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.