When Leslie James Pickering lived on the West Coast more than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical group that destroyed facilities believed to be involved in animal cruelty or environmental degradation.
That included using arson and firebombs to destroy a wild-horse slaughterhouse in Oregon, a ski resort that threatened a lynx habitat in Colorado and a University of Washington horticultural center project that the group believed – incorrectly – was involved in genetic engineering.
But life for Pickering – who says he never was a member of the secretive group, just its spokesman – became too stressful, so he returned to his home in Western New York and eventually opened Burning Books on Connecticut Street.
Now federal authorities are keeping a close watch on Pickering – checking his mail, asking past associates about whether he is capable of violent activity and requiring greater clearance when he travels by air – even though he insists he has done nothing to run afoul of the law.
Are Pickering’s views and past associations reason enough for law enforcement agencies to look into what he’s doing now?
The FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center all considered the Earth Liberation Front that Pickering represented to be involved in “eco-terrorism” that resulted in tens of millions of dollars in property damage.
But Pickering has not been the group’s spokesman for more than a decade, although he still justifies illegal actions against corporations and government agencies under certain circumstances for what he and others consider to be a greater good.
“I’ve had a very public position for almost my whole activist career, and that hasn’t allowed me to do any of this illegal activity I’ve defended,” Pickering said. “Even in my wildest dreams, I might have loved to have been a Robin Hood hero, but that’s not what landed in my lap.”
But Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, thinks law enforcement agencies have good reason to keep tabs on Pickering.
“He’s still advocating a pretty radical ideology, and in some sort of way violence against property, and this is criminal activity that will get the attention of law enforcement,” Segal said.
Pickering – who notes that ELF actions never resulted in physical harm to a person or an animal – has gained a small but vocal group of followers in Buffalo, who feel he is being singled out for having leftist views. Roughly 150 of them attended a fundraiser on his behalf last month.
“I do not advocate any kind of property destruction or illegal activity because of what someone says or thinks. [But] when it’s a company or a government agency that is doing massive physical harm, acting with impunity and not listening to public opinion, then you have to do something about it,” said Pickering, who notes that every social justice movement has had an element of radical activism.
But he insists his views are besides the point. “I’m a bookstore owner,” he said.
Here’s how security agencies have tracked him in recent months:
• Last September, the FBI called a friend of Pickering’s he had been largely out of touch with for years and asked who Pickering associated with in Buffalo, and if he was capable of violent and illegal activity.
• That same month, a card appeared to have been mistakenly delivered to Pickering’s home mailbox, indicating the post office at 465 Grant St. was providing surveillance of his mail from mid-August to mid-September at the request of an unspecified law enforcement agency.
“Show all mail to supervisor for copying prior to going out on the street,” the card read, with Pickering’s name, the date of the surveillance and “Confidential” written in green highlighter.
• In mid-February, an entity that his bookstore interacts with was presented with a federal grand jury subpoena to provide records.
• On March 3, Pickering was briefly detained in Buffalo by officers from the Transit Security Administration – a branch of the Department of Homeland Security – and reissued a United Airlines ticket with additional screening measures.
Michael Kuzma, Pickering’s attorney, tried to pry loose information from federal authorities through Freedom of Information requests, but met roadblocks.
Representatives of the FBI’s Buffalo office, the U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Transit Security Administration all declined to say whether Pickering was under surveillance or investigation.
“It’s been stressful, and I think that’s kind of the point. We’re not doing anything wrong, but this whole process is designed to make us feel like we are, and make other people think we are,” said Theresa Baker-Pickering, with whom Leslie has a 3-year-old daughter.
Pickering, who grew up in East Aurora and West Seneca, said he knew by his early teens that he wanted his life to be guided by a social purpose. He found it initially in the animal-rights movement after moving to San Francisco with his mother, a nurse, after 10th grade at West Seneca East High School.
Pickering became involved a few years later with the Liberation Collective in Portland, Ore., and estimates he was arrested two dozen times for acts of civil disobedience, including seven convictions for violations or misdemeanors, the last in 1999.
The Liberation Collective also began receiving unsigned “communiques” from the Earth Liberation Front, which between 1997 and 2001 committed more than 30 acts of destruction – at sites ranging from automobile dealerships and housing developments to logging companies and universities – that averaged $2.5 million in damages.
Those actions were championed by supporters, and condemned by others – especially those victimized by the actions.
“ELF firebombings are hate crimes against those of us whose missions in life are to increase human knowledge and bring a sense of wonder to the classes we teach,” University at Washington professor Toby Bradshaw wrote after his office was firebombed in the mistaken belief that he was planning to conduct experiments on genetically engineered trees.
Pickering and another activist, Craig Rosebraugh, opened the ELF’s official press office in 2000 and ran it for two years. They issued press releases, held news conferences and defended ELF’s practices, with Pickering’s media appearances ranging from Rolling Stone to Fox News.
Law enforcement took notice. The house they shared was raided twice by the FBI, which carted away computers and other equipment but never leveled charges.
It was after that incident that Pickering – who said he never knew the identities of ELF members until they were arrested – returned home to work on the family’s small blueberry farm outside East Aurora.
A different path
Pickering returned to school and graduated from Goddard College in Vermont with master’s degrees in history and journalism. He wrote books on the ELF and on Sam Melville, who in 1969 was involved in bombing the Federal Office Building and other government and commercial buildings in New York City before being killed in the 1971 Attica Prison uprising.
In 2008, Pickering, his wife and Nate Buckley bought the Connecticut Street building where Burning Books is located, and after extensive remodeling, opened their store two years ago.
The store is filled with books and videos about radical history, many about the 1960s and ’70s, on subjects from the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X to historians Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, as well as animal rights, environmental activism, labor struggles and international movements for social justice. The bookstore also hosts speakers and community gatherings.
Posters commemorate the Attica uprising, Che Guevara and Leonard Peltier, and there are flyers in support of Bradley Manning, a soldier charged with leaking national secrets, and a petition against hydraulic fracturing.
The bookstore also carries the 2011 Academy Award-nominated documentary, “If a Tree Fell: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” in which Pickering appears.
“We all know Buffalo is small enough, and there is no terrorist threat,” said Kuzma, Pickering’s attorney. [Fear of terrorism] has been used by the people who really own and run this country to curtail our civil liberties, and Leslie is a victim of this.”
But Segal of the Anti-Defamation League thinks Pickering is a legitimate person of interest to federal authorities.
“[The ELF] did advocate a pretty radical ideology in terms of pushing for a form of violence in the street,” Segal said. “Even if it’s in your past, you’re going to be looked at by law enforcement.”