Activism in the surveillance state: A follow-up with Leslie James Pickering

Leslie James Pickering (LJP), former Earth Liberation Front spokesperson and current owner of the radical, independent bookstore Burning Books in Buffalo, NY, was recently invited to give a talk by the Boston DSA PEWG and Ecosocialism WG. The event was co-sponsored by the Grassroots Infrastructure Charitable Foundation and was held in the Cambridge Public Library (Central Sq branch) on April 9th. A video recording of the event is available here

Leslie has been giving lectures across the US about government surveillance/repression of leftist/environmentalist social movements. He has been giving talks about his experiences as an activist and bookstore owner being surveilled, and how he has used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the FBI files on his bookstore and fight back against the surveillance of activists in Buffalo. PEWG blog followed up with Leslie after his talk to discuss further the surveillance state and its effect on the communities, and how to dismantle it.   

PEWG blog: Hannah Arendt had famously described “the banality of evil” – your experience with the state surveillance apparatus seems to reflect a similar pattern in post-9/11 USA. Can you comment a bit on whether you think this is the case? If not, then what do you consider to be the ultimate motive behind surveillance programs?

LJP: The ultimate motive behind the surveillance state is repression of efforts towards social change.

Social movements that struggle to change society in ways that challenge the power structure, and/or the ability for private profiteering at the expense of the public good, tend to be primary targets of the surveillance state. While there are variants, and personal motives/vendettas, the surveillance state tends to mostly operate mechanically, defending its power and interests.

Traditional law enforcement, even while selectively executed, is only one tone in a spectrum of ways to repress these social movements, which means that surveillance has many powers beyond solving crime and aiding legal prosecution. Surveillance provides intelligence essential for every form of state repression, even becoming a form of repression in and of itself at times.

While there should be disgust and outrage in response to the existence and intrusions of the surveillance state, it’s much more important to recognize that the ultimate purpose it serves is to prevent social justice movements and activists from gaining success – to thwart efforts for social change initiated by citizens and grassroots organizations. In this context, surveillance is intended undermine “by the people, for the people,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and similar notions which are said to be foundational to America, and indeed even the common perception of American democracy. More significant and universal, surveillance is an essential tool oppressors use to subjugate the oppressed.

PEWG blog: In the last decade or so, the extent of surveillance carried out on US citizens and residents are coming to light thanks to whistleblowers. However, it appears that these violations of privacy are not taken seriously by the general public after a short period of outrage. Why do you think that might be the case considering how much the Americans favor privacy? And how can you make people care more about such issues?

LJP: Innovations in media and technology, including social media, link acceptance of surveillance with fulfillment of social and emotional needs. In order to resist surveillance collected by cellular phones and social media platforms, individuals largely need to abandon these technologies. This is a challenge, because our social lives have become increasingly tied to these technologies. To give up your cell phone and social media accounts for many is to be, if unintentionally, increasingly left out of social networks and interactions, and socially isolated.

People don’t tend to appreciate their personal lives being spied upon, but largely seem to be willing to accept it in exchange for the fulfillment of social needs that these technologies tend to provide. A convenient (and thoroughly flawed) settlement is reached in many people’s minds that if you’re not doing anything wrong then you don’t have anything to worry about. This concept is only logical under the circumstances of a benevolent surveillance state. In America, with its countless false and malicious prosecutions, its history of frame-ups and covert violence against social justice movements and activists, surveillance provides intelligence needed for repression.

If more people were aware, concerned, and active on social justice causes there would likely be more pushback against the surveillance state. Privacy would then have a value worth fighting for. As it stands, social justice is the realm of a marginalized minority and therefore privacy loses much of its worth in American society.

PEWG blog: After your experience, do you think your views on state security and surveillance apparatus have changed? If yes, how so?

LJP: My experience has mostly sharpened my views on the surveillance state. The basic concepts about surveillance and state repression that I learned at the early stages of my activism, and before I was involved in activism in several cases, have largely held true and solidified. The experiences of being personally targeted over many years, and learning many of the particulars, has fine-tuned my understanding.

Surveilling and repressing movements for social justice is simply wrong. A just society would put its resources towards bringing about positive social change rather than spying on and attacking activists. The more I’ve learned about the surveillance state and state repression, the more blatant the injustice of this system has appeared to me, and while at times frightened, the more determined I become to struggle against it.

One objective of the surveillance state and state repression is to frighten off activists and to make us feel that our cause is hopeless. If we fall for that, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that the state puts such enormous resources into managing dissident movements because we have a such strong potential to topple existing power structures and bring about more equality and justice. Rather than reacting with fear we should struggle to react with intelligence and bravery. What’s wrong is wrong, no matter how powerful those perpetrated it are.

PEWG blog: What does your vision of a world devoid of state surveillance look like and how do we move towards such a future? Are laws like FOIA adequate to reach that goal?

LJP: The existing Freedom of Information and Privacy laws on state and federal levels are extremely inadequate. Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, numerous exemptions exist to block our access to federal documents (including an exemption that essentially states that if we don’t have proof that a file exists then the government can act as though it doesn’t exist to keep it secret from the public), and there is literally no oversight. So if the FBI says it only has a few pages of files on you, or that a large percent of the pages you’re requesting are exempt from release, there’s nobody looking over their shoulders to prove that they’re not lying. By filing a federal FOIA lawsuit, you may succeed in motions to have the presiding judge look at sample of exemptions that the government is claiming to verify their validity, but that’s it.

If it weren’t for whistleblowers and leakers, and especially the 1971 burglary of an FBI office by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, the thin layer of transparency that exists in America would be painfully thinner. We freedoms that we do have aren’t “self-evident” and aren’t ours because of any altruistic nature of this state, but rather because of the long line of people and organizations that have struggled and sacrificed for justice, equality, freedom and autonomy against an inherently authoritarian and exploitative state. We need to follow in that tradition and take it to the next level.


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