By Cat Jones
I woke up this morning to find out that an old friend of mine, an earth warrior, an activist attorney, and a truly gentle soul… has died. This man saved many of our asses in the Pacific NW during the various waves of repression and Green Scare machinations that swept through Cascadia over the past 2 decades, and I will not forget him. I don’t think any of us will. We thought he would be there forever. None of us was prepared for this, it was so sudden and unexpected. And for me, well there is a lot of pain in the fact that the last time I spoke to him was a year ago, when we had a terrible falling out over the stupidest thing. (It had to do with cancer… a mutual pain for us, since both of us lost our partners to that disease. What a dumb thing to get into a huge fight over.) But before that stupid falling out, Stu was a good and close friend to me. To many of us.
I first met him when I was a guerrilla street videographer in the Portland Indy Video Collective. Back then, there was a lot going on in the streets and the forests of the Northwest. It was before the ubiquitous cell phone camera, and IMCistas, as we called ourselves, believed that it was important for everyone who had access to a camera to hit the streets with that cam and tell the real stories. (It still is, by the way. Get out there.) Transnational corporations were destroying the last remaining old growth forests of Cascadia, systemic racism and misogyny were robbing people of their freedom and their dignity and their lives, labs were torturing animals to death, other animals were being tortured to death on fur farms or in slaughterhouses, anyone who cared about these things was getting targeted with police state harassment, and the police were beating and killing people in the streets without accountability and without mercy. Meanwhile, the corporate media was parroting whatever the corporate lines were, whatever the Public Information Officers told them, verbatim and without question. Journalism was all but dead, and “reporters” had become nothing more than the PR wing of the police state. We humans, we shape our reality through the stories that we tell, and those stories had all become lies. So we IMCistas shared cameras and went into the fray with them because we believed that if we could show people the truth about what was really going on out there, we could change the world for the better. (And indeed, the presence of cameras has certainly changed the face of the police state forever….)
We told the stories that had previously been unheard, and we got our asses kicked for it more than once. Pretty much all of us got arrested at least once. We had our cameras damaged and confiscated, we had our bodies beaten and assaulted and attacked with chemical weapons, and we kept going into it all anyway. This was work we believed in, and Stu believed in it too. It was our cameras that gave the world a glimpse of the tragedies going on up in the forests, beneath the saws of capitalism. It was our cameras that got word out regarding the undeclared war against the animals. It was our cameras that smuggled out footage of the torture and death going on in labs and fur farms and slaughterhouses. And it was our cameras that got a lot of riot porn and a lot of police misconduct up on screens across our city, across the country, and across the world as the battles raged in the streets.
And one thing we had down right in the NW back then was solidarity.
Many of the same people who were up in the forest holding back the saws one day were down in the streets getting pepper sprayed while filming police riots the next. There was a lot of crossover, and people took turns putting their bodies on the front lines or filming the scene, or sometimes doing both at once. There was a seamless flow between people who were doing direct action, people who were providing infrastructure and physical support, people who were doing independent media, and people who were providing legal support. So, when people prepared to go into battle in the streets, someone would pass around a sharpie, and we’d all write the ad hoc jail support number on our bodies in case we got picked up. Someone would staff the phones and be ready for those calls, and when they came in they would inevitably be funneled, sooner or later, to Stu. When he got those calls, he was there. Always.
After an action, the first thing we IMCistas would all do was get that footage OUTTA there, make multiple copies of the raw footage, and then we’d deliver one copy to Alan Graf, a civil rights attorney, and one copy to Stu Sugarman, a defense attorney, before we even started editing the footage ourselves. Both Alan and Stu would go immediately to work, providing legal support to activists through their complimentary branches of the law. (I actually knew Alan first, and used to get footage directly to him. I met Stu when he became grumpy that Alan was getting all the footage for civil suits and whatnot, while Stu was needing to defend people from bogus criminal charges and was having trouble getting footage to clear his clients. I’d heard through the grapevine that he was grumbling about this, so I reached out to him, offering to share the same footage with them both, and that’s how we got to become friends.) Stu was a good friend to have, too. From the moment I first met him, I knew he was someone we could count on, someone in our corner. And indeed, he was.
Back in June of 2003, there was a WTO ministerial meeting in Sacramento, where corporate agriculture was trying to force GMOs down our throats. A lot of us went down to stand up for food security and freedom. There was a violent and illegal crackdown by police who covered up their names and badge numbers with black tape and attacked us randomly and rampantly, like the good corporate Pinkertons that they were. There were secret ordinances surreptitiously passed to target political demonstrators, and many, many people were beaten, tasered, stomped on by police horses, pepper sprayed, and arrested. It was quite a melee, where anyone seen to be providing activist infrastructure was targeted – Food Not Bombs people were arrested and had their food carts confiscated on the way to feed demonstrators, anyone with a com was arrested (this was before everyone had cell phones so coms were important to communicate and coordinate), and anyone with a camera was taken down as well. Cameras and footage were stolen. Virtually the entire indy video collective was arrested that day (see this link for video of that melee).
People were assaulted and arrested by police for the “crime” of wearing bandannas or gas masks – it was a secret ordinance that had been passed only the night before, and no one in the public had been told that they could not wear these things – things which are very common forms of protection and resistance during political demonstrations. (Again, see link.) The people who were arrested were beaten in many cases, and were dumped out in the desert far from town in the middle of the night, without any way to get back except to walk. Some people had refused to identify themselves, others had been ID’d and were charged with all sorts of crimes, from the “parade violation” of wearing a bandanna to resisting arrest to disorderly conduct. One person got a felony because she’d had a pocket knife on her when they picked her up. When we got back up to the NW, Stu was there. He helped everyone who came to him, sorting out charges, getting charges dropped, providing emotional support, getting records expunged, and seeking police accountability. He was like our Uncle Stu, who was always there to pick up all the pieces and put us all back together again when we got knocked down by schoolyard bullies.
Stu was always there. And he wasn’t just a lawyer, either. He truly believed in the causes he took on, and was a good friend to the people who put themselves on the line. He was a comrade in arms. He defended the famous, the infamous, and the unknown with equal resolve. If you were a forest activist, an animal rights activist, a media activist… any underdog fighting the good fight, you didn’t need to worry if you couldn’t afford a lawyer; Stu would stand up for you pro bono.
And so, he was there when Tre Arrow was fighting to stop the saws of capitalism from razing the last of the NW forests, and he was there when Craig Rosebraugh was being hounded by the police state for speaking up as the face of the North American press office for the Earth Liberation Front. He was there when the indy crew was arrested, and he was even there when Matt Rossell, at the time the NW director of In Defense of Animals, was arrested by mall cops outside a puppy-mill pet shop in a Portland shopping mall. (Matt is now the campaign director for Animal Defenders International, where he continues to do great work for the animals.)
I remember, after that last one, friends all got together for a party after the charges were dropped. There were drinks, and vegan yummies, and those who wanted to could watch Paul Blart, Mall Cop in the living room and grouse about the mall cop that took Matt down in front of his baby daughter for the “crime” of speaking up for puppies. I recall Stu’s ever-smiling face that night, hovering over his tall, lanky, form as he folded himself up on a pillow on the floor at that party, talking about his cats. If there’s one thing Stu loved more than anything else. I think it was those cats.
Says Matt, about the ways Stu helped him, “Of course Stu represented me pro bono like he did for so so many people. It was silly but he always talked about representing me like it was an honor for him and somehow I was doing him a favor and not the other way around. He was just so incredibly humble that way and fucking cool and cared deeply about all the right things.”
I remember that, too, that way in which he would be doing you this enormous favor, navigating the morass of the legal system for you in a way you could never even hope to be able to afford otherwise …and he acted like you were doing him the favor by letting him help.
Matt adds, “He was one of my heroes that I had the honor to meet and know on a personal basis. What a shock. It just reminds me that you just never know when you’re going to be done, and pushing up daisies, and we have to make the most of every day we have.”
A list of the people whom Stu defended and worked with over the years is a veritable Who’s Who of NW political activism – from former ELF spokespeople Craig Rosebraugh and Leslie Pickering to Sea Shepherds (including Allison Lance, who was married at the time to SSCS founder Paul Watson), to SHAC 7 warrior Josh Harper, to America’s one-time “most wanted terrorist,” the sweet and harmless Tre Arrow, Stu defended some of our very best at one time or another, and all of them are remembering him today.
Asked for his thoughts regarding Stu, author, activist, and former spokesperson for the E.L.F. Leslie Pickering said, “He was still so full of life and had a genuine excitement for working for a better world. He always talked about how much he loved the activist shenanigans and legal battles that surrounded the Earth Liberation Front Press Office as we kicked up dust in Portland during the late ’90s and early 2000s. I couldn’t possibly overestimate how significant it was for us to have legal representation as committed to the struggle as we were, and a real friend to go though it all with us. Stu’s allegiance and work made a real difference in the struggle and he’ll be sorely missed. We need more attorneys like Stu… We need more people like Stu.”
Indeed, knowing he was there for us was a big part of what made radical Portland so effective for so long. Standing up for one’s beliefs can be a fairly scary thing in a world that worships the bottom line and criminalizes conscience. The thought of being sucked into The System and having no one in your corner to navigate you safely through it is terrifying. Stu helped to soften that. We always knew that no matter what we got ourselves into, whether we had the money to pay for representation or not (and most of us did not), Stu would be there. As Matt Rossell explains, “Stu Sugarman’s life was a victory for the progressive (or whatever you want to call it) community of people who recognized that humanity had lost it’s way and was actively trying to put us back on course.”
Stu wasn’t just a lawyer, though. He’d walked the walk. Before he was an attorney, he had been an activist in need of one, just like the rest of us. And that’s likely why he went into law, same as a lot of other activist lawyers. Stu was a Sea Shepherd years ago, and fought for the earth and the animals in many different ways. My close friend and former hausmate Inde, who will always be one of the coolest people I know, was also a Sea Shepherd, and she fondly recalls that they had to build Stu a special bunk onboard the ship because he was too tall for a regular one. (He really did cut an imposing figure. I’m not sure how tall he was, but he was definitely a lot taller than average. Before I knew him personally, he was always that quiet, glowering, bearded figure standing protectively beside or just behind his clients in news clips outside the courtroom. And after we became friends, he was that sweet, silly, gawky, giant party-animal all folded up in the circle with the rest of us, a plate of sugarfree vegan goodies balanced on one knee, giggling at war stories and helping to strategize the next steps.)
(All right, one of my favorite memories of Stu was one night when he came to visit me at mp5, this old nursing home turned into “artist housing” where I used to live. We’d spent some time, uh, strategizing, over way too many pints at a bar up the street before wandering back to my place, and I barely remember him leaving. I got a call about a half an hour after he left. A friend of mine had found him wandering lost in the courtyard in the middle of the building. He’d gotten lost on the way out, turned in instead of out, and was just amiably wandering around the garden, sure that eventually he would find his way. My friend wanted to know whether I knew him. Yes, I said. He’s good people. My friend had to lead him out of the courtyard and onto the sidewalk outside. She said he was smiling and happy and friendly the whole time, and seemed extremely grateful to her for showing him through the maze.) (Stu also helped me get a freaky harasser off my back from mp5. I had donated some film equipment to the artists there, and this guy had stolen it all and gone off to Seattle with it. When I called him on it, he got nasty and started harassing me, calling police with false drug reports, calling animal control and lying to say I was abusing my dogs, and saying some really shitty things about me to authorities. Stu composed a very eloquent letter threatening that dude with legal action for harassment and defamation of character and a lot of other things if he didn’t knock it off. Yeh, he was a good friend to have.)
Besides laughing about the extra long Sea Shepherd bunk, and reminiscing about how much he liked beer, Inde also fondly remembers the way he helped us both when we were fighting for the lives of the sea lions on the Columbia river. I’d lived on the Columbia for years, and had gotten to know the sea lions like members of my own family. Curious, friendly, and gregarious, they were easy to love. But they began to be scapegoated for the decline of the NW salmon. It was really the fishing industry that was driving the salmon to extinction, while sea lions and salmon had lived together in relative harmony on that river for tens of thousands of years. But the industry was scapegoating natural predators in a callous effort to avoid having restrictions kick in from the Endangered Species Act, which would pull the plug on the highly lucrative fishing industry. (They’re still killing sea lions there, and now they are also going after cormorants and terns. You can help.) Inde and I formed the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, and Inde recalls that, aside from Stu’s warmth and his love of beer, “What really stands out was his availability during the early efforts of sea lion defense.” She notes that, about 7 years ago, after the government granted wildlife officials a section 120 waiver to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, thus removing all protections from the sea lions and allowing fish and wildlife agents to begin killing them for the fishing industry, “Stu immediately volunteered to represent any of us if we got arrested – before we even had a strategy! He just trusted that it was a likely possibility amongst our crew – which was another reason we were all easy friends.”
I remember that part too. Not only was he willing to represent us if we got into trouble, he was also a constant source of legal advice as we went into planning. He never got impatient with my calls, texts, emails, or conversations over pints at the local pub where I questioned him relentlessly about legal concerns. (This was a big deal for us, because we were basically fighting the US government on federal property at the foot of Bonneville Dam, a piece of “critical infrastructure” according to the fairly-new Department of Homeland Security, and thus the scene of potential exponential trouble for activists who might be arrested there under the USA PATRIOT Act. We needed to know, under a microscope, exactly what was and what was not legal there, and what the consequences might be for crossing the line. Because the odds were very high that we were going to be crossing some lines.) It wasn’t even just legal assistance… Stu was constantly offering to provide material resources if we needed them, and he even showed up at demonstrations with us from time to time.
Inde speaks for a lot of us when she says, “It always gave me a great sense of security to know that Stu was one of a handful of lawyers that unconditionally had our backs. I’ll always be grateful.”
Whether it was for the earth or for the animals or for social justice, he really was always willing to go the distance. In the late 1990s, Stu and former Green Party candidates Joe Keating (congress) and Andy Davis (representative) all chained themselves to a desk together at the US Forest Service office building to protest the destruction of the forests. He was never one to shy away from rolling up his sleeves and getting into the trenches with the rest of us. One of Stu’s many activist clients, the notorious Tre Arrow (also a candidate on the Green Party ticket once) later scaled that same building and lived on a tiny ledge for 11 days in a sudden and spontaneous action that helped bring the plight of the NW forests to the world’s attention. The photo at left (or just above, if you’re reading this on a cell phone), from a Rolling Stone article, is Tre on the day that he came down and, although he was not identified by the photographer, that’s Stu looming in the background, head and shoulders above everyone else. Stu represented Tre more than once.
I’m sad to say that Stu and I, although we’d been friends for years, were at odds at the time of his death. We’d gotten into the stupidest fight, over the stupidest thing, but we were both in a lot of pain at the time, so I think it can be forgiven. (It certainly has been on my part… I can’t speak for Stu and I did say some really shitty things to him the last time we spoke. Alas. But he was a pretty forgiving guy.) I guess I’m just gonna come right out and say it. Like I mentioned above, the fight was about cancer. Well, and cannabis. Stu and I both lost a partner to cancer, and the pain got in our way. Sid, my partner, got sick first, and I developed some real anger about people promoting inaccurate claims about “cancer cures.” When someone is dying, you need ACCURATE information IMMEDIATELY, and with cancer, you can’t get it because everyone and their cousin is going around promoting unfounded claims of “cures.” It’s impossible to filter out all the bullshit from the kernels of truth in the short time window you have with cancer. While Sid was dying, every time I turned around someone was sending me some other article or suggestion of something that was promised to “cure” him. I knew most of it was bullshit, but I just couldn’t take the chance that I might miss something, so… we tried them all. Every herb, every root, every mushroom, every concoction anyone said might work, we tried. It was enormously expensive, time consuming, and frustrating. In the end, none of them worked at all.
Sid was on the medical marijuana program in Oregon, and I am also a huge advocate for medicinal cannabis, because cannabis worked better than any conventional treatment to alleviate and treat symptoms of the disease. It helped with the pain, with the anxiety, with the depression, with appetite… it helped with almost everything. What it didn’t do, was cure him. Nor did it cure any of the other people I met and befriended during that time through the OMMP program, people who were also using cannabis for cancer. All of them are gone now.
A year after Sid died, Stu came to me to tell me that his girlfriend had just been diagnosed with cancer. He was desperate to save her, as I had been desperate to save Sid. He wanted to know what we had tried, what worked, what didn’t, and he wanted to know about cannabis. In particular, he wanted to know how to get cannabis oil. So I told him everything I knew, and I hooked him up with friends who were making cannabis oil and giving it away to people who were sick. I told him what I had found it helpful for, but I warned that it did not save Sid.
A few months later, I said something in public about all the “CURES CANCER!” claims everyone was suddenly making regarding cannabis. This was a hard one for me, because it really is such good medicine in so many ways, and I have actually heard some plausible anecdotes about it being an effective treatment for some cancers, in some cases. So it really could hold promise one day as a cure. However, at this time, there is no credible evidence and it cannot be accurately described as a “cure.” As I said, I’ve become pretty sensitive to that, given what happened to Sid, and I want claims that fly around about what does and does not work with this disease to be ACCURATE. Well Stu’s girlfriend was still battling the disease, and he still wanted desperately to believe that it could save her. Nothing else was going to, and he wanted hope. I know that feeling. I really do. I got so mad at people who told me there was no hope for Sid. I used to chase them from his room. I once threatened a doctor, who had it coming, that “Either he survives, or you don’t.” So I do understand.
But Stu responded from his pain in a way that really stoked my own. He accused me of being a shill for the corporate pharmaceutical industry (ME!), and then of all things, told me that I just didn’t want people to get better, that I wanted them to linger and suffer and die on conventional meds and deny them this miracle “cure.” I was hurt, and I was livid. I couldn’t believe he would accuse me of this, after everything he knew about me, after everything I’d gone through for Sid, after all the things I’d done to help Stu and his girlfriend access medical marijuana… and so we had a huge falling out and I didn’t speak to him for months. At the end of that summer, I was thinking about Stu and all the things he’d done for me, and our long friendship, and I realized how stupid it had been to fight over this. Of course we had only fought because we were both hurt badly by the nexus of love and the same disease. It was time to bury the hatchet. So I called him up.
I had expected to just talk it out, to let him know that I knew he was upset because he wanted his partner to live, and to be supportive. He didn’t answer, so I left a message… something about being sorry that we’d fought, knowing the pain that he’d been dealing with, and wishing the conversation had gone differently. I ended the message with something like, “I hope you have come to understand what I was trying to say a little better as well.” Well, unknown to me, Stu’s partner had died that July, about a month before I called him, and it had hurt him a lot. She had realized that she was not going to survive this, and so, without telling him, she made arrangements for assisted suicide, and she died. He did not know until after she had done it, and he was hurting very, very badly. ANd I didn’t know. My message must have sounded like I was calling to rub his face in the fact that cannabis had not cured her cancer. What’s more, he thought that I’d known that she had died, and he was really upset and angry that I had not contacted him at all to offer any condolences. In fact, I guess he didn’t hear from many people during that difficult time, because he seemed pretty upset that no one had been there for him. He thought we all knew, because he had posted it to facebook. But in fact, he and I had blocked each other when we got into the fight, and I was living thousands of miles away by then and I hadn’t heard a thing. What’s more, when I asked several mutual friends about it later, they hadn’t heard either. So poor Stu, still grieving, and stung by what he perceived as a lack of regard from almost everyone and especially from me, was in no mood to reconcile. I tried and tried to explain to him that I hadn’t known, and that I was sorry, and that I would surely have called if I had known. But people aren’t always very diplomatic when they are grieving, and we both were. So, what was supposed to have been a reconciliation call just made everything worse. We fought all over again, and that was the last time I ever talked to him. I’ve thought about that stupid fight a lot since it happened, wondering whether there would ever be a way to repair it. Alas… I guess not. The best I can do is to try my best to remember him as the good friend and great person that he was. Indeed, he was there for me a lot after Sid died and before his own partner was sick. He used to come and meet me for dinner a lot, just to talk. And during that dark time right after Sid died, when I was out of my mind with grief, many of my former “friends” and even most of my family members had pretty much deserted me. I was suddenly homeless, my mental health had taken a dive, I had started drinking way too much, and it’s hard to deal with other people’s suffering and grief, so a lot of people just disappeared. Some even turned on me with a vengeance during that time, in a shocking display of the worst of humanity. (I’ve said it before… we are like seagulls in that way. Show people your pain, and the worst of them will pick at it like an open wound until they kill you with it if you let them, and there were those who tried.) But never Stu. Stu was one of the few who stuck by me all through that time. He let me know, over and over again, that he was there for me, that he was my friend, no matter how far into the bottle I fell, no matter how senseless I became, no matter how sick I got. I’m so sorry that I was not there for him in that way, when he needed me to be. And I’m so fucking sorry about that stupid, stupid fight.
So, that’s what I have weighing on me as I process the news that Stu is gone for good from us. No way to ever repair that one now. Matt is right. We just never know, and we have to make the best of every day. Yet another lesson in forgiveness, coming at a moment when I really needed such a lesson.
Nobody is really sure, yet, what took Stu Sugarman’s life, but it appears that it was probably complications from diabetes, a disease that had been kicking him a lot recently, by most accounts. Apparently, he’d had some kind of diabetes-related heart trouble that had nearly killed him back in December, but he had kept it a little quiet. In any event, he was found dead in his home yesterday. Stu had two cats whom he loved more than anything. Big, giant, hairy Norwegian forest cats who are a lot like Stu, as I recall. They’re both 15 years old, and at the time I am writing this, the community is circling wagons around them, trying to find a good home where they can be together and be loved as much as he loved them. We are a community he has done a lot for, after all, and there is no way in Hell we would let him or his cats down now. So, his love continues to provide for those he cared about.
“I think he would want us to laugh and party to remember him because, as hard as he worked, he knew the importance of celebrating life and celebrating the victories along the way as well,” says Matt Rossell. Yes, I think so too. He definitely did believe in celebrating life. Here’s to you, buddy. I’m really sorry about the fight, and I wish I had said so when you were alive. I wish you were still in the world. Jesus, brother, look at all the great things everyone is saying about you today! You were a rare and beautiful person who made the world better by being in it. (And I promise, we’ll make sure the cats are all right.)
Post Script. Just as I am finishing this eulogy, I learned from a very close friend of his that he had expressed to her that he was very thankful for the help I had given to him and his partner while she was dying, and that he, too, recognized that the fight we had was caused by grief, and by his desperate wish that he could have saved her. Ohhh… what a gift to know this. Thank you, brother.
Post Script II. Added a day later. I cannot tell you what a gift it’s been, to have so many people contacting me since this was published, letting me know that Stu had talked to them about me, and about that stupid fight we had, and that he’d been wanting to reconcile as much as I had. What a blessed thing. 🙂