As the first part of an ongoing series of interviews leading up to the June 11th International Day of Solidarity with Marius Mason & All Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners, we present an interview with Leslie James Pickering.
Leslie is the former spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front Press Office and is currently involved with Burning Books in Buffalo, New York. He is the editor of The Earth Liberation Front 1997-2002 and author of The Evan Mecham Eco Terrorist International Conspiracy and Mad Bomber Melville, about guerrilla and Attica brother Sam Melville.
We talked about support for ageing prisoners, the changing nature of prisoner solidarity, fighting government secrecy via FOIA requests, continuing struggle despite state repression, the state of the Earth Liberation struggle, and supporting prisoners of the Black Liberation and anti-imperialist struggles of the ’70s and ’80s.
JUNE 11TH: Can you start by telling us about yourself and your experiences with prison or prisoner support?
LESLIE JAMES PICKERING: Yeah, so I’ve been doing prison support work probably since 2002. About fifteen years, when I moved back to Buffalo from Oregon, and connected with long-term prisoners here in New York state, specifically David Gilbert and Herman Bell, and then Jalil Muntaqim and Seth Hayes. David’s been in prison since the early ‘80s, the other three have been in prison since the early ‘70s. They all have long-terms: David has seventy-five to life and the others have twenty-five to life. They are not likely to be paroled. So these are people who have been serving 30-40+ years for activism and struggle around Black Liberation and Anti-Imperialist movements that really came out of the ‘60s and ‘70s. At that point I’d been involved in doing a lot of support work for the Earth Liberation struggle. At that point those of us in that struggle were just starting to realize that we were having our own set of political prisoners. And so connecting to long-standing political prisoners was a big priority of mine at that point to help contextualize our struggle within the broader struggles for liberation in this country. I guess that’s kinda where I come at it.
J11: Can you speak to the importance of prisoner support as part of liberation struggles, like specifically the necessity of supporting long-term prisoners.
L: Yeah, definitely. You’ve got to understand the function of state repression in order to really understand that question. State repression is meant not just to punish wrong things or illegal things, but specifically to stop movements from succeeding. In the case of the Earth Liberation struggle, we started getting political prisoners not so much because people were responsible for arson or sabotage, but much more because these movements were actually engaging in the kind of struggles that have massive impact, and the state has to respond from their point of view to show that we can’t be doing that, that that’s not acceptable, and to frighten people off and to reduce the support for the movement.
So you really need to understand that supporting political prisoners is a function of having a successful freedom struggle of any kind. If you let the state come in and say: “we are going to make an example of this person and scare off the movement,” well then it works and it does just that, and people don’t join and the movement gets small, isolated, and weak. But if you are able to shine a light on the repression that the state is putting on individuals and movements, you kind of turn the tables around a little bit at least and gain broader support for your movements from different angles.
Maybe not everybody fully understands, for example animal liberation politics, and they’re not all going to run around and being vegans and everything, but there are people who would support animal liberation prisoners from the basis of political prisoners and from an anti-repression standpoint. So you start getting these different avenues for support for your struggle and linking your struggle up with other struggles out there. So I think that’s really an important aspect of it.
Support for political prisoners is an important response to state repression –whatever the repression is that needs to be responded to – because otherwise it will totally destroy our movements. It’s important to support long-term prisoners because their cases are most likely more significant than the short-term prisoner cases. Not to imply that short-term prisoners don’t deserve support too, they absolutely do. All people who are subject to state repression should get as much support as we are able to give them. But, you’ve got to realize that these are moves by the state to destroy our movements. The bigger move, the longer prison sentence that these people have, and therefore the more significant response that we should really have to that. If someone is getting an astronomical amount of time for something that normally doesn’t get that amount of time, and is a disproportionate sentencing, that’s being done because it’s a way for the state to make an example out of them. And I think it’s really important to make a counter-example.
To give an example of that, from my history and experience, there’s the case of Jeff Luers and Craig Marshall, “Free” and “Critter” they were called. They had burned an SUV or two at a dealership in Eugene in the ‘90s to protest global warming. And that hadn’t been done at the time really. They were actually caught because they were being profiled by the local police department and followed around because they were anarchists. They were caught, and Jeff got twenty years in prison, which is astronomical for $19,000 worth of damages, it’s just totally disproportionate. The state was doing that because they were trying to, again, scare people away and make it seem as though if you were somebody who might want to go do something that might be illegal to help the struggle move forward, well now you have to sort of think about what the consequences are, and if you get caught it’s not just going to be a slap on the wrist, you’re going to be in your forties when you get out of prison.
So that’s definitely an intentional aspect of repression in this case. And in response, the Earth Liberation Front, which was active at the time, went back to the exact same dealership and burnt the whole thing down. And in their communique for like $1,000,000 in damages, and something like 36 SUVs, they specifically were citing that this is in response to what the state is trying to do to us, like we’re not gonna let you scare us. And other sort of controversies around that action aside, that part of it I think was pretty significant and important, because at that moment the state was making a big move to try to frighten people away from engaging in direct action. It could have been a lot more successful, but because of the counter-move by the movement, by the struggle that we were engaged in, the sort of underground movement was able to stay strong and brave and keep fighting on for a while after that. And I think that’s what we need to do.
Whenever there’s a move by the state to make an example out of somebody through repression or to frighten the rest of us away through some sort of chilling effect, not only do we need to call the state out on it but we should do as much as we can to the opposite. We should continue to keep fighting because the reason they’re targeting us is because we’re being successful. If the movement is receiving repression, it’s because the movement is on the verge of success. They don’t just go out and throw people in prison for the hell of it, they pick the people out and the movements out that really pose a significant threat.
And so it’s important to remember that. It’s hard to remember that when you’re under the underneath sort of the thumb of the state at the moment. You’re thinking about, “oh I’m going to go to prison, what are the repercussions, I’ve got this big trial,” and all this kind of personal baggage that comes along with it. But I think it’s really important to take a step back and think, “you know what, they’re doing this because our movement is pretty powerful, like why else would the FBI be paying attention right now and be nailing all of us so hard right now. So we must be doing something right so therefore we should keep doing it, we should keep doing something that has that kind of impact.”
J11: You faced decades of government surveillance, and raids on your home, and many other forms of state repression simply for being at one time the public voice for the Earth Liberation Front. What can those doing legal, public projects do to mitigate the harm caused by state repression?
L: Well, repression happens in secrecy. That’s a big aspect of it. Particularly the FBI, but there’s plenty of other agencies too, but particularly the FBI, they like to operate in secret in the shadows. A lot of what they do, if it’s not illegal, it’s at least immoral and people recognize that. And much of what they do is actually illegal, not that they’re gonna ever be held accountable for it. But these are the kind of things they do in secrecy. They’re not proud of it, they’re not releasing communiques for the most part. They’re not taking interviews and questions for the most part. They only sort of thrive if we don’t know what they’re doing, and if we don’t pay attention.
So a lot of what I’ve been doing in recent years is totally public work using the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits exposing what the FBI has done to me and to people I’ve worked with, and to our movements in general, helping other people use the Freedom of Information Act and other legal avenues to expose repression and targeting by the state of our movements. I think that helps for a number of reasons, and a lot of that is due to my personal experiences. It’s hard to be under repression year after year, and sort of just deal with that and just take it in stride. It can be very helpful to get as many facts as you can on that, and to show that I wasn’t just losing my mind about this one incident or these twenty incidents you know, in my sort of paranoid delusions, but there’s actually some tangible proof of government involvement in a lot of this stuff.
And so that helps on a personal level, and it helps on other sort of interpersonal levels, where people can see what’s going on with you and with your movements, and then how that relates to their movements in a realistic sort of way that involves evidence and proof. So it doesn’t just seem like we’re all just running around nuts, suspecting the government is behind every little thing. Being able to show that they actually are is a big difference between just saying, “Well they did this to Fred Hampton back in 1969 so therefore they’re probably doing this to us now.” It’s a lot different if you can actually say, “well here’s the paperwork, here’s the names of the informants that were involved, here’s the allegations, here’s the type of surveillance that I’ve been subjected to, here’s the photographs of the surveillance.” All that kind of stuff, which we’ve been able to do in cases.
And I think the second part, and perhaps the more important part, is that it shows people what we’re up against in a more tangible way. You’re not going on just some data from the 1960s and ‘70s from movements that are mostly at totally different stages now. But we’re actually looking at things that are happening now with current technology, with movements that are currently active and able to make adjustments to our strategies and practices based on some real information. I don’t have any illusion that we’re uncovering everything at all, I think there’s a lot that we can’t really uncover through these legal means. But if we can get some of it, it’s worth the effort, it’s been proven to be worth the effort.
It also does a lot in terms of getting media exposure, which builds sympathy for your movement, builds sympathy for your political prisoners and people facing repression. If they can see the government’s hands are dirty, to get sympathy there is very helpful. That’s a lot of what I’ve been doing in terms of public legal strategy. I’ve seen it have an effect on a number of people, and I know personally very well it’s hard to be a subject of repression. You feel very isolated and you’re getting all this pressure put on you. To take that to at least some sort of an offensive stance rather than just a defensive, where you’re afraid of what they’re gonna do next, but you’re actually strategizing what you’re gonna do next, and who’s on your team, and what you’re working on, and how you’re gaining support. That makes a big difference, because it’s hard to be proactive when you’re defensive and frightened all the time.
And I think we need to stay proactive in the situations that we’re in. The environment, social justice, and liberation struggles are not exactly at a good stage at this point. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so if we’re just taking a back-step and backseat and thinking about, “oh no, am I gonna end up in prison,” that’s not a very powerful place to be. So trying to get back on the offensive is a really big aspect of it as well.
J11: So the Green Scare and its subsequent string of snitching and harsh prison sentences severely damaged the Earth and Animal Liberation movements in the US. Are there lessons we can learn from this? And what do you think could contribute to the revitalization of these movements?
L: Yeah, there’s a lot of lessons that could be learned from it, and should have been learned before this happened, unfortunately. At the moment I’m at a bookstore here and I’m looking at Ward Churchill’s Agents of Repression and I even had this on my shelf in the ‘90s and had read it, and was pretty fascinated with it, but still hadn’t really fully applied those concepts to what we were doing at that point. Which is kind of a shame; certainly I was among the people who were more likely to understand repression at that point, and learn lessons from past movements. So the fact that the Earth Liberation movement from the ‘90s and early 2000’s was able to accelerate so much and gain so much ground, yet at the same time not really be very well prepared for the obvious – what seems to me at this point as obvious – repression that was around the corner and happening simultaneously, it’s kind of remarkable.
If you look at just the FBI for example: this is a well-paid, well-funded organization that only grows, it doesn’t ebb-and-flow. If somebody holds a position within the FBI and they go on and retire or get a different job, it’s not like that position just stops, somebody else fills their shoes, somebody else gets all the data and research and picks up the active investigations. There’s no stopping, there’s no pausing, there’s no stepping backwards in terms of the FBI and the repressive apparatus. They’re constantly evolving and improving, not that they’re perfect and not that they don’t do stupid stuff that we can laugh at. It’s true, they do a lot of stupid stuff. But when you compare their situation to the movement, the broader liberation in this country for example, you see these real big surges and these real big setbacks that happen over periods of many years.
So you get a period during the anti-Vietnam War movement and Black Liberation movement when people are very proactive and there’s a lot of offensive maneuvers being made, and then you have a period following that where it seems like there’s almost – of course it’s not true – but it seems like there’s no positive activity happening. And then you get another movement coming in the ‘90s or late ‘80s or whatever that’s a radical environmental movement, but the connections that should be there – learning lessons from COINTELPRO and repression of past struggles – really are very weak. There’s very little overlap between generations within our movement.
Occasionally you find someone who really goes out of their way to connect with new movements and bring lessons from the past, but it’s hugely lacking unfortunately. And so, every time somebody does something significant, a new organization starts up, or even an underground group or whatever starts up and they start taking action, there’s almost this feeling like they were the first people to ever do it. When really, just twenty to thirty years ago there’s probably something very close that you could compare yourself to and learn a lot of lessons from, but because you know very little about that, as we knew very little about previous movements during the early Earth Liberation movement. It’s just an unfortunate reality. We take big steps forward and we take big steps backward, and the FBI just keeps stepping forward, making it harder and harder for our movements to succeed.
So it’s a big effort that I’m trying to put out and many other people are trying to put out there right now to sort of connect these movements, and have been for years now, connect these movements across generations so that when a movement does sprout up again, it brings along with it the lessons of mistakes and successes that past struggles have fought and died and worked so hard to gain. So that’s a big aspect of it as well.
What can be done for the Earth Liberation movement to sort of step back up to the plate? Well I think a lot of that is slowly happening, but it’s not going to look like it did in the late ‘90s, it’s going to look like it would look now. You see a lot of inspiring anti-fascist efforts that are happening now. You know there are different issues going on now, and so these movements aren’t just going to be like, you can’t just like relive something that happened twenty years ago. There are going to be learned lessons hopefully from some things that happened twenty years ago, fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, overseas, and any other way that they can, and taking these lessons and applying them to your current situation.
We do have some pretty inspiring stuff that’s happening around several movements, and they are very similar to the Earth Liberation movement, they are very similar to the Black Liberation movement in different ways, but they’re contemporary and they’re different. And so I think emphasis shouldn’t be put on like, let’s revive something that happened twenty years ago, or let’s revive something that happened fifty years ago, but rather let’s make something happen now that’s relevant to something that’s going on right now, and let’s know what happened decades ago and how it was successful and how it failed, and apply those lessons to our ability to succeed now.
J11: What are some challenges you see with supporting prisoners and what could we collectively be doing better?
L: Political prisoner support work is very arduous and unrewarding [laughs], and painful actually. It’s actually very painful work. I’ve been doing support work for Robert Seth Hayes – who’s a Black Liberation Army, Black political prisoner, Black Panther Party person – since about 2004. I’ve been visiting him a lot, and you know, have a pretty close relationship with him, his family, as well as the other prisoners I mentioned earlier. To see these people go up for parole and be denied over and over, doing everything you can to win them parole and constantly be denied, and to know there’s very little hope in the situation is a hard reality to face, because not only do you wanna see the movement succeed by getting these prisoners released, but these people are like family to me almost now.
You know, you to see their loved ones that want them out, and every time Seth gets denied, it’s like a punch in the gut, it really is. And at the same time I really know there’s a very little likelihood Jalil Muntaqim would ever get parole. It’s all ex-law enforcement that are appointed to the parole board and you know, he’s in prison allegedly for assassinating police officers, so there’s really very little likelihood that someone in that position is ever gonna get paroled, so it’s hard. Of course, there’s other situations with other political prisoners where there are more doors to open and more avenues to work towards, but in general it’s the same situation. It’s hard work, people don’t want to even think about prison, let alone do all their organizing around them, in general. Most people just don’t even want to think that they exist. And those of us that have gotten ourselves in this position where it’s relevant and important work to do, we do it because it’s so important and because of the personal connections we have with these people, and this sort of strategic analysis we have around the importance and significance of political prisoner support work, not because it’s very likely to succeed on a massive scale.
When you think about it, the biggest success is that the person who was a good ally in our movement is back out on the streets. Probably under some massive restrictions, legal restrictions, but it’s just kinda getting back to where the person was before getting arrested. It’s hard to have a massive positive step forward on these movements. It’s a struggle. So that all being said, it does feel incredibly important to myself and I think to other people who have a lot of experience with repression of movements – again getting back to the concept that movements are repressed and people are made into political prisoners because the state targets them and us – because the state decided we were enough of a threat to the status quo and to the system that they would risk framing up somebody in some cases or risk illegal or highly controversial surveillance techniques in other cases, and put enormous amounts of resources into massive, long-term, ongoing investigations all intended to really stifle a movement, to shut us down. You realize that that’s what the intention of repression is, then it all becomes much more clear how important to fight repression, even though it is such a hard battle to wage.
J11: What are your broader hopes and visions for prisoner solidarity in the years to come?
L: As the years ahead of us unfold, I’ve taken a hard look at the realities of the political prisoner support movement and I guess I could make some comments on that. We’ve got a number of long-term political prisoners still locked up in the US from roughly a half-century ago, from thirty to fifty years ago basically. That number is dwindling as people do win some kind of release and also are passing away and so those are sort of all realities that we deal with as people who are doing support for really long-term political prisoners. You’re dealing with medical conditions and you’re dealing potentially with end-of-life arrangements and stuff like that. It’s not always very optimistic work, so what are we looking at in the future?
As the years roll forward, a lot of these long-term people, we’re not going to have to give support for them for one reason or another anymore. Or if we do, it’s a different kind of support, it might be post-release support and we really need to organize an apparatus around that. And some people are working on that, but having this long repressive period we’re hopefully coming out of at this point, we have different political prisoners that are in prison now, and those long-term people aren’t the biggest body anymore. We see a handful of other maybe Earth Liberation people who are somewhat long-term prisoners that we’re supporting and the support work will look different than it did for Black Liberation Army types.
And then more recently most of the people we’re seeing in prison right now that are political prisoners from recent or somewhat recent cases are in entrapment gigs. They’re really not the kind of people who were out doing proactive stuff on their own, they weren’t these heroes of the movement necessarily, if you could use a term like that. But they’re people that were targeted a lot of times because they were low-hanging fruit realistically by the state, because the state needed to make an example, and wanted to be more proactive in shutting these movements down. So as the years progress, we’re going to be looking at more support work for people who are actually more victims of the system, and less support work for people who were fighters for the movement. And so that’ll look very different.
Also there’ll be fewer political prisoners, which is a good and a bad thing. Fewer is a good thing because as few people in prison as possible, and that’s the better scenario of course. But if that’s because people haven’t been engaging in proactive actions, haven’t been engaging in clandestine activities or illegal activity in any way, that’s not necessarily a good scenario in my opinion. The future of political prisoner support work is gonna change quite a bit over the next five, twenty, twenty-five years. And a lot of that is going to be shaped by the movements that we’re engaged in right now.
So, in essence, the reality of our situation with political prisoners relies on the reality of the strength and fighting capacity of our movements. If we’re completely defensive and not engaging in a whole lot of proactive, offensive activity, then we’re not going to have a whole lot of fighters locked up in prisons. We might have some victims of the state locked up in prisons, and that’s a different type of political prisoner support apparatus. Those are just some things that have been bouncing around with people I work with over recent years.
How do we support aging, long-term prisoners with health issues, who are sometimes getting released shortly before they’re gonna die just because the state doesn’t want to pay their medical bills? How do we do that kind of support now? How do we do post-release support work for people who are coming out traumatized from their experiences in prison and haven’t been able to evolve with the rest of the movement outside very well; adjusting to contemporary realities of movement changes and post-release re-adjustment? Those are all issues that people are struggling with right now, which is a good thing. So I think we are thinking on the right levels and working towards finding some good solutions. There are definitely some groups out there and people out there working doing very positive, proactive work right now, which is a great, massive step forward from when I got involved in the very early 2000’s.
J11: You mentioned David Gilbert, Herman Bell, Jalil, and Seth Hayes a little bit, is there anything going on about those people, or about other prisoners that you know?
L: Some other people I work with, a little bit at least, include Jeremy Hammond, a political prisoner, from very important hacking activity associated with Antisec and Anonymous in certain ways, who hacked a private security firm called Stratfor that was doing all kinds of surveillance. And if we didn’t understand what the movement has come to understand from releasing some of that hacked information, we would be at much more of a disadvantage at this point in the movement, so I have a lot of respect for him and the work that he continues to do. He’s got a few years left in prison I think, in a federal facility.
Marius Mason is another prisoner I work with. Marius is someone who was involved in the Earth Liberation Front as well as many other movements, and is serving time for, predominately, a million-dollar arson against a Monstanto-funded research, genetic engineering research project that was happening at Michigan State University. The arson attack happened on New Year’s Eve of ‘99. So that case is super significant. Marius is serving like twenty-two years or something like that, probably about half-way through the bid at this point. He’s transitioning, gender-wise, within the facility right now. It’s kind of a ground-breaking work; it definitely adds an interesting contemporary important dynamic to political prisoner support.
To talk more about Herman and Seth and Jalil and David, Herman and Jalil had the same case, they were in on the same case. And they were actually in with Nuh Washington as well who passed away in prison. They were called the New York 3, first the New York 5, and then charges were dropped against two people and the case ended up being the New York 3 case. Convicted of some of the earliest Black Liberation Army activity, which were retaliatory attacks against the police. Now it’s just history of the Black Liberation struggle.
There were so many people that were targeted by the police, whether it’s just unarmed black, usually males in communities that were targeted during the ‘60s that caused groups like the Black Panther Party to form up in the first place, to specific targeting, which is really specific to the BLA. Especially the NYPD. They had a hit list essentially of people they thought were part of the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party out there. And they were just hunting these people down, people like Twymon Meyers. I mean there was no reason for them to be killed, they were killed on the streets and then they manufactured evidence afterwards saying, “oh they tried to attack us,” and many other situations like this. There was clearly a hit-list that the authorities were going down and knocking people off of.
When you have a situation like that, it’s not like the normal decision-making scenario of like, “oh do I want to sign a petition and write a letter or do I want to go underground?” You know, that complicates the decision a lot when you’re already on a list because you’ve been involved in the Black Panther Party or you’re a suspected radical, or something like that. It’s going to change the way you decide to operate, so a lot of people were more-or-less forced underground, or their hands were coerced a little bit to engage in underground activity. And how you respond to that is something our movement really needs to work to understand, because we’re not at this level of struggle. So when the state is actively killing people, assassinating people because of their organizing and their work around the movement, then what kind of response is then adequate and necessary?
And at that point a lot of them decided that, a number at least, decided that responding in kind was the only appropriate response, and the Black Liberation Army formed up and adopted models of guerrilla struggle that were happening in Algiers and other places to their situation and were ambushing and assassinating police as well as robbing banks as well as doing things like ridding the community of drug dealers and things like that. So all clandestine activity really. So some of those early police ambushes are what Herman and Jalil are doing 25-years-to-life on right now. If you can imagine, that’s not a very favorable case to argue for release or to gain public support. But again, the more you are involved in these movements, the more understanding and sympathy you’re going to have for situations like that.
And here we are again at the time period when – guess what? – unarmed people of color are being killed in the streets by law enforcement. So clearly the situation hasn’t gotten a whole lot better unfortunately. In particular when it comes to parole. So Herman and Jalil have 25-years-to-life and what that means in New York State is that after 25 years you’re eligible to go to the parole board and they do a little interview and they make a decision, and if you’re denied they give you typically two more years and then you go back to the parole board again, and they can just kinda keep denying you over and over again. And with these cases, you know, the unwritten rule is that anyone who’s in for killing a police officer is never going to get paroled. So they go through this charade every two years where they act as though they’re paying attention to the qualifications for release, and then they just deny them based on what they call the serious nature of the crime, over and over and over again.
One of the things that was highly suspected for a long time was that police fraternity organizations like the PBA were lobbying and petitioning for the parole board to not release these people, behind closed doors. They were sending in private letters and having private conversations, etc with parole board officials saying, “you know what, when Jalil comes up for release, no matter how many positive letters he has, no matter how good his parole packet is, no matter how many jobs and places to live he’s got lined up, no matter how old he is, or how low of a threat he is at this point, deny him because you’re our friends, right? And we’re all cops, right? So let’s just keep him in prison.” So what we did with the state Freedom of Information law was get some of that paperwork: pieces of paper, letters, etc. from the parole board and prove, for example, that yeah there are hundreds if not more of police officers and people encouraged by police officers to write the parole board to say, “don’t release this person,” in addition to the hundreds of letters that we sent in saying, “please release Jalil,” there’s always letters saying, “don’t do it, and our organization of 75,000 ex-law enforcement officers all stand behind you keeping this person in prison.” So we were able to release some of these letters and show that that’s exactly what’s going on.
David Gilbert’s a little different. He was involved in the Weather Underground and then remained somewhat underground and got involved in supporting the Black Liberation struggle, and is serving 75-years-to-life, essentially for being a getaway driver for a Brinks robbery in 1981, just outside New York City. And that was conducted by people who were involved in the jailbreak of Assata Shakur from prison. So, David actually will never even have the opportunity for this sort of charade of a parole board hearing because he won’t live to be 125 years old, so support work for somebody like David is going to be different than for somebody like Eric King.
J11: Are there any struggles or moments in the recent past that have inspired you?
L: Well I’m inspired, frankly, by radical things. You know, by people’s movements that take power into their own hands and fight back against the state and struggle in a classic sense of the term, to really make significant blows against the oppressive apparatus. So, that’s part of the reason why I was the spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, because stuff like the Earth Liberation Front is known for being involved in is precisely the kind of stuff that inspires me. I can get excited about some public and legal stuff from time-to-time, but not to the level of my excitement about, for example, the liberation of Assata Shakur from prison. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff that just inspires me.
So if you’re asking me what’s going on now that’s inspiring, on a personal level I’m all about the black bloc activity that’s been happening in recent months. I’m all about the anti-fascist movement that’s been going on, and how those are changing the dynamics of both property destruction and physical confrontation in the streets. I remember specifically the ordeal that we went through at the WTO protest in Seattle in ’99 between the sort of mainstream, liberal movement and the more radical factions that were engaged in property destruction, and that whole thing was so long-winded and tiresome of an argument to have to go through with people. And I think the dynamic is somewhat changing because of people’s visceral rejection of what’s going on within the government at this point, they’re somewhat more likely to have some sympathy for people who are rioting in the streets, causing property destruction or maybe punching somebody out who’s a white supremacist.
So those things are really inspiring. All the stuff that was happening in the UK in Bristol in recent years with sabotage claimed by the FAI and sometimes the ELF and other groups like Angry Foxes, I find that very inspiring. You know, that’s the kind of thing that makes me happy. [laughs]
J11: Are there any other projects you’re involved with or have interest in that you’d like to talk about?
L: I guess I can talk for a minute about Burning Books, which is a massive project I’m involved in right now. Over the last five years we’ve been running a radical book store here in Buffalo called Burning Books. It’s sort of a home for organizing and radical activism in the area or even in the region, which is I guess a big deal. We help bring events and experience and knowledge, education to this community that would otherwise just pacify. You know, someone’s going on a tour talking about some kind of upcoming protest or this new book or film they’re releasing. Normally they’d go to Chicago, maybe Toronto, maybe New York City, and they would just skip right over some shithole like Buffalo, but now after the work we’ve been doing here at Burning Books, it seems like a lot more of that stuff is coming through town, and I think that makes a big difference locally.
We have a massive mailing list and a massive support base here locally, and I think people really picked up a lot of education from the experiences that they’ve had here at the bookstore for the last five plus years. And I think that makes a big difference, I think Buffalo’s kind of a place you can find some support and sympathy for people like political prisoners or other radical movements out there, and I think that’s a big deal if we can make a lot of our communities more like that. It’s like the sea that the fish has to swim in, in terms of our movements.
So I think that that’s a big deal, and on the other side of that coin, as being somebody who does go around and give lectures and writes books and stuff like that from time-to-time, you’ve got to have places to go. If you’re somebody that’s engaging in a radical project of any kind – a film or a puppet theater or anything like that – you’ve got to have a community that you can go and get support from. To have places like Burning Books out there that are welcoming, and not only welcoming people that come through town, but actually reaching out to people and saying, “hey you did this book and your work, what about coming to our town? Hey, we can get you a plane ticket and put you up and hang out with you for a couple days, and maybe get you other gigs in the region.” That’s proactive work that I think is important. I may not be quite as excited about it as I am about the Angry Foxes action that happened where they torched a police firearms training center over in the UK, but I do think it’s equally important work.
One major important factor is that we actively support radical struggles of all kinds. We’re not just saying, “well we’re just a bookstore, we’re just exercising free speech, blah blah blah blah blah.” You know, we’re bringing in people who just got released from prison for engaging in sabotage and guerilla activity. And we’re specifically reaching out to build popular support for radical struggles, it’s an important aspect of our work. I think it’s important and we enjoy doing it, it’s what we’re trying to do.
J11: If you wanted to comment directly on June 11 that would be great.
L: I could say that June 11th has evolved a lot in my years of engagement in the movement. It started off as really something build around Jeff Luers’ campaign for release, if I’m remembering correctly. And it sorta shifted to Earth Liberation and anarchist, and then like long-term prisoners, and I think that those evolutions are important. It’s good to have an annual day of events where people have something to organize around, instead of waiting for a massive attack from the state, and then scrambling to organize some kind of appropriate response. We can be more proactive and have days like this.
Specifically I work with a lot of people from older movements. During a period when they were working hard to actively connect with Earth Liberation and anarchist movements that were finding new people as political prisoners, they were specifically saying, “oh do you guys have a day of solidarity that you organize around that we can incorporate and get our support base behind?” And there was June 11 to sorta connect with. So I think these types of events are really significant.
Again, the only thing I can add is that whenever there’s something powerful happening, the better off we are. There are movements that are not only writing letters and having potlucks and signing petitions and holding signs and protesting in the streets, but also doing things that are less popular and more controversial. That’s a sign of strength. I remember days of solidarity that weren’t always so peaceful, and I think those sometimes are very empowering moments for people.
J11: Cool, is there anything else?
L: I guess I would say that it’s important to make allies with people from other movements and other time periods. I think it’s something I don’t want to be lost in history. I’ve worked a long time, and a lot of people have been working a long time to build alliances with people who, if you really get down to the nitty gritty they might not be on the exact page politically. They might not be affiliated with the same sort of political labels that we tend to affiliate ourselves with. But they’re really a product of their times as much as we’re a product of our times. And to respect people’s differences and to find common ground to work together. I mean, when I ran the press office for the ELF we felt so isolated, we had so little support. We had decent national support but we had very little local support, and it was stifling. It was a lot of bad relationships and bad blood in Portland, Oregon where we were running it. And it didn’t help at all.
I wanted to get away from that when I left Portland, Oregon and moved back home to Buffalo, I wanted to build relationships with people based on commonalities, general commonalities. I was building relationships with people who were involved in the media who were progressive in some way, and building relationships with attorneys, and other people, anybody in the community. And that became very helpful when we found out there was this big FBI investigation into our bookstore because all the sudden we had all these different people in different positions in society here locally who were willing to go to bat with us, with resources, with connections, with experiences and skills.
It was a lot different of a situation than what we dealt with in Oregon, where it felt like we were quite literally on our own. In this case here, in Buffalo when they had this two year investigation, if you could call it an investigation, really trying to shut down the bookstore and trying to frame us up as a front to form an eco-terrorist cell, it made a massive difference that we had the support of the local newspaper that we had a legal team and all kinds of other people in the community. Within a short period of time we were able to not only end the investigation, but expose all kinds of details of it and get national and international press around it.
I think it’s important when we’re doing political prisoner support work that we don’t isolate ourselves in silos too much. Say I’m like an anarcho-nihilist, and I’m only going to support prisoners who are anarcho-nihilists, it might be kind of nice to think that this person is just like me, but that’s not my orientation. I think it’s much more productive to say, “Okay, what would I be engaged in if I was active in 1972? What would I support knowing that the politics were different, that the contemporary realities were different?” Seeing that those people from that era that are still in prison, you know I’ve learned a lot and gained a lot and grown a lot from my connections with people in Anti-Imperialist and Black Liberation struggles, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
The only thing I really have to say is that something like June 11, and the sort of younger, newer efforts to build political prisoner support networks, I’m really glad to see how much reaching out we’re doing to other movements out there, and people who are still in prison after decades. And when you’re in prison for decades, what happens is that your support base ages out and dwindles away sadly. And there’ll be new people that come along and that’s perhaps some of us at this point, new people that come along and give support work to Anti-Imperialist and Black Liberation prisoners from generations past. And I’m hoping that when our people, knock on wood, may or may not still be in prison decades from now that there’ll be young people who can see past their sectarian political silos to lend us support as well, because we’re going to need it. This is a long struggle, it’s going to take generations and generations, and we’re always going to be struggling, that’s the nature of this struggle. Solidarity and alliances are key.