The USA vs. Leslie James Pickering
Artvoice, Issue v12n14 (04/04/2013)
by Geoff Kelly
Last August, Leslie James Pickering received unsettling news from an old acquaintance he’d known in Portland, Oregon, where both had lived in the 1990s. Pickering’s friend, now living in the Southwest, had received a phone call from two men who identified themselves as agents in the FBI’s Buffalo field office.
The agents asked Pickering’s friend about his character—what she thought of him as a person. Was he capable of influencing or even manipulating people? They asked her about Pickering’s activities in Portland, where Pickering and a partner, Craig Rosebraugh, were founders of the North American Earth Liberation Front Press Office. NAELFPO received and disseminated to the media anonymously delivered communiques from Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, a radical environmentalist group that was, at the time, waging a campaign of property destruction against corporations they considered to be exploiting and destroying the planet’s ecosystems. Though he was never a member of ELF, Pickering was a sympathizer and had been a participant in demonstrations against the same kind of activities and institutions that ELF targeted.
The FBI agents asked Pickering’s friend if he might have been involved in purported ELF activities in Pennsylvania in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By that time, Pickering had resigned from NAELFPO and returned to Western New York, where he was raised.
The agents asked her to steer them toward others who knew Pickering and maybe didn’t like him very much. Is he a loner? An extremist? It seemed, she told Pickering, as if they were creating a personality profile, and trying to figure out what he might be up to today.
What Pickering is up to today is not a mystery. Currently, Pickering is co-owner of Burning Books, a shop on Connecticut Street in Buffalo, where the shelves are filled with histories of radical movements in the US and elsewhere, and stocked with periodicals tracking ongoing human and animal rights campaigns. The store has become a popular stop for activists and authors on lecture tours of the country, and frequently hosts screenings of social justice documentaries and workshops for aspiring activists. (Upcoming events, for example, include a talk by Scott Crow, a founder of the Common Ground Collective, which provided relief to victims of Hurrican Katrina, and himself the target of a decade-long federal investigation, as well as a talk by Rachel Wolkenstein, attorney for Mumia Abu Jamal.) Pickering also writes books: He wrote a biography of Vietnam-era revolutionary Sam Melville, who died in the 1971 Attica uprising, as well as a history of ELF’s activities in the Pacific Northwest; he is the editor of an account of the RNC 8, activists charged as terrorists for planning to protest the 2008 Republican National Convention. He gives talks about his books and about his experience as a press liaison for ELF. He is rasing a family on Buffalo’s West Side.
When Pickering learned of the FBI’s phone call to his old friend, he contacted Artvoice and asked what we thought he should do. We, in turn, called the FBI’s Buffalo field office to ascertain if the men were indeed FBI agents. None of the four messages we left were returned. This seemed unusual to me: In my experience with the field offices in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, FBI press officers have been quick and even cheerful about returning my calls, perhaps because the FBI’s policy is not to comment on much of anything: They will not comment on ongoing investigations, and will not acknowledge whether an investigation even exists. What harm in fielding questions if the response is almost always “no comment”?
So, in collaboration with Pickering and his attorney, Michael Kuzma, we prepared to file a request under Freedom of Information Act for all materials the US Department of Justice had related to Leslie James Pickering, to see if some current investigation was underway.
As we were preparing the request, Pickering discovered a curious piece of paper in his mailbox: a handwritten note indicating that, between August 16 and September 14, 2012, the outsides of all first-class letters and parcels sent to his address were to be held and copied before they were delivered. This is called a “mail cover”; it’s a method for federal investigators to track who is corresponding with the subject of an investigation.
Pickering wasn’t sure if the note had been left accidentally or on purpose; if on purpose, he couldn’t decide if someone was giving him a heads-up or deliberately making him feel nervous.
So we decided to send a FOIA request to the US Postal Service, too, asking for the same thing: all records on file related to Leslie James Pickering.
Both these FOIA requests were filed in mid-September. Six months later, neither has been satisfied. After acknowledging receipt of the requests, both the DOJ and the USPS have been silent. Appeals of their failure to respond have been ignored so far, too.
Pickering is accustomed to paying a price for his association with radical activities, particularly his affiliation with ELF, several members of which eventually went to jail. (Pickering was interviewed for the 2011 Oscar-nominated film about ELF, If a Tree Falls, which describes the rise and dissolution of the group.) He and his family cannot cross the border to Canada, for example, because his name is on a federal watch list.
The call to his former acquaintance and the mail cover seemed different—a renewed and heightened interest in his current activities that borders on harassment. Last month, Pickering took his family to California for vacation. On the flights there and back, he was taken aside by airport security for additional questioning and inspection.
But wait, there’s more.
Kuzma, who is preparing to file a lawsuit to compel the DOJ and the USPS to respond to the FOIA requests, recently learned the the Western District office of the US Attorney, based in Buffalo, has issued at least one subpoena for records related to Pickering.
What gives? Is Pickering being investigated? How many associates has the FBI interviewed? How many subpoena has the US Attorney issued? And why? It has been 11 years since Pickering stopped relaying communiques for ELF, and the federal government has never disproved what he has always maintained: that he was ELF’s press liaison, not a participant in its campaigns.
“The power structure doesn’t like the fact that Burning Books is educating people and getting them to think critically. They have a vested interest in keeping the masses uninformed and disengaged,” says Kuzma, who will offer an account of Pickering’s ordeal at a benefit event scheduled for Wednesday, April 10, 6-8pm, at the First Amendment Club, 93 Bridgeman Street. The event will raise money to play the filing fees for the lawsuit challenging DOJ and USPS.
A more appropriately named venue could not have been chosen for this fundraiser, Kuzma says.
“The activities of Burning Books are fully protected by the First Amendment as well as Article One, Section Eight of the New York State Constitution,” says Kuzma. “Under the Privacy Act of 1974, federal agencies are prohibited from maintaining records describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”