“Fight of the Century”: Activism and Civil Disobedience in Media, 1971

Forty-three years ago this month, a group of anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and made off with every document inside. The leaked reports led to the discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s secret campaign to harass and intimidate opponents of the war in Vietnam, leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and even students on college campuses. War News Radio’s Caroline Batten sat down with two of the burglars, husband and wife John and Bonnie Raines, to talk about conflict, activism, and the whistleblowers of today.

BATTEN: March 8, 1971. The night of the World Championship in Heavyweight Boxing, the Fight of the Century, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.

BATTEN: People across America were tuning in on their radios — which was just what activists Bonnie and John Raines, along with their six partners, were banking on.

BONNIE: Maybe the police would be not quite as vigilant about their patrols listening to the fight.

BATTEN: Bonnie and John were part of a secret group of anti-war activists, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. That night, with everyone listening to Frazier pounding Ali, the group broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and made off with every single document inside.

The documents that the Citizens’ Commission stole and leaked to The Washington Post led to the discovery of COINTELPRO, a program designed by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The goal of COINTELPRO was to intimidate and harass leftist leaders, even trying to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide. They monitored student activists on campuses, wiretapped various organizations, discredited everyone from actresses to athletes, and tried to get investigative reporter Jack Nelson fired from his job at the LA Times. Fred Hampton, the national spokesman for the Black Panthers, was killed as part of a COINTELPRO operation.

Bonnie, John, and their partners didn’t know what the word COINTELPRO meant when they leaked the stolen documents, but they did know that a memo from J. Edgar Hoover encouraging FBI agents to, quote, “increase the paranoia” for liberal activists was serious news.

JOHN: We had ‘em. We had ‘em nailed. That was it. It wasn’t surveillance, it was intimidation.

BATTEN: Bonnie and John had been activists for years. John was a Freedom Rider during the height of the Civil Rights movement, where he first noticed FBI agents taking pictures and harassing protesters. When the two moved north to Philadelphia, they started protesting the war in Vietnam.

JOHN: We brought from the South to the North knowledge about J. Edgar Hoover and his dirty tricks. We also brought expectations of success, which would be frustrated time and time again. I mean, we tried all the street tactics, we tried all the nonviolent protests, and none of them were getting us anywhere.

BATTEN: Bonnie says it was clear the FBI was constantly watching.

BONNIE: Everyone realized they were being watched. And their photographs were taken when they were in marches or rallies. People knew their phones were tapped… and we knew that if we were meeting to plan something that there would probably be FBI plants in our midst.

BATTEN: And all that surveillance was starting to derail the anti-war movement.

JOHN: And if you have the suspicion, well, is this person next to me who says all these right things, I mean, is he really working for the FBI, that begins to break the trust that is at the very heart of a community of resistance.

BATTEN: That’s when Bonnie and John met Haverford physics professor Bill Davidon, who was determined to prove that the FBI was disrupting the anti-war movement. Former Washington Poster reporter Betty Medsger, who published the documents stolen by the Citizens’ Commission, says Davidon felt he was up to the challenge.

MEDSGER Instead of thinking like most people would about such a problem, how you get evidence that the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country is suppressing dissent, when it’s also the most secretive and the most protected organization in the country, most people, I think it would safe to say, would have thought, this is a problem that cannot be solved, sure, it’s terrible, and simply lament. And Bill was a problem solver.

BATTEN: Determined to find evidence of Hoover’s dirty campaigns, Davidon rounded up a group of eight activists and planned to break in to the FBI satellite office in the small town of Media. Bonnie and John were ready to try something drastic.

JOHN: America was on fire. And that anger was constantly being frustrated from having any success at stopping the war in Vietnam. We knew he was using massive surveillance, we knew he was using infiltrators and provocateurs, and we also knew that nobody in Washington was going to hold him accountable.

BONNIE: We came to the realization that it really is up to every citizen in a democracy to protect rights in a democracy, and if there is abuse of those rights you can’t just sit back and wait for someone else.

BATTEN: The Citizens’ Commission had no idea what they would find in the Media office, or if the documents they wanted would even be there. They were counting on the fact that Hoover was a bureaucrat who kept endless files on his programs. So they spent months casing the office, which was inside an ordinary apartment building.

JOHN: In order to make that burglary something that was… that would look safe and rational to do rather than absurd, because, you know, who’s going to rob the FBI? Crazy people, right? So we had to make sure of… exactly what those folks, the patterns of their behavior at night were, when they got back from work.

BATTEN: But that wasn’t enough. They had to get inside.

BONNIE: So I called the office and said I was a student at Swarthmore, and I was doing research on opportunities for women in the FBI.

BATTEN: Bonnie managed to get inside for an interview, wearing borrowed glasses and a hat over her long hair.

BONNIE: He never seemed to notice that I never took my gloves off, the whole time I was taking notes.

BATTEN: On the night of the burglary, everything almost went wrong. Taxi driver Keith Forsyth had learned to pick locks, but the FBI had added a new lock to the door — one he didn’t know how to open.

FORSYTH: At that moment my heart just sank. Because immediately I thought, a, I’m incompetent because I didn’t see this lock before, and b, the whole thing is off because I can’t get through this door.

BATTEN: That’s Keith, speaking at the Philadelphia Free Library. He headed around to a second door and pried open the deadbolt with a crowbar. Then he had to use a car jack to budge a hundred-pound file cabinet blocking the way. But the surprises didn’t stop there.

FORSYTH: Somewhere in this process of getting through the second door, I heard a clanking sound inside the office, and I didn’t know if it was the heating system or the FBI jostling furniture.

BATTEN: But the coast was clear, and Forsyth, Davidon, and their partners emptied the contents of the file cabinets into their suitcases and drove off to a farmhouse to examine their finds. When they found the memo with the words “enhance the paranoia”, they were furious — and thrilled.

JOHN AND BONNIE: Ohhhh boy, we got him, we got him, we got old J. Edgar Hoover!

BATTEN: After sending out copies of the files to a list of reporters, the group needed to lie low. Hoover sent out more than two hundred agents searching for the Media burglars.

JOHN: The reason they didn’t find us is important. I’m convinced this burglary could only happen in the Philadelphia area. Because back in the late 60s and early 70s, Philadelphia was the national center of resistance to the war in Vietnam. We could hide out in plain sight.

BATTEN: And if Betty Medsger hadn’t written a book about the Citizens’ Commission, called The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, they might never have come forward.

JOHN: Why would we? BONNIE: No, I don’t think we would have. JOHN: We did what we did, it was effective… we don’t think of ourselves as heroes, we think of ourselves as everyday citizens.

BATTEN: That’s where John thinks whistleblower Edward Snowden, former contractor for the National Security Agency who leaked details of global surveillance programs, may have made a tactical mistake.

JOHN: We didn’t take public responsibility. And therefore the focus of public opinion stayed on the issue, stayed on the issue of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and his dirty tricks. Once Snowden says, I did it, then all of the public media attention focuses upon him, not the issue. And in a certain sense, we were more effective because we hid out.

BATTEN: Bonnie and John weren’t inside reporters, like Snowden, but they still think he’s done the people of the United States a public service.

JOHN: So citizens will always have to fight, always bring a suspicion to those institutions that embed and enact power and privilege… We must hold, as citizens, hold those institutions vulnerable and accountable to the voice of the people.

BATTEN: Not everyone agrees with him — like Patrick Kelly, the FBI agent who first discovered the break-in. Kelly told NBC reporter Michael Isikoff:

KELLY (clip from NBC.com): They’re rationalizing a criminal act. I don’t believe such people have the right to take upon themselves and make decisions.

BATTEN: Bonnie has thought about responses like Kelly’s — and she says she still believes the Citizens’ Commission did the right thing.

BONNIE: A greater crime has been occurring and the government is responsible for that. So I think that when all the means that one can try as an ordinary citizen… when they’re not producing any results, then I think that it is time for something to be more drastic.

BATTEN: John and Bonnie agree that if citizens refuse to let their voices be drowned out, government policy can change for the better.

JOHN: It’s amazing what government officials will do if they begin to feel the pressure of public opinion.

BATTEN: And he thinks we need to keep holding our government accountable, as the War on Terror declared by former President Bush in 2001 continues with no end in sight.

JOHN: The gasoline that the terrorists run on is the same gasoline that NSA runs on, and its called the endless hole of fear. We are safe, and we need to keep saying that to each other.

BATTEN: Keith Forsyth says the message he and the Citizens’ Commission sent to the people of the United States still holds true today.

FORSYTH: The Goliath is tough, but he’s not invulnerable.

BATTEN: For War News Radio, I’m Caroline Batten.

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