What Your Heart Tells You Is Right
Rod Coronado is an indigenous environmentalist who is best known for his direct action activism against illegal whalers, fur farmers and animal researchers in the 1980’s and 90’s. He was active in both the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Earth First! and the now deemed terrorist organizations, Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. Coronado spent six years in federal prison for his role in ALF and EF! actions related to fur farming, animal experimentation and a government lion hunt. In 2006, he was sentenced to a year in prison for a lecture about his past crimes.
Coronado is now returning to the lecture circuit to talk about his life as a so-called “eco-terrorist,” though he is addressing the challenges many activists face as they continue to organize against environmental destruction in an era of anti-terror legislation, FBI infiltration, and government spying. Coronado is currently helping to build a citizen-led campaign to stop the hunting and trapping of wolves in his home state of Michigan, where they were hunted in 2013 for the first time since their recovery from near-extinction.
Rod Coronado is 47yrs. old and lives in West Michigan. He is descendent from the Yaqui tribe of northern Mexico and incorporates native American spiritualism into his life and activism. He is currently touring the country giving lectures after an 8 year hiatus, where he was federally silenced; forbidden from writing or speaking as part of his conditions of release from federal prison.
A few days ago, I was listening to the radio as I was driving and listened to the story of a woman who had spent more than ten years in prison. As she spoke of some of her traumatic experiences, I began to realize just how much prison had also affected me. But what was really surprising was how easily I have avoided addressing such experiences, let alone healing from them.
There are some things I realize are emotional souvenirs from prison, my irritability with people who cut in line, the immediate suspicions of being hustled when someone on the street asks for help, and possibly worst of all, a general lack of empathy for my fellow human. If I could, I would go see my psychotherapist more often, as opposed to only when I could afford it. Hell, I wish I could afford a whole team of therapists to help me deal with the trauma related to prison which I am only now beginning to address.
What sickens me the most about this is that I never used to be that kind of pessimistic, apathetic person. I joined the struggle to defend Earth because I loved the natural world more than anything else. Animals in the wild were the beings on this planet I most connected with. Their strength of love and wild freedom was a mystery to me that I yearned for, as I grew up in a small nuclear family of working parents in a metropolitan suburb. So when I discovered what our society did to animals and nature, my heart broke for the first time ever. I cried rivers of tears, as I watched whales being harpooned until the sea around them turned red, and watched young almost luminous harp seal pups brutally clubbed in front of their mothers.
I thought, “What kind of world is this that I’m growing up in?” That is the moment when I joined the struggle. If that was the world I was living in, and the natural world was dying from, then I wanted no part of it, and would instead dedicate my life to trying to stop such gratuitous violence. Luckily I found others, and when I reached adulthood, I launched into a world that provided my depression an avenue for action to change the things that I knew were wrongs against nature and ultimately ourselves. I say ourselves, because now that I begin to call out this institutionally imposed sickness, I realize that the only way most people deal with the daily violence around them is to disconnect from it, to rationalize its presence in our daily lives, and accept it as a necessary consequence for the world we want to live in.
But life didn’t have to be that way. I believed that maybe I wouldn’t stop the world from killing the last great whales, or ban the steel-jaw leg-hold trap, but I sure as hell could sink a whaler and rescue a few mink and bobcats. So that is what I did. I found a way to honor the relationship I believed we should have with the natural world, by recognizing that world as our own. A world denied to us by a violent society that teaches us to use ignorance and denial as a coping mechanism to rationalize things we know in our hearts are wrong. I found a way to satiate my own pain and find hope. Of course, such a path cannot be without great consequence, and that is what I began to contend with when I first went to prison.
Prison for people like me, call us animal rights extremists, radical environmentalists, eco-terrorists, whatever, can be a unique experience. We are people who took risks not to better ourselves, but to help others, and that is not what you see a lot of in prison. What you see is a base level human nature, where survival of the fittest still reigns among people who for the most part, have been treated like animals their entire inside and outside lives. People who never get a chance to see a psycho-therapist or address their traumatizing experiences. Hell, many of those people are masters of traumatizing experiences, and I’m not talking only about the prisoners.
Not that we are better than other prisoners, but we came into this struggle that led to prison because we feel. We allowed our hearts to soften, not harden and because we took action against the violence in our society out of that love, we began to feel great empathy and connection to all the beings whose suffering we had been made aware of. We went to prison out of a great love and desire to allow love to exist in others despite what species they were.
I am blessed to have such people as my friends. Friends who demonstrated courage and bravery in battle, not by hurting others, but by risking their lives to stop others from hurting. People who would help the rescued find safe homes where they would never be tortured again, people who would cut through fences and climb into alarmed buildings, all in the name of alleviating some of the violence our society told us was necessary. Let me put it this way, the most compassionate, sensitive and loving people I have ever known were the kind of people doing prison time for A.L.F. And E.L.F. actions.
It’s been 20 years since I first entered a federal prison. Fortunate for me, only six of those years were lost to that traumatizing experience, but the damage will last the rest of my life, and if I’m not careful, maybe the lives of my children too. When you’re in prison, it is difficult to say the least, to stay connected to your former “outside” world. However strong your connection might have been, those are not the type of people you are around now and it is not the world you are living in or that threatens your very own ability to live. Just as society forces us to disconnect from the violence caused by our way of life, prison forced us to disconnect from a lot of our deepest sense of self and stay there for years.
But now we are out. And like all prisoners, we must struggle to create a new life because what has happened to us will never allow us to return to the world we knew before. All struggles for liberation have cost their participants prison if not death, as a punishment. Ours is no different. We were subjected to a level of institutional violence that often causes its victims to become violent in order to survive. What we must do is return to all the good things that gave our hearts life before prison. We have to prove to ourselves that the strength of our hearts cannot be defeated with the violence of our prison experience.
For me, it meant while I was inside, to never forget that I was in there because of my love for others and that was something sacred. There was never a night that I regretted my “crimes” and wished I hadn’t acted on my beliefs. Now that I’m out, I’m struggling to reclaim my emotional as well spiritual self. We do this by talking about our traumatizing experiences and by re-connecting with the world we love. Not just the natural world, but our friends as well.
Last summer, I went to a former prisoner’s wedding held on the shore of a lake in the southern Cascade Mountains. It was the very first time I was allowed to travel outside of my home state of Michigan and visit other former prisoners. After 8 years of federally prohibited association with my former friends and allies, we were able to hike a mountain, share food and laugh. We were able to talk and recognize that it’s a little harder to laugh than it used to be, but if we love each other and allow nature to help us heal, we can claim victory over our captors by showing them and ourselves that we are still very much alive and a part of the struggle for a better world.
We still have our competing world views. We have the world that creates whales, wolves, ancient forests, and we have the world that turns those things into products. If you belong to the latter, then things have been good. But for the rest of us, like those nations of indigenous peoples believing similarly, we’ve been shown the door and the lock is on the outside. Now we must be smarter and even stronger and recover from the suffering inflicted on us and in good emotional and spiritual health, find a way back to the struggle.
For me that means getting back involved on a grassroots level with the struggles to protect wild nature. I know what tactics will lead to what results and I know that I will forever be on their watch lists. But as I begin to brainstorm and organize with all the good people out there who want to join this effort, I begin to feel a type of happiness that I haven’t felt in a long time. No longer am I being forced to only think about my own survival, but as I spend more time out in nature, among my friends, and around campfires, I feel alive. I feel like myself.
The greatest lesson I have learned from my experience in prison has been to never let them through suffering convince you to believe in something other than what your heart tells you is right. Never let them change you into a person that cares more for yourself instead of someone that measures their worth through actions that help others, whether its animals in the wild, your children, neighbors or friends. I guarantee you that if we all did this, then we will have won.