In 1993 Michael Carter was arrested and indicted after two years of clandestinely cutting down billboards, spiking trees, and sabotaging road-building machinery in Montana, where clear cuts of old-growth forest were an ever-present pestilence. Since then, he’s worked on a spectrum of environmental issues—fighting timber sales and oil and gas leasing, protecting endangered species, and more. Today, he’s a member of Deep Green Resistance Four Corners, and the author of the recently published memoir Kingfishers’ Song: Memories Against Civilization.
Time is Short spoke with him recently about his actions, underground resistance, and the prospects and problems facing the environmental movement.
Time is Short: Can you give a brief description of what it was you did?
Michael Carter: This was back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The significant actions were the sabotaging of road building machinery and tree spiking. There was a lot of cutting down of billboards too, but that was less significant. If I remember right, we were doing this for about two years, probably 20-25 individual actions. My brother Sean was also indicted, and the FBI tried to round up a larger conspiracy, but nothing else stuck.
TS: What was the public reaction like?
MC: It was all regarded as vandalism, even though it was plainly politically motivated. But this was before 9/11, before the Oklahoma City bombing; the idea of terrorism didn’t have the same power that it was about to have. So even though it was unpopular, it wasn’t nearly as serious as it would be considered now. There was a big lag between when the actions occurred, when we were arrested, and then a whole other year before we were sentenced. We were charged by the state of Montana, not in Federal Court, and as far as the sentencing went we were lucky. We had to pay a lot of money but I only spent three months in county jail, and Sean got out of a jail sentence altogether.
TS: How did you approach those actions? What was the context for you?
MC: We weren’t acting in any kind of context, and we didn’t know that much. All we had was an instinctive dislike of clear cuts, and the book The Monkey Wrench Gang. And we knew that other people were doing it. We knew what Earth First! was, although we weren’t aboveground members or anything like that.
We had no strategy; we didn’t really understand the overall global situation. We understood that deforestation was incompetent, but we didn’t get the depth of its implications and we didn’t link it to other atrocities. We just thought “well, this is a forestry issue” and that we were on the extreme edge of a marginal issue. This was before anyone was seriously talking about global warming or anything; it was just much less serious twenty years ago.
But we didn’t have a strategy, and it was just stupid and impetuous. That’s why we got caught, and that was a heinous experience all around. It certainly underscores the importance of security—we didn’t have any security to speak of. We left forensic evidence, other physical evidence, we told people who didn’t need to know about it; it was just stupid. Even with a couple rudimentary security observations, I don’t think we would have been indicted. And if we’d been smarter about it, we might have been able to actually make a real impact. We definitely could have stopped timber sales, there’s no doubt about that. That was at a time when tree-spiking was kind of in its heyday; it was extremely unpopular, but on the other hand there were timber sales that were withdrawn because of it.
The one other thing I would say about cutting down billboards was that it gave the whole thing a kind of comical aspect that was helpful once we were arrested. That made it look more like what it really was, which was just sort of stupid shit we did when we were drunk, and a lot of people approved of it. And that made a big difference; just a little bit of anonymous approval of what we did made being indicted a lot easier.
TS: As you said, this was before 9/11, before Timothy McVeigh, before the new obsession & paradigm of terrorism. How do you think that played into your trial and indictment, and how do you think it would be different today?
MC: I think if it had happened later, they certainly would have sent us to prison. Our strategy was to say “we’re sorry we did it, it was motivated by sincerity but it was dumb.” And to some extent that was true. We were able to get our charges reduced to Criminal Mischief from Criminal Endangerment. I pled guilty to three charges and got a 19 year suspended prison sentence, except for 90 days in the county jail. If it would have happened after any big terrorism event, like Oklahoma City, they would have sent us to prison, there’s no doubt about that.
TS: Something else you mentioned was that your actions were devoid of context, that they weren’t linked to other issues or approached from a greater perspective. How important do you think having that big picture analysis is in regards to sabotage and other such actions?
MC: The way the issues of wilderness preservation were framed at the time was that of user-groups and special interests conflict, between fishermen and loggers, or backpackers and ATVs. And that’s the way the whole thing played out, especially legislatively. And we bought into that, which was a weak psychological position to be in. Are we risking a decade in prison for a backpacking trail? No. Well then what are we risking it for?
If I were approaching it now as someone contemplating underground action, I would view it as a fight against civilization as a whole, as a larger power structure. Some of its aspects are more benign than others, but it’s this entire phenomenon that has no rationality, only a hidden strategy that it’s going to consume everything; it doesn’t even have a sense of its own ultimate self-interest. So it won’t matter how many wilderness areas are designated. If civilization is still continuing its story 50 years from now, it’s going to consume those wilderness areas. I wouldn’t approach it as a bargaining position; I would approach it as “this system has to be disabled. It has to go.” It will never function in the long run, and all it’s doing now is grinding through its last resources. And it isn’t even aware of it. That debate will never come up on CNN. So there’s no point in trying to placate the mindset that runs civilization. So long as they’re able to extract wealth, they will. As long as they’ve got the machinery, they will find the political end-run to make it happen. There’s always going to be drift-netting so long as there are ships to do it.
TS: You mentioned how you had an instinctual hatred of clear cuts and how those strong emotions can get one to the point of taking action. I assume you didn’t just wake up one day and decide to go spike trees and attack billboards; what was your path from being apolitical to having the determination and the passion to do what you did?
MC: Well I think Edward Abbey’s writing kind of laid the groundwork for that, honestly, and presented the idea to me. And living in northwest Montana, you’re going to see clear cuts. It’s not quite as horrendous as the Pacific Northwest, but it’s the same story. You can’t not see it, and there’s something about it that triggers a visceral response. And it’s less abstract than atmospheric carbon or even drift-netting. You don’t see those things, but you see huge denuded mountain sides.
TS: When you were arrested and going through the court process, what support—if any—did you receive from folks on the outside, and what support would you have wanted to receive?
MC: The most important support was financial. We hired a lawyer once we knew we were under investigation, because they took our fingerprints, which was what they needed to get their arrest warrant finalized. In hindsight, we maybe could have gotten a public defender and been all right, but probably not. That’s one thing about the criminal justice system; the prosecution has all the advantage. They have to follow some certain rules so that the case doesn’t get thrown out, but they have all the power in the situation. All your defense lawyer is doing basically is making sure they play by the rules.
Our lawyer negotiated a plea bargain. Part of it was that we agreed to pay for everything, which was the big deal, and they also wanted to know about other people who were involved. So we were forced to lie. I can admit this now because the statute of limitations has long since expired, but we had to commit perjury to protect other people. We had to lie under oath, which meant that if they wanted to fuck with us, we could have been in for a terrible time. Plus, the feds were threatening to indict us for racketeering, which is a powerful prosecution tool.
But mostly it was money. And the lack of money on top of the stress of being indicted was the hardest part. Once that was over and I was in jail, just hearing from the outside—getting letters of support in jail, or seeing letters of support in the newspaper—was great. Anything that says someone is thinking about you and appreciates what you did is very helpful.
A lot of Earth First! Journal readers sent me letters. And there were a lot of anonymous letters. I wrote back and forth with one of the women who was jailed for noncooperation with the ALF federal grand jury in Washington. Just knowing that the whole world isn’t your enemy is great.
TS: Obviously you’ve been involved with aboveground environmental work in the years since your actions; what have you been involved in and worked on since then, and what are you doing now?
MC: I first got involved with forestry issues—writing timber sale appeals and that sort of thing. Then later on, once the legal stuff from my indictment had calmed down, I got involved with protecting endangered species, writing listing petitions, doing research. So I did that work for a while, before getting burned out for a long time. It took me a long time to get drawn back into the fight, and it was Derrick Jensen’s book A Language Older Than Words that did it. I was in the middle of writing my book—my memoir—when Deep Green Resistance came into being, and it was a perfect fit. So that’s what I’ve decided to focus on.
I’ve also been doing more fictional writing, trying out underground propaganda. Having stories to support what people are doing and thinking is important. It helps cultivate the confidence and courage that activists need. That’s why they publish wartime propaganda. It has a real effect and actually does work.
Edward Abbey wrote some ridiculous books, but they were all we had, so it was like “okay, well we’ll just go along with this and maybe it’ll be fun and work out all right in the end.” But everything is so much more serious than that. I’m not saying humor doesn’t have its place, but the physical situation now is way, way more dire than it was in the 1970s, when The Monkey Wrench Gang was written. So it’s stupid for someone to cut down billboards or burn the paint off bulldozers. If they’re willing to risk their freedom to do something, they should do something meaningful. And they need a process for identifying targets, and they need a larger strategy. You wouldn’t want to just monkey wrench the first bulldozer you came across in the woods; you’d want to know who it belonged to, you’d want to know if it mattered, you’d want to make sure you weren’t going to get caught. It doesn’t do any good to put a small logging contractor out of business, and it doesn’t hurt a big corporation to destroy machinery that is inexpensive, so those questions need to be up front right away. I think successful underground strikes must be mostly about planning. I’m not a tactical genius or anything, but that seems to me to be the most important phase: target identification, timing, how it fits a long-term or larger-scope strategy.
Activists now have a distinct advantage in that it’s easier to get information like this, anonymously. The more that can be done with computers, particularly attacking computer systems, the better—but even if it’s just finding out whose machinery is where, how industrial systems are built and laid out, that’s much easier to come by. On the other hand the enemy has a similar advantage in surveillance and investigation, so security again comes up, more crucial than ever.
Time is Short: There are a lot of folks out there who support the use of underground action and sabotage in defense of Earth, but for any number of reasons—family commitments, physical limitations, etc.—can’t undertake that kind of action themselves. What do you think they can do to support those willing and able to engage in militant action?
Michael Carter: Speak out and be vocal in support of the idea, in the first place. That’s one of the reason it’s important for aboveground people to promote the need for underground action, so those who might be considering taking that kind of action know they’re not alone in the world. Even if you’re not actually talking to them they need to know that someone out there is behind them.
And financial support for those who are arrested. When environmentalists were fighting logging in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island in the 1990s, Paul Watson (of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) offered to pay the legal defense of anyone who got caught tree-spiking. A legal defense fund for people arrested for underground action would be helpful.
And support of prisoners. If people see that prisoners aren’t just forgotten after a month, I think that could make a difference too. Getting letters in jail is a huge morale booster. Or especially if they have families, and they know that their loved ones won’t suffer if they’re arrested; that’s going to be a big deal for them. Having some sort of infrastructure in place to support folks who get caught would be great. If we had known that someone was going to help if something horrible happened, we may have taken more initiative, and may actually have been able to engineer effective actions. If underground actions are going to work, they have to be serious, and fighters need support to fight seriously.
TS: What have you learned from your experience? Looking back on what you did all those years ago, what’s your perspective on your actions now? Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?
MC: Well I definitely would have taken steps to not get caught. That kind of goes without saying, and it would have been easy, I’m sorry to say. It would have been a simple matter even for an 18 year old to work out how not to get caught. I also would have picked my targets more carefully. And I would have entered into an understanding with myself that my enemy is completely relentless. It’s only a system; it’s composed of people, but the enemy is a system. It can’t be reasoned with; it has no sanity, no sense of morality, no love of anything. Its job is to consume. That’s it. And that’s what I would have tried to focus on, not the people running it or those who were dependent on it, but the system itself. I would have tried to find the weaknesses in the system, and then attacked those.
What I’d have done, back when I was completely unknown—when I had no public opinion and wasn’t identified as an environmentalist or anything else—I would have started picking the most vulnerable targets, striking at those, being extremely careful, not allowing my emotions to guide my strategy or tactics. My emotions might get me there in the first place—I don’t think you could get to that point without a strong emotional response—but once I arrived at the decision to act, I would have done everything I could to think like a soldier, and pick expensive and hard-to-replace targets.
I could never do anything like that again, because anytime an action happens, I’m going to be on a shortlist of people who the government will investigate. And I don’t think I was very good at it anyway. But if I had a clean slate, that’s definitely what I would do.
TS: You were fairly isolated and alone in taking the actions you took. Earlier, you talked about the importance of the larger context. How do you see those two ideas connecting? Do you think it makes a difference for saboteurs to be acting in the context of a larger movement with some kind of coordination?
MC: I think having some kind of coordinated attack strategy would be excellent. Absolutely try to build a network. We had no hope of accomplishing that at the time. We didn’t have the savvy, a larger analysis or context to work in, or a means of communicating with others. The actions were mostly symbolic, and symbolic actions are just a huge waste of risk. It’s a waste of political capital too. Most everyone is going to hate the action, so it might as well count. Underground actions are not going to change anyone’s mind, not that anything will. They will make most everyone angry, and make activists vulnerable to arrest, so if the actions are only symbolic, nothing will have been accomplished. If people are ready and willing to risk their lives and their freedom then they should go for it. Fight to win, not just to fight, or to make some sort of abstract point.
TS: Do you still think militant and illegal forms of direct action and sabotage are justified? Why?
MC: Oh yeah. I mean, in an ideal world I don’t think it’s the best way to accomplish anything, but obviously this isn’t an ideal world, and our circumstances are getting worse and worse, so what does that leave us?
One of the reasons it’s so unpopular is that it’s always presented as attacks on individuals, rather than on a system. And I think it’s important to frame it that way, as an attack on an unjust, destructive system. That begins with the understanding that civilization is not us, and not the highest expression of human endeavor, it’s just an idea. Civilization is masquerading as humanity, but that’s not what it is.
The argument that physically militant actions are counterproductive has a little bit of merit because the scale they’ve happened on hasn’t been large enough to have any impact. You’re left with the political fallout, the mainstream activists distancing themselves and all the bad stuff that comes with it, but you don’t have any end effect. It needs to happen on a larger scale. Fighters need to select better targets, be more strategic and be more impactful. They need to think big. That’s how militaries accomplish their goals, with physical militant action. They blow shit up. They blow up bridges, they take out buildings, they disable the enemy arsenal, they kill the enemy—that’s how they function. And that’s not to associate or identify with militaries, but we need to pay attention to what’s actually going to get the job done. At a certain point, our sense of morality isn’t going to matter; it just isn’t going to have any relevance in a world that’s 20 degrees hotter than it is now.
So on balance, yes I wish it could all be nonviolent, Civil Rights movement-style. But we just don’t have enough social cohesion to engineer that kind of thing. There’s so few of us that give a shit anyways, and we’re so scattered, isolated and fragmented. We just don’t have those kinds of numbers or that kind of power, and I don’t see that changing.
Everywhere we look we’re losing, and one of the reasons is that we don’t have a movement that says “No. You’re not going to do that. We will stop this, whatever it takes.” Our political power is weak to begin with, and backsliding. Aboveground activists need to advocate a lesser evil, to continually pose the question of what is worse: that some property was destroyed, or that sea shells are dissolving in acid oceans?
TS: Obviously, you’ve participated in a wide range of actions, spanning the spectrum from traditional legal appeals to militant sabotage. With this unique perspective, what do you see as being the most promising strategy for the environmental movement?
MC: We need more of everything, more of whatever we can assemble. There’s no denying that a lot of perfectly legal mainstream tactics can work well. I’m not saying we can litigate our way to sustainability, but for the people who are able to do that, that’s what they should be doing. Those who don’t have access to the courts or those resources (which is most everyone) need to find a role in a well-organized movement. So for example, if a lawsuit fails and they start punching a road into the Grand Canyon, there is someone there who can block it with civil disobedience or disable the machinery or something like that.
The Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy as a good place to start. I haven’t given a great deal of thought to particulars in strategy; I don’t know that my mind works well that way. Again, we need more of everything, and no matter how unsure would-be activists (aboveground and underground) feel, it’s best for them to get started, difficult as that is. In my experience it’s the preliminary mistakes and abrupt learning curves that are the hardest times. And cultivating a community of resistance, also hard, makes all the difference in the world.
TS: Is there anything you wish you’d known or been told when you were contemplating underground sabotage? Is there anything you would say to anyone considering militant action?
MC: Security is number one. There are lots of resources about good security practices available whether online or in books like Ecodefense. I would do that first. I would try to anticipate contingencies and surprises, put most of my effort into planning, and then decisively execute the plan.
That’s the most important missing piece right now—the dismantling of infrastructure. It’s one of the places where the system is most vulnerable, so it should be employed right away. It can be effective, but it has to be responsible, careful, and very smart. So yeah, plan it well. But please don’t wait much longer.
Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a biweekly bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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