On March 8th, 1971, a group of anonymous individuals calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania. They stole thousands of government documents. Among the documents was proof that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was spying on law-abiding citizens. The program was known as COINTELPRO and it was used to monitor, manipulate and disrupt social and political movements in the United States. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI has been documented recently in a highly acclaimed film titled 1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton.
I consider myself to have the good fortune to have known Betty Medsger, the author of The Burglary, for many years.
She and I had a personal relationship that long predated our professional collaboration.
Over time she came to share the outlines of the story with me and it sounded completely remarkable.
She introduced me to a few members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. The 40th anniversary was approaching.
They wanted the story, which was so little known, to have a larger life.
To be clear, Betty worked for many years on the book. She’s done remarkable and profound research. I joined much later and was the beneficiary of so much of her research.
There were four years where we worked in tandem.
When I showed the film to the Citizens’ Commission, while the credits rolled, Keith Forsyth, the lock picker, especially, he got up and said, good job.
It’s a period of history I’ve been fascinated with since I was a teenager. It was the story of these extraordinary ordinary individuals who had put everything on the line and taken such great personal risk to benefit democracy.
They trained themselves for one night of crime. They steal all the documents in the office, leak them to the press. They send them to major newspapers, and to a couple politicians. In the end, the Washington Post is the only newspaper that decides to publish the first stories.
Those first stories reveal, without question, illegal government spying on citizens who are going about their daily lives and exercising their First Amendment rights.
Betty wrote the first stories in the Washington Post, and the story fades a little from the headlines. The Pentagon Papers explode 3 or 4 months later. Daniel Ellsberg is on the scene.
Then our story picks up again.
It seems inconceivable now but Hoover had been FBI director for over 50 years. That’s no longer possible.
Some people who have seen the film say they were really moved by the Church Committee hearings.
Attorney David Kairys is a huge figure in Philadelphia and back in the day he was contacted by two members of the Citizens’ Commission. He didn’t know what they had done, but if they got caught, they could call him day or night.
We were reaching the tail end, or we thought we were reaching the tail end of the film, when the Snowden revelations happened.
The Snowden revelations were one thing, an absolute bombshell, but prior to that we had a couple of other instances. Back in September 2011, there were raids all across the country: animal rights activists, environmental groups. One night Brian Williams introduced the news and described these raids and said, you know, it’s reminiscent of Hoover back in the 1970s.
We had whole scenes cut together with that footage and debated and deliberated on that. In the end we erred on the side of excluding it.
It’s opening here in New York City and it will start rolling out across the country. If you check our website, we update the cities that it will show at. It will be on PBS’s Independent Lens at the end of May. 1971Film.com
Guest – Johanna Hamilton, director of the film 1971. She also co-produced Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008 and was shortlisted for an Academy Award. Johanna has produced nonfiction programs for PBS, The History Channel, National Geographic, A&E, Discovery Channel, and The Washington Post/Newsweek Productions, including September’s Children, a documentary for PBS exploring how children around the world are affected by terrorism and war.
Inspiring and Awakening Political Activism in Youth
Young people across the nation have played a critical role in taking to the streets to protest social inequities, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City. In a recent article in the journal Socialism and Democracy, “The Roots of Mass Incarceration: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor,” writer, activist and youth pastor Nyle Fort describes how he became politically active and who inspired him. We talk with Nyle about the status of protest in this country, the forces of oppression, how young people are involved and how he helps inspire them.
- I graduated from Morehouse College and ended up going to seminary. I was already a licensed and ordained preacher but I wasn’t politicized yet.
- I had already been involved in the community via the church, doing speaking engagements with youth and things like that.
- It wasn’t until I got into Princeton Theological Seminary that I began to get politicized.
- I was taking an introductory seminary class called Systematic Theology with Professor Mark Taylor. In that class he actually had Mumia Abu-Jamal call in live from death row.
- When I heard him speak, I stopped in my seat. This man who I knew nothing of was speaking to me in a way that was moving not only me but, I could tell, the entire classroom, and doing so from a 6-foot by 10-foot cell. A cell that he had been in for 30 years, longer than I had been alive.
- Two weeks later I found myself, through Mark Taylor, at my first political rally, on December 9, 2011, two days after Mumia had been released from death row.
- I read The New Jim Crow very quickly, then Angela Davis’s works. That was really the beginning for me.
- I entered activism through a prison abolitionist lens, through Mumia.
- The rally for me was an embodiment of the things Mumia was talking about.
- I preach. I was at First Baptist Church in Lincoln Gardens. It’s one of the largest black churches in New Jersey. My style of ministry was evolving as I was being radicalized and politicized.
- I tried to do a lot of social justice work. We were writing letters to our incarcerated brothers and sisters as forms of religious activism.
- I discovered a prophetic religious tradition that comes from a black liberation theological perspective.
- When I was on the bus ride back from Ferguson, I was really mad. Mad as hell because I felt there was a relative silence from the church, particularly the black church.
- I believe in love not as a word but as a work.
- When I engage with youth, I try to practice a love that is material. I tell young people, I love you more than they hate you.
- We have to deal with the trauma and the pain that we inherit as black people living in the western world and all around the world.
- Love for me is critical, not a politic that we can talk about, but a practice we can embody and engage in everyday. That has material life.
- If we’re going to take Cornell West’s worlds seriously, that justice is what love looks like in public, then we have to have a love that’s expansive enough to be material and to be felt.
- Black Lives Matter particularly, as a network, has articulated a feminist politic, a black feminist politic, a queer politic that is forcing us to live out our intersectionality.
- What we’re not talking about enough is that that’s messy, and it’s not romantic.
- I think of oppression as institutionalized lovelessness. Let’s love each other in ways that causes each other to act.
Guest – Nyle Fort is a Master’s of Divinity candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, a youth pastor, freelance writer, and grassroots community organizer based in Newark, New Jersey. He was very active during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.