Did the FBI Try to Crush a Leftist Group with the Buffalo News' Help?

by George Sax, Artvoice 09/10/2015  -  http://artvoice.com/issues/v14n36/news_fbi

A number of pages from a vast secret file kept by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a local leftist political activist, received by him through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, indicate a years-long surveillance of his activities. And they raise the question of whether the bureau used the Buffalo News to thwart his organization’s lawful programs. Leslie J. Pickering and others also believe his constitutionally protected rights were infringed upon in the process.

When 24-year-old Buffalo native Pickering returned to this city from Oregon in 2002, he wanted to continue the political work he’d done for several years, but by other means. He hoped to attract less attention from governmental authorities and news media than he had in Portland. There, with a former college roommate, he had operated the North American Earth Liberation Front Press office, an information clearinghouse for ELF, a radical secretive group that has been accused of terrorism. ELF has admitted committing destructive acts, including arson, against the property of private entities the front considered posed threats to the environment and natural resources as they exploited them for profit.

Pickering was never a member of ELF, although he was not unsympathetic to its aims. Now, back in Buffalo, he wanted to keep a lower profile, to interact with people in city neighborhoods and communities. He and some like-minded individuals envisioned educational forums, lectures, showing documentary movies, and similar activities. Before long, they’d formed a new group, Arrisa, and were doing those things. They also spent the better part of one summer on city streets conducting interviews with residents to get their views on local political and social problems. “They knew there were serious problems,” Pickering says, “but they didn’t think there were ways to do much about them.” “These were all educational endeavors,” he observes. He and his associates weren’t interested in media attention, he says. (In fact, he turned away an inquiry about a possible article from Artvoice.)

In 2005, Arrisa entered into an arrangement with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), a West Side community organizing group that operated out of an office in the Northwest Public Library building on Grant Street. The library had been closed by Erie County because of budget pressures, but the city owned the building and allowed MAP to use it. It also helped fund MAP’s operations. MAP agreed that Arrisa would reopen the lending library with volunteer staffers and use the space for its meetings and programs.

Only a week after Arrisa had begun its use of the library space, at the beginning of February 2006, MAP director Christina L. Akers ended it. The termination followed hard on a February 9 story in the Buffalo News by reporter Sandra Tan that cited an alleged link between Arrisa’s “leadership” and “a national extremist group that espouses the use of arson and sabotage to achieve political reform.” The “link” was, of course, Pickering, and Tan’s story makes clear that “when the Buffalo News began asking (Akers) about Arrisa,” the MAP administrator informed herself about “the organization’s leadership” and “severed ties.” Cause and effect. It’s also clear that the “leadership” to which she refers is Pickering. He’s the only person in Arrisa she quotes. (Pickering says that Akers was aware of his background when the agreement was made.)

Tan’s story is reproduced in full in the papers given up by the FBI as a result of Pickering’s FOIA suit. He allowed Artvoice to examine a small selection of the almost 400 pages he’s received so far. The lawsuit was filed over two years ago when the extent of governmental investigation and monitoring became clearer. Pickering learned from friends that bureau agents were asking people who knew him about his activities and beliefs. More striking, over two years ago, he learned that his personal mail was being monitored after what was almost certainly a serious error by the postal service. A form containing that information was left in his mailbox, in violation of regulations.

Much of the material in the documents obtained by Pickering and reviewed by Artvoice seems routine. There are pages of announcements and statements that were copied from Arrisa’s website. There are reports from agents and summaries from informants about meetings at which Arrisa representatives spoke or which they attended, here and elsewhere in this state. One document from September, 2005 reports that Arrisa showed a movie, Ghosts of Attica, about the 1971 prisoner uprising at the penitentiary and its violent quashing by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. “A major theme” of the film, it was noted, was “that the rebellion could have been avoided if the authorities had heeded the warnings from the inmates and correctional officers.” The writer of the FBI report asserts that the film “supports Arrisa’s belief that change can come about only with revolution.” There are numerous redactions in these pages, some of them curious, none more so than a reproduction of a statement the bureau copied from Arrisa’s website that contains a redaction, as if these weren’t words the political group had itself posted. Some of these documents are headed “precedence: routine,” apparently indicating a low priority. Others are designated as “priority” precedence for no obvious reason. None of this material pertains to Arrisa’s ejection from the library space except for the reproduced Tan story.

Pickering points out Tan’s story reported Akers’ decision even before Arrisa was informed of it. Just after it was published, Niagara District Common Council member Dominic Bonafacio, who had helped obtain city funding for MAP, demanded a meeting with Akers, with Arrisa members in attendance, during which he demanded the group be denied access to the library and threatened to withhold MAP’s monies if this wasn’t done, according to Pickering, Arrisa member Nate Buckley and Pickering’s wife, Theresa Baker-Pickering.

Former council member Bonafacio told Artvoice, “Whatever happened was strictly the result of MAP’s decision.” He said he didn’t remember Arrisa or its proposed use of the library.

Pickering and others want to know who tipped Tan off about the deal with MAP. “Most people (in Buffalo) didn’t even know we existed,” Pickering says. The FBI was one of the very most avid readers of Arrisa’s website and literature, the released documents indicate. Did it pick Tan as a tool to crimp Arrisa’s activities? Arrisa member Buckley thinks that’s likely, that what he calls the “synchronicity” of events argues for that. Aaron Bartley, a Harvard Law School graduate and the founder of PUSH, a West Side community organization with an emphasis on housing—a long article about PUSH from Artvoice was copied by the FBI—remembers the article. “It certainly seemed meant to cast Arrisa in a negative light,” he said in a brief interview. (Attempts to locate former MAP director Akers to get her response were unsuccessful.)

In a telephone interview, Tan said she had “only the vaguest recollection” of the story. She added that she had “no recollection of being tipped off by any government agency about this story. I have little memory of how this story came to my attention.” She said she stands by the facts. Not long after the MAP events, the Paul Robeson Center on the city’s East Side told Arrisa it could no longer use its facilities because of a remodeling project. Arrisa was never asked back.

Michael Kuzma, co-counsel on the FOIA suit, said the government’s surveillance of Pickering and Arrisa is “not just an attempt to restrict but to quash leftist political education. The objective is to stamp out such organizations.” He says that the federal Privacy Act of 1974 guarantees citizens the right to express political and other kinds of ideas without governmental review or interference.

One other result of Arrisa’s troubles—the group no longer exists—has been the establishment three years ago of Burning Books bookstore on Connecticut Street by some of Arrisa’s former members. There they not only stock leftist literature but hold public meetings and other events in a space they can control. Pickering is a founder of the store. And he’s awaiting thousands of more documents from the FBI over the next several years, as per the settlement of his suit.