In 1971, a group of civilians living in suburban Philadelphia, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into the FBI offices in Media, PA. The recent documentary 1971, explores that night and the fallout that came afterward. At the time, FBI agents were infiltrating leftist political rallies and events in order to feed information back to the agency. The men and women of the Citizens Commission, dissatisfied with, and suspicious of, the FBI, broke into the Media office in order to expose these activities.
After successfully breaking into the office and stealing every file, the 8 men and women in the Citizens’ Commission mailed copies of the files to many major newspapers, hoping to expose the illegal and arguably immoral actions of the FBI. In particular, they hoped to call attention to the FBI’s secretive plans to monitor American citizens, namely COINTELPRO, a series of FBI operations meant to infiltrate and disrupt political groups it found suspect, including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and groups protesting the war in Vietnam. COINTELPRO also was notable for having spied upon individuals the FBI deemed a threat, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Einstein. The Citizen’s Commission also found evidence that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was spying on people from Swarthmore College, including known liberal professors and students; Media, Pennsylvania, is three miles from the College.
As a piece of cinema, 1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton, is excellently made. Hamilton combines interviews with members of the Citizens’ Commission with staged recreations of scenes that bring this historical event to life, and photographs and original video clips of various protests and events surrounding the break-in. The film is entertaining; there are many small moments of humor to be found in the tense situations, and audiences are satisfied to see the FBI’s activities exposed for what they were.
In addition to the break and in the political fallout, director Johanna Hamilton also examines some of the human aspects of participating in a group like the Citizens’ Commission. There were tensions in the gender dynamics of the group of six men and two women that planned and staged the break-in. Bonnie, a member of the Citizens’ Commission, felt marginalized and pigeonholed into a “mother” role, despite laying the groundwork for the break-in. By portraying an innocuous college student, Bonnie gained access to the FBI’s office and created a map that would ultimately make the break-in possible. Had she failed, the group would not have succeeded in accessing the office at all, yet still she felt pushed aside by her male colleagues.
Some members also juggled their responsibilities as parents and members of their communities with their moral opposition to the corrupt actions of the FBI and their obligation to change things for the better, discussing their fears for their children should the government come knocking to arrest them.
I saw 1971 with Swarthmore professors, fellow students and community members. Several of the people watching remembered the events of the film when they occurred—and interesting discussion followed as audience members reminisced. One viewer remembered the period of FBI spying at Swarthmore’s campus and in the town of Swarthmore, bringing a discomfiting sense of closeness and familiarity to the screening. If such actions had happened on college campuses before, especially my own, who is to say that they won’t happen again?
While the film does not really exhibit a point of view on the actions of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, 1971 is sympathetic to the motivations of the members of this group despite their illegal actions, and the film had me rooting for the Citizens’ Commission to get away with it.
The conspirators known as the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI were never caught.
Ultimately, 1971 brings up questions about where society ought to draw the line between what is legal and what is right, an issue that is certainly relevant to our times, given the controversies of our own era, including the WikiLeaks scandal and Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of classified NSA information. While what the members of the Citizens Commission did was illegal, their actions ultimately shed light on the illegal actions of the FBI, leading to Senate hearings and eventual action to curtail the power-hungry FBI. Of course, as United States citizens are still being spied upon, albeit through computer and phone metadata rather than through moles in colleges, the victory of 1971 seems rather short-lived. In an age where privacy is negligible, where government agencies are easily able to monitor United States citizens, do the actions taken over 40 years ago by the Citizens’ Commission still have weight, and can they provide a lesson for today’s world?
Deborah Krieger wrote this article for The Stake. Deborah is a junior at Swarthmore College, studying art history, film and media studies, and German. She has written for Hyperallergic, the Northwestern Art Review, Printeresting, and Title Magazine. She also runs her own art blog at www.i-on-the.arts.com, and is attempting to learn to tweet at @DebOnTheArts.”