A U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., heard defense arguments May 23
before sentencing Stanislas Meyerhoff for his role in a number of
attacks against U.S. government and commercial targets in Oregon and
Colorado from 1995 to 2001. Meyerhoff, a member of a group called "the
Family," pleaded guilty in July 2006 to 62 counts, including arson,
attempted arson, conspiracy and destruction of a federal energy
facility. The Family conducted many of its attacks in the name of the
Earth Liberation Front (ELF) or the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
The U.S. government has labeled Family members "domestic terrorists,"
and because of this is seeking stiffer federal sentences for Meyerhoff
and other convicted members of the group. Though some civil liberties,
animal rights and environmental organizations say the government's
label is unfounded, an examination of the Family's operations suggests
it meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism -- and that is
without the broader definition found in the 2001 Patriot Act, which is
not being applied in this case.
Members of environmental and animal rights movements use the term
"direct action" to describe a wide range of protest activities. These
actions can range from passive activities, such as vigils and
letter-writing campaigns, to aggressive acts such as arson, physical
assault, toppling electrical lines and more. Most direct action
involves some sort of civil disobedience, but some, like the acts
committed by Meyerhoff, involve outright criminal acts. ...
The people involved with ALF/ELF can be roughly divided into four
groups. The first group, one of the smallest, is made up of those who
surreptitiously engage in illegal direct action activities, such as
arson, assault, etc. The groups' wealthy, anonymous donors also make
up a small second group. The third, larger group is made up of
activists who publicly engage in legal actions, attend rallies and
collect and disseminate the personal information of potential targets.
In the fourth and largest group are the mainly passive sympathizers
who identify with environmental or animal rights issues. Because
neither ELF nor ALF has a formal membership list, the numbers are in
no way fixed -- meaning anyone can read about them, identify with
their cause and then engage in an illegal activity that propels them
directly into the first group.
The government's labeling of Meyerhoff and other environmental and
animal rights activists as "terrorists" has created some controversy
-- especially among civil rights groups, environmental and animal
rights movements and their supporters. Organizations such as the
Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) say that, by
defining activists as "ecoterrorists," the government is widening the
war on terrorism too far and diverting attention and government
resources from the real terrorist threat from groups like al Qaeda.
According to the CLDC's Lauren Regan, "When everyone is a terrorist,
no one is."
Attorneys for the various defendants in the Family case say, too, that
Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission did not intend the
terrorism enhancement to apply to acts designed to damage property,
such as arson, but not to kill or maim people. They also say that only
crimes that create a substantial risk of death or serious bodily
injury constitute crimes of domestic terrorism.
Though most of the attacks committed by Family members did not seek to
harm people, the case materials indicate the tenor of the group's
activities could have been changing. In spite of the many successful
attacks committed by the Family, many of its members reportedly were
disappointed by the lack of results they generated. Ferguson testified
that Meyerhoff, William Rodgers, Joseph Dibee, Daniel McGowan and
others discussed escalating their level of violence to include
targeting specific individuals.
According to the sentencing memo submitted by the U.S. Attorney's
Office in the spring of 2001, Meyerhoff had conversations with Rodgers
about assassinations. Rodgers and Meyerhoff discussed the tactic of
two riders on a motorcycle being able to weave in and out of traffic,
shooting someone and then fleeing the scene and dumping the gun.
Meyerhoff told authorities that this talk is one of the factors that
caused him to drop out of the movement and enroll in school in
Virginia. It does appear, however, as if members of the Family were
beginning to arm themselves to begin more traditional attacks.
If the actions of the Family are found to be terrorism and the
sentencing in the cases is enhanced, it will likely put a damper on
the future activities of some activists and create an even greater
divide between the mainstream activists and the radical tier. It also
might force those who are dedicated to violent action to be even more
careful in planning and carrying out their attacks -- making them
harder to catch.