Independent Lens | 1971
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Watch Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 12:30am on WMHT TV.

On March 8, 1971, a band of suburban parents, university professors and community leaders broke into a small FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, the eight activists took hundreds of secret files and shared them anonymously with select members of Congress and the news media. By doing so, they uncovered evidence of the FBI’s vast and illegal regime of spying on and intimidating American citizens. Despite one of the largest investigations ever conducted, the FBI never solved the mystery of the break-in, and the identities of those responsible remained a secret — until now. For the first time, the members of the Citizens’ Commission have spoken out. 1971 is their story. Directed and produced by Johanna Hamilton.

On the night of the “Fight of the Century” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the Citizens’ Commission picked the lock on the door of the Media field office, loaded every file they could find into suitcases and walked out the front door. The heist yielded a trove of evidence proving that the FBI was deliberately working to intimidate civil rights activists and nonviolent Vietnam War protesters, among others. The most significant revelation was that of a massive illegal domestic surveillance program, overseen by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, known as COINTELPRO.

Weaving exclusive interviews with national news coverage of the burglary and dramatized scenes of the events, 1971 unfolds with the tension of a suspense thriller, with haunting echoes of today’s questions of privacy in a new era of government surveillance.

Visit the 1971 companion website, which features information about the film, including an interview with the filmmaker, preview clips and more.

Participants (in alphabetical order)

Bill Davidon was the mastermind and de facto leader of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. He died in 2013.

Keith Forsyth took on the role of master lock picker for the Citizens’ Commission during the planning of the burglary.

David Kairys, a professor of constitutional law at Temple Law School, is a leading constitutional scholar and civil rights lawyer. He has represented the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI in secret for more than 40 years.

Betty Medsger was a reporter at The Washington Post and one of five people who received the first copies of FBI files distributed anonymously by the Citizens’ Commission. She is the author of TheBurglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, published in 2014.

Bonnie Raines cased the inside of the FBI office, providing invaluable intelligence as the Citizens’ Commission planned the break-in.

John Raines was a member of the Citizens’ Commission and drove one of the getaway cars. He also planned the distribution of documents to Congress and the press following the break-in.

Bob Williamson was a member of the Citizens’ Commission and offered comic relief during the 1971 burglary.