Judi Bari's last stand

by Mike Geniella

Judi Bari at Headwaters protest

Judi Bari at Headwaters Forest Sept. 15. (Photo by Brandi Easter)

Stricken with inoperable breast cancer, Judi Bari is stepping down from her role as the North Coast's leading environmental activist, creating a void in a movement she has helped transform.

Bari has chosen to reject chemotherapy treatments, and instead face a certain death with quiet dignity after a life of causes and confrontations.

"I am not going to obsess and spend what time I have left chasing a cure that doesn't exist," said Bari.

"The quality of what remains of my life is very important to me and my family," Bari said in her first interview since her illness was publicly disclosed in early November.

Bari, 47, talked candidly for more than two hours at a favorite restaurant in Willits, an old timber town where she has found acceptance despite her radical environmental politics.

"I love Willits. In Humboldt County, there is cultural apartheid. You either live in a hippie town or a timber town. But not in Mendocino County. Here in Willits, hippies and rednecks have learned to live side-by-side," said Bari.

Bari has lost weight but looks fit. She's experiencing little pain yet, but feels the cancer is beginning to take its toll because she tires more easily. "There are good days and bad days, but the bottom line is I just don't have energy like before," said Bari.

Bari is skilled at gaining publicity for her causes, but she's been reluctant to give interviews since her illness was disclosed because of fears of "celebrity sob-sister stories that today's media adores."

Bari finally agreed to publicly elaborate on a new fight she knows she can't win, and a kind of acceptance that is unexpected from someone who has relished taking on the impossible in her life of activism.

"You learn something very important about yourself when you're faced with life-and-death decisions," said Bari. "There's endless advice, but finally you have to do what you think is best."

Bari said whatever treatment a cancer patient decides upon is "really a very personal decision. People need to respect that. I think that's a problem all cancer patients have."

Bari said she's bolstered by support she is being offered as the reality of cancer sets in.

"Mountains of letters" have poured in from friends and supporters, and even a few past adversaries such as former Rep. Doug Bosco and Mendocino County District Attorney Susan Massini. Former Mendocino County Supervisor Marilyn Butcher, a staunch critic of Bari's, embraced her recently in a local store and offered her support.

All three have cancer-related experiences: Bosco's sister died of breast cancer, and Massini's daughter and Butcher have both experienced bouts with cancer.

Bari said at first she felt odd about their contact. "I was totally cynical. But then I realized their acts were reaching down to a deeper level of humanity, and I appreciate that."

Massini said that is indeed why she wrote Bari.

"There is a place where we are all one, and I was reaching out to her from there. I admire her courage, and I wanted her to know that," she said.

For an activist who has always worked on the edge, Bari said she finds herself taking the middle road when it comes to cancer treatments.

"I'm contemptuous of the medical establishment's zeal for experimental chemotherapy. But on the other hand, while I respect alternative medicine, I'm not ready to jump on things that offer only anecdotal proof," she said.

Forcing the cancer into remission, even if for a short period, is Bari's only hope at this point.

For now she's decided to rely on endocrine therapy -- hormone-based treatments -- to try and gain some time rather than risk potentially debilitating chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments.

"So far the best that chemotherapy has to offer in cases like mine is a 45 percent chance to extend my life another year or two," said Bari. "But the process is so awful that you can lose what quality time you have left. You may never get back on your feet."

To preserve strength, Bari is withdrawing from her usual Earth First! activities. She wants only to focus on a weekly public radio show she hosts, and paralegal work on her civil rights and false arrest lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police in federal court.

Bari has pursued the case since May 24, 1990, when she was permanently injured in an unsolved car bombing in Oakland. The FBI and Oakland police quickly accused Bari and fellow Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney of bombing themselves by transporting an explosive device. But Alameda County prosecutors a few months later dropped the case for lack of evidence.

Bari said clearing her name is not the motivation for her persistence, even in the face of cancer. "My name is already cleared. After all these years, how many people really think I bombed myself?"

Rather, Bari said she hopes to see justice before she dies.

"I want the truth about the FBI's involvement. If there was none, then I want to know who was responsible for bombing me," she said.

Bari said it's difficult to step back from her leading role in the North Coast environmental movement, "but I'm very satisfied with what I've helped accomplish over the years."

Bari's adult life has been devoted to activist causes, from organizing a wildcat strike at a government bulk-mailing complex in Maryland as a young worker, to engaging in Central America policy debates after moving west to Sonoma County.

For the past decade, Bari has become best known for organizing large protests focusing on controversial North Coast logging practices.

Her retreat from the front lines has created a void, other activists agree.

"Everybody is struggling and reaching deep inside themselves to find ways to carry on her work," said Betty Ball of the Mendocino Environmental Center in Ukiah.

"But we're finding out what we already suspected, and that is most of us lack the clarity and vision that Judi has."

Bari is the most widely known of a cadre of activists who have transformed the North Coast environmental movement into a series of community-based action groups pressing environmental-related issues on a variety of fronts.

Because of activists such as Bari, the timber industry can no longer solely rely on arrangements worked out with mainstream conservation groups or politicians to resolve logging disputes. Instead they are confronted with mass demonstrations organized by media-savvy activists such as Bari, whose antics and accomplishments on behalf of Earth First! over the past decade have received national press coverage.

Reporters and TV cameras from around the United States swarmed to the North Coast in 1990 when a Bari-inspired "Redwood Summer" of timber protests unfolded in the streets of Fort Bragg, Eureka and Fortuna. On the eve of Redwood Summer, Bari attracted national attention when she was accused by the FBI of bombing herself. Her lawsuit against the FBI continues to make headlines.

That she might have inoperable breast cancer was unthinkable to a woman who relishes a good fight.

"I had prepared myself for surgery. But when I heard the cancer was inoperable, it was stunning," said Bari. There is no history of breast cancer among women in her family.

After she discovered a lump in her right breast in August, Bari waited a few weeks before seeking medical advice because she was helping organize a big Headwaters Forest demonstration Sept. 15 outside a Pacific Lumber Co. mill complex at Carlotta in southern Humboldt County. More than 1,000 people, including singer Bonnie Raitt, were arrested for symbolic civil disobedience orchestrated by Bari and others.

By October, Bari was scheduled to undergo surgery for removal of her cancerous breast tumor when pre-surgery lab tests results delivered an unexpected blow: cancer cells were already in Bari's liver. She learned that the lump she discovered was merely a symptom of a disease already ravaging her body.

Unchecked, the fast-moving cancer could claim Bari's life within six months to a year.

Bari may be among at least 1,000 Northern California women who will die during the next year from breast cancer, according to estimates. No one in the medical community is certain why, but the yearly rate keeps increasing.

Bari concurs with Dr. Robert Hiatt, director of the Northern California Cancer Center and assistant director of epidemiology for Kaiser Permanente, about the possible reasons why.

In releasing a 1994 report on Bay Area breast cancer statistics, Hiatt said, "Something is going on that has to do with the environment."

According to experts such as Hiatt, known risk factors associated with a woman's reproductive life, genetics and diet influence only 25 percent of breast cancer cases. In most cases, the factors are unknown, although Hiatt and other scientists believe mutated cells are key. Mutations can be hereditary, but also can be acquired with exposure to toxic chemicals, viruses or lifelong estrogen levels.

At a major cancer conference in early November in San Francisco, Hiatt said the real question is, "What are factors shared by women in highly industrialized countries and higher socioeconomic status? This may be a clue."

Citing the lack of breast cancer history in her family, Bari asks, "If not environmentally related, what else could be the cause?"

Bari said she's experienced the same despair that any cancer patient must confront. "At first we cried and cried, but we've gotten past that now," said Bari.

Bari said she feels the physical pain and psychological trauma inflicted on her from the 1990 bombing was much greater. "I think that's part of the reason I'm able to handle this cancer thing the way I am. I've been through worse."

While not ruling out alternative cancer treatment that might be proposed, Bari said she's prepared to accept her fate.

She plans to share what time she has left with her two daughters, Jessie, 11, and Lisa, 16, at their small home in the woods northeast of Willits. Bari shares custody of her daughters with former husband Mike Sweeney of Ukiah. He remains close to the family.

"I'm not in denial, as some well-meaning people have suggested. I'm just not willing to give up the quality time that I can have with my daughters, my family and my friends," said Bari.

"When it's time to die, I'll do it with dignity. I can't think of any other way," she said.

Bari spent a quiet Thanksgiving with her daughters and other family members. She even baked an apple pie.

Judi Bari rolling pie dough


Bari rolls out the crust for an apple pie on the day before Thanksgiving in her "hippie shack" in the hills east of Willits. (Photo by John Burgess, Press Democrat)


"Some people will be surprised to learn that I'm a pretty good cook. I've always wanted to enter my apple pies in the Mendocino County Fair," said Bari.

Baking apple pies and showing up at her kids' soccer games is a side of Bari that is not widely known.

She is often seen by outsiders, and even by some within the larger community of North Coast activists, as self-centered, strident and humorless.

Bari's in-your-face tactics over the years have rankled many mainstream environmentalists, politicians and timber interests.

Former Supervisor Butcher, in a public outburst after the Oakland car bombing, once declared, "You brought it on yourself, Judi."

But family, friends and supporters see Bari in a different light.

They know her as a committed feminist, a college dropout of unusual intelligence and organizational abilities, and a wise-cracking, fiddle-playing troubadour who can bring the most indifferent audience to its feet.

As expected, Bari relies on her sharp wit to get her through the worst of times.

"If I manage to survive for more than six months, I think there's going to be some people mad at me," said Bari.

Of her life experiences, Bari quipped, "I have no regrets at all, except for getting into that car in Oakland."

Bari's wit turned caustic with the mention of Boonville newspaper editor Bruce Anderson. Not long ago, Anderson created an uproar among North Coast activists when he suggested in print that perhaps Bari and Cherney were indeed responsible for their own bombing as the FBI and Oakland police alleged, but could never prove.

Since learning of Bari's illness, Anderson has written kindly about her. But that doesn't appease Bari.

"There is nothing more appealing to Bruce than a strong woman rendered helpless," she snapped.

Bari's notoriety as an activist has steadily grown since she left her middle-class surroundings on the East Coast, dropped out of the University of Maryland, and eventually made her way West.

Her Italian father, a retired diamond setter, and Bari's Jewish mother raised their three daughters in the Baltimore suburbs. "They raised some eyebrows of their own at the time because their's was considered a mixed marriage," recalled Bari.

Despite living on opposite sides of the nation for many years, Bari said she and her elderly parents are close and visit each other regularly.

"My mother is a really intelligent person. She was a housewife who went back to college and ended up being the first woman to get a Ph.D. in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University," said Bari.

Bari said she physically resembles her mother, but is more like her father in personality. "We really like each other. I'm my father's son, " said Bari.

"My mother and father are progressives. They don't understand everything I do, but they have always supported my feelings about social change. They themselves deeply believed in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements," said Bari.

Bari, the middle child, is less attached to her two sisters. The oldest is Gina Kolata, the New York Times science reporter. Bari's youngest sister still lives in the Baltimore suburbs and watches over their parents.

"The three of us are very different from each other. It's no big deal. It's just the way it is," said Bari.

Bari views herself as an unorthodox mother, and worries that her very public activities might not provide the security her own daughters need.

"But they know I love them unconditionally. We spend a lot of time together, and I actually think they have a pretty normal life," said Bari.

Bari lives simply, relying on income from her paralegal work for San Francisco attorney Dennis Cunningham and child support payments from her former husband.

Reflecting on her life, Bari said she's most proud of her efforts to redefine the North Coast environmental movement, and the role women play in it.

"It used to be male dominated, but not anymore. It's largely led by women now, women who are home-based and defending the place they love," said Bari.

"I think we've created something much deeper, and more enduring."

Bari said she's optimistic that the region's environmental movement will continue to evolve.

"What gives me the most hope, and makes me most comfortable about stepping aside, are the young people who are embracing the movement," said Bari.

"Because of them, I know my work and that of others will go on." Bari said she has no regrets.

Her critics should expect no public acts of contrition, said Bari.

Bari paused for a long moment, and then she reached across the political spectrum to paraphase a quote from right-wing Alabama Gov. George Wallace after he was paralyzed during an assassination attempt: "Don't expect me to spend the rest of my days going around apologizing for what I've done."


This article first appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat Dec. 1 1996.

It is reprinted with permission.

Comments on this story? E-mail the Journal:


The North Coast Journal Table of Contents