At Slingshot’s 20th birthday party, the Slingshot Collective awarded our third annual Award for Lifetime Achievement — the Golden Wingnut — to our comrade Karen Pickett. A short autobiography of Karen appears below. Slingshot created the award to recognize direct action radicals who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for alternatives to the current system.
Direct action radicals generally lack awards and recognition, and that is sad. While sometimes awards are part of systems of hierarchy, a complete lack of recognition for long-term activists robs us of chances to appreciate and learn from the contributions individuals can make during a lifetime of organizing, disruption and wackiness.
Thanks, Karen, for all you do!
Autobiography of Karen Pickett
Has it really been over 30 years that grassroots activism has defined my life? With forest and species preservation at the core, the array of issues in that span also includes recycling, native rights, corporate dominance and alliance building with the labor movements. Good ride so far, I’d say.
Recycling was my gateway drug into environmental activism in the mid-70s, and back then, it was an unpopular and radical thing to ask people to touch their trash. After cruising around Berkeley on old trucks rented by the Ecology Center, throwing in newspapers to be made into egg cartons (locally!), I ran the recycling center at Merritt College, smashing glass between classes.
In the early 1980s, I ran into Dave Foreman, who told me about this “new organization” that subscribed to a different analysis that held evolution as sacred and didn’t believe humans were necessarily at the top of the priority heap. That philosophy was biocentrism and the group was Earth First!, and in I jumped, with both feet. We organized an affinity group in Berkeley to go up and stand in front of the bulldozers punching a road in a wilderness area in southern Oregon — the Kalmiopsis — and that blockade — my first civil disobedience — was an epiphany for me as the power of direct action became real. Earth First! was young and we were few, but we organized direct action campaigns in the Sinkyone in California, against the World Bank, at Burger King (with a cow on the sidewalk eating “rainforest” and pooping out burgers), against an East Bay Municipal Utility District dam, and lots more.
I was drawn to direct action not much for the excitement but because my pragmatic personality predisposed me to a hands-on approach. Earth First! also awakens an inner wildness that supports the boldness that direct action embodies. (But! she says with a smile, the street theater and irreverent humor sure make for a good time.) Since the mid 80’s, I have been driven mostly to defend my relatives the trees, particularly the redwoods, an ecosystem whittled down to scraps and remnants.
Lack of infrastructure and hierarchy has allowed Earth First! to experiment. Redwood Summer in 1990 was an experiment in mass organizing for direct action for the forests, an anomaly, then. That was punctuated by the horrific bomb attack on my good friend and comrade Judi Bari, and that incident and the FBI round-up of EF!ers in Arizona around that same time for monkeywrenching opened our eyes to the threat the state and corporations perceived was posed by this small but scrappy group who refused to buy into anthropocentrism and lobbying. Power increases not only via numbers but through boldness. Burying ourselves in roads in Idaho, erecting tri-pods at Watts Bar nuclear plant, and dancing the polka, dressed as caribou, in a fountain in New York: boldness and a willingness to embarrass oneself.
That heavy hand of the state has been squeezing people harder recently, evidenced by the Green Scare grand juries, but it’s another sign we need to keep evolving. I believe that just as the antidote to despair is action, the antidote to this kind of repression is the movement’s rollicking spirit that keeps us dancing around the campfire, singing outrageously irreverent songs and howling at the moon. I’ve been sued by corporations three times and arrested lots, but the only conclusion that grows from those experiences is an understanding of how much more there is for us to do.
I believe not so much in myself as I believe in the regenerative ability of Mama Earth, in the grassroots and that evolution will prevail even in the wake of our enigmatic species.