By Phil Fairbanks, July 15, 2015, The Buffalo News
Except for an old Underwood typewriter, Leslie James Pickering never really wanted or expected the FBI to return the computers and office equipment agents seized in a raid 14 years ago.
But when the FBI finally offered, Pickering, the owner of Burning Books in Buffalo, saw an opportunity to draw attention to the government’s on-again, off-again surveillance of him.
And he’s doing it through art.
At a gallery on Elmwood Avenue Wednesday night, Pickering unveiled a multimedia art installation depicting the press office he ran while serving as spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical environmental group that gained national attention in the late 1990s.
ELF is best known for a series of arsons in the late 1990s and early 2000s at dozens of businesses – timber companies, car dealerships and slaughterhouses – that it believed were destroying the environment.
Pickering, who has been monitored by federal agents for more than a decade but never charged, says he never did anything criminal and that his role was limited to passing along information the group wanted shared with the public and press.
“It will raise the question, ‘Is this free speech or criminal activity?’ ” Pickering said of the art display’s depiction of his role with ELF. “It will also raise the question, ‘Did the FBI engage in criminal activity?’ ”
Pickering, who grew up in East Aurora and West Seneca, says he quit the press office in Oregon more than 10 years ago, and yet the FBI and others continue to watch his comings and goings.
As recently as last year, the FBI confirmed that U.S. Postal Service inspectors were asked to track Pickering’s mail. The admission came after a card revealing the post office surveillance arrived unexpectedly at Pickering’s home.
Pickering also claims the feds recently questioned past associates about his time with the ELF and whether he’s capable of violence. He also recently learned, as a result of a Freedom of Information suit, that his FBI file contains more than 30,000 pages of documents.
The suit, filed by Buffalo attorneys Joseph M. Finnerty, Michael Kuzma and Daire B. Irwin, seeks to expose the government’s surveillance of Pickering. Finnerty, one of the region’s top First Amendment lawyers, said he joined the case because of concerns about the prosecution and its potential chilling effect on Pickering’s free speech.
“I wanted to send a message to the powers that be,” Finnerty said of his decision to represent Pickering. “I was hoping government would take a breath.”
A spokeswoman for the FBI in Eugene, Ore., the office that returned Pickering’s possessions, declined to comment on his art opening or his allegations that the FBI has been watching him for 18 years.
There was a time when the FBI considered the ELF the nation’s No. 1 domestic terror threat, and groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center have called it an “eco-terrorism” organization responsible for at least $30 million in property damage.
Even now, more than a decade later, some of those groups think it is wise for the feds to keep tabs on Pickering. They point to his past support of the ELF and its use of violence.
Over the past year, Pickering has taken his fight with the FBI on the road. A series of speaking engagements in 20 U.S. and 14 European cities has allowed him to promote his “U.S. Out of My Living Room” message outside of Buffalo. Pickering’s talks tend to focus on the history of environmental activism and, in his eyes, how the government has fought it at every corner.
“The fight against government repression is ongoing and never-ending,” said Kuzma, one of Pickering’s attorneys.
Kuzma thinks his client’s speeches prompted the FBI to return his possessions from the raid in April of 2001. He said the FBI still has Pickering’s possessions from an earlier raid.
For Finnerty, who has represented The Buffalo News and national news organizations in the past, Pickering’s legal fight is about free speech and the government’s attempts to intimidate him.
He said Pickering was careful to keep a clear mark of separation between the press office and the ELF activists who planned and carried out the arsons 15 years ago. And now, as the owner of a Connecticut Street bookstore, he has become a promoter of free speech and dissent, he said.
“This is an individual who is obviously dedicated to certain political and moral principles and whose activism has been limited to free expression,” Finnerty said.
Now pending in Buffalo federal court, Pickering’s suit against the U.S. Department of Justice seeks the release of his FBI file, as well as other records. A similar suit against the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service was dismissed last year.
On Wednesday night, Pickering continued his public battle with the FBI with his multimedia art installation at the ¡Buen Vivir! Gallery, 148 Elmwood Ave. Pickering said the display will include television accounts of the FBI raid in 2001, as well as the computers and office equipment seized in the raid.
The exhibit runs through July 26.