November 17, 2004 will be remembered as another sad day for
the Earth Liberation Front and the radical activist community.
On trial for the E.L.F. action of torching SUVs in Southern
California, William ‘Billy’ Cottrell took the
witness stand in his defense.
Accused of more than $2.3 million dollars of property damage,
I can imagine the fear Billy felt, facing decades in prison.
Many activists, past and present, remember that feeling all
too well. For some it was our finest, if most painful, moment,
as we stood against the state proud and unwavering.
Perhaps the truest test of our warrior spirit can be found
in the courtroom. Undoubtedly, our movement’s defining
moment will be how steadfastly we stood when facing the full
repression of the state.
After Billy’s arrest, he wrote to me. His naiveté
about the situation he was in shocked me. We discussed what
he was facing and I warned him to avoid doing media before
trial. Billy shared his fears and heartache with me, as well
as his gratitude for all the support he was receiving from
people. In his last letter, Billy told me how much of an inspiration
other warriors and I had been to him.
As Billy took the stand that day, I can’t help but
wonder if the sick feeling in his stomach was fear of imprisonment
or if it was nausea from his betrayal. Billy testified that
his friend lit the fire against his wishes. He stated that
he was coerced into going along with the others in his group
because he owed one person of them $200.
Despite all of his bravado to his supporters, the media and
me, in the end Billy tucked his tail and pissed down his leg.
Sadly, this is not the first instance of betrayal. To date,
the majority of E.L.F. and E.L.F.-style actions to go before
the courts have had a defendant turn traitor. This fact devastates
my heart, as it should every activist and revolutionary.
Illegal direct action is a dangerous path. The action itself
is only a small part of the equation. Physical resistance,
once embarked upon, is not a path easily abandoned. A person
who chooses this path should expect to serve prison time or
worse. A person who can’t face the possibility of prison
or who can’t accept the consequences with integrity
and honor should not pick up the matchbook.
The blame, however, does not solely lie with the weaknesses
of individuals under pressure. The problem is one of our own
creation. This movement glorifies and romanticizes hardcore
action. It cries out for salvation from would-be heroes, writing
stories and singing songs of faceless individuals who sab
the dozers, raid the labs and who burned down Vail.
Honoring our warriors is good, but the illusion fades when
you are sitting in a jail cell. The once seemingly-powerful
movement bolstered by its own self-praise no longer appears
so strong. The romanticized ideal of action and change remains,
yet no revolutionary energy is directed at freeing our comrades.
That is our failure as a movement. If we expect our warriors
to stand strong in front of the judge and jury with heads
high and eyes burning with defiance, we must become realistic
about what it means to be a revolutionary movement. We have
to support those who have sacrificed their freedom with radical
For our movement to become more than a counter-culture, we
have to stop mystifying direct action. We have to recognize
direct action for what it is: a necessity. The support of
the movement for its captured warriors must go beyond admiration
and respect. It must extend into action and agitation for
their release. We must never abandon our own. By any means
necessary, we must see them free. Otherwise, we can expect
more people to bow before the power of the state.
How do we go from romanticizing action to taking it? How
do we go from accepting loss to preventing it? These are the
obstacles in our path. If we cannot overcome them, then we
are not trying hard enough.
There are always going to be Billy Cottrells. There just
doesn’t have to be more of them than there are true
warriors. There is a hero in all of us-one just waiting to
be given a voice. Find the courage to follow your heart and
the pride to hold your head high and stand your ground. With
that, this movement will go from a facade to a force.