Hannah K. Gold took a walk down Myrtle Avenue with the environmentalist and former political prisoner
We met up at The Base, an event space in Bushwick that caters to an anarchist political perspective, to do the interview. An hour later, we migrated to a coffee shop in the shadow of the elevated M train, Little Skips. This café holds particular sentimental value for me, the bad kind – it’s filled with anxious, oddly beautiful young artists and professionals staring at laptops, wearing hats no matter the weather, and I used to be one of them, indistinguishable.
McGowan, 42, ordered an iced coffee (he takes it with cream) and whipped out his regulation reusable Starbucks cup. I teased him lightly about it. “I’m embarrassed by that cup because it’s such a stupid Starbucks cup,” he said. “Someone gave it to me and I was like thanks I’m going to cover it with stickers.” The cup is permanently emblazoned with “Vanilla syrup” and there is a check-mark in the box adjacent to “large.” One of the baristas overheard the word “Starbucks” and immediately chimed in, totally unbidden. “Oh Starbucks,” he said, “they treat their employees pretty well. I worked there for years, cashed out a ton of money in stocks.” Wilco blared from the café’s master laptop.
McGowan’s name is a household one for many radical types because of his involvement with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a leaderless group of environmental activists, established in the 90s and designated a domestic terror threat by the FBI in 2001. Through the 90s and continuing into the early aughts, the ELF and its animal rights counterpart the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for dozens of property destruction actions, mostly arsons, targeting threats to the environment and to life, animal and human alike. None of these actions physically maimed, much less killed a person, (though some owners of properties the ELF torched have claimed ‘psychological harm’), however prosecuted members often had terrorism enhancement clauses tacked onto their sentences. These can have all sorts of negative consequences, the most dramatic of which is ratcheting up the severity of the sentence.
In 2004, prosecutors at the Department of Justice threatened ELF member Jacob Ferguson, a buddy of McGowan’s from his days in Eugene, Oregon, with arson charges, and in return they got him to cooperate completely. The terms of Ferguson’s coerced loyalty to the government, which it dubbed “Operation Backfire,” included wearing a wire to entrap his fellow activists and friends. The information he provided led to the indictment of 11 environmental and animal rights activists, including McGowan. In 2006, McGowan pled guilty to arson and conspiracy to commit arson, and was sentenced as a terrorist for his involvement in two arsons in Oregon: one inflicted upon a lumber company, another on a tree farm. For this, he got seven years in prison (in the end he spent nearly five-and-half years in prison and another six months in a halfway house) which came with a $1.9 million restitution fine.
McGowan got off probation in June and is currently between jobs after working for almost a year as an executive assistant at the Correctional Association of New York. Since getting out of prison, McGowan has become immersed once again in activism, and his efforts are now primarily focused on aiding political prisoners. His associations as an activist include the NYC Anarchist Black Cross, the Political Prisoner Support Committee (operated by the National Lawyers Guild), Certain Days, and the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
Being an environmentalist, then, is not all that McGowan is known for. The “eco-terrorist” monicker has adhered to his public persona just as fixedly; so has his reputation as an organizer in prison resistance movements. Perhaps this is why nearly every time he mentioned this term, “environmentalist,” or I questioned him about it, he affixed an “or whatever” to the end of it. I got the feeling he was also expressing a well-earned aversion for labels – “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” he told me, acknowledging this too is a cliché.
Still, I asked him, as an environmentalist, if he could please tell me what his guilty pleasures are. He thought about it too long.
“Oh here’s one! So my partner has a car and there’s definitely times we take the car when there’s no fucking good reason to. That is my guilty pleasure.”
“You mean, like, for a joyride or something?”
“No. Just, like, when we could easily accomplish it by foot but we don’t. Is that not good?”
McGowan did not talk about pleasure, other than when I asked; instead he stressed the importance of living in a way that was meaningful to him. Over the past decade of his life this goal has been a constantly moving target, unattainable at times. “I try to minimize the waste that I produce. But it’s more about me living my life in a way that makes more sense and doesn’t feel disrespectful to those around me and towards the environment, for lack of a better term.” McGowan highlighted the importance of anarchist prefigurative politics in his everyday environmental praxis – “living how we want the world to be.” At the second prison McGowan reported to, the Sandstone Correctional Institution in Minnesota, he would write his letters on the backs of old fliers for correspondence courses, dredged from the trash. On “chicken nights” he made a point of delivering the scraps, down to the bones, to the feral cats that stalked the prison grounds.
It’s undeniable that McGowan is a person who likes things a certain way, even as he has opened himself to the, at times, messy and downright chaotic practice of a heady, anarchist lifestyle. Not that these elements have to be at odds. Labels get worn and rejected, but mostly they are recycled.
McGowan grew up in Rockaway Beach, Queens, pronouncing it “caw-fee.” The accent fell away once he left and he spent his early twenties in Asia, California, the Midwest and in school at SUNY Buffalo. He told me all this, and never slipped up on the accent once.
In 1996, McGowan moved back to New York City (Brooklyn and Queens), where he worked in administrative capacities at various Manhattan offices and a vegetarian restaurant in Brooklyn. In July of 1997 McGowan picked up his first copy of Earth First! Journal from the free pile at Blackout Books, a radical vendor that once existed on the Lower East Side, at a time when there were still a number of independent bookstores in Manhattan. Reading through the directory of environmental groups in the journal, McGowan found a tip on a local joint, the Wetlands Preserve Rock Club, which held weekly “eco-meetings” in addition to regularly hosting jam bands, hardcore, and hip hop acts. McGowan started attending the meetings and quickly realized that the conversations therein were never restrained to the subjects of animal rights and environmentalism; they covered myriad social initiatives, as eclectic as the music streaming from the venue each night.
At one of the first meetings he went to participants wrote to political prisoner Rod Coronado, who at the time was serving a four-and-half-year-long sentence for aiding and abetting the arson of a Michigan State University research facility that compiled data on minks for the fur-farming industry. “I went to one of these meetings and was blown away by what they were talking about,” McGowan told me. “I didn’t really know much about it. I’d grown up in New York City, my dad’s a cop, and I didn’t have hammered-out beliefs on prisons and criminal justice.” McGowan ended up writing to Coronado for the duration of his time in prison, and met him in Eugene when he got out.
“In the 90s, at least amongst a lot of animal rights and eco people, there was this strong idea of one struggle, they would kind of bemoan single-issue activism,” McGowan said. “And so my socialization into the activist world came in this idea of intersectional multi-issue activism. The idea that we would be talking about prisons at a meeting for animal rights or environmental stuff seemed rather natural.” This meant freedom to protest practically anything, which lead to near constant protests – McGowan recalled participating in two or three a week. They’d be at Zamir Furs on Houston Street one day, at the Japanese embassy obstructing whaling practices the next.
So, McGowan’s identity as an anti-prison activist had begun taking shape long before he arrived at the Manhattan Detention Center in July 2007 to begin serving his sentence. From there he was moved to Sandstone in September. It was far from ideal, but at least he could pursue a Master’s degree, had regular visits from his family, and the relative comforts of a low-security prison. “When I was at [Sandstone] I would be at a visit, we’d sit there and play Uno,” McGowan said. “I’d get a hug and kiss at the beginning and at the end, be able to hang and out chill, eat a fucking Milky Way.”
Nine months into his incarceration at Sandstone, McGowan heard his name over a loudspeaker, demanding he report to the Receiving and Discharge office. Prison management had gotten after him before about not using the correct amount of postage, and he’d just mailed some books home, so he picked up some stamps on the way to the office. When he got there, the R&D cop said, “Pack your shit up and get back here in 20 minutes.” He handed McGowan two empty boxes.
The next day McGowan was on a bus, he didn’t know where to, with a black box on his lap, just another charming feature of his terrorism enhancement stipulation. On that bus, a cop finally told McGowan he was going to Marion, a name instantly recognizable to those familiar with the US prison system, but whose significance has recently undergone a dramatic change. Marion opened as a supermax (maximum security) prison in 1963, conceived as the second coming of Alcatraz, which closed that same year. “Nah man,” said the cop when he saw McGowan’s face, “it’s like that unit in Terre Haute, they opened a new one, and you’re one of the first people in it.”
McGowan had read about the facility in Terre Haute because of its controversial and secretive Communication Management Unit, a block of cells designated for inmates with terrorism-related convictions. The Federal Bureau of Prisons dreamed up the CMUs to prohibit such inmates from communication with “extremist groups outside the prison.” Over two-thirds of inmates placed in the CMUs are Muslim, a group that comprises only 6 percent of the total federal prison population. The first CMU opened in 2006 in Terre Haute, Indiana, nicknamed “Guantanamo North”; Marion followed soon after, in 2008. Terre Haute is where McGowan served the last 22 months of his sentence.
At this point in the story McGowan leaned in just slightly, the universal signal of oncoming gossip. “There’s this guy who drives prisoners in the federal prison system – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but people who have been on [the real] ConAir and the bus in the Midwest know about this guy. He has one arm, he’s an amputee from his elbow, and he wears an old-style hook.” That’s the guy who drove McGowan to Marion. “He’s holding the fucking steering wheel with it.”
You won’t hear Clinton or Trump talk about “eco-terrorism” today, a sure sign its political currency is spent. That term, which was only recently bandied about by every top US government official associated with national security, is now nearly unrecognizable, more of an anachronism than a threat, something to do with the 70s, maybe, and Edward Abbey, and monkey-wrenching, perhaps. Yet a decade ago the FBI claimed that in the three years after the 9/11 attacks all but one action classified as domestic terrorism was the work of an animal rights and environmental activist. FBI Deputy Assistant John Lewis told a senate committee in 2005, “The number one domestic threat is the eco-terrorism, animal rights movement.” Around this time, the Washington Times – which, full-disclosure, is Breitbart-lite – warned of an encroaching “eco-Al Qaeda.”
McGowan suggested to me that “eco-terrorism” hasn’t disappeared so much it’s been subsumed by a monolithic word, “terrorism,” which encompasses a running list of the government’s perceived enemies. Meanwhile, the definition of “terrorism” is expanding. “The current enemy happens to be Americans who are radicalized and sympathetic to Al Qaeda or ISIS,” says McGowan, to which he adds people who work at charitable organizations that materially support inhabitants of Gaza, like the Holy Land Foundation, and anyone who expresses violence towards a cop. Anyway, people tend to think of “terrorist” from the government’s perspective. To the government, labeling McGowan a “terrorist” meant he had helped burn down someone else’s property; to McGowan, it meant he was going to Marion.
He arrived in Southern Illinois in August 2008 – “hot as fuck” – and was instantly relieved to discover that of the 16 or so people there, one of them was a friend, Andy Stepanian. A fellow animal rights activists, Stepanian was one of the SHAC 7 (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) convicted of violating the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (a precursor to the later passed AETA or Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act) for campaigning to close the animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. Nearly all the other inmates at the CMU were Muslims brought there because of terrorism-related convictions.
Stepanian immediately told McGowan how horrible the CMU was and asked if he’d like “the tour.” For starters, the CMU at Marion was originally designed to be the prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU), or solitary confinement. The rec yard consisted of a rectangular path surrounding an inner cage with 20-foot walls topped with barbed wire. The cage was divided into four sections containing two basketball half-courts, a handball court, and nothing. “It was the most compressed space I’ve ever seen in my life,” said McGowan. “I felt a sense of dread.”
But even worse than the physical restrictions were those placed upon communication. The 300 minutes of monthly phone time that Sandstone afforded McGowan were whittled down to one 15-minute phone call per week at Marion. When McGowan first arrived, the administration was only allowing inmates one four-hour visit per month (in 2010, the BOP increased CMU visitation ours to “eight hours per month, in two four-hour blocks, excluding Saturdays).
McGowan’s ex-wife would fly from New York City to St. Louis, then drive for an hour to the Best Western near the prison. She made the trip nearly a dozen times. The visiting room was really more of a booth; a large plastic chair took up most of the space. Visitors remain on the other side of plexiglass panelling, and conversations flowed through a phone, which McGowan later discovered was live-monitored by a counter-terrorism unit in Martinsburg, West Virginia. “They fucking yell at you for putting your hand on the glass.”
At Sandstone, mail was opened and quickly checked for contraband, but McGowan noticed immediately that it came through Marion at a much more sluggish pace. That’s because incoming mail was scanned and emailed to Martinsburg for approval. McGowan didn’t realize this until late in his time at Marion – part of what tipped him off was a printout of a conversation between a cop in his unit and an intelligence analyst. He found it sandwiched between the pages of a book he’d ordered off Amazon.
Another censorious feature of Marion was the constant barrage of mail rejections McGowan received, mostly for publications like Earth First! Journal and Rolling Thunder (a magazine put out by the anarchist collective CrimethInc.), which he’d subscribed to since his Sandstone days and beyond. “Part of it was communication restriction, but the other part of it was communication management,” McGowan told me. “In a way they wanted to see what was being written. And in some cases they tried to use things I wrote to justify further placement in the CMU.” McGowan’s lawyer proved in court that his notice of transfer from Sandstone to Marion was in fact the notice for a co-defendant of his, copied and pasted and passed off as his own. As such, “some of what was in the rational for sending me to Marion wasn’t even meant for me.” Yet another instance where McGowan has had a discarded identity foisted upon him.
With Stepanian getting out just a few months after he got in, and virtually nothing to occupy his time, McGowan turned his attention towards fighting the conditions at the CMU through legal channels. He became a plaintiff in “Aref v. Lynch” (“Aref v. Holder” originally), a lawsuit filed by lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights in March 2010 for the purpose of “challenging policies and practices at the CMUs,” mostly related to inmate communication and visitation. McGowan’s lawyers also argued that McGowan and his five co-plaintiffs had been sent to CMUs on the basis of false information about their histories. In March, 2015, the D.C. Circuit district court dismissed the case, but a federal appeals court in D.C. reinstated it just a month ago, in August. The court did, however, reject allegations that the plaintiffs’ placement in the CMUs “stigmatized” them as terrorists.
By the time McGowan made it back to New York City, the term “eco-terrorism” had fallen out of fashion, rendered virtually meaningless, yet its bearing on his sentencing, his imprisonment, and his probation, remained integral to his life.
When McGowan first got out, in December 2012, he lived in a halfway house in Brooklyn for six months and started working as a receptionist at the Law Office of Rankin and Taylor. In addition to the standard probation provision that McGowan not be in contact with any convicted felons, he had stipulations that forbade him from being a member of an animal or environmental organization associated with illegal activism, or being in contact with anyone who’d been involved with such a group. “I would have loved to have contact with people who had been in [prison], in order to have someone to talk about it with,” McGowan told me. Then, a few months after he got out, his marriage ended. McGowan was fairly isolated while acclimating to the language and rhythms of life on the outside. He had developed an aversion to small and crowded spaces, which in New York City, is practically every space. “It’s crazy,” he said, “It’s fucking seriously hard to adjust.”
Not all adjustments were personal and interpersonal, there were environmental factors to consider as well. McGowan moved to Brooklyn just in time to witness it in the full boom of “revitalization,” a term developers use to refer to land they are gentrifying, so they can make money off it hassle-free. “The city changed a lot in six years and I was pretty horrified coming home,” McGowan said. “I was politically horrified but also like oh my god the subways have more riders than they literally ever have had. Like, the idea of letting an A train go – I’ve never let an A train go.”
Since his release, McGowan’s been getting back into the city’s activism scene, especially since he got off probation. He’s currently trying to figure out his place, his contribution, to a movement that these days is largely youth-based. In August, he spoke on a panel at the National Lawyers Guild conference where he was supposed to discuss “newer political prisoners” and the Black Lives Matter movement, but felt it wasn’t his story to tell, that it was wrong. “The question is, you kind of see history repeat itself and it’s kind of like, okay, how do you mitigate or help newer generations of activists that are coming up?” Though McGowan is cautious about speaking for the younger activist circles, he’s also critical of the idea of a generational divide in the first place. “It’s an interesting generation gap and I’m struggling with that in a way. I’m going to be me, I’m not going to follow certain music, certain things. I think having a youth-based social justice movement is a bad idea. Not because it’s youth, but because it’s homogenous.”
Homogeneity, in markets and in social movements, has a tendency to flatten history, orient one towards the future, towards a single, agreeable product. The same can be true of burnt, over-roasted coffee. McGowan looked down at his Starbucks cup, then around at the café, “I like places like this,” he said of our meticulously disheveled caffeine hook-up. “I don’t like places where I can get a fucking latte in downtown Manhattan and I can get a latte in Bangkok and it’s the same fucking thing.”
This comment reminded me of a scene from the 2011 documentary about McGowan’s plea bargaining and the history of the ELF, If A Tree Falls, where his sister, Lisa, tells a story about how McGowan used to take the labels off all the cans of food in her pantry when he came to stay in an attempt to separate out unlike materials for recycling, reduce her personal waste. As a result, she no longer knew what she’d be consuming before she opened it up. When she complained to McGowan, he told her he’d never thought about it that way.
How does one name things, and through that naming draw sustenance from them, when every brand that beckons our desire forth seems to end in a landfill? It’s a question many living under capitalism have asked themselves, especially those who wish to oppose it. It’s probably a question that can’t be resolved, but it can at least be allowed to express itself. For instance, McGowan told me that in his activism he generally tries to resist the instinct to champion tidy solutions, to always have an answer. “That has something to do with my political perspective,” he told me, “but it also has to do with my belief that these are questions people have to ask themselves.” For instance, when I asked him if I could write about what he was wearing he said he’d prefer I didn’t, but that I could write about the Starbucks cup.