Friends of Judi Bari
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Is the biographer of activist Judi Bari a tool of the right -- or just a skeptical liberal?
- Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Kate Coleman knew she'd be opening a can of worms when she wrote a biography of environmental activist Judi Bari, but she didn't know how bad it could get.
A lifelong liberal, former Yippie, affirmative action advocate and John Kerry supporter, Coleman is finding herself labeled a "right-wing thug" and "character assassin" by Bari partisans for the book, "The Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, the Fight for the Redwoods, and the End of Earth First!" (Encounter Books).
"She calls herself a leftist. That is a joke," says Darryl Cherney, the man who was riding with Bari in her Subaru station wagon on May 24, 1990, when a pipe bomb exploded, tearing through Bari's backside and nearly killing her. "I can call myself the president of the United States, but it doesn't make it true."
In bookstore appearances in Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Corte Madera and in Berkeley, Coleman was heckled and confronted by veterans of Earth First, the anti-logging, pro-redwoods activist group that Bari brought to prominence in the '80s. Bari's ex-husband, Mike Sweeney, has a Web site, colemanhoax.info, listing 351 alleged errors and falsehoods in Coleman's 232-page book -- everything from the size of Bari's backyard to charges that Sweeney beat and raped her. "The Secret Wars," in fact, takes its title from the domestic abuse that Bari allegedly suffered at Sweeney's hands. Coleman also advances a theory that Sweeney was responsible for the car bombing -- and names a number of people who say that Bari held that suspicion.
The executor of Bari's estate, Darlene Comingore, has asked that the book be withdrawn until mistakes are corrected. Sweeney calls the book "the literary fraud of the year," and a Los Angeles Times reviewer wasn't much kinder: "The reporting is thin and sloppy, and the humdrum prose is marred by dubious speculation," Mark Hertsgaard wrote. (Hertsgaard's review had its own fact slippage. He wrote that Bari died of breast cancer in 1996. It was March 2, 1997.)
Coleman's critics point to the fact that her San Francisco publisher, Encounter Books, is operated by neoconservative Peter Collier and funded by the conservative Bradley Foundation. Encounter publications include books attacking Hillary Clinton ("The Hillary Trap") and Noam Chomsky ("The Anti- Chomsky Reader") and works that support the war in Iraq and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Collier is a former left-wing radical who met Coleman during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the mid-'60s and worked with her at the leftist magazine Ramparts. Coleman says Collier approached her to write the Bari biography, but she denies he tried to influence her interpretation.
"I think we shared a skepticism about Judi Bari," she says. "He can't influence me. I've been through too much on my own."
At home in Berkeley, in the cozy, wood-paneled cottage she shares with two exotic cats, Coleman, 62, is making a pot of coffee and describing the chaos and stress that "The Secret Wars of Judi Bari" has brought. A copy of "Sibley's Guide to Birds" sits on the rustic table, next to Gourmet magazine and a fat volume of "The Count of Monte Cristo" that Coleman just finished. "I don't think the book is a smear of Judi," she insists. "I'm ambivalent about her."
Coleman says she admires Bari for her wit and spirit and intelligence. But she also believes Bari fell into a "megalo phase" and "ultra-leftie paranoia. ... I mean, everybody was an (FBI) agent to Judi if you disagreed with her. She sank herself."
A charismatic firebrand who enjoyed confrontation and wielded a sharp tongue at her enemies, Bari came from a background in antiwar and labor politics. In the 1980s, she spearheaded a series of nonviolent actions aimed at blocking logging roads and protecting old-growth. "Judi was a powerful and dynamic woman," said longtime associate Pam Davis. "She flat-out rubbed some folks the wrong way. My sense is that many people are not accustomed to dealing with someone, particularly a woman, who was so bold. Judi was not for the meek."
Immediately after the 1990 car bombing, while Bari was in Oakland's Highland Hospital, she and Cherney were arrested on suspicion of knowingly transporting the bomb. The Alameda County district attorney dropped the case weeks later for lack of evidence, and last year the FBI and the Oakland police agreed to a $4 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by Bari's estate and Cherney over their false arrest. (Bari's story also will be explored by Susan Faludi, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Backlash" and "Stiffed." Reached by phone in Portland, Ore., Faludi declined to comment on her book but said it would be released early in 2006.)
Ironically, Coleman isn't much different from Bari in her personal style and strength of convictions: She's pugnacious, funny and irreverent. Ask her how long she's lived in Berkeley and she jokes, "Do I have moss on my a -- ?" Ask about some of the allegations lobbed at her by the "Bari-ites," as she calls them, and her face turns into a fist. At last week's reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, Coleman held her own against a small number of critics who came to defend Bari and expose Coleman as a hatchet-wielder. When her foes held up signs saying "FALSE" in reaction to Coleman's remarks, she wasn't flummoxed; she turned it into a joke. It helped that Coleman had her own rooting section: fellow warriors from political battles past, members of her swim team (she swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco on New Year's Day), and colleagues from Chez Panisse, where she worked as "maitre d'ette" in the early '80s.
It's inaccurate and comical, Coleman says, when her critics try to dismiss her as Collier's dupe. "They don't know whom they are talking to," she says with a growl. "They're furious about (my) smearing Our Lady of the Forest -- Judi. And they're furious 'cause I said 'The End of Earth First' in the subtitle.
"They're not talking ideas. They have nothing that they're doing that's building a movement. These are dead-enders. The only way they have a forum is to attack me."
As for the errors listed on colemanhoax.info, Coleman says, "half of them are spurious. And then some of them are where they just assert something that isn't true. They're making up their own stuff."
Some of the goofs, she admits, are embarrassing. "Misspelling, errors in geography, simple things that most copy editors catch ... I could slit my throat." She writes, for example, that Patty Hearst was kidnapped in 1973 (it was February 1974); that the movie "Jaws" was filmed in the town of Mendocino (it was Martha's Vineyard, Mass.); that Forestville is 2 miles from Santa Rosa (actually 13). Actor Jon Voight's name is misspelled as "Jon Voigt," James Woods as "James Wood."
Coleman says many of the errors will be corrected in subsequent editions, and she argues that they don't undermine "the gist of the thesis" -- that Bari became distracted from timber activism in the wake of the bombing and concentrated on lawsuits and her own role as an environmental martyr.
How did the mistakes slip by? The publisher didn't give her a fact checker, Coleman says, then rushed the book into production after months in which it wasn't on the production schedule. In part it was "the pressure of time deadlines" that allowed the errors to get by, and in part the "hostilities" she faced from Bari associates who "systematically denied access. "
Coleman says she was frozen out by Sweeney, Cherney and other key players in the Bari story. Sweeney says he refused to speak with Coleman because of a December 1999 article she wrote in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the eccentric periodical formerly published by Mendocino County gadfly Bruce Anderson. Once a friend of Bari's, later an enemy, Anderson repeatedly attacked Bari in print after their falling out.
Coleman's Advertiser piece, Sweeney says, was "extremely biased" and "repeated all the slurs that Anderson had been throwing at Judi for the previous five years ... so everyone knew from the start that (Coleman) was intent on a hit piece (with her book)."
At this point in the story, the testimony of Coleman and the Bari partisans becomes a case of she-says-this, they-say-the-other. Cherney says Coleman never contacted him to request an interview. "He's lying," Coleman retorts. "I wrote a long e-mail to Darryl Cherney requesting an interview."
Karen Pickett, who runs the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, and Tanya Brannan, executive director of Redwood Justice Fund -- both cohorts of Bari -- also say Coleman never requested interviews with them. Coleman says that's not true: "They pretend they're open, but they campaigned against me before I even started the book. That's a fact."
In the absence of testimony from Sweeney, Cherney or Bari's sister Gina Kolata, a New York Times science reporter, Coleman relied heavily on interviews with Anderson and veteran San Francisco journalist Steve Talbot, director of the 1991 documentary "Who Bombed Judi Bari?" She spoke as well with former Bari associates Mary Moore, Irv Sutley and Anna Marie Stenberg.
On his Web site, Sweeney identifies Anderson, Moore, Sutley and Stenberg as the "Gang of Four" -- sworn enemies of Bari who wanted to discredit her. He says Coleman "only briefly and sketchily hints of the bitter feuds that these four people waged against Judi during the last five years of her life."
It's infuriating, Coleman says, when members of the Bari camp attack her book for inaccuracies. "I hold the Bari-ites and some of Bari's family responsible for censorship, for conspiring to keep certain biographical facts from me, then to turn around and criticize me exactly for not coming up with the very facts that they were responsible for withholding."
One wonders why, if her core values are still liberal, she chooses to debunk the left -- or certain extreme aspects of it -- as she did in a series of articles about the Black Panthers. "This is leftie stuff that needs to be cleaned up," she says.
Why not focus her energies on problems of the right? "The right has too many problems for me to even begin to start covering. I don't want to research that. It's not what I knew intimately. It's what I know from afar."
E-mail Edward Guthmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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