50 years later, an historic act of civil disobedience in Delco is finally getting its due | Will Bunch
On March 8, 1971, Philly-area activists burglarized an FBI office and exposed massive corruption — a heroic act that still resonates.
On the night of March 8, 1971, or 50 years ago this Monday, a lot of things were going through Bonnie Raines’ mind as she waited in a Media motel room that was a command hub for arguably the most audacious act of civil disobedience in modern U.S. history — a burglary at a small, nearby FBI office aimed at exposing the extent of government spying on anti-Vietnam War activists.
Bonnie, who then ran a day-care center, and her husband John, a popular Temple University professor of religion, were understandably worried that one misstep would send them to a federal prison for years, meaning their three young children would grow up without them. Even if the break-in and theft of government documents succeeded, what if there was no evidence of illegal activities?
What Bonnie Raines concedes she never could have dreamed of on that long winter night — when radios everywhere blasted “the Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Philadelphian Joe Frazier — is that so many would come to see their burglary as an act of bravery that one day Pennsylvania officials would agree to celebrate it with a historical marker.
“Fifty years ago, we were criminals, and now we’re heroes,” Raines, now 79, told me with a hearty laugh when I caught up with her by telephone this week.
A lot can sure change in a half-century. In March 1971, a majority of citizens trusted the U.S. government and many revered the FBI and its powerful but aging long-time leader, J. Edgar Hoover. But the length and carnage of the war in Southeast Asia — which claimed more than 58,000 American lives and killed far more Vietnamese civilians — also inspired a brand of civil disobedience in which some anti-war activists took radical actions that might seem shocking to 21st century Americans.
The suitcases of FBI files that the eight burglars, including the mastermind of the scheme, the late Haverford College professor William Davidon, made off with that night revealed stunning secrets about the lengths to which Hoover’s FBI not only spied upon, but sought to disrupt, legitimate dissent over the war as well as the movement for Black civil rights. The best-known discoveries exposed the existence of COINTELPRO, a massive, covert government operation to harass activists on the left, and efforts to surveil and harass the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including the notorious 1964 letter in which a top FBI official sent MLK a tape of sexual liaison with an anonymous suggestion that he kill himself.
In 2021, the crimes exposed by the Raines’, Davidon, and their cohorts permeate not just our understanding of the FBI — and a deeper and arguably understandable suspicion of government — but even our popular culture. A slew of recent top movies — including the documentary MLK/FBI, Judas and the Black Messiah about the FBI role in the 1969 killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and The United States Vs. Billie Holiday — are all informed by the awareness of the government’s war on lawful dissent first revealed by the Media break-in.
Yet on the 50th anniversary, public awareness of the burglary, the perpetrators who in 1971 called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, and the significance of the purloined files remains spotty, even here in the Philadelphia region. Arguably, some of that is because of the burglars’ remarkable success in keeping the secret of their identities until 2014, when most came out to author Betty Medsger — who also broke the story of the files for the Washington Post in 1971 — in her riveting 2014 book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I. (That year also saw the release of an acclaimed documentary about the caper, Johanna Hamilton’s 1971.)
A few years ago, Kevin Tustin — now 31, currently the public information officer for Norristown — was studying toward his master’s degree in criminal justice at West Chester University and assigned a group research project on the topic of government surveillance. He started to watch a video about the 1971 burglary and was stunned to find out it had happened on the main courthouse square in Media, just a short hop from where he’d grown up in Sharon Hill.
Why, he wondered, had he never heard of this? “It’s not something that they teach in school,” Tustin fretted. The idea stayed with him, and in 2018 — advised by a friend — he decided to petition the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for a state historical marker at the break-in site, a four-story brick-and-masonry apartment building on Veterans Square where the FBI had maintained its small Delaware County office on the second floor in 1971.
In the era when peace marchers clashed in the streets with hard-hat workers shouting “My country, right or wrong,” Tustin’s request for the marker might have been hugely controversial. But five decades later, community leaders in Media like Stacy Olkowski, who runs the TedXRoseTree program in Media and hopes to organize an event around the break-in, offered support, and approval by the state commission was quick and routine.
» READ MORE: Philly's John Raines was an American hero. Today we need a lot more like him
Olkowski noted the historical significance to be celebrated is “not the burglary but the outcome” — as the Media break-in revelations not only forced Congress in the 1970s to finally investigate the history of abuses not just by Hoover’s FBI but other agencies such as the CIA, and then prompted a slew of reforms aimed at preventing improper government surveillance — even if the promised restraint has often fallen by the wayside in the years since the 9/11 attacks.
Tustin and Olkowski had great hopes for a well-attended unveiling and related events to mark the 50th anniversary, but Mother Nature, in the form of the coronavirus, had other plans. So instead, the completed marker will spend March 8, 2021, sealed in a box inside a Media public works building, waiting for a sunny day when the virus is beaten back. But that doesn’t mean that Americans who value their civil rights shouldn’t raise a glass for Bonnie Raines and her cohorts on Monday.
The marker will hopefully encourage more local people to learn the story behind the burglary, which in and of itself ought to be a Hollywood movie — from Davidon’s clever scheme that included breaking-in during the Ali-Frazier fight which had diverted the attention of most Americans, including the police; to Bonnie Raines’ key role in posing as an inquisitive Swarthmore student to case the office; to the mad scramble when lock-picker Kevin Forsyth (who, like Raines, still lives in the city) faltered on the main door.
But the event’s significance runs much deeper than its compelling narrative. The Media break-in serves as a reminder that the Trump years weren’t the only time in recent history that the nation was deeply and bitterly divided, and, more importantly, it shows that keeping America democracy alive can involve really tough moral decisions about what is right and what is wrong, and how far we’re willing to go in risking our personal comfort for the greater good.
The story also resonates in the messy aftermath of the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, an act that was cloaked in language of civil disobedience yet went against everything the Media burglars stood for. The 1971 peace advocates were apostles of non-violence, while the 2021 insurrections brought an arsenal of weapons. The stormers of Capitol Hill were driven by a Big Lie coming from the White House, while the burglars were desperate to expose the truth. The 1971 action was truly in the spirit of the FBI spying target MLK, who famously said that citizens should always obey just laws, but that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Bonnie and her husband John — who’d also been a Freedom Rider for Black civil rights in the South, and who passed away in 2017 — spoke on a tour of events around Medsger’s book and “people were fascinated and intrigued and impressed. It was very rewarding.” It affirmed the unwavering belief of the couple and the other burglars that they’d done the right thing. Five decades later, she sees the spirit of their Vietnam-era activism alive in protests ranging from the Native American anti-pipeline battle at Standing Rock to movements like Occupy Wall Street or the youth Sunrise Movement fighting climate change. “All the issues they raise are legitimate issues,” she said. “We should continue to agitate.”
In the fraught summer of 2020, Olkowski took part on one of several marches against police violence around Veterans Square, ringing the Delaware County Courthouse. She said she was both surprised and amused when she looked over at the old brick apartment building, where on the second floor that once housed the FBI she noticed a Black Lives Matter banner. She couldn’t wait to text a picture of the sign to her new friend, Bonnie Raines.
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