By David Kempler
1971 Was a Bad Year for the FBI
Last year's Tribeca Film Festival had a couple of very good documentaries. Among them was "1971".
On March 8, 1971, eight people broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. They took hundreds of files and shared them with the press, who published them, much to the great annoyance of the FBI, as you might imagine.
March 8, 1971, was also the night of the "Fight of the Century" bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The activists, who referred to themselves as the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a small FBI field office. They took every file in the office, loaded them into suitcases, and walked out the front door. Elsewhere in the building, people were listening to Ali and Frazier on radio, but no one was guarding the FBI office.
The mailed files contained mounds of damning evidence that proved the FBI was intimidating civil rights activists and Americans who were non-violently protesting the Vietnam War. By far the most damning evidence was the revelation that there was an illegal program known as COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program. The FBI spent loads of time and money to find out who had broken into their office, but they never did.
In "1971", the entire operation is revealed by four of the original eight members of the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI to Johanna Hamilton, the film's director. They explain their motives were based upon their anti-Vietnam War fervor. The four of them believed that the FBI had infiltrated anti-war groups, which turned out to be true.
There is something oddly quaint about "1971". Since Watergate, all of our political scandals have been more of the handwringing variety. When the Edward Snowden saga broke, it shook up everything. Now it's all about computers and organizational intrigue.
Back then, a local group broke into one of the most powerful institutions in the world, stole secret documents and pulled it off, because they did it during a heavyweight boxing match. There is real tension here, though, because Hamilton does a nice job revealing how it all played out. It took almost 45 years to come to light, but it really is amazing that they got away with it. There was a popular saying back then: If the government won't stop the war, we'll stop the government. These people actually did it.