Prison Interview with Convicted Oregon “Eco-Terrorist” Jeff Luers
When Jeff “free” Luers and Craig “Critter” Marshall drove away from Romania Chevrolet in the early morning hours of June 16, 2001 after igniting the wicks of two one gallon milk jugs filled with Coleman fuel, they could not have known that this action would come to significantly alter their lives.
The Eugene, Oregon anarchist eco-activists had placed the firebombs under a row of SUVs in an attempt to bring attention to the disproportionate air pollution caused by gas guzzling vehicles. Neither were aware that Luers had been tailed throughout the day by three plainclothes police since his release from jail earlier that day on a disorderly conduct charge stemming from activities during the Eugene “Seven Weeks Revolt” anarchist conference. The cops lost track of the two a block from the Chevrolet dealership. Ten minutes later, Springfield officers stopped them for a traffic violation. Both were taken into custody by the undercover agents who had been following them. It was later learned that one of the agents was from an anti-domestic terrorist unit. Luers and Marshall were arrested on Criminal Mischief One, a charge that carries about one year.
Damage caused by the fire was quickly put out with a simple fire extinguisher and totaled $40,000 worth of damage. In addition, all three vehicles were repaired and subsequently sold. No human life was taken or endangered, yet one week later Luers was arraigned on nine different felony counts including arson, attempted arson, and manufacturing and possession of destructive devices or explosives. Similar devices were found at petroleum distributor Tyree Oil in Eugene, and three weeks before his trial began, he was also charged with attempted arson of that facility and faced several more charges. By the time of his trial, he had accumulated 13 charges and was looking at serving 100 years if convicted. While no physical evidence was found to link Luers to Tyree, he was offered a deal for 15 years if he would plead guilty to both Romania and Tyree. He held fast and refused. In the end, he was convicted of 11 felony charges and sentenced to 22 years and 8 months with no possibility of parole. Co-defendant Marshall took a “conspiracy to commit arson" and "possession of destructive devices" plea and was released after serving four and a half years. It must be made clear that no part of this deal involved any admission of guilt or implication of guilt on the part of Jeffrey Luers. A later falling out between the two is unrelated to this plea.
In a decision handed down on February 28 of 2008, Luers’ appeal for re-sentencing was heard in Eugene’s Lane County Circuit Court. The new ruling brings his release date to December 2009. Luers originally filed his appeal in January of 2002. The original sentence handed down to Luers in June of 2001 was stunning in a most draconian sense and was clearly politically motivated.
Since the time of Luers’ arrest, the United States has seen an unprecedented dismantling of civil liberties via the excessive reach of the War on Terror. The largest roundup of eco-activists in US history began with the launch of the FBI's “Operation Backfire” on December 7, 2005. At a national press conference in January 2006, then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller unveiled a 65-count indictment targeting the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) with the claim that a "vast eco-terrorist conspiracy" was the U.S. number one domestic terrorist threat.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on November 27, 2006. It was pushed through Congress by wealthy biomedical & agri-business industry groups such as the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Center for Consumer Freedom, with bipartisan support from legislators Senator Dianne Feinstein and Rep. James Sensenbrenner.
AETA expands the legal definition of “terrorism” to include activity previously protected as free speech under the First Amendment. The Act’s broad language brings ambiguity to statutory terms used in the offense and definition sections of the law. Such undefined terms as “interfere with,” “profit loss,” and “economic damage” might be applied to the results of lawful boycotts and peaceful protests: “interfering with” could conceivably cover undercover investigations of animal laboratories, Internet postings, email campaigns, or demonstrations and boycotts. Because of this ambiguity, the law arguably does not give a reasonable person fair notice of what is legal, as is required of a criminal statute. This is not resolved by the AETA’s stated exemptions for “lawful boycotts” and “peaceful protests.” Indeed, the elements of those acts may qualify as terrorist acts under the AETA. This brings a chilling effect not only to the work of eco and animal rights activists, but to all dissenters across the board. Luers in fact has never claimed affiliations with either ALF or ELF.
Jeff Luers has become internationally known and supported as a political prisoner, not only because of the length of his original sentence, but also because of his prior activism and the tree-sitting campaign at Fall Creek, Oregon. To some he is a true revolutionary. He also wears the label of terrorist. He has served time in a number of Oregon correctional facilities with the majority of his time spent at the maximum security Oregon State Penitentiary. He has been housed for the past nine months at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, Oregon. This interview was conducted by this author through a series of letter exchanges during late 2008 and January 2009.
MG-What is the status of your release date? Are you still looking at December 2009?
JL-My current release date is December 16 2009. There is some contention between me and the Department of Corrections about this; the date should be December 15. That is my good time release date. While it is unlikely to change, I could be released as late as June 17, 2010.
MG-What are you most looking forward to upon your release? What are you most apprehensive about?
JL-There are so may things that I am excited about. No more walls is a big one. I think that within my first weeks I’ll find myself camped deep in the woods reconnecting with nature.
There doesn’t really seem to be too much that I’m apprehensive about. Certainly, prison has changed me, but the core of my being is still the same. My biggest challenge I think, is going to be living indoors and paying rent.
MG-At the time that you began your activism, there were a host of eco issues to be addressed. What put you on the path to tree sitting as opposed to other environmental struggles?
JL-For me, tree sitting was all about the direct action. It was a campaign and struggle that was local that I could have a direct impact on.
The end goals of many struggles are completely beyond our reach. Not that we shouldn’t still struggle to reach those goals, but they translate into petitions of redress. We must concede that we are powerless to create change ourselves and end up asking others to do it for us.
Direct action isn’t like that. The power to create change or act on a belief system rests completely in our hands. It takes power away from the powerful and puts it in the hands of the powerless.
I got involved in old growth defense because I was physically capable of stopping the logging of that forest. And anyone familiar with the Fall Creek/Red Cloud Thunder campaign knows that we did not politely ask for that forest to be protected. Nor did we protest gently.
MG-What moved you to follow through with the arson at Romania? Did you feel that there was any other alternative at all to raise awareness about global warming? And, what was running through your mind when you set flame to incendiary?
JL-Our world is being physically and geographically altered by the greenhouse gasses that we’re putting into the environment. Local and global climates are changing. These events have been happening for decades, but it is only now that this makes news.
Industry giants and corporate hooligans are making millions of dollars destroying the planet I love. They are putting people’s lives at risk.
You ask me what moved me to follow through with these actions. I ask, what has not moved others?
There were plenty of other alternatives to raise awareness about global warming. Al Gore did a great job. He’s also a former vice president and millionaire. It’s harder to ignore him or shut him up though many tried.
Things have not changed much since the time of kings. Poor people are still ignored. Only when the peasants revolt does the king take notice.
Do you really want to know what I was thinking when critter and I lit the incendiary devices? Okay. I was thinking, “Don’t set yourself on fire.”
MG-You and critter both followed through in carrying out the arson action together and you were immediately arrested together after this action. Because of his plea, he was released after serving a four and a half year sentence in contrast to your original sentence of 22 years plus. What do you have to say to this? (Any comment for sake of clarity to the community regarding your falling out with him?)
JL-Critter and I talked extensively before he agreed to take his deal. He was firmly prepared to go to trial with me had I asked. I wanted critter to take the deal. At the time, they offered him five years. They were offering me fifteen. By taking the deal he in no way had to cooperate. Hell, he wouldn’t have even had to acknowledge guilt.
The falling out he and I had is personal and between he and I. We have since made up. I am very much looking forward to seeing my old friend.
MG-How effective was your action at Romania, and is there anything that you regret?
JL-In some ways the Romania action was and is probably one of the most effective direct actions taken in the United States; I know, very modest of me, right? Our action changed the dynamics of clandestine actions for the earth in this country. Afterward, Romania car dealerships all over the world were targeted.
Suddenly, it was no longer just industry being targeted but the culture that is responsible for global warming.
And yeah, I do have some regrets about Romania. After all of the [prison] time that I got for that little fire, I wish I’d done something bigger.
MG-Your original sentence by any fair and rational definition was brutal and extreme, particularly in contrast to punishment meted out to rapists and other violent offenders, many of whom you saw and see released while you sit in a concrete cage. The effect on you has had to, at times, fill you with rage. What have you done to channel this rage?
JL-I’ve never been angry about my sentence. What am I supposed to feel rage toward? I already know that the system is corrupt and unjust. I already know that property is valued more than life. I know that an act of dissent will receive harsher punishment than crime. I was angry at those things when I took action. So I can’t complain that [this punishment] happened to me. In some ways, I’m glad that they gave me 22 years and called me a terrorist. It not only proved that I was right about the things that I was saying, but it also showed that direct action really truly is a threat to business as usual.
The punishment has only served to further my dedication as demonstrated by my continuing struggle from inside these walls.
MG-Operation Backfire hit the environmental movement hard, in the NW particularly. You saw former comrades given lengthy prison sentences based on the testimony of other former comrades who rolled over for the feds. The Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act was signed into law in November of 2006. Clearly, the criminal factory farm corporations and capitalist industry polluters have it made in the shade as the government protects their interests at all costs. First, what do you have to say about these draconian measures and second, do you have any words of encouragement for activists who have fallen to fear and retreated to the shadows?
JL-Fear is the enemy of freedom. We fail to act because we fear the cost of living free. We live in a police state. The U.S. may be the kinder face of fascism, but it is still a fascist state. Yes, we have elected a man who may bring change, but the system that he upholds will still be a capitalist, imperialist monster. If anyone thinks that he isn’t going to protect the corporate interests at the extent of the people, they are wrong. We live in one of the few countries in the world where corporations are granted and guaranteed the same rights under our constitution. By design, our government is structured to uphold that rule of law.
I would rather be in prison or dead than blindly submit to a government I know is corrupt and wrong. I would rather dare to live free and fight against injustice than cower in silence and despair. I think many people feel the same way. We just have to be smarter in how we speak out and in how we act.
Oppression is designed to break the free spirit of the people and force them to accept their lot. The whole nature of and desire for freedom is to break free at all costs.
There is a world beyond this one just waiting to be created. The right to clean air, water and food is a birthright. Freedom is ours by right of birth. It cannot be granted by any government. It cannot be bought at any price. It is ours and we must only choose to wear its mantle.
MG-You’ve kept us update via your Dispatches from prison. In your last one you wrote that you were tired of fighting. This is a right that you certainly have earned. You also wrote that you were not giving up, but are instead looking at different ways of fighting. Can you touch more on this?
JL-I’ve spent the last twelve years on the front lines. Sadly, nearly nine of those have been in prison. I want to focus on my life and family when I get out.
I’ve seen our failures at struggling against the symptoms. I’d like to focus on creating the cure. Direct activism and militancy is a mainstay of the struggle for social and environmental justice. Unfortunately, creating alternatives to today’s mess has not been. That is where I would really like to work and bring really hands on changes and alternatives to the table.
MG-One of the more chilling Dispatches from you appeared online on Portland Indymedia in September of 2006. In it, you wrote about the more brutal aspects of prison life. In the space of a few weeks a guard had been severely beaten in the yard, fights in chow hall were averaging one a week and a man lay dying for five hours in front of your cell. You wrote, “I can watch a man get stabbed in the neck and keep eating. I can pretend to not see a man lying helpless in his own blood (along with everyone else on the yard). And I can watch a man die and be completely unmoved.”
When you learned that the guy you watched die was a child molester, you wrote that you were glad that he was dead. While a few folks who commented seemed to understand what it was that you were trying to convey, one chastised you for feeling glad. She wrote that this was a “sad turn of events for you,” and that if anyone should have compassion for another human being, it should be you.
Clearly, prison is a dehumanizing experience. While I understand that it is not your job to clarify your feelings, how would you respond to the woman’s comments?
JL-This is the first time that I have seen these comments [I mailed Jeff a print out of the Indy post]. It is obviously a little difficult to respond to something I experienced years ago.
My friend Randy Cross-who took his own life no to long after-killed a man. I watched that man die. I felt nothing as I did. It was simply just another day in prison.
Many people cannot begin to grasp the violent life of a max security prison. The threat of death is in the air everyday. I lived that life without cowering from it. When threatened with violence I responded in kind. When threatened with being stabbed I had my own shank to turn to.
Every one of my friends had a weapon hidden somewhere. Prison is a war zone. We struggle for territory, space, to avoid becoming a victim. Right or wrong, that was my life. I fought, I stood my ground, and I survived.
When I learned the man Randy killed was a child molester who admitted in court that he raped and used a foreign object inside a little girl, a girl who wasn’t even yet twelve, I was glad the monster was dead. There are several monsters that I would like to see dead and not all are in prison. Some start unjust wars.
I’m not sorry the guy died. And I don’t need to justify or explain that feeling. What I am sorry about is that I can watch that level of violence and be unaffected by it. I’m sorry that society makes monsters that must be killed.
MG-What do you think the world will look like to you when you hear the steel door close behind you for the last time and you walk free? What do you think you will look like to the world? How will you see yourself?
JL-I think the only difference is that the world and I will both be a little older.
To learn more about the case and work of Jeffrey Luers, go to: