In April of 2002, a cargo ship, the Jade, was steaming toward Miami carrying a cargo of mahogany illegally cut from the Brazilian Amazon. Two Greenpeace activists tried to clamber aboard the ship and hang a banner that read "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging." None of which is unusual.
The trees of the Amazon are logged day after day, year after year, despite a host of treaties and laws and despite the fact that scientists agree that an intact rain forest is essential for everything from conserving species to protecting the climate. And Greenpeace, day after day, tries to call attention to such crimes. It pesters rich, powerful interests about toxic dumping and outlaw whaling and a hundred other topics that those interests would rather not be pestered about. The Miami activists were arrested, spent a weekend in jail, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time served. All in a day's work.
But here's where it starts getting weird: More than a year after the ship boarding, the Justice Department indicted Greenpeace itself. According to the group's attorneys, it's the first time an organization has been prosecuted for "the speech-related activities of its supporters."
How far did the government have to stretch to make its case? The law it cited against boarding ships about to enter ports was passed in 1872 and aimed at the proprietors of boardinghouses who used liquor and prostitutes to lure crews to their establishments. The last prosecution under the "sailor-mongering" act took place in 1890. The new case could be like something straight out of "Master and Commander."
The matter goes to trial next week in a federal district court in Miami, and if Greenpeace loses, the organization could be fined $20,000 and placed on probation. The money's no big deal; outraged supporters would probably turn such a verdict into a fundraising bonanza. But the probation would be. The group might well be prevented from engaging in any acts of civil disobedience for years to come. If it crossed the line, the group's officers might be jailed and its assets seized. Since civil disobedience is what Greenpeace does best, the Justice Department might in effect be shutting the group down.
That would be too bad, and not just for Greenpeace. The potential precedent here — that the government can choke off protest by shutting down those who organize it — undermines one of the most important safety valves of our political life.
During the civil rights era, Southern sheriffs used every law they could think of to jail protesters — loitering was a favorite charge. Imagine some group being put on probation because it had helped organize sit-ins. But even J. Edgar Hoover didn't try to criminalize the NAACP. As the veteran civil rights campaigner Julian Bond said recently, "If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters, or sitting on bus front seats."
As is the norm, this attack on political liberties is excused by the need for "port safety" in the wake of 9/11. But I've watched Greenpeace for years, and its members are the furthest thing from terrorists; according to the group, "no Greenpeace activist has ever harmed another individual," despite a record of direct action dating to its founding. in 1971.
If port safety truly were the issue, the federal government would have made far more progress toward inspecting cargo arriving by sea. Confidence in the vigor of governmental scrutiny was not enhanced when it managed not to find the Jade's illegal mahogany and let it sail on from Miami. Two days later it unloaded 70 tons of the wood in Charleston, S.C.
The real threat Greenpeace represents is that its members tell the truth, and do it obnoxiously, out in public, where it can't be missed.
The Bush administration knows its environmental record is poor, and it knows that hanging banners matters. (That's why the White House printed up the "Mission Accomplished" flag for the president's May 1, 2003, aircraft carrier photo op). To spare itself embarrassment, the administration is willing to endanger core political freedoms that go back to the very founding of the republic.
How far back? Dec. 16, 1773, at least, when a crew of patriots disguised as Mohawks illegally boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and dumped overboard all the cargo of tea. As the raiders paraded away from the docks, British Adm. John Montague shouted: "Well, boys, you have had a fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you. But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet."
Now 230 years later, it's Atty. Gen. Ashcroft playing the part of the British officer, and the words are just as chilling.
Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the author of many books on the environment, including "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age" (Times Books, 2003).
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times