PEOPLE on the cutting edge of dissent always attract the suspicion of the police. In the 1960s, leaders of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were the objects of harassment and disinformation campaigns. Then, churches offering sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees were targeted. Later yet, environmental activists came under suspicion.
Thus it was that when a pipe-bomb explosion injured Earth First activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney in 1990, the victims suddenly became labeled the perpetrators by Oakland police and FBI agents overly eager to portray environmentalists as terrorists. Bay Area residents may recall how police reports in the early days trumpeted the discovery of nails and bits of towel in the bomb -- and how nails and towels were also found in Bari's home. That practically every home contains nails and towels was somehow ignored by investigators, who also managed to ignore any evidence that pointed to another perpetrator. Those trails were allowed to turn cold; as a result, the real bomber got away with it, while Bari fought for her reputation while dying of cancer.
An Oakland jury vindicated Bari and Cherney this week with a $4.4 million award. But the real lesson here isn't just that environmentalists aren't terrorists; it's that people who challenge the status quo are the most likely to see their civil rights threatened. In a democracy, those people are important even when they're making us mighty uncomfortable.
At a time when Americans are giving broader powers to local, state and national police agencies to fight terrorists, we must remember that with those powers come increased ability -- and probability -- to abuse power.
The next gadflies on the radar screen probably won't be white environmentalists singing folk songs. They may be people of color with thick accents. But Tuesday's verdict will protect their civil rights equally well, and for equally good reasons.
Copyright 2002 San Jose Mercury News