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When Americans Saw Injustice by the FBI and Did Something About It—A Review of the Film, ‘1971’

In 1971, eight Americans engaged in an act of nonviolent disruption and broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania to take files. The film, 1971, which tells this story, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 18.

Each of the activists maintained their anonymity for forty-three years. They spent the weeks following the burglary sorting through the files and making copies to send to newspapers. They made certain that all the files selected for release dealt with what could be considered illegal activity and then, under the banner of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, they put out a statement explaining why they had taken the files from the FBI’s Media office.

They did it because the government was lying about why young Americans needed to be drafted and sent to war in Vietnam. They did it because student activists were being shot and killed on campuses like Kent State University and Jackson State College. They did it because they strongly suspected that the FBI had informers, who had infiltrated their movements and were acting as agent provocateurs, but they needed documents to prove it.

Each person involved in the action was taking a great risk because, as their lawyer David Kairys says in the film, “I couldn’t think of a constitutional right to break into an FBI office.”

Additionally, it was the first time that a major American newspaper, The Washington Post, had to confront the issue of what to do if it received stolen government documents.

Betty Medsger, the author of The Burglary who worked for the Post, was sent copies of the files. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times received copies but both media organizations turned the documents they received over to the FBI. But Medsger explains in the film that the Post strongly believed it was important to reveal details on what had become the most powerful agency in government.

A vast majority of this story parallels what has currently unfolded with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman. The filmmakers do not shy away from presenting it as an “analog” precursor to Snowden and WikiLeaks. (In fact, Poitras is a co-executive producer of the film.)

Johanna Hamilton, the director, presents the narrative as a kind of timeless and universal story of how citizens can engage in small acts that end injustices and change the course of history.

The film opens with Keith Forsyth, who trained himself as a locksmith so they could break into the FBI office, describing how to pick locks. The action is placed into historical context by John Raines, one of the activists involved in the burglary, who suggests the country never got over tragic events, such as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968.

William Davidon, who died in November 2013, Forsyth, John Raines and his wife, Bonnie Raines, and Bob Williamson each recount in vivid detail the emotions they felt and what they experienced as they were undertaking this act.

The energy propelling the narrative forward is fueled by actors reenacting meetings and the burglary as each of the activists involved reflect on what happened during each moment of the night of March 8, 1971, when it took place. Bonnie Raines’ visit to the Media office to case the joint so they could know if the file cabinets had locks, if there were alarms and where the doors were located.

One of the most dramatic parts of the story occurs when Forsyth discovers the lock is different. The activists now have to decide whether to go through the burglary.

Fortunately, there is another door, but a filing cabinet is right in front of it. Forsyth must take a crowbar and move the cabinet without it falling over.

The filmmakers employ an overhead camera shot, dark lighting and cutaways to a guard on duty, who is preoccupied (as hoped) with the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier championship fight. This builds up the suspense as the filing cabinet is shown rocking and shifting until Forsyth is sure there is enough space for getting into the office, where files will eventually be loaded into suitcases.

It would have been possible for filmmakers to present this as the story of a major heist in United States history and give it more commercial appeal. Fortunately, Hamilton and others involved in the making of the film embrace a social justice perspective, artfully using the experiences and reflections of the activists to communicate why it was critical for citizens to take radical action.

These heroes recognize the smears intended to delegitimize Snowden for what they are because they could have faced them if they had not maintained their anonymity. They have the credibility to communicate the necessity of Snowden’s action to Americans and remove some of the stigma he faces as a result of sustained smears. They are not too concerned with the legacy of their action to avoid comparing and supporting Snowden today.

Toward the end of the film, John Raines, who is now eighty years-old, confronts the risk he was taking by participating in the burglary. If all of us only did what was safe, he says, that would let people in our government get away with injustices and corruption. “They would be safe.”

Along those same lines, Forsyth said after the film screened at the premiere it is “safer to be in favor of civil disobedience that happened forty-three years ago than what people are doing today.”

It is easy to get the sense when listening to the activists that government abuses of power are worse; perhaps, more entrenched than the period in which they undertook their profound act of resistance. In 1971, the FBI’s goal was to create paranoia by making citizens believe there was an agent behind every mailbox. Today, the NSA—and other agencies—create paranoia by having an analyst in every inbox.

At the premiere, John Raines shared his concern with the privatization of intelligence, how every major police force has transformed into an intelligence squad, how agent provocateurs are being sent into mosques after folks with Islamic beliefs. He said the country is “right back at square one” and “youngsters have a real battle” on their hands.

While abuses may be rampant and uncontrollable today, as what was illegal in the days of J. Edgar Hoover is no long considered to be so illegal, 1971 shows a dedicated group of citizens can fight back and win. They can draw inspiration and resist just as these Americans did decades ago during a dark chapter in US history.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."