THE PRESS DEMOCRAT SUNDAY, JANUARY 30, 2005   Page G5

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 activists.

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 canceled.

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 ancient redwoods.

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 and alliances.

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 by Coleman.)

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 fiddle.

"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 of mistakes.

"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.
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Sara Peyton is an Occidental free-lance writer.

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