Directed by Johanna Hamilton
First Run Features
2015, DVD, 79 minutes
On March 8, 1971 eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a town just outside Philadelphia, took hundreds of secret files, and shared them with the public. In doing so, they uncovered the FBI’s vast and illegal regime of spying and intimidation of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.
On the night of the “Fight of the Century” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the activists, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, picked the lock on the door to the small FBI field office. They took every file in the office, loaded them into suitcases, and walked out the front door.
Mailed anonymously, the documents started to show up in newsrooms. The heist yielded a trove of damning evidence that proved the FBI was deliberately working to intimidate civil rights activists and Americans nonviolently protesting the Vietnam War. The most significant revelation was an illegal program overseen by lifelong FBI director J. Edgar Hoover known as COINTELPRO – the Counter Intelligence Program.
Despite searching for the people behind the heist in one of the largest investigations ever conducted, the FBI never solved the mystery of the break-in, and the identities of the members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI remained a secret.
For the first time, the members of the Citizens’ Commission have decided to come forward and speak out about their actions. 1971 is their story.
Told through a combination of exclusive interviews, rare primary documents from the break-in and investigation, national news coverage of the burglary and dramatic re-creations, the story of the Citizens’ Commission unfolds with haunting echoes to today’s questions of privacy in the era of government surveillance.
A companion to the excellent The Burglary, by Betty Medsger.