Leslie James Pickering, current owner of Burning Books of Buffalo, NY, is a lifelong radical environmentalist who relayed the communications of the Earth Liberation Front to the public and media in the ‘90s. For the last few years he’s been involved in a Freedom of Information Act suit to expose the extent of surveillance placed upon him as a result of his involvement with the ELF. I met him a couple years ago, when he came to UNC in Chapel Hill to give a guest lecture on the ELF and state surveillance practices. His personal website is here.
Jonah: So, for question number one, some background that I don’t think we talked about before: How has your relationship with nature and the environment evolved from early life, through your time as deliverer of ELF communiqués, to now, and what has motivated you to take the actions that you have for its protection?
Leslie: I grew up a bit all over the place, outside a small upstate NY village, in a suburb, in a poor section of Buffalo, and in San Francisco. My closest family were small farmers, laborers and nurses. A lot of my time growing up was outdoors, swimming in creeks, climbing trees and street skating. I did a good amount of camping and loved it, but nothing in the big-wild until I was a young adult out west.
I ended up moving to Oregon with friends when I was 17. I was already involved in activism and civil disobedience against vivisection and expanded into more sciences, like cloning and genetic engineering. But seeing wilderness out there being destroyed was too much to bear.
I was never really sold on the pitch that this democracy is open to reform through peaceful/legal means. To be honest, I was drawn into the movement because of the exciting, illegal stuff. So when ELF hit the scene, I was all about it.
I actually make more of an active effort now to get out into the wilderness than I did in my youth. It’s wingnutty, but I think that’s where whatever strength I have comes from. We try to get the family out into the wild as much as we can, but there’s all this activism stuff to do as well. The years seem to keep getting shorter. There’s not enough time.
J: What about being out in the wilderness do you think gives you strength?
L: People don’t recognize it and can’t really qualify it, but when we pull ourselves away from the natural world all these subtle things inside us start going haywire. I feel like we’re meant to be in the wild, and have only been living in artificial environments for a tiny percent of our history. There’s so much about the natural world that humans don’t understand, but they think they can replace and improve on it with these artificial environments. It’s a bad idea. We won’t know just how bad of an idea it is until it’s too late.
I feel like the wilderness is my ally, and my allies give me strength. Getting out into the wilderness humbles me and reminds me of what I put myself through all this for. I try and draw my strength from the Earth, just by taking it in and clearing my mind of all the madness of human society. The Earth speaks to us, we just don’t know how to listen.
J: Man, that was a beautiful way to put that. So, then, is there any modern analog to the ELF that you see doing similar work, and if so, what do you see as their crucial differences?
L: I don’t know man. Okay, lets see…
Unfortunately, the movement has been in a defensive state for some years now, not really producing a lot of offensive action like the ELF is known for. The system has struck back hard and the struggle wasn’t very well prepared for it after all. There were some clear advantages to the kind of organizing people were doing in the 90s, but in recent years we’ve seen some of the disadvantages play out too. It’s a constant ebb and flow, historically. They can’t imprison a movement and repression breeds resistance, eventually.
J: I guess it’s difficult to compare; like you said, political and economic systems have evolved a lot since the ’90s. But, then, as have the people involved with these movements we’re talking about. How has your approach to ecological activism and political action changed since then? And, in that same vein, what is it you want Burning Books to do?
L: I’m not as young as I once was and one thing has led to another. There is a lot going on in the world that I’m against and plenty activism that I support – environmental and otherwise. That means that there are many different directions to possibly go in, and it can be overwhelming. With the Earth Liberation Front Press Office, my direction was somewhat chosen for me. Communiqués were anonymously sent to us, years before we actually started the Press Office, and the situation led us down a road that became more and more intense and consuming. At some point, you look back and realize that it just doesn’t make any sense for you to put a lot of energy into organizing civil disobedience actions against a local cat vivisection experiment anymore, no matter how personally upset and invested you are with it. Its good work, but there is a time to pass it on to someone else. When you have national, international interests knocking on your door because you’re in the crossfire between the FBI and the ELF’s multi-million dollar sabotage spree, it was hard to justify putting that aside to keep making street puppets of cats. I had to let a lot of things go over the years and chose to go down paths that seemed to have the most impact. Now, for example, I put a lot of work into exposing and resisting federal surveillance and repression. This isn’t because I think it’s more important than direct action or any other work I’ve engaged in over the years. It’s because I realize that at this point I’m in a somewhat unique situation that gives me an advantage to make some real ground on this issue. I’ve been an FBI target for twenty years and have gathered some skills, allies and resources that have enabled me to launch a public fight around this issue. Our public Freedom of Information action and lawsuits have pushed the FBI to release files that expose some of what they’ve done to me, and therefore shed light on what they do to activists in general. Repression is the common denominator that stops all our movements from getting too strong, so I’m happy to do what I can to fight it.
Burning Books is a platform that we’ve found powerful for local and national organizing at the point that the three of us are now at in the struggle. We’re certainly not saying that it’s the best or only model for organizing, but it’s something we came up with to fit our experiences and it seems to be having an impact. It would be great if there were more places like Burning Books in more communities, but not as great as if there were more more underground action like we’ve seen with groups like the Earth Liberation Front, the Black Liberation Army and ANTISEC [Operation AntiSec info]. Successful movements consist of diverse coalitions, and Burning Books is working to build those.
J: What do you think is the best direction we–society at large, either in the U.S. or worldwide–could proceed in? There seems to be a fairly strict cultural narrative of “progress,” but it isn’t without its flaws. What would be a better direction?
L: I don’t really believe in utopias and I can’t imagine a universal answer to that question. I know that the current consolidation of power is unsustainable and unacceptable, and the sooner this is disrupted the better. Fundamentally destructive and oppressive belief systems, like anthropocentrism and capitalism, continue unquestioned as they drive this system onward. The changes that are so desperately needed are nothing if not significant. I ally myself and my work with the struggles that I feel challenge this system the most, and hope to figure some more of this stuff out along the way.
J: What’s the point of this interview? What do you think is the best thing it could do?
L: I was turned on to this struggle because people were putting revolutionary ideas out there and taking action that I found inspiring. We need to see more people getting heavily involved in the struggle in all kinds of ways… and I certainly hope to see more action. I loved the heyday of the Earth Liberation Front. I wish I was around to be involved in the intense struggles of previous generations. Get out there and kick up some dust. We’re not controlled by cameras and guns. We’re controlled by failing to believe that our enemies can actually be defeated. This system is a lot weaker than it seems. So the best thing people like me can do is to keep fighting harder and harder, and to inspire others to do the same.