Meet Judi Feingold. She's 63, lives in Oregon and currently volunteers as a hospice worker after a lifetime of moving around -- much of it necessitated by what happened one memorable night in March 1971, right here in Delaware County. You've surely never heard of Feingold, and I never heard of her before yesterday, but she is an American hero nonetheless.
You may remember that back in January, most of the surviving members of a team of anti-war activists who burglarized a small FBI office in the Delco county seat of Media (in the building pictured at top) and stole a treasure trove of documents some 43 years ago decided to go public with their identities. The group featured a couple of prominent Philadelphia-area academics, including Temple University prof John Raines, his wife Bonnie, and leader William Davidon, a Haverford College physics professor who died last year.
As I noted when I blogged about the revelations earlier this year, this type of burglary could be called an extreme act of civil disobedience, the kind of thing that could only be morally justified in extreme times. But that was the time that Judi Feingold and her cohorts found herselves in -- America in the Vietnam era. The FBI -- and other government agencies -- were engaged in their own massive campaign of unlawful surveillance, break-ins, and efforts to disrupt peaceful and legitimate dissent against the war, racial discrimination, and other types of injustice. The documents that the Media FBI burglars stole and funneled to journalists revealed the existence of the agency's illegal spying program called COINTELPRO, even an FBI effort to convince Dr. Martin Luther King to commit suicide.
But journalist Betty Medsger, who revealed the story behind the break-in in her best-selling book The Burglary (it's also subject of a newish documentary called, simply, 1971), was unable to find or divulge the identity of the last of the eight burglars, a woman who at age 19 had been the youngest of the group and who disappeared into the radical underground immediately afterward.
Feingold, remarkably, only learned that the others had gone public in a Google search related to her first planned visit to Philadelphia in four decades earlier this year. She decided to tell her story to Medsger after seeing the largely positive response for the others.
The article in The Nation notes of her 1971 actions:
Remaining in Philadelphia seemed dangerous, so she left town and headed west, moved into the underground and lived under an assumed name, moving from place to place west of the Rockies for years, owning only a sleeping bag and what she could carry in her knapsack. As she was about to detach herself from her past geography and her personal connections, she called her parents and told them she had committed a nonviolent direct action "and was possibly being pursued by the federal government. I told them I could not be in touch by phone, and I would do my best to let them know how I was, but not where I was."
Feingold had grown up in New York City but she came to Philadelphia to work with the Quakers' American Friends Service Committee to advise current or would-be soldiers and ways to avoid military service, as the war still raged. She met Davidon and was taken with the idea of the FBI break-in:
To avoid harsh consequences from the government, she imposed harsh consequences on herself—going underground, cutting herself off from everyone she knew. Looking back, she says she has no regrets. She sees the burglary as a success that was more than worth the risk, and she sees her life in hiding afterward as involving nothing she did not choose to do. In fact, she regards parts of her post-Media decade in the underground as quite wonderful despite the difficult aspects.
Still, it was a remarkably bold decision, knowing this lone act would change her life forever. She moved constantly, and kept her secret even from those close to her. She lived what she came to realize was "a horizontal life" -- not driven by any plan but moving from one thing to another. But, like the other members of her team, she takes great pride in the knowledge that what they did closed the book on one dark period in American history. "I had made the right decision for me," she told Medsger. "My heart was breaking then over the deaths in Southeast Asia."
I think a story like Feingold's resonates in 2014 because it's so rare in America that someone would risk everything for a belief (so rare that one man who did, Edward Snowden, is up this week for a Nobel Peace Prize). Back then, the threats were more immediate -- you or your next-door neighbor might die in an unjust war. Today, society's problems -- bought-and-paid-for legislators who perpetuate income inequality, for example -- are just as toxic but also a little more abstract. Will we ever again see the courageous likes of Judi Feingold, William Davidon, or John and Bonnie Raines? And what will become of American society in the future if we don't?