by Cliff Bellamy
In 1971, long hair and other outward signs of the political spirit of the 1960s had become mainstream. Opposition to the Vietnam War remained strong, and that year, a group of eight citizens living in and around Philadelphia who were anti-war activists staged a well-planned break-in of an FBI field office in nearby Media, Pennsylvania.
They stole files from the office, and what they found confirmed what many in the protest movement (known at the time as the New Left) suspected: That the FBI was spying on U.S. citizens involved in these groups, and using “dirty tricks” to infiltrate and disrupt their work. The burglars called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, and decided that the best way to confront the FBI’s tactics was to mail copies of the documents to national newspapers. The release of the documents led to the Church Committee hearings of 1975, the first congressional investigation of intelligence agencies, and the first guidelines limiting FBI powers.
There were originally nine members of the Citizens Commission, but one individual dropped out. The FBI never found or charged the eight burglars, who have never talked about the burglary until director Johanna Hamilton’s documentary, “1971.” For the first time, the known members of the group (the filmmaker in the credits states that she does not know the names of the other three participants) are interviewed and tell their stories: Keith Forsyth, Bonnie and John Raines, Bob Williamson, and Bill Davidon, the group’s de facto leader (who died before release of the film).
Hamilton (who got a Full Frame Garrett Scott Grant to help make the film) has given viewers not just a breakthrough piece of history, but one heck of a suspense thriller. The filmmaker uses actors to portray the crucial scenes of the burglary – everything from Bonnie Raines’ posing as a college student seeking career advice to help scout out the building, to Forsyth’s nerve-wracking efforts to gain entry into an office blocked by a filing cabinet. (There is some humor in that scene: While Forsyth is breaking in, the building manager is sitting in the basement watching the Ali-Frazier fight on TV.) Hamilton uses news footage, archival footage, and home movies of some of the subjects. She also interviews former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, the first reporter to receive and write about the files, and former NBC reporter Carl Stern, who sued the Justice Department to get more of the secret files about the operation called COINTELPRO.
The members of this commission had lives, jobs and in the case of the Raineses, children, and took considerable risks. You may have conflicting feelings about this burglary, but Hamilton’s film also asks us to imagine what the consequences might be had they not taken this risk.
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