Civil Liberties Main Topic

Leslie James Pickering and the FBI: a Tale of COINTELPRO


I spent the evening of Nov 12th at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, MA, listening to
Leslie James Pickering talk about his activist work, and years of FBI surveillance.

Pickering’s career as an activist began in the mid 1990’s, doing civil disobedience to protest animal experiments. His first direct action took place at a facility which was studying cats. The researchers would take a cat and drop it, from high enough to cause minor injuries. They’d observe the cat’s behavior, and drop it again, and again, and again. Pickering and his colleagues felt this was cruel and abusive, and they “lock-boxed” themselves together in the facility in protest. He was arrested for something along this lines of trespassing and disturbing the peace.

Later, Pickering became the public (press) face of the Earth Liberation Front. The ELF is a group of more radical environmental activists, who have been willing to break the law to protest exploitation and destruction of the environment. You can’t easily go to the press when you’re doing illegal acts, or when the FBI has classified your group as domestic terrorists. Instead, ELF members sent statements to Pickering, who then presented them to the press.

This irritated the FBI to no end. They wanted Pickering to provide information on ELF activists, but Pickering had no idea who his sources were. The FBI is a very top-down authority-oriented kind of organization, and they have a tough time wrapping their heads around autonomous groups and independent action. Pickering slammed the door in the face of agents who visited his home, and even ran out the back door to avoid being served with a subpoena.

Pickering talking about grand jury subpoenas. They’re one of the governments tools for forcing testimony. A grand jury does not charge you with a crime, and therefore you cannot “plead the fifth”. Instead, you have the choice of answering questions, or spending up to 18 months in jail for obstruction. The jail time doesn’t result in a criminal record; rather, it’s merely punishment for being uncooperative.

Pickering moved to Buffalo where he helped found a bookstore called Burning Books, and that’s where the FBI surveillance become serious. The bookstore held documentary screenings — community events where a bunch of people would get together, watch a movie, and discuss it afterwards. They’d show films about Malcolm X, The Black Panthers, or the Young Lords. According to the FBI, Pickering used these events to “advocate violence”. “If the FBI were here tonight, they’d say I was advocating violence”, Pickering said. “To them, anything involving resistance or revolutionary ideas is ‘violence'”. In other words, Pickering and the bookstore were doing ordinary first amendment kind of stuff, and the FBI didn’t approve.

Pickering obtained portions of his FBI files through FOIA requests and lawsuits, and that’s how he learned the details of their surveillance program.

Assisting the FBI were two FBI informants: Amy Upham and Selena Lloyd. Upham and Lloyd rented an apartment above the bookstore, and provided the FBI with information on several activist groups in the Buffalo area. In this context, “provided information” really amounted to “made random shit up”. Eventually, Upham would recant all of her testimony to the FBI.

The FBI put an astonishing amount of effort into the surveillance of Pickering. Seven to nine different agents, following him for 8+ hours a day. Their reports included things like

  • Pickering leaves house on bicycle. (He rode is bike to work)
  • Pickering seen taking pictures of buses. (He was working with a non-profit to promote bicycle transit; they were working on ideas for getting around by bicycle and bus)
  • Pickering buys groceries at Wegmans. (He and his family were spending a day at a lake — they bought bagels and water beforehand).

Many of these reports were accompanied by high resolution photographs and video recordings. It was genuine and overt COINTELPRO. Throughout this time, the FBI did not suspect Pickering of any specific wrongdoing. He wasn’t the suspect of a crime — he was just a “person of interest”.

The FBI requested a mail cover on Pickering. This is an arrangement were the post office sets aside mail to a particular individual, photocopies the outside, and then provides the photocopies to the requesting agency (i.e., the FBI). Mail covers don’t require a warrant or court order, only the approval of the postmaster general. Mail covers can reveal a lot of information. For example, suppose the FBI were to find a bill from your alarm company; this is who the FBI would need to contact if (say) they wanted the alarm disabled for a couple of minutes during the day. A mail cover would tell the FBI who you bank with if (say) they wanted to subpoena a copy of your financial transactions.

In a genuine stroke of irony, a letter carrier stuck a copy of Pickering’s mail order in with his mail, and delivered it to his house. Oops — something else to FOIA.

The FBI dropped their investigation in January of 2014, a year after Upham recanted her testimony.

Pickering closed with a few reflections for activists. First, activist groups don’t always have a good sense of history; they’re prone to thinking that they’re the first group doing a specific kind of work, or engaged in a particular kind of struggle. In reality, there is a long history of activist groups in the United States, and a long history of the FBI targeting them. The FBI has decades of case files, which they study and learn from. Activists would do well to study past groups, and take note of the tactics our government used to suppress them.

Second, realize that you’re stronger than you think. Activist groups tend to be autonomous, and don’t always work together. But once you start working together, you’ve got a lot of power. The FBI knows this, and it scares them.

In the back of the room, a woman from Burning Books was selling books at a table. I picked up a copy of Gabriella Coleman’sHacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous“. After all, there are few things I like more than supporting a local bookstore.

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