'1971' Reveals the Break-In That Changed the FBI
Before Wikileaks or Snowden, this PBS doc shows, there was Media, Pa.
On March 8, 1971, under the cover of darkness, eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., searching for evidence of governmental wrongdoing.
“I knew we’d find things in that office that were not only immoral,” Keith Forsyth, one of the group members later said, “but probably illegal.” The burglary is the subject of a PBS Independent Lens documentary, 1971, airing Monday, May 18 on most PBS stations (check local listings).
As war casualties mounted in Vietnam, the citizen burglars a hunch the FBI was covertly working to suppress war protests and intimidate civil rights activists. But they needed proof.
“We knew that if we got caught we were going to face very serious prison time,” recalled Bonnie Raines, who had three small children at the time of the break-in.
That night, while the rest of the nation was immersed in the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the citizen burglars quietly cleared out every file in the FBI office — more than 1,000 in all, carried out the front door in suitcases.
Among the files was a document signed by J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious former director of the FBI, suggesting an increase in surveillance of protesters and activists to create paranoia and to make the groups think there was “an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
“When we saw that in the official document, signed by Hoover, we knew we had good stuff,” John Raines told Filmmaker Magazine decades later. “We discovered massive surveillance of the whole black community. It wasn’t just black students or black students’ unions, but every place black folks gathered. Their churches, their local stores."
The group, calling themselves The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, sent the incendiary documents to major newspapers and select members of Congress. Weeks after the burglary, the Washington Post published a front-page story disclosing findings from the purloined FBI documents — something no other paper was willing to do in the pre-Watergate, pre-Pentagon Papers era. The revelations led to the first Congressional investigation of a U.S. intelligence agency in the country’s history.
A year later, information from those stolen files led an NBC reporter to file a Freedom of Information request that exposed a shocking government program called COINTELPRO. Among other things, it revealed how the FBI systematically threatened and coerced civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the aftermath of the break-in, the eight men and women of the Citizens’ Commission hid in plain sight, working everyday jobs and raising their kids. Though they’d been a tightknit group before the break-in, they decided not to meet or talk again to avoid raising suspicion. Even after the expiration of the five-year statute of limitation on their crime, the group maintained their silence.
Finally, in 2014, a few members of the group allowed themselves to be identified in a book about the incident, written by Betty Medsger, the former Post reporter who broke the story in 1971. (The book is called The Burglary.) Five of the original group members also agreed to talk to filmmaker Johanna Hamilton for 1971.
“There are times at which people do courageous and potentially controversial acts in order to generate this sort of national discussion,” Hamilton says. “It’s the lifeblood of democracy.”
Hamilton sees a clear link from Media, Pa., in the 1970s to events playing out today on the world stage.
“The discussion that [Edward] Snowden has generated is very similar with what happened with the [Media, Pa.] break-in," Hamilton says. The burglars started a national conversation about the lack of oversight. Snowden has done exactly the same thing. When we talk about Snowden and the NSA [National Security Agency], everything seems so all-encompassing. It’s very easy for us to think, ‘Is there anything that we can do?’ and throw up [our] hands and [say], ‘There’s nothing I can do against this enormous system.’ I want the film to inspire people, and present the [parallels] to today.”
“It was very empowering,” Bonnie said during the filming of 1971, “to know that ordinary people could actually take action.”
1971 airs on PBS's Independent Lens Monday, May 18 at 10pm/9c. Check local listings.