THE PRESS DEMOCRAT • SUNDAY, JANUARY 30, 2005
A skewed biography of the late activist Judi Bari
By SARA PEYTON
Caption to book cover photo: "The Secret Wars of
Judi Bari" has drawn criticism and protests from some environmental
The unauthorized biography by Bay Area investigative
reporter Kate Coleman about a legendary North Coast environmental
leader is sparking anger. Environmental protestors turned up
at one reading of Kate Coleman's, "The
Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, the Fight for the Redwoods, and the
End of Earth First" (Encounter; $25.95). Another reading was
What's all the fuss about? The new publication attempts to reveal the psychological
underpinnings driving the late Mendocino eco-warrior. But the protesters say
the book relies on the controversial opinions of a few disgruntled former friends
and fellow activists and is riddled with errors.
Reached by phone, Coleman says she was drawn to the richness of Bari's story, "the
ambiguity, the mystery."
"I made many of the same stops along the way. I was an anti-war and civil rights
activist so I know the left intimately. I watched the movement change and when
it got smaller, it started eating its own," said Coleman, 62, who has written
about the Black Panther Party, the counter culture and California politics
for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and Mother Jones.
The mystery, of course, is the still unsolved May 24, 1990 attack on Bari,
when a pipe bomb exploded under her driver's seat and nearly killed her. "The
blast from the pipe bomb had ripped through her seat, driving shrapnel, including
a coiled seat spring, up into her body," Coleman writes.
Bari died of breast cancer in 1997.
At the time of the bombing, Bari and Daryl Cherney, her former lover and fellow
eco-activist, were driving through Oakland on their way to Santa Cruz to recruit
college students for Redwood Summer, a planned massive demonstration to protect
The explosion not only left Bari permanently disabled and in constant pain
for the remainder of her life but also sent shock waves throughout Northern
California's activist community, permanently rupturing some longtime friendships
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Bari and Cherney were accused of
knowingly transporting the bomb and were arrested, outraging their supporters.
Charges were never filed and Bari and Cherney later sued the FBI and the Oakland
Police Department, resulting in a landmark $4.4 million award of damages in
June 2002. But that's getting ahead of the story.
"I watched her as a labor leader try to amalgamate her views into the environmental
movement. I was fascinated by Bari's effort to get people who weren't political
and whip them into shape," continued Coleman. "But there was a campaign against
me from the outset. Mistakes are sometimes inevitable in a book, especially
one as under-funded and blocked as mine. I had no cooperation, even for example,
when I asked Gina Kolata (Bari's sister and a science reporter for the New
York Times) if I could fact check with her."
(Kolata -- reached effortlessly by e-mail -- said she didn't recall being contacted
Mistakes aside, and Coleman admits her book is littered with them -- "the little
factoids I got wrong will be corrected in the next edition," she said -- the
fast-paced narrative zips along, at times vividly conjuring the diminutive
but fiery organizer who wound up battling timber interests.
In the book, Coleman traces Bari's interest in grassroots organizing. Born
in Baltimore in 1949, Bari lived in Sonoma County in the early '80s.
Married to Mike Sweeney, the couple had two daughters and later divorced. Bari
made many friends here, including Camp Meeker activist Mary Moore. "Moore liked
Bari for her hard edges, which contrasted with the touchy-feely activism that
dominated the affinity-style politics of the rural activists in the anti-nuke
community," writes Coleman.
After moving to Mendocino in 1986, Bari worked as a carpenter. Learning that
lumber destined for a fancy home came from 1,000-year-old redwoods, she vowed
to work to preserve old-growth forests. Several years later, Coleman writes,
Bari was the contact person for Earth First in Mendocino and helped to organize
a blockade of logging on public land.
Romantically linked to Cherney, the two organizers, also talented musicians,
often entertained demonstrators by breaking into song, with Bari playing the
"Bari was not only putting her stamp on the Ecotopia chapter of Earth First (as
it came to be called) in Ukiah; she was also influencing the culture of the
national organization as well. In one of the earliest Earth First national rendezvous
she attended, she organized a seminar to teach the history of the International
(sic, Industrial) Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies," writes Coleman.
In a blizzard of confusing yet dramatic scenes Coleman fast-forwards through
North Coast anti-logging demonstrations organized by Bari, Cherney and other
North Coast eco-activists in the months and weeks leading up to the final push
for Redwood Summer. Even after receiving death threats, Bari remained undaunted.
But Coleman's lack of access to Bari's family and friends and mistakes
large and small severely undercut this gripping true-life tale. It has neither
the range nor depth to illuminate Bari's motivations -- or effectively explicate
her passionate involvement in environmental and labor issues.
On Tuesday, Darlene Comingore, executor of Bari's estate, asked Peter Collier,
publisher of Encounter Books, to withdraw the title because of the large number
"These errors range from small ones like the constant misplacing of people, dates
and events on up to serious libels, like the claim that Bari abandoned environmental
activism and instead promoted her image as a martyr in order to benefit financially," writes
Comingore. "As a person who Judi named to protect her interests, Ms. Coleman
neither contacted me nor to my knowledge attempted to contact me to verify
any assertions she presented in her book."
This is only the first in what may be many biographies about Bari. Pulitzer-Prize
winning author Susan Faludi is also working on a book scheduled for release
in early 2006.
Judi Bari lived an important life of lasting significance here on the North
Coast as a brilliant organizer and acknowledged leader during an unprecedented
passionate period of environmental activism.
But the truth remains elusive, largely because Bari's would-be killer is still
at large. And that's a crime.
Sara Peyton is an Occidental free-lance writer.