With over 40 years of experience waging strategic tactics to protect the environment and motivating others to do the same, Mike Roselle, founder of Earth First! shares his tools for being an effective activist. Mike has been especially passionate about stopping clear cut logging and mountain top mining, two very destructive resource harvesting efforts. He shares his Rules for Radicals in this video. If you are passionate enough to wage a fight against environmental destruction, you should watch this video, then put on your boots and get out there!
Mike’s career is based on his sense of personal responsibility to engage about environmental issues. He has spent his career motivating and engaging others in his style of confrontational direct action. In 1979, Mike co-founded Earth First! and developed a reputation as a radical environmentalist. He is well known for his civil disobedience for environmental matters and has been arrested more than 50 times. His campaigns have been to preserve and protect the last roadless areas and old growth forests and more recently to stop mountaintop mining in Appalachia. Because of Mike’s style of direct action, he became known as an “eco-terrorist;” however, most of Mike’s campaigns have been nonviolent and do not involve the destruction of property.
In 1983 Mike co-founded the Rainforest Action Network to fight for the survival of tropical rainforests by confronting the US corporations that profit from their destruction. In 1995, Mike founded the Ruckus Society to train environmentalists in the effective use of nonviolent direct action. He also worked for Greenpeace, and in 1998, was a member of their board of directors. Today, he is campaign coordinator for Climate Ground Zero, a campaign to end the controversial practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in Southwestern West Virginia.
Roselle states that although he has been arrested numerous times, he will not be deterred in his mission against environmental destruction. He is the author of an autobiography, Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action.
Mike Roselle: I was recruited by Howie Wolk. I had been involved in some of the anti-war demonstrations and I got involved with the yippies, during both the Republican and the Democratic conventions in Miami in 1972. And I — you know, met Jerry Ruben and Abby Hoffman, and a lot of other people down there, and I worked with those guys for a couple of years. This was kind of in the waning period of, you know, that sort of activity. That movement kind of petered out. I remember very clearly when the last troops left Vietnam. I was in Florida at the time and I was listening to the radio at midnight and I realized, well, there’s probably not going to be an anti-war movement now, we don’t have the war anymore. And a friend of mine gave me the advice, he said, “You get a backpack and go out in the woods.” And I realized that if I really wanted to see wilderness, I needed to go to Wyoming. So I went to Wyoming in 1975 and that’s where I met Howie that same year. He was working for Friends of the Earth. He was trying to recruit anyone and everyone that he could, so he, you know, we worked together at the same restaurant, so he did recruit me. And that’s when I became involved in the public lands conservation movement.
Mike Roselle: We had Western Governor’s Association Conference in Jackson, Wyoming that year, I think this would have been ‘80 or something like that. And Jim Watt when he was first chosen to be Secretary of the Interior was going to be speaking there. So we wanted to do a demonstration, and it was up at the ski area, you know the Jackson Hole ski area, so they had a big parking lot and they had a bunch of restaurants and bars and everything up there, and a convention center, which is where the governors meeting was going to happen. So we got about 300 people there and the timber industry also had about, pretty close, I’d say their crowd was smaller than ours but we didn’t give — again, give them much time to organize. And so we got to, you know, Howie got right in and grabbed Watt’s hand and you know got a picture taken, and we were on the national news that evening, you know, protestors against Jim Watt. But a lot of people were unhappy with his appointment, but no one had planned any demonstrations. The environmental movement didn’t really — you know they were really not used to doing that, so we kind of broke the ice on that.
Mike Roselle: You know, and we were drawing our inspiration from Greenpeace, from the anti-nuclear movement, and you know, also the anti-war movement. And trying to organize people, that you know you didn’t really have to educate them, they already knew. You just needed to motivate them and we knew they were out there. So it wasn’t really about educating people and bringing them along, it was finding those people who already know, who already believe, and are just looking for someone else that thinks the same way that they do. And that was truly the secret of organizing Earth First! People were going, “Wow, I didn’t know there was a group like this. This is my kind of group,” you know, and we’d have those people for life. And so we were able to build a national base of grassroots groups, really within a couple of years.
Mike Roselle: I always thought that the environmental movement needed to adopt the tactics of the civil rights movement, and really some of the spirit of it too, because it wasn’t just a mental, intellectual exercise. You know there was something almost spiritual about it, and the willingness to suffer violence and not return it, and experience hatred and aggression and return that with love and respect, and it was something that we hadn’t tried. And so I was really looking for an opportunity to see what the results would be, if we just had 10 percent of the courage and the passion of the people that were on the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge in Selma [Alabama].
Mike Roselle: The criticisms that you heard a lot about the environmental movement is that we were all white, middle class, well off, and we didn’t really care about the problems of the poor. And when you’re willing to be arrested and thrown in jail, and not pay your bail and serve your time, then I think you can go a little bit in countering that, just to show that we’re serious.
Mike Roselle: Our first attempt at it was in Oregon on the Bald Mountain Road, and here we had a campaign that had been worked on by all the groups for quite a while and they’d lost. The road had been approved, it was going to start that spring. They supposedly had exhausted all their legal appeals. And we started that with just 4 of us getting arrested, and then 5 came back like a week later, and then 12 a week later, and you know by July, I think about 35 people had been arrested in 12 different actions. We were dominating the news in Oregon and starting to get some attention nationally. And all of the sudden we were getting phone calls from attorneys who want to file lawsuits to stop the road. You know, we couldn’t do it physically, we knew that, but that’s where the success came from. We got attorneys who filed a lawsuit based on your lawsuit, California versus Forest Service, California versus Dale Robinson. We filed the exact suit in Oregon court, and that’s what shut down the Bald Mountain Road. And then, the Oregon National Resource Council, within a month filed that same lawsuit for all of district Region 5, which is Oregon and Washington, and we shut down all the logging, and all of the wilderness and wilderness study areas on the National Forest — millions of acres. So that was just starting with 4 people, and it just cascaded into all these other things, and all these other people who became involved. So we didn’t do it ourselves, we were just the ones that kicked the snowball down the hill. And I think a lot of times the way that non-violence civil disobedience works, you know, when those protestors were beat mercilessly on the Pettus Bridge, the next crowd was too big for them to beat.
Huey Johnson: You’ve been arrested 50 times, is that right?
Mike Roselle: Uh huh.
Huey Johnson: And you’ve chosen those times?
Mike Roselle: Yeah. There are a few times I didn’t choose, I got swept up in. You know I tried to step aside you know.
Mike Roselle: People always say, “Oh Mike, you’re really good at strategy,” and really strategy is not our problem, but we need tactics — to pressure — to move things along. We don’t always know where they’re going; it’s not totally strategic battle that we’re in. Strategic battles are, you know, usually between 2 forces that are more or less, have some parody. They’re the same size and power, that’s where you know – chess is a strategic game because both sides have the same amount of pieces. But if you’ve only got a couple of pawns and they’ve got all their pieces, strategy is not going to help you. You need tactics. How can we take out one piece at a time without getting ourselves taken out in the process? And you know sometimes you have to wait for your opponent to make a mistake. You know what kind of strategy is based on your opponent making a mistake? So if we love strategy too much, I think we could lose sight of how we really win campaigns. We win campaigns with tactics. We win by applying pressure, by trying different things, by being opportunistic, looking for weak spots. And you know that’s how all the campaigns that we work on really work. When we take on a company like Home Depot with a little staff of 10 people in San Francisco, you know it’s not a strategic campaign but we know that we can wear them thin. We know that they have a brand that is probably their most valuable asset — is that orange sign. And you know to throw a little mud on that doesn’t take much, but they got to send someone up there to clean it off. And if you keep doing it, you know people are going to think that they are — they don’t have a clean brand and that’s what they were worried about. They did worry about the, where they were. They were more worried about where we were going to take them, you know they were able to handle our protests and everything, no problem, but it was hurting their ability to grow. It was hurting their ability to compete with their competitors. So even though we were a relatively small problem, we were one that they needed to take care of if they wanted to continue to be an industry leader. So I suppose there’s some strategy there, but really, it was mostly us just unleashing as much efforts, as many tactics, as many opportunities, as we could — to tarnish their name.
Mike Roselle: It seems to me we teach activists today that we don’t want leaders. And maybe we don’t, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want leadership. And I think of leadership as, if you have a team, your captain is the first among equals, you know he’s not a superior and that’s what leadership is about. You know not being superior to everybody, but just trying to coordinate people to work together, that’s what leadership is.
Mike Roselle: You know we wouldn’t have been able to convince anyone to use civil disobedience if we weren’t the first ones to go to jail. And if we weren’t the first ones to get convicted, and whatever, to take the consequences. So the young people just need to understand that this is not going to come without risk, it’s not going to come without sacrifice, it’s not going to come without controversy. And not everyone is going to like to hear what you’ve got to say, so you can’t be afraid of rejection, or even hostility to your ideas, but you can’t return that. The secret is to me — you know that you cannot return hatred with hatred. You cannot return violence with violence. The only way it works is if you refuse to do that. I see so much of this campaigning that goes on now, where people are ridiculing their opposition, dehumanizing them, you know calling them buffoons and idiots and all that, and you know almost being violently insulting. And I think you know if you look at Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, that they always treated their opponents with respect, and they always accepted their humanity. And not that they had a lot, you know, but at least that you cannot lose your own humanity to the public and say, well you’re no better than them because you’re using the same tactics. But I really do think that only the kind of mass civil disobedience that we saw during the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s — only that can move us forward now, out of this political gridlock. They’ve got to get up, and they’ve got to do what we did. They’ve got to march. They’ve got to stand up to the cops. They’ve got to stand up to the judges. They’ve got to challenge the politicians. They’ve got to put pressure on them every place they go, give them no comfort. And I think, you know, that might mean putting their computer down for a while and getting out in the streets.