January 28, 2005
Book on Environmentalist Creates a Storm
ILLITS, Calif., Jan. 24 - The book signing scheduled here last weekend at Leaves of Grass Books was supposed to be a crowd pleaser. The guest was the author of a new biography on Judi Bari, an anti-logging activist and eco-celebrity who until her death eight years ago lived in a cabin outside of town.
But when the store's owner, Rani Saijo, read the book, she canceled the event. The biography's portrait of Ms. Bari was not a familiar one, but rather something "muddy and murky," Ms. Saijo said, adding, "I felt the intent was to incite people."
Though appearances elsewhere by the author, Kate Coleman, have proceeded as planned, her sometimes gossipy and often unflattering book has drawn demands from the executor of Ms. Bari's estate that the publisher pull it from stores. It has also inspired an anti-Coleman Web site and led to shouting matches across bookshelves in backwoods places like the nearby town of Fort Bragg and elsewhere in Mendocino County, where many of Ms. Bari's friends, admirers and colleagues from the radical group Earth First! live.
Ms. Coleman opened the promotion tour for her book, "The Secret Wars of Judi Bari," at the Fort Bragg Public Library this month.
"It felt like a book burning," said Robin Watters, branch manager there.
At one point, Ms. Watters said, the session was halted because those opposed to the book were interrupting Ms. Coleman and calling her a liar. Eventually the author slipped out the back door.
"I was expecting if there was to be any hostility, it would be from the timber people," Ms. Watters said. "It was not something that interested them. It was the Earth Firsters that came."
Ms. Bari died of cancer in 1997, but her fiery presence looms large across much of California's redwood-forested North Coast. She rose to prominence in the late 1980's, when she helped organize confrontational but nonviolent efforts against logging, playing her fiddle as Earth First! activists stood in the way of heavy equipment and blocked roads.
A car bombing that nearly killed her in 1990 remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the environmental movement, helping to secure folk-hero status for her among the people she corralled to defend the old-growth redwoods.
Last year the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Oakland police agreed to a $4 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by her (and pursued by her estate) and a passenger in her car, Darryl Cherney, over their false arrest in the bombing. The authorities originally accused them of knowingly transporting the pipe bomb when it exploded in Oakland, a claim that was later dropped.
May 24, the date of the bombing, is now recognized as Judi Bari Day in Oakland, a screenplay about her life is in the making, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi is also working on a Bari book.
The Judi Bari in the Coleman biography is a troubled and flawed leader so consumed by her "secret wars" against the F.B.I., her former husband and other adversaries that she neglected the forests movement that had led to her celebrity.
The book says that in the years after the bombing, Ms. Bari chose "the role of martyr over that of environmental activist," and that "many who once were close to her claimed that she had become a tyrannical diva." It says she made money by "scamming through nuisance suits against deep pockets."
Mr. Cherney, another Earth First! organizer, said in an e-mail interview that the book was riddled with errors - the anti-Coleman Web site claims to have found 351 in the 232 pages of text - and seemed bent on destroying Ms. Bari's reputation.
"Today there are few progressive heroes left," said Mr. Cherney, who was romantically involved with Ms. Bari at the time of the bombing. "But even the ones who have died must be killed again by literary assassins like Kate Coleman."
Much of the opponents' ire has been directed at the publisher, Encounter Books, a small nonprofit based in San Francisco and financed by the conservative Bradley Foundation. Encounter has printed other books critical of prominent liberals, including "The Hillary Trap" and "The Anti-Chomsky Reader."
Peter Collier, Encounter's publisher, said it "has an interest in conservative things but is not a doctrinaire publishing house." He likened the outcry to the "determined rejectionism" of Japanese soldiers who years after World War II were still wandering the Pacific. He said the book broke with "left-wing orthodoxy" in a number of areas, for instance not settling on the F.B.I. as the likely culprit in the bombing.
Ms. Coleman is a Berkeley writer who became active in left-wing causes in the 1960's. As a freelance journalist, she has written for publications including New Times, LA Weekly and The Los Angeles Times. From 1999 to 2001, she did reporting for several news articles in The New York Times.
She said that because the biography did not accept a popular image of Ms. Bari as "the Mother Teresa of the North Coast forests," it had invited a showdown with "bitter-enders who are the keepers of her flame." Nothing less than "the meaning of Bari's life and death" and "who owns her memory" are in dispute, Ms. Coleman said.
The book also delves into claims about Ms. Bari's personal life, among them that she was abused during her marriage to Mike Sweeney and that the couple feuded bitterly over custody of their two daughters. It discusses speculation that Mr. Sweeney might have been involved in the car bombing.
"The personal in this case became the political," Ms. Coleman said at a book reading on Sunday at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, where people interested in the biography shouted down her critics a couple of times. "I really feel that I am trying to talk about ideas, and not do character assassination."
Mr. Sweeney, who edits the anti-Coleman Web site, colemanhoax.com, said the book was based on unfounded gossip that had been circulated by Ms. Bari's "avowed enemies," many of whom broke with her, he said, because they were jealous of her success.
"They don't really care about me," Mr. Sweeney said. "I am just a convenient straw man that they can use to further their goal, which is to belittle Judi."
Ms. Coleman acknowledges some errors and says they will be corrected in future printings, but rejects the notion that they undermine the book's credibility. Some fact checking was made hard, she said, because many of Ms. Bari's relatives and friends would not cooperate. Ms. Bari's older sister, Gina Kolata, a science reporter at The New York Times, was not interviewed for the book.
Ms. Coleman said complaints about the errors, and aspersions cast on the publisher, were being used as a smokescreen by the book's detractors, whose real aim, she said, is to preserve an incomplete and distorted memory of Ms. Bari.
Conflict over Ms. Bari's image is one she herself spoke about.
"People have these incredible standards of behavior for me," she told an interviewer in 1995. "And if I meet them, I am resented for being too saintly; and if I don't meet them, I'm vilified for not being saintly enough. And nobody can look at me without thinking of the bombing. I can't just be myself."