On March 8th, 1971, antiwar protestors broke into the offices of the FBI in Media, PA and stole every file they could lay their hands on. These people were not criminal masterminds. They were ordinary people involved in peaceful antiwar movements, such as college professors, a homemaker, a taxi driver, and the like who called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI. The documents they stole and released revealed the existence of secret and illegal surveillance programs to infiltrate, harass, and discredit peaceful antiwar groups. The existence of these programs was widely suspected but unproven.
Their work was what led to the exposure of the infamous COINTELPRO program run by the US government. They were meticulous in their planning, such as taking correspondence courses in lock-picking, sending one of their own to the offices pretending to be applying for a job in order to case the place. Their biggest stroke of genius was to choose the night of the Ali-Frazier fight because they expected everyone to be glued to their TVs. They realized that if they got caught, they would be sent to prison for decades and so they had to maintain tight secrecy.
One of them Bonnie Raines, then just 29 years old, got promises from her parents and her husband’s brother to look after their three young children if anything should happen to them without telling them about the plan. She was the one who visited the FBI offices under the guise of doing a student research project so that she could case the place. She described the events in 2014.
For five years we lived under the threat of arrest. There was a sketch of me that the FBI circulated from when I impersonated a Swarthmore student, though I didn’t know it at the time. And the FBI interviewed John, luckily while I was out of the house. After five years, the statute of limitations fell for the burglary, and we were relieved. We didn’t celebrate on the fifth anniversary, though after that we were more relaxed. We now know they closed the case in 1976 for lack of any physical evidence.
Eventually, we told the children, and the story became part of family lore. We wanted them to know about that chapter in our history, and besides, you can’t ask your children to act according to their conscience unless you show them what you have done in your life, too.
They managed to not just pull off the break-in and expose these programs, they successfully evaded detection by an embarrassed and infuriated FBI, despite an enraged J. Edgar Hoover assigning over 200 agents to the case. In 2014, most the participants revealed themselves after the statute of limitations had expired.
I wrote about this back in 2015 upon the just released book The Burglary by Betty Medsger, a reporter who was one of the people to whom they sent the documents and the only one who recognized its importance and published the story in the Washington Post, and thus broke it wide open.
Chip Gibbons has an excellent recounting of that event and provides details about vast number of abuses under COINTELPRO.
The eight anti-war activists who burglarized the FBI building did so at great personal risk. By breaking into the building, the activists risked lengthy prison sentences, something whistleblowers and journalists who challenge the national security state still find themselves risking today. When a film about the break-in, 1971, was screened on Capitol Hill, the late progressive Rep. John Conyers told the audience that a Congressional investigation into the FBI’s domestic intelligence activities was not possible when Hoover was alive — too many feared him.
The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI did not let their fear of Hoover paralyze them from taking action against the bureau’s abuses. They should be remembered as heroes who stood up against the villains of the nation’s secret political police, the FBI.
There is a superb PBS documentary titled 1971 on the break-in with re-enactments. My blog post linked above also gives more links on this story. I watched the documentary again last night and it was still gripping and cleansed my mind of the awful show I wrote about yesterday.
It is an inspiring story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.