An activist group called Arissa has earned praise over the last two years for taking a positive, grass-roots approach to social problems plaguing the City of Buffalo.
But Arissa's leadership also has been linked to a national extremist environmental group that espouses the use of arson and sabotage to achieve political reform.
That connection has led to the abrupt end to Arissa's latest local project: reopening the old Northwest Public Library building on the West Side. It also has opened a debate about the extent to which a group's origins should overshadow its community work.
From the late 1990s through 2002, Arissa's founder, Leslie J. Pickering, was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front. The FBI labeled the organization a domestic ecoterrorist group for costly exploits that ranged from destroying SUVs and logging company offices to burning down luxury hillside homes and agricultural research labs.
Pickering, 28, says Arissa has little to do with the liberation front. "Nothing we do involves violence," he said.
Since Pickering returned from the West Coast to his Buffalo hometown two years ago, Arissa has done some noteworthy, nonviolent projects aimed at education and awareness of ongoing city problems.
It has conducted a high-profile West Side community needs survey, held lectures and free film screenings, and hosted public meetings regarding issues of social justice.
Most recently, it offered to provide volunteers to reopen the former Northwest Public Library -- closed late last year -- as a public reading room.
But the group ran the reading room for only a week before its partners learned of its controversial ties.
When The Buffalo News began asking about Arissa, its partner and the primary tenant of the library building -- the Massachusetts Avenue Project -- looked up the organization's leadership, then severed ties. "They will not be running the reading room," Executive Director Christina L. Akers said of Arissa. "The Massachusetts Avenue Project in no way endorses or supports
violence of any kind."
Pickering said he was never an actual member of the Earth Liberation Front, although he spoke regularly on its behalf. Three years ago, he defended the ELF in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.
"We are not terrorists," he was quoted as saying. "The ELF doesn't hijack planes, and we take precautions to see that no one gets injured by our actions. We make sure no one is in a building before we burn it down."
Pickering and former ELF co-spokesman Craig Rosebraugh started Arissa as a social activist group in 2003. The Buffalo branch of Arissa is the organization's first pilot chapter. It claims about 50 members.
There are few similarities between the mission of the Earth Liberation Front and Arissa, which is not an environmental organization and hasn't engaged in illegal activity.
But Arissa does not renounce taking more extreme measures to achieve change locally. Instead, Pickering says Arissa will push for change through existing avenues until it becomes clear those avenues don't work. "We are dedicated to the change, not the method," he said.
Arissa's main Web site includes a link to the group's West Coast publishing house, which markets a number of books by Pickering and Rosebraugh regarding the Earth Liberation Front cause and "The Logic of Political Violence."
It also offers a promotional poster for Arissa, which argues that nonviolent community activism has resulted in a string of political failures in this country.
Part of Arissa's mission is an educational one, Pickering said. That's why the group offered to run the reading room in the former Northwest Public Library on Grant Street.
The Massachusetts Avenue Project, a prominent West Side community organization that promotes economic self-sufficiency, is the primary tenant of the building, which is owned by the city.
It had been looking for ways to reopen the public portion of the building as a reading room. When Arissa volunteered to staff the room five days a week, Akers said she was initially glad because of the good work Arissa has done in the past. "It just sounded like the perfect opportunity," she said.
It seemed perfect for Arissa, too. They were looking to expand their own collection of "revolutionary" activist books and media and were accepting public donations. Arissa volunteers had already reorganized the children's books when the reading room reopened to the public last week.
Arissa, though, was asked to give up its volunteer operations last Friday. Now, the West Side community reading room is once again closed.
Buffalo and Erie County Public Library administrators closed the Northwest library last year because of the county budget crisis but agreed to leave behind furniture and materials for the community's benefit.
Both Akers and Common Council Member Dominic Bonifacio say they are actively working to reopen the building to the public soon. Bonifacio said a college student may work part time to keep the reading room open Monday through Friday, and Concerned Ecumenical Ministries may volunteer on Saturdays.