Lessons from the Snitching of Billy Cottrell
from No Compromise Issue 26

by Jeff 'Free' Luers

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 actions.

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.