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Haunted By ELF: Amnesty International spooked by Buffalo Activist

Posted by Theresa Baker-Pickering on

It’s certainly not as if Leslie J. Pickering is unaccustomed to being involved in public controversy. Not by a very long shot. Over the last seventeen years, the leftist Buffalo political organizer and educator has been the subject of extensive, sometimes inflammatory national press coverage, and the target of governmental investigators.

But none of this prepared him for what happened when he was recently selected as the recipient of a community leadership award from a respected 48-year-old non-profit group. On Saturday, November 14, Pickering was to be given the Western New York Peace Center’s Altimate Activist award—named for Wayne Alt, a Peace Center founder—at an event featuring an address by Margaret Huang, Deputy Executive Director of Campaigns and Programs of Amnesty International, the internationally honored and influential, 7 million-member human rights organization. The event was advertised on posters in locations around the city. But three days before it took place, Huang told the organizers she wouldn’t be there. A substitute speaker from Rochester was hurriedly secured and Pickering got his award.

But no explanation has been given by the Peace Center to attendees and Center members. However, few, if any, of those familiar with what happened had any doubt that Pickering’s award was the reason for Amnesty’s near-to-last-moment exit from the proceedings. Most of those contacted by Artvoice declined to speak for publication, apparently reluctant to embarrass the Peace Center while its leaders continue to consider what to tell people.

Alt, the man whose name and service inspired the award, says he is disturbed by what happened. A long-time anti-war and social justice advocate, and a retired educator, he says, “We were never told what happened. There hasn’t been enough transparency.” He said he intended to contact the Peace Center’s director to complain about the lack of communication. Pickering himself has been circumspect, preferring to avoid a public comment in deference to the Peace Center, and expressing his appreciation for the award. Victoria B. Ross, Interim Director, confirmed to Artvoice that Pickering indeed was at the heart of the last-minute withdrawal of the Amnesty speaker, but she stressed that the local group was never asked to rescind the award, something, she says, wouldn’t have been done in any event.

The part of his career that has persistently caused Pickering trouble took place years ago in the Northwest. After college, in the late 1990s, the Buffalo native and a friend ran an information distribution operation, a sort of clearing house, for the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical environmental defense group that committed acts of property destruction, including arson, against private concerns that ELF accused of ecological threats and destruction. The FBI categorized ELF as a domestic ecoterrorist organization, and has been tracking Pickering’s activities ever since he returned to Buffalo in 2002. As he has repeatedly pointed out, Pickering was never a member of ELF, and has never engaged in violence. (He has drawn a distinction between violent acts against people and property damage.)

In the last thirteen years in this city his political work has centered on arranging informational forums and talks and showing films by a variety of writers, academics, lawyers, and leftist activists. He, his wife Theresa Baker-Pickering, and several friends opened Burning Books bookstore on Connecticut Street, where many of these events have been held. The Peace Center award was in recognition of this work.

But it’s been dogged for years by the FBI and other government agencies. His mail delivery has been surveilled (he found out through a Post Office blunder), federal agents have sought information about him from friends and acquaintances, and informants have given the government secret reports on the very public meetings he’s arranged or spoken at here and in other cities. A Freedom of Information suit he filed against the FBI has so far yielded 375 pages of material detailing some of the ways the bureau has monitored his personal and political life. A 2006 Buffalo News article by Sandra Tan “revealing” his youthful past—he never denied it—that some strongly suspect was instigated by the bureau, resulted in a group he belonged to being barred from using a city-owned building. (See “Precedent: Routine,” Artvoice, Sept 10, 2015.)

A media relations staffer at Amnesty’s Washington D.C. office, Robyn Shepherd, told Artvoice this week that Pickering’s honoree status was the deal killer for her organization: “As the keynote speaker, Margaret did not want to imply Amnesty International USA’s endorsement of some Pickering’s tactics (sic.)”, she wrote in an email. “While we share his concern for the environment, Amnesty does not as a matter of organizational policy use, advocate or endorse tactics that break the law, such as property destruction, which Mr. Pickering has reportedly endorsed.”

It seems in order to wonder if Amnesty’s reaction amounted to running scared, unnecessarily. The award wasn’t Amnesty’s, and the possibility of a taint from Pickering’s appearance seems slight. Amnesty has no quarrel with the Peace Center’s espousal of “peaceful conflict resolution.” Ross said, “We stand by our colleagues in peace and justice,” which, in this circumstance, could easily be construed as embracing both Amnesty and Pickering.

His prominent civil rights lawyer, Michael Kuzma, had a less charitable reaction to Amnesty’s statement: “It’s outrageous. (Years ago Pickering) was helping to run an above-ground, legal news service. His activities were fully protected by the Oregon constitution and the federal Bill of Rights. Amnesty doesn’t seem to know how uninformed it is.” He added a personal note: “I’m fed up with pseudo liberals.”

His client confined himself to a much briefer response when Shepherd’s words were emailed to him: “Unbelievable!”