy, and a profoundly American one, familiar to readers of Edward Abbey and the Western writers who preceded him. But the members of Coronado’s ALF cell were pragmatic enough to realize they could never afford to buy all the mink being raised on farms, or all the lynx and bobcats. Coronado was eventually convicted of torching a researcher’s office at Michigan State University and destroying years of research data at an off-campus mink laboratory. He was sent to prison in 1995, where he served 48 months of a 57-month sentence, with time off for good behavior and time served. But he had started a movement. Before Coronado, nobody had raided a mink facility. “There were 70 raids on fur farms from the time I went to prison to when I got out,” Coronado says.

This may help to explain why, when animal-rights activist David Agronoff was questioned by a grand jury last year, ostensibly about the arson of a condominium complex in San Diego, all the investigators wanted to talk about was Coronado.

In March 2004, Rod Coronado, accompanied by a writer from Esquire magazine, was arrested by authorities in Sabino Canyon. The canyon, a scenic thoroughfare of rock and water in the highest of the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, Arizona, had been closed so state Game and Fish Department officials could trap and kill five mountain lions. Uncontrolled sprawl had brought condos and trophy houses up to the lions’ doorstep, as it were, and the lions had been sniffing around. When state officials were about to shoot the mountain lions, Coronado found himself in a position familiar to anyone who’s volunteered: He was the only one willing to show up every single day and keep interfering with the hunt by springing the traps set for the lions, and, if necessary, placing himself between gun and animal. Then he was busted, and his life threatened to fall apart.

“We saw all those other guys get rounded up,” he says, referring to the Vail saboteurs. “They were targeted for serious criminal offenses. There were informers giving solid evidence.” He leans forward, putting down his coffee cup. “Hunt sabotage is usually a ticket, maybe a $500 fine.”

Coronado and the reporter were arrested and charged, but only with misdemeanors. A few months later, the feds added a felony conspiracy “to interfere with or injure a government official” to Coronado’s charges. The state of Arizona added two misdemeanor charges of its own. But the worst was yet to come.

On February 15, 2006, a grand jury indicted Coronado under a little-used law prohibiting the distribution of information related to the assembly of explosives and weapons of mass destruction. His crime? He’d spoken at a gathering called “Revolution Summer” in San Diego in 2003. After his standard inspirational speech, someone asked how he’d blown up the mink labs. He grabbed a plastic juice bottle from a table and explained that he’d filled a similar bottle with gasoline, set a timer, and that was pretty much that. Or it was until a photo of Coronado brandishing the juice bottle made an appearance before Congress.

“I was pretty naive,” Coronado says. “I got out of prison and said, okay, it’s the Age of Bush. I told myself, okay, I can lecture, I can do aboveground organizing, but that’s all I can do.”

It didn’t help that hours before Coronado’s arrival, arsonists had set fire to a San Diego condominium complex, causing $50 million in damage, and leaving behind an ELF banner. Although Coronado apparently had nothing to do with the arson, the political climate was becoming distinctly dangerous for anyone who could be labeled a terrorist — even an ecoterrorist. And the definition of terrorism seemed to shift depending on the government’s priorities — and the Bush administration’s need to keep the Christian Right on its side. The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as violence against noncombatants, while other agencies, notably the FBI, put crimes against property in the same category. Yet the FBI does not consider abortion-clinic bombings terrorism, despite the fact that they have resulted in six deaths. Although radical environmentalists are, by the FBI’s own account, the agency’s top counterterrorism priority, no one has been injured, much less killed, by radical environmentalists. By contrast, individuals with ties to white-supremacist and other anti-government groups have killed six people and injured more than 135 since 1996, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The FBI’s decision to investigate radical environmentalists through its counterterrorism office has been questioned by its own Office of Inspector General, which in a 2003 report recommended that eco-sabotage should be handled by its criminal division.

If there was any doubt that the feds are targeting Coronado, it was dispelled just a few weeks ago, when he faced yet more charges, this time for possessing eagle feathers, prohibited under the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Eagle feathers are used in Native American religious ceremonies. Coronado had refused to register as a tribal member for political reasons, which increases his liability to prosecution.

In December, Coronado was found guilty in federal court on all the charges stemming from the hunt sabotage outside Tucson, and this week, U.S. District Judge David Bury said he wanted to send a message that if you use “force and violence in civil disobedience, you are going to be punished for it; it’s anarchy.” In addition to eight months of prison time, Coronado must pay restitution and is prohibited from associating with activists involved with Earth First!, the ALF and the ELF. At the end of August, his lawyers will be making a motion to dismiss the charges related to the San Diego incident on the basis of freedom of speech. If they don’t succeed, Coronado could face 20 years in prison.

As he faces years of separation from his son and his partner, Coronado seems to be in an argument with himself about whether it was all worth it. His son “wants me around to go to the museum,” he says. “He remembers when I was going to the mountains to protect the kitties. But he wants me to find another way.

“Prison changed me,” he says. “But not as much as it should have, in retrospect. Every time I go to court, there is very little said about Sabino Canyon. It’s all about my criminal history.”

These days, Coronado talks about acting with compassion and love, says that a violent political action will merely beget more violence. “We should never be against rescuing innocent victims,” he says. “But any aggressive action on our part is too easily characterized as terrorism.”

When Coronado talks about the mountain lions of Sabino Canyon, he gets feisty for the first time, as if breaking out of depression.

“I don’t wish I hadn’t done it,” he says, referring to the hunt sabotage. “Too much of my spirit and the spirit of the wild would have died. The fact that they could go into this protected area, a place where the natural world is supposed to be whole, and kill the largest predator in the desert . . . Good old boys can kill lions everywhere else but not here, not in Sabino Canyon. It was one of those times when you had to take a stand. You’re gonna have to make some personal sacrifices. That’s part of American history.”

Perhaps it’s merely a painful irony and not a statement about America. But it must mean something when an informer’s son gets to grow up with his dad, while the son of a man who tried to stop violence against animals will be sending letters and drawings to prison.

“I’ve felt like Don Quixote,” he says. “I’ve been banned from going to meetings. The same effect I had burning down a building I had by walking into a Game and Fish meeting, being who I am, having done what I did.

“I’ve given 20 years of my life,” he says. “I’m intimidated. I’m scared. I’ll quit. I’m probably going to move to the Midwest and just focus on raising a family. They’ve won.”

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 08 August 2006 )
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Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison | 8 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Admin on Wednesday, August 09 2006 @ 01:03 AM CDT
I think that our response to this crap is pretty simple.

We need to organize and organize and organize. We need to build a movement that is so large that no judge will dare to make an example of any of us for engaging in actions such as the one they are persecuting Ron for. The authorities and the courts get away with this bullshit when we aren't in the street raising hell.
Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, August 09 2006 @ 01:44 AM CDT
Regretably it looks like Rod Coronado has surrendered. This week's article in the L.A. Weekly by the throughly contemptible Susan Zakin is depressing but must be read.

Susan and I did not see eye to eye on the Makah whale hunt. She supported the whalers so she uses this opportunity to get in a few digs at me. Whatever floats your boat Sue.

All I can say is that Rod fought long and hard and endured more than most and he has earned the right to retire with the possibility of having some peace and contentment in his life. He burned bright but that fire can't last forever. He was not a timid soul nor did he live a life of quiet desperation. He was always, and remains a warrior for the Earth. He also now is an Elder who has much to teach others. Rod has surrendered and quit the movement but he remains and will always remain a paragon of courage and integrity in a world gone mad with greed, violence and disrespect for nature.

Let's hope that he will not be given 20 years for the crime of exercising his "freedom" of speech. He is now a fallen hero but a hero nonetheless.

Captain Paul Watson

Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, August 11 2006 @ 01:44 AM CDT
Hey, have some respect for native whalers of the Makah nation, regardless of how much you may hate this Susan. Those people are my neighbors and friends.
Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, August 09 2006 @ 06:30 PM CDT
damn right chuck!

this is not about doing some funny activism, or finding a cool lifestyle or anything, anymore. for all of us. what governments are doing now is just the beginning. now it's rod, tomorrow it can be anyone.for no reason. if we really want to survive as individuals, families and communities, we have to really start to act now. effectively. organising resistance, _doing_ the actual resistance. its our lives at stake now and fight should be personal. there's no time for excuses anymore. they are ready, and willing to do whatever it takes to maintain power and control. are we ready for anything?
Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, August 09 2006 @ 02:47 AM CDT
Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, August 09 2006 @ 09:00 AM CDT
i think im going to cry...
support Rod Coronado and all political prisoners
Authored by: scott crow on Thursday, August 10 2006 @ 08:11 PM CDT
I want to fully support Rod Coronado in public. I have always repsected Rod's beliefs, intent and his stances. He s a warrior, a father, my friend and a good comrade to many struggles. He has been trying to draw the connections between many struggles to many movements since his release and been continually targeted and harrased for it. He hs been listed
as an animal rights activist, but he sees libersation of one and all as intertwined.

He lives modestly, loves his family and is a caring person for
ALL living things; and for this he is labeled 'dangerous' by the rabid right wing and the state.

He is not 'fanatical' or 'misanthropic criminal', he sees that
the time to resist and to challenge these systems of destruction is now. For this he and many others less known deserve our
open support from many movements.

He is the posterboy for what elements of the corporate/fascist
right wing hate. He has refused to be sorry for his beliefs and convictions that our ecosystems need support on many levels
from their plans to use them all up in the name of profit.

People like Rick Berman, in particular, the PR machine flack for many, many front groups has been gunning for Rod since his release. It is our duty to fully support our comrades who are the targets of these attacks by people like Rick. Our unity is our strength.

We cannot let thier assaults on our movements and people within our movements deter us from the goals, dreams and that we are and will continue to achieve. Their targeting
of vocal opponents to thier systems is meant to frighten
us into silence, and cause us to question our resolve.

The support I received from around the country when I was under attack recently from the state gave me strength and comfort and continues to do so today. And what happened to me was but a small slice of what many of us have faced.

Our movements have long histories of resisting oppression
and comrades who refused to give in Assata Shakur, Angola 3, David Gilbert, Leonard Peltier and many, many other women and men. They are not matrys or heroes, they are our sisters, cousins, fathers, mothers, friends. They are US and we are all them. They are not seperate from us.The situations that happened to Rod and others could happen to some of us our families or our friends. This should not distract us from our what we do. It should give us resolve to continue.

Please write Rod and others who are incarcerated for their
beliefs and work and continue to vocally and loudly support
them in your communities.

We are standing on the edge of potential, what will the future
look like? Let's not let fear become the lens that we filter
our world through. That is their lens, and they can have it.
Ours foundation are strength, solidarity, cooperation and beliefs in a better world for all.

Support Rod, support all political prisoners and prisoners of war.

Free Rod !
Free the Angola 3 !
Free ALL political prisoners!

From the gulf coast basin

'dream the future
know your history
organize your people
fight to win'

scott crow
Last Interview with Rod Coronado before prison
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, March 06 2011 @ 08:17 PM CST

For the record, I wrote a balanced, journalistic piece on the Makah whale hunt and did not take (or have) a position on this issue, which I thought was a tough call.  Unfortunately, the editor gave the piece a smarmy pro-hunt headline, which I did not see until after the piece was published, and which I complained about at that time, which was, of course, too late.  

Paul Watson's real problem seems to be with a piece I wrote for the LA Weekly that discussed his failed attempt to run for the board of the Sierra Club.  The factual accuracy of that piece has never been in doubt.  I would respectfully suggest that instead of shooting the messenger that if Watson is uncomfortable with what was printed in that story, he would be better served by looking at why the revelation of that information has apparently caused him so much consternation.