ROBERT LEO HEILMAN

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November 1, 2013
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Guest column: Former Roseburg millworker reached out to his enemies

I’ve been up on the hill lately interviewing the tree-sitters. They are young folks, a new generation, and in many ways they are more sophisticated than the Earth First! protestors whom I interviewed back in the mid 1980s.

The sitters are, of course, abysmally ignorant about many things for they are young, in their 20s for the most part, and mostly raised in cities. The fact that there is such a thing as the Oregon & California Railroad lands was unknown to many of them. However, like the folks who were holding up the logging shows back when I broke into journalism, they are idealistic and willing to put their freedom on the line for what they believe.

The most interesting generational change is that the “old guard” were elitists, college-educated folks who thought of workers as being too stupid and ignorant to know what was good for them. The kids nowadays instead speak of their desire to ally themselves with the workers and take on the bosses alongside them in a fight for ecological and labor justice.

This, by the way, is not such a far-fetched notion. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Roseburg at the height of the “yellow ribbon fever” days in the early 1990s, he received a standing ovation from a mixed crowd of timber workers and environmentalists when he told the audience, “This is not about workers against environmentalists; this is about workers and environmentalists against the greedy and the wasteful.”

This generational change can be traced back to two people: Judi Bari and Gene Lawhorn. Judi was a prominent Earth First! activist from the redwood country of Northern California. Gene was a millworker employed by Roseburg Forest Products Co. The two met at the University of Oregon’s annual Environmental Law Conference in Eugene back in the late 1980s and Gene persuaded Judi to renounce tree-spiking and other activities that pose safety problems for loggers and millworkers.

Judi, in turn, was able to persuade her fellow protesters that their struggle was against the bosses and not against the workers and that endangering workers was not just morally reprehensible but downright stupidly playing into the hands of the very folks who were cutting too much timber too fast while also cutting wages and benefits for their employees. Judi went on to become the victim of a bombing attack, which she survived, only to die of cancer a few years later.

Since her death Judi Bari has become something of a saint in leftist radical circles, her name invoked reverently by this new generation, while Gene Lawhorn has been largely forgotten.

Gene Lawhorn was later driven from Douglas County by a hostile community. His problem was that he had complex views about the old growth forest management controversy and had the courage to voice his opinions. For this he received late-night death threats, had beer bottles smashed in his driveway and had the windshield on his pickup shattered. After he lost his job with RFP he could not find any employment anywhere in this county. Neither could his wife, who found that job offers magically disappeared as soon as prospective employers learned that her last name was Lawhorn.

When The News-Review finally published an article revealing the widespread “timber wars” death threats circulating around the county, Gene’s predicament was out there right in front of God and everybody. Not one “leader” in Douglas County — no politician, no preacher, no member of law enforcement or of the court system, no teacher, no mill owner, no government agency head — spoke out against neighbors threatening to kill their neighbors. There was, however, a letter to the editor that appeared in The News-Review saying that Gene Lawhorn was a traitor who deserved whatever he got. By then Gene and his wife had already moved to Portland.

The tree-sitters I talked with had never heard of this former neighbor of ours who reached out to people whom he’d been told were his enemies and persuaded them to treat loggers and millworkers with the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, these kids are making his argument for him now.

Robert Leo Heilman of Myrtle Creek is an award-winning essayist, author and journalist. He can be reached at rlheilman@frontier.com.


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The News-Review Updated Nov 1, 2013 06:16PM Published Nov 1, 2013 06:37PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.