The Headwater Killing of David "Gypsy" Chain

Revolutionary Worker #976, October 4, 1998

On Thursday, September 17, 24-year-old environmental activist David Chain was crushed to death by a falling tree at the Headwaters Forest in Northern California. Activists from the organization Earth First! are accusing loggers working for the Pacific Lumber Company of endangering David--known to his friends as Gypsy--and other Earth First! activists by deliberately cutting down trees in their direction. They say that this incident is part of an escalation of violence against environmental activists that is condoned by the Pacific Lumber Company and by the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department.

Gypsy, along with other Earth First! activists, were on Pacific Lumber land in the Grizzly Creek area of Headwaters Forest in Northern California when he was killed. He and the others were part of an action to stop PL from destroying one of the last ancient redwood forests in the world. The activists pointed out that the logging operation was illegal because no surveys had been done for the marbled murrelet, a endangered seabird that only nests in the tops of the redwood trees. An inspection by the Department of Forestry was scheduled for the next day, and the activists wanted to make PL stop logging until after the inspection. Eight demonstrators had been arrested for trespassing and blocking the logging road the day before Gypsy was killed. And two activists have been sitting on treetops platforms in the grove for 12 days.

PL statements to the media have tried to portray the incident as a "freak accident." According to PL, their loggers were unaware that any protesters were in the area. The company also claims that the tree that crushed Gypsy was not the tree that their loggers cut down, but a second tree that was struck by the first in an unintended "domino effect."

PL has even tried to blame David and Earth First! themselves for the incident. Company spokesperson Mary Bullwinkle said, "Despite all our precautions, a trespasser was apparently killed by a falling tree at one of our logging sites on our private property." Pacific Lumber CEO John Campbell said, "I wish that the leadership of Earth First! would discontinue these activities. Clearly they are putting young people in harms way."

In the days following the death of David Chain, these company lies were exposed by Earth First! activists. On September 18, Earth First! released a videotape that their activists had taken at Grizzly Creek. The video footage shows that the company's loggers not only knew that demonstrators were in the area but were angrily threatening them with violence shortly before Gypsy was killed. In the video, a logger is shown shouting profanities and threats. According to Earth First!, this logger was the one who felled the tree that struck David. At one point this logger says, "Get outta here! Otherwise I'll fuckin', I'll make sure I got a tree coming this way." A little later on the tape the logger yells, "Oh fuck, I wish I had my fucking pistol."

The video shows the activists having to scramble up a steep hillside to escape falling trees. Out of breath, the narrator comments on the tape, "They are logging with people in the area. There's a tree falling. There are people in the area. Only a few minutes after I saw the irate logger threatening to hurt people, I retreated from him." The logger yells: "I fuckin' love it!...Get out of here, motherfucker!"

Earth First! activists have also exposed the "domino effect" story. Zoe, one of several activists who were within 6 feet of David, told the Albion Monitor magazine, "The tree that hit David Chain was the tree that the logger felled. There was no `domino effect.'"

Very importantly, activists point out that the loggers' actions at Grizzly Creek were part of a larger pattern. A witness statement issued to the media by the activists who were present in the forest with Gypsy said: "Gypsy's death is not an isolated incident of violence. In the last several months trees have been intentionally felled at nonviolent activists at the Luna tree sit and in the Mattole watershed in Humboldt County. This is part of an escalation of violence against nonviolent forest defenders in the Northwest and all over the world."

A press release by Northcoast Earth First! pointed out other attacks against them by PL: "In the last year, Earth First! protesters have been hog-tied and lowered from treetop perches and had their treesit safety lines cut by PL climbers. Loggers have cut trees in the direction of treesitters, and have threatened lives by cutting trees with activists in them. Logging helicopters have been used to harass and endanger treesitters, such as Julia Butterfly, flying within feet of their platforms and whipping up forceful winds. Recently, activists encountered a `goon squad' of PL employees in the Mattole watershed who chased, threatened, and assaulted community members who were trying to stop illegal logging in their home. The escalating use of violence by Pacific Lumber has been ignored by Humboldt County law enforcement."

The Northcoast Earth First! said, "The tragic death of David Chain under these circumstances shows clearly that to PL, profits are more important than human life."

On September 18, the day after Gypsy's death, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department issued preliminary findings from its investigation which concluded that David Chain's death was accidental. Earth First! activists were not surprised by the coverup. "This is not an isolated incident. The police have routinely refused to file charges against anybody who assaults a forest activist. They have through the history of this movement given out the message that it's all right to hurt Earth Firsters, and I believe they share some of the complicity in this crime," said a young man speaking for Earth First! at a press conference.

Last year the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department applied pepper spray directly into the eyes of environmental activists at a protest. Nine activists filed a federal civil rights suit against Humboldt County for excessive force. A trial in that suit ended in a hung jury in August. During the trial, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department defended its use of pepper spray to torture protesters and said that it is still department policy to use pepper spray against these protests.

In the days since Gypsy's death, forest activists have blockaded the site where he was killed. They said that they want to preserve the scene so that there can be an independent investigation. Earth First! organizer Darryl Cherney described the blockade on September 21 to the Albion Monitor newspaper. Cherney said that there were about 60 people gathered at the gate to the logging road to the PL logging operation in Grizzly Creek. Several people were chained to a junked car placed in the road along with logs and other debris. Cherney said that activists have renamed the site Gypsy Mountain and have called for permanent preservation of the ancient redwood forest there as a monument to the fallen activist.

"Gypsy was a strong warrior who fought hard for the forest. His dedication and commitment to defending the earth is inspiring to all of us," said a young woman who was there with Gypsy when he died.

A statement from David's family said: "We are so proud of Dave and the work he was doing with Earth First! We believe his death will not be in vain. It gives us great peace to know that he died fighting for what he believed in. Those who knew our son, brother, grandson, uncle, nephew and friend are forever blessed for having the opportunity to have shared his life with him. He will be greatly missed."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)