Leas on Life
Patent lawyer, inventor and activist Jimmy Leas keeps reinventing himself
James Marc Leas (right) at Al Dameer, a nongovernmental organization, during his recent tour of Gaza
In May 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, James Marc Leas graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and promptly received his draft induction notice. Leas expected to go to Vietnam, where men his age were dying in droves.
At MIT, Leas had been a vocal antiwar demonstrator. He helped found the student committee against the war, staged protests, gave speeches and engaged in sit-ins. But unlike fellow antiwar demonstrators who publicly burned their draft cards, Leas traveled from Cambridge to the Whitehall Induction Station in lower Manhattan.
After passing his physical, Leas was led into a cavernous room, where he was asked to sign a loyalty oath swearing that he would support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
“I read it and said, ‘I like this! I can sign,’” Leas recalls with a smile. And then, the future lawyer scribbled a few addenda of his own in the margins. He pointed out, for example, that since he had sworn to uphold the Constitution, he had a moral and legal obligation to speak out against the war, which he considered to be unconstitutional. Moreover, he would encourage all of his fellow soldiers to do the same.
“It says we have the right to assemble? We’re going to assemble. It says we have the right to free speech? We’re going to exercise our free speech,” recalls Leas, who still talks with a no-nonsense, New York accent that betrays his upbringing in Far Rockaway, Queens. “How better to defend the Constitution than to oppose an unconstitutional war of aggression?”
The recruiter pulled Leas aside and told him to return the following day, whereupon he was fingerprinted nine times. “And that was that,” Leas remembers. “I didn’t hear from them again for a long time.”
Leas never went to Vietnam; in 1969, the U.S. government introduced a lottery system for military service and he drew a high number. Nevertheless, the story of how Leas avoided going to war in Southeast Asia says a lot about how he’s challenged the system over the years to become one of Vermont’s most versatile, dogged and successful activists.
Others try to effect change through civil disobedience — say, by occupying a government office until they’re arrested, or chaining themselves to a bulldozer to protest the logging of an old-growth forest.
Not Leas. His style is more like civil obedience, but with a twist. The South Burlington patent attorney, inventor, engineer and social-justice activist prefers to tinker from the inside, using the laws and professed values of the system against itself. In fact, after more than 30 years of fighting against war, injustice, nuclear proliferation and corporate greed, Leas has been arrested just once — outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. — and was released almost immediately.
“I always thought it was pointless and negative,” Leas says. “In a democracy, you should be able to exercise your constitutional rights and be respected. Why should you have to be arrested to participate in civic affairs?”
Jimmy Leas is a change agent, but not the high-profile sort. He ran for elected office only once — in 2004, for attorney general on the Green Party ticket — and garnered just 3 percent of the vote. He spent $5 on his entire statewide campaign.
It seems he cares more about the causes he champions than becoming a celebrity for his activism. In the 1980s, he organized a series of shareholder initiatives against IBM to protest their business dealings with South Africa’s apartheid regime. In the 1990s, Leas played a pivotal role in challenging Big Blue’s pension-plan shenanigans and alleged age-discrimination against its employees.
Then, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Leas helped draft many of the town-meeting-day resolutions that called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, as well as those proposing impeachment for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Most recently, Leas drafted many ballot items calling for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to close when its license expires in 2012. His latest foray — with a delegation of lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild — was to look for evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Surprisingly, much of his day-to-day work as a patent attorney is completely apolitical. Before becoming a lawyer — he “read for the bar” rather than attending law school — Leas was an engineer and inventor. He holds 35 patents in his own name, in addition to more than 100 he wrote or prosecuted for IBM.
All those skills have proven useful to Leas. “James has a really great ability to take something and simplify it to its most basic elements,” says Steve Arms, president and founder of MicroStrain, a Williston-based company that builds tiny sensors. Leas has helped secure many lucrative patents for MicroStrain. “That’s why he’s so good at writing patent claims,” Arms says. “He’s really good at getting down to the essence of an idea.”
People who’ve worked with Leas on his political causes pay him the same compliment: He has a real knack for boiling down complex issues to their essential truths.
“Jimmy’s great. He’s one of my favorite guys,” says Dan DeWalt, who worked with Leas on the recent Vermont Yankee resolutions. “He’s a pit bull for justice.”
Sometimes soft-spoken, other times righteously indignant, Leas is often described as “high energy,” “tenacious,” “evangelical” and “willing to stick his neck out.” His Facebook photo shows him shouting into a bullhorn.
Union activist and “fellow IBM dissident” Ralph Montefusco has known Leas for years, since their days of hounding IBM executives at annual shareholder meetings all over the country. “Jimmy is a unique person,” he says. “I wouldn’t even begin to have the energy or bandwidth to address all the issues he’s involved in.”
Leas even earns a tip of the hat from his former MIT professor, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist, author and political activist who’s stayed in touch with his student over the years. “I’ve followed some of his work,” Chomsky wrote in an email last week. “I’ve always been impressed with his insight and dedication.”
Seven Days sat down with Leas recently at his South Burlington home. He has two daughters: Eliza 16, who is soon to graduate from South Burlington High School, and, Zoe, a college junior who's spending a semester in Cape Town, South Africa. It was an ironic choice, Leas notes: Despite his many years of fighting apartheid, he never visited the country himself.
Leas’ house is warm and unpretentious, decorated with many of his own paintings and pastel chalk drawings of the Vermont woods. In the foyer is a black-and white photo of his grandparents — Russian Jews who immigrated to New York City around the turn of the century.
The living room, which doubles as Leas’ law office, is filled with books on a range of political subjects. In one window is a green-and-white placard that reads, “Yes to a nuclear-free Vermont in 2012.” On a nearby counter is the latest issue of Monthly Review, a socialist magazine.
Leas is tall and lean, with green eyes, wireless glasses and a boyish haircut. With his pronounced cheekbones and angular jaw, he bears a slight resemblance to actor James Woods — though his outer-borough accent makes him sound more like Woody Allen. And, despite wisps of gray hair around his ears, Leas looks at least a decade younger than his 61 years.
Leas was born in 1948, the younger of two sons of a schoolteacher mother and orthopedist father. He attended yeshiva, or Hebrew grammar school, until third grade, when he transferred to public school — partly, he notes, because his Hebrew language skills weren’t very good. As he recalls, “My mom came in one day to observe the class and she counted 50 yawns from me, so she knew I wasn’t enjoying myself.”
Leas excelled in school and later attended Brooklyn Tech, a prestigious high school that specializes in math, science and engineering. As these were the years shortly after the launch of Sputnik and the discovery of DNA, Leas developed a keen interest in physics and biology, both of which he studied at MIT.
In high school, Leas was “kind of a right-winger,” he admits. “I was supporting the war and Kennedy’s pacification program and thought we had to stop the communists.”
That worldview changed radically in 1965. While taking summer classes at Queens College, Leas came upon a group of people tabling against the war. “I picked up their magazine and it really opened my mind,” he remembers.
In fact, Leas still remembers the date of his first antiwar rally: October 16, 1965, the International Day of Protest, held on Boston Commons. Although the protest received little local media attention, nearly 3000 people turned out. For Leas, it was the start of a long commitment to political activism.
After graduation, Leas took a job teaching physics at Mackenzie High, an all-black public school in Detroit. There, he joined the teachers’ union, organized a committee to oppose the war, and chaired the peace committee for the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
Lacking formal teaching credentials, Leas began attending night classes at Wayne State University, where he was soon enlisting fellow students to protest the war. For a time, Leas worked as a reporter for the campus newspaper, the South End. In May 1970, when the invasion of Cambodia was announced, the South End published 100,000 copies, rather than its usual 6000, featuring an antiwar message. Leas and his fellow journalists handed out copies to auto workers as they ended their shifts.
“Our idea was to use the university to reach out to the rest of the population,” Leas explains. “Because if we could get the workers from the factories to come out [and protest], the war makers would have to start worrying not whether they’re ruling in Vietnam, but whether they’re ruling in the United States.”
In 1973, Leas returned to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “When I got to U Mass, I thought, OK, now I’m not going to be political. I’m just going to focus on physics. That lasted about two years.”
In the mid-1970s, Massachusetts was facing tough economic times, and the newly elected Governor Michael Dukakis announced deep cuts in public education. After attending a rally organized by the college’s economics department, Leas stood up and suggested that they hold a campus-wide vote for a student strike. A week later, the students voted overwhelmingly for the strike, and a demonstration was organized for downtown Boston. The campaign soon spread to other college campuses around Massachusetts; Dukakis later visited the Amherst campus and eventually rescinded many of the cuts.
“Here I am trying to be a graduate student in physics in the middle of this huge student upsurge statewide,” he says. “But we had a big effect.”
Leas got his master’s degree in physics in 1977, then accepted a job with IBM in East Fishkill, New York, engineering semiconductors. But after just three years with the company, he took a leave of absence to work for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
His stint at the UCS was well timed. It came shortly after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh had asked the UCS to devise several options for getting rid of radioactive krypton gas that had accumulated inside the plant. Leas’ job was to help devise one of those plans, and then communicate it to the press.
In the process, he got a crash course on the intricacies of nuclear plant operations, an education that’s been helpful in his recent campaign to close Vermont Yankee. Leas’ idea was not the one ultimately selected, but The New York Times later published a letter he wrote about the accident.
From 1980 to ’84, Leas worked for a company called Solarex, which built photovoltaic panels. But after Reagan’s reelection in 1984, solar energy fell out of favor with the U.S. government, and the company folded. In December 1984, Leas returned to IBM in Virginia, then later relocated to Vermont, where he’s lived ever since.
During his first stint with IBM in the 1970s, Leas wrote a letter to the chairman of the board expressing his misgivings about IBM’s dealing with South Africa. Then, as the apartheid issue heated up in the mid-’80s, Leas decided to employ a strategy similar to the one he’d used to avoid the draft — namely, applying the company’s own stated values on responsible corporate governance against itself.
So, Leas wrote a second letter to IBM’s chairman. He pointed out that IBM was the largest supplier of computer technology to South Africa and suggested that Big Blue’s participation in the growing boycott would send a powerful message to the pro-apartheid regime.
Leas remembers receiving “the usual corporate response,” about IBM’s positive work in South Africa and why there was no reason to divest. But Leas was unfazed. He wrote more letters about IBM’s business in South Africa, this time to The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which were published. Then, in March 1986, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed piece he wrote on the same subject.
News of Leas’ opinion piece spread quickly throughout the company, though, most surprising to him, it created no problems whatsoever. “It was amazing!” he remembers. “I thought, What are they going to do to me? If they fired me, there’d be a story on that, too.”
Instead, Leas was invited to IBM’s corporate headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., where he was treated to lunch in the executive dining room. Afterward, a PR exec showed him a slideshow about all the computers IBM donated each year to South Africa.
But Leas wasn’t buying it. He asked the PR flack if the slideshow was, in fact, a violation of IBM’s business-conduct guidelines. Wasn’t it misleading, he suggested, to devote just one of more than 20 slides to IBM’s revenues in South Africa, when their sales figures there far exceeded all of IBM’s charitable donations?
Leas remembers: “He admitted to me, ‘Well, what do you expect? This is apartheid. We don’t have any black customers in South Africa.’”
For years, Leas would cite that admission. Beginning in 1988 and for six years thereafter, he introduced initiatives at every stockholder meeting, calling on IBM to divest its South African holdings. In fact, after Reagan appointed two members of IBM’s board of directors to a commission that examined how to address the apartheid issue, Leas obtained a copy of that report — and read it at the next stockholders meeting.
“It was fantastic!” he remembers. “The report was a devastating indictment of South Africa.”
Unsurprisingly, Leas’ anti-apartheid resolutions never got a majority, but they always garnered enough votes to appear on the following year’s agenda. And by 1994 — the year apartheid officially ended — Leas’ resolution was getting at least 20 percent support from IBM shareholders. The local news picked up on his resolution in almost every city stockholder meetings were held.
“The media think that if you’re in the system and you’re speaking out against the system, that’s news,” Leas says. “If it works, keep doing it.”
Leas did just that. In 1995 and again in 1999, IBM announced that it was altering its pension and retirement plans, potentially affecting tens of thousands of retirees. In response, Leas launched a shareholder revolt to challenge their legality. Time and again, he stood up at the annual meetings and called out his corporate bosses.
Hans Heikel, a retired IBMer in Burlington who was at risk of losing nearly one-third of his pension due to those changes, remembers seeing Leas at the 2000 stockholder meeting in Cleveland.
“He really laid into the CEO, Lou Gerstner, who was standing there at the podium the whole time,” Heikel recalls. “Lou was getting really agitated by the whole thing, and you could see it in his face. But Jimmy was just calm as could be and just let him have it. I was really impressed.”
Again, Leas’ resolutions on the benefits changes never passed; it took a class action lawsuit, appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, to put the issue to rest in 2007. For more than a decade, Leas kept it in the public eye.
“I think Jimmy and his involvement with the media and politicians like Bernie Sanders really helped push this issue along,” says Lee Conrad, national coordinator of the Alliance@IBM, an organization formed to defend the employees’ benefits. “He was always right on target and pulled no punches.”
Conrad tells the story of how, in 2001, Leas got into a shouting match outside the annual stockholder meeting in Savannah, Georgia, because the security guard was trying to prevent him from distributing flyers on a public sidewalk. Leas was almost arrested, but Conrad defused the situation by reminding him about the resolution he had to argue later that day.
“So, Jimmy went inside and railed on the corporate executives, like he always does,” Conrad says. “If they tried to stop him, he just kept on going, like a pit bull.”
Leas was calm, cool and collecting contributions for the American Friends Service Commitee last week at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier. About 25 people came to hear him talk about his recent trip to the Gaza Strip. He went with a delegation of attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild to visit the Palestinian region, just days after Israel stopped bombing the area.
For two hours, Leas showed slides of the devastation and talked about his interviews with scores of Palestinian civilians. The goal, he said, was to gather evidence of possible war crimes committed by Israel’s military; an official report is due out any day now. According to Leas, theirs is one of just a handful of legal teams investigating Israel’s lack of adherence to the international rules of war in Gaza.
After the presentation, an audience member asked Leas what he thought could be accomplished by the report. After all, he noted, neither Israel nor the United States are signatories to the International Criminal Court, which investigates war crimes. Moreover, the United States is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and would never bring those charges against Israel. “In this case,” the young man concluded, “doesn’t might make right?”
But Leas preferred to take the long view. America, he said, wouldn’t have won women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights or ended the Vietnam War if people hadn’t defied the odds and stood up against the powers that be.
“One of the things about war crimes is there’s no statute of limitations,” Leas added. “It may take a while, but you can’t play ‘Beat the Clock’ on an injustice like this.”