From Cheerleader to Earth First!: Judi Bari

By Bruce Anderson – Anderson Valley Advertiser, November 11, 1989

On a sweltering day last summer, a diminutive, energetic woman stood talking to a pair of reporters on the Ukiah Courthouse steps. The woman leaned at the reporters, leading with her chin—as they’d say in boxing—as she talked. The woman was Judi Bari, associated primarily with Earth First!, but in reality an American radical in the uniquely American tradition. When she’d left off her talk with the reporters and had disappeared into this area’s class warfare headquarters, the Courthouse, one reporter looked at the other to say. “You know, that woman can talk! She doesn’t even come up for air. Not a breath.”

Well, Judi is a serious person living in an area and in a time when real feeling is considered bad form or just kind of crazy, so Bari finds herself fighting on many fronts against many kinds of opposition, but this lady can fight so effectively, it’s hard to associate her with cheerleaderism. “I really didn’t grow up with any political feelings,” she says, describing a sedate, if mildly fearful, upbringing by a pair of genteel liberals intimidated by the McCarthy-ite fifties. “My parents taught me Wobbly songs as nursery rhymes but told me not to say where I’d learned them,” Bari remembers with a disbelieving snort. “One of the best things about them was my parents lectured me and my sister against racial and ethnic hatreds. Later, when I was in college and came home wearing a Chairman Mao badge they said to me, ‘We’ve got to have a talk with you.’ I mean, this was kill your parents time, remember. So they went on to warn me against tying the sixties student movement to a foreign power. I came away with a whole new respect for my parents. They knew much more than I thought they did. And they were right, of course. We need an American radical left, not one looking overseas for a model.”

For years before that breakthrough discussion with her parents, Judi Bari was distinctly not a political person. “I was head cheerleader at my high school, for god’s sake! Can you believe that?” Frankly, no, but boundless renewable energy of the Bari dynamo variety can carry one to the heights of some peculiar organizations.

Bari began life in a working-class area of a town near Baltimore. Her neighbors all worked in the area’s steel mills. Bari’s mother later radically enhanced the family fortunes when she went back to college, emerging with the first PhD awarded to a woman in mathematics by Johns Hopkins University. Bari pere is a diamond setter, “which is, where I get my perfectly steady hands from,” his second daughter, Judi, says. Daughter number one is a science writer for the New York Times while daughter three is described by sister Judi as “a perpetual student.” Apparently the third Bari remains in school past the age of goal-oriented scholars.

“I had no political consciousness when I left high school. My big thing was to get dates with football players. I thought I had to act dumb and be cute and sweet because I didn’t know there were other social options available to me. It never really fit my personality.” Bari recalls her first political stirrings during her last year in high school when a star athlete asked her out. He happened to be black. Bari was visited by a delegation of white athletes who informed her none of them would ever again grace her with their stimulating company if she dated the black kid. “I didn’t go out with him.” she says with what is clearly a painfully nagging memory of capitulation to intimidation. She doesn’t say so, but it may be one of the only times Bari has ever given in.

From the la la land of high school, Mendocino County’s premier radical went to the University of Maryland in pursuit, not of higher learning and the elusive keys to life but in quest of football players, the odd status symbols of millions of misdirected young American women. “We called Maryland U, 13th grade” Bari recalls. “It was the place Spiro Agnew was referring to in his famous ‘effete intellectual snobs swept into college on the wave of the ‘new socialism’ speech.” Bari doesn’t recall much intellectual activity of any kind, but as a 1967 freshman she was in the right place at the right time. “It was one of those crank em-out schools. Agnew had just been elected as a liberal alternative—if you can believe that—to another right-wing crank named Mahoney who’d run on a straight racist platform of keeping blacks confined to their neighborhoods.” Bari was soon disillusioned with football players. “They were gross: just a bunch of big, dumb assholes who treated women very badly and who thought treating women badly was funny.” In a world in flux, there remains one constant—the personal behavior of the college athlete.

Bari soon began to meet company of a more interesting and hopeful kind, “As soon as I got away from home, I quickly figured out I didn’t have to go to class. I was soon into sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Which in those wild days included, in its more alert manifestations, side trips into radical politics. “My first demo was a trip with hundreds of other students to the college president’s house one night to demand his underwear. The politicos in the mob tried to get everybody to chant ‘Elkins [the college prexy] must go,’ but they were drowned out by calls for Mrs. Elkins to give up her drawers.” But students there and everywhere were getting restless and more serious, as many of them had to consider the distinct possibility they could be shipped off as foot soldiers in the expanding imperial adventure in Vietnam.

Bari was soon one of the more politically active students at U Maryland, recalling with obvious delight her own transformation from flower child naïf to street fighter. “When Nixon invaded Cambodia in ‘70 we had flat out political riots. We took over Route 1 for anti-war protests.” Route One is the main road into War Maker Central, or Washington, DC. “I have an old picture that was in the newspapers of me giving water and flowers to the cops. I cringe now when I look at it, because I got as tired of hippies as I did of jocks. I was getting more and more of a feminist consciousness because I always seemed to be with men who had no interest in women beyond sex. One day I was on acid with this guy and I remember thinking, ‘God, what am I doing? This guy is totally disgusting.’ My friends and I all seemed to be having similar feelings. I stopped going out with men for a year, both as a reaction to football players and the dumb hippie exploitation of women through so-called, free love.” Love is never free as the cowboy songs tell us, a fact of life many women seemed to learn from their hippie experience.

Bari, unlike the typical flower child who felt one hit of acid explained all things forever, went onto become an intellectual in her own way. She remembers reading voraciously, especially material produced by the left opposition. As her political activity increased, so did a more sophisticated understanding of how America really worked. She was able to put the black uprisings then underway in perspective with the ongoing struggles of the poor and the working poor to get a decent living. The thrown-out and the forgotten had gained an effective ally. “I was always an organizer even when I had no politics. I’d been head cheerleader and dorm president. I was a fast sign painter. I’d learned to be a sign painter whipping out posters for football rallies.

Her awareness of the intensity of the class war came abruptly. “I finally flunked out of college. I remember how good it felt, almost as good as when I broke my first window. My property hang-ups ended at the sound of that breaking glass,” she laughs. Judi Bari laughs a lot, merry testament to her fundamental good sense. Happy warriors make happy revolutions. The sound of breaking glass, and the end of her college career began life for Bari as a dues-paying prole. She quickly found a job on the campus that had just bounced her out of its classrooms in the school’s cafeteria. “When I was a student worker in the cafeteria, I could wear blue jeans and birks to work, but as a worker-worker I had to wear a uniform. I was surprised at how badly I was suddenly treated by students. So many of the students had real contempt for workers.” When she found herself as frontline environmentalist in, Mendocino County fifteen years later, Bari noted the same version of contempt for mill and woods workers coming from many environmentalists who, after all, have their origins in the more privileged sectors of the population.

From her position as worker-worker, Bari continued her activism on and off the campus. She reminds us that even in the teeth of protesting serious affairs, there was always an element of fun and games in American activism, because even at its riskiest activism isn’t likely to end in a secret police basement. We aren’t there yet. So Bari enjoys her recollections of demos past, like the one for lenient grading policies for student activists. “We demonstrated for grading exemptions for all people rioting. Our rally cry was, ‘We want A’s’. I was more of a yippie than a radical, I suppose.” However, a chance meeting with famous yippie—now yuppie—Jerry Rubin, cured Bari of yippiedom. “A real pig, a disgusting human being,” she says, before she really unloads her most withering assessment, “a complete phony.”

That wasn’t the first or the last time Judi Bari saw clearly.

“I was reading commie books, not comic books. We didn’t have affinity groups then, but we did have a group called ‘the mad dogs’. We lived together, rioted together, and studied Marxist literature together. During riots, when we got separated, somebody would yell ‘mad dogs’ so we could regroup.” Bari maintains that people who didn’t undergo the basic riot experience don’t really understand how dependent the system is on police and the military. “There were many times when we took over for periods of hours at a time.” She thinks it’s only a matter of time before the National Guard occupies the forests of Mendocino and Humboldt counties against a coalition of radical environmentalists and outraged woods workers whose jobs are being literally cut down and shipped to Mexico for processing.

The old high school cheerleader quickly found herself with the activist badge of honor, an FBI jacket, as she underwent a series of arrests, complete with the obligatory (for the times) official police brutality. “During one arrest, I was shoved up against a wall and a gun was stuck in my side by a cop who tore up my apartment. People from protected backgrounds don’t understand this stuff. I was pretty naïve at the time myself. I’ll never forget a girl friend of mine who was clubbed down in the street. She was more shocked at the blood all over her new leather jacket than she was by getting the shit knocked out of her by the cops. But that was it for her. She never went to another demo.”

Even people from protected backgrounds learn fast from a club on the head, but unlike her fallen, leather jacketed friend, Bari was undeterred by her encounters with the forces of law and order. She moved steadily to the left with jobs in grocery stores and a bakery where she spent almost as much time as a union organizer as she spent stocking the shelves and scrolling happy birthdays on Crisco cakes. In one memorable confrontation with a corrupt union chief at a meeting of the brotherhood, Bari denounced the incumbent as “bullshit,” at which point bullshit grabbed her away, from the mike while himself yelling into it, “Watch your, language young lady!” The Union membership, largely black, started yelling from the audience, “Leave her alone, muthafuggas. She can say whatever she wants.” In other words, Bari had popular support but had seriously annoyed the people in charge, a recurring motif in her life. She became so effective at rallying the dissident union membership that the hacks in charge made her all kinds of refuseable offers to come over to their side.

Bari and her friends began a dissident in-house publication that complained about the many shortcomings of the huge, three-state union. “They were spread out all over the place, which made any kind of dissent very difficult, because we had to travel all the time to organize against the mafia goons who ran things. We put out a paper called the Union Hot Sheet that we passed out at as many job sites as we could get to. The workers loved it, the union hated it. I got fired four times during all this, but after three years we got a strike vote. And during the strike,” Bari’s voice gone absolutely gleeful, “we walked the picket lines all day, then at night we flattened scab tires and put glue in all the company locks. The union, our union, openly collaborated with the company, just as they do here at the Georgia-Pacific mill in Fort Bragg.”

So how did this pugnacious, thirty-nine-year-old woman get from East Coast Mafioso union politics to Ecotopia , where Gaia is discussed more often than gunsels? “After my first union experience, losing that strike after three years of organizing, left me pretty discouraged. I went to work in construction for a while, then on into the Post Office where we actually had some real successes organizing for important reforms.” Bari’s attempt to remove herself from the fray was short-lived. “At the Post Office we even smuggled in one of Jack Anderson’s reporters, who wrote a first-hand expose of working conditions at our warehouse. It took us only a year to win a wildcat strike against the Post Office. I became the chief shop steward at my work site.” But even radicals being to varying degrees human beings, are not beyond Cupid’s range. The cops didn’t get her, the Mafia didn’t get her, the world’s largest post office couldn’t get her, but a guy in California (Mike Sweeney) did manage to detour Bari briefly off revolutionary road.

“So I met this guy who was also a union organizer,” she says somewhat dejectedly, summoning up recollections of a marriage that wasn’t made in heaven. “I really didn’t want to come out to California where he lived, but he had kids out here from his first marriage. So I came on out. I spent a few years having babies in Santa Rosa, where I became active in the Central America movement. My husband,” she summarizes with only faint disgust, given her antipathy for the breed, “had become a liberal. He’s into recycling now. We were moving apart, to put it mildly. I had always tried to find the most radical thing going so I could join, but none of it had the immediacy of union work. I really like union organizing.” The left-wing homemaker stayed on the left while hubby moved onto safe ground. It wasn’t a case of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” so much as simply a matter of time before it ended.

Judi Bari arrived in the Ukiah area in 1985, about the same time as the legendary Earth First! troubadour, Darryl Cherney, with whom she now enjoys a precarious romance. Bari had two small children and an increasingly strained relationship with her husband, who also still lives in the area. “I went to work for California Yurts. In fact,” she remembers, “I was working in Boonville as a carpenter, putting old growth redwood siding on some rich asshole’s house up near Faulkner Park: 2,500 square feet for a single man. Ugly goddam house, too. I looked at these beautiful twenty-foot long redwood boards—tight grain, no knots—and I said to Gary Ball, the bookkeeper for California Yurts at the time, “Is this old growth redwood?” He told me it was. He also told me it was a thousand years old. So I’m putting thousand year old trees on this rich prick’s dumb house!” So dismayed at the idea of such frivolous and thoughtless extravagance, and, as always, thoroughly revolted by the new bourgeoisie, Bari wrote her first song about the destruction of the redwoods. Along with learning union organizing, child rearing, carpentry, and how to play the guitar, she was beginning to write political songs.

In fact, at the first fateful meeting with the beguiling Cherney, Bari was immediately recruited into Earth First! “Even though,” she hastens to make clear, “I was deeply offended by their beer-drinking, baseball hat macho bullshit. I also didn’t like Earth First!’s reliance on these five men whose statements on AIDS and immigration completely turned me off. But Darryl said something to me that stuck: ‘Well, you can start a Mendocino group, but you’ll be starting from scratch. Or we can start a local Earth First! and we can have the corporations shaking in their boots.’” If the corporations are shaking, evidence of the tremors have not yet appeared on any seismograph, but the big boys definitely know Judi and Darryl are out there. And all by themselves—this lady, Cherney, and Greg King—have managed to make Northcoast logging practices a national issue with an astute media campaign that puts the lushly-funded efforts of public relations firms to shame. Of course Bari and Company have a real issue about which they happen to be telling the truth, but, nevertheless, without them corporate exploitation of this area would have been significantly simpler. Put a couple of drinks in Harry Merlo and see what he says. They sputter in the boardrooms at the very mention of Bari, Cherney, and King. The three have become players in an ultimate game.

Bari’s present struggle involves what she does best: dissident union organizing that is already beginning to pay off in the renewed confidence of workers at several mills in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. “The problem with most environmentalists,” Bari maintains, “is that they have a backwards class analysis. They think they can appeal directly to Harry Merlo. [President of Louisiana-Pacific] but not to timber workers. Somehow they think workers are the enemy, corporate chiefs aren’t.” Bari says her new slogan is “Take Back The Woods,” which isn’t far off from what woodworkers are already saying in wildcat demos of their own, as the big boys cut and run, leaving behind ghostly mills, ruined forests, and muttering workers. “These Are Our Woods, Our Forests, Our Work,”

If the woods are saved, if workers are ever going to get a break, it’ll be because of determined agitators like this lady, vilified in the press, threatened constantly by late-night creeps, shunned by people who should be her allies and helpers. We’ll need a lot more like her if we are going to win.

Judi Was No Cheerleader; She Was a “Jock-Sniffer”
Letter by Judi Bari, Anderson Valley Advertiser, November 22, 1989

Dear Bruce,

Thanks for the puff piece in last week’s paper. I want to correct a few errors, though. First of all, I was never a cheerleader. I would have given my eyeteeth to be one, but I wasn’t tall, blond, or popular enough. There’s no point in trying to sanitize it, Bruce. The word I used to describe myself in my high school days was “jock-sniffer,” not cheerleader. The second correction is my reaction to the “free love” era. The problem with free love was that there was no longer any social option not to f**k every guy you went out with. That got pretty gross. But I didn’t get sick of the hippies at that point. I got sick of the hippie men. I still consider myself a hippie on some level. For all its bourgeois shortcomings, the basic premise of the hippie culture remains sound—we need to live more simply, more collectively, and closer to the land. And marijuana’s a better drug than alcohol.