On March 8, 1971, more than a year before Watergate, during the popular televised Muhammed Ali vs Joe Frazier fight, eight individuals broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole every file, and proceeded to expose the FBI’s illegal scheme of surveillance and intimidation of citizens including Martin Luther King, Jr. All of these illegal FBI practices had been condoned by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard Nixon. Four decades before Edward Snowden leaked similar information about illegal surveillance of Americans, this small group, called The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, did the same thing. Director Johanna Hamilton has documented the accounts of the break-in and lasting implications that began in Media, Pennsylvania, in her documentary 1971, now available on DVD and streaming video.
Like All the President’s Men, that gripping account of the Watergate break-in by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this far less known burglary completely unraveled the taut fabric of the federal government’s surveillance program, resulting in the temporary cessation of invasions of privacy and illuminating the intimidation tactics the government was using on individual rights activists. Hamilton’s documentary combines a re-enactment of the days leading up to the break-in and interviews with five of the eight members of The Citizens’ Commission who planned the burglary, risking their families’ futures to uncover concrete documentation of the detailed, planned and FBI-endorsed illegalities. No one was ever arrested for the theft of the documents and subsequent disclosure to the press, although all but one of the planners ended up on the FBI’s list of suspects.
Hamilton’s storytelling is gritty and heart-pounding, the stuff of a great, classic suspense mystery, with a gripping score by Philip Sheppard. The laundry list of ludicrous government programs exposed is simply jaw-dropping, how leaders of any generation could condone such clearly wrong ideas, like monitoring local neighborhood ladies’ groups, planting federal watchdogs among activist groups, and using fear to intimidate anyone who wouldn’t toe the line of the government’s actions without question. Would Watergate have played out the same way without the events in 1971? Would J. Edgar Hoover have been exposed as the crook that he was and would his COINTELPRO program have been shut down without the discovery of one of the documents uncovered by The Citizens’ Commission? 1971 is on par with the greatest documentary classics, such as Harlan County, U.S.A.
1971 expertly highlights the wide-ranging scope of technology and the government’s ability to eavesdrop on ordinary citizens, then and now, and through acts of civil disobedience the power the individual–the ordinary person, the conscientious objector, the whistleblower–possesses to change the world.
The DVD release includes a panel discussion with three members of The Citizens’ Commission, their lawyer from the days after the break-in, the Washington Post journalist who recently wrote an account of the event and aftermath in 1971, and Edward Snowden, who appeared with the panel via Skype. Now senior citizens and considered heroes today, the Citizens’ Commission praised Snowden’s similar actions and pondered why the young whistleblower doesn’t share a similar status among Americans for his efforts to shed light on the government’s illegal schemes to invade the private lives of ordinary Americans.