Quis custiodet ipsos custiodes? – “Who guards the guardians?” – muses famed civil rights attorney, Dennis Cunnigham during an informal breakfast interview with his daughter, filmmaker Bernadine Mellis. A self-confessed dropout during the early 1960s whose passion for civil rights crystallized during a train ride home after the 1963 March on Washington that galvanized the Civil Rights movement, Cunningham has spent his entire career defending civil rights of all people against the abuse of authority and overreaching government, from the brothers of Attica who staged a revolt in 1971 for inhumane prison conditions, to the Black Panthers whose influential Chicago leader, Fred Hampton was killed by the Chicago police during a targeted raid instigated by the FBI. On the final stages of trial preparation for a long and hard fought court date on a civil lawsuit brought by the late environmental activist Judi Bari and fellow activist Darryl Cherney against the FBI twelve years earlier, the case represents the disturbing tactic and dirty politics of government’s involvement in undermining radical organizations, subversives, and resistance movements (arbitrarily) deemed a threat to their central authority and national order. At the center of the civil action is the still unsolved car bombing of Earth First organizers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney during a period of delicate negotiations with the logging industry to end the protracted (non-violent) protest over deforestation of the redwoods and work towards an agreement on responsible logging and resource renewal. Cursorily and conveniently characterized at the instigation of the FBI as an eco-terrorism plot gone awry – with the perpetrators seemingly hoisted by their own petard – at the onset of the crime scene investigation, Bari and Cherney would be immediately arrested at the hospital while still in intensive care and the news of their foiled plot expediently broadcasted for public consumption (and ridicule) despite Bari’s own revelations of received death threats and intimidation at the scene of the explosion. With the charges subsequently dropped due to lack of evidence, Bari would then pursue a civil case against the FBI for their role in impeding the bombing investigation with knowingly false conclusions to forensic evidence (a “hidden in plain sight” bomb which had been mounted in the underbody of the car, and box of “matching” nails found in the trunk of the car that were neither from the same origin nor even the same type of nails) with the deliberate intent of discrediting the bombing victims and the Earth First movement. Chronicling the day to day activities of Cunningham and the Bari legal team as they prepare for the start of the trial, review depositions and testimonies, discuss strategy for closing arguments, and wait for the jury verdict, The Forest for the Trees provides an provocative, impassioned, and sobering perspective of the long, often frustrating uphill road to justice against government misconduct and abuse of power, and a reverent homage to the dedicated, principled few who, in guarding the rights of the persecuted, serve as the ever vigilant sentinels for the rights of all.
© Acquarello 2006. All rights reserved.