Author Topic: COINTELPRO 50 years later  (Read 56 times)

Online Jon Banks

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COINTELPRO 50 years later
« on: July 30, 2021, 07:24:15 PM »
A 1971 burglary changed the way Americans think of the FBI and their own government.

A lot can sure change in a half-century. In March 1971, a majority of citizens trusted the U.S. government and many revered the FBI and its powerful but aging long-time leader, J. Edgar Hoover. But the length and carnage of the war in Southeast Asia — which claimed more than 58,000 American lives and killed far more Vietnamese civilians — also inspired a brand of civil disobedience in which some anti-war activists took radical actions that might seem shocking to 21st century Americans.

The suitcases of FBI files that the eight burglars, including the mastermind of the scheme, the late Haverford College professor William Davidon, made off with that night revealed stunning secrets about the lengths to which Hoover’s FBI not only spied upon, but sought to disrupt, legitimate dissent over the war as well as the movement for Black civil rights. The best-known discoveries exposed the existence of COINTELPRO, a massive, covert government operation to harass activists on the left, and efforts to surveil and harass the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including the notorious 1964 letter in which a top FBI official sent MLK a tape of sexual liaison with an anonymous suggestion that he kill himself.

In 2021, the crimes exposed by the Raines’, Davidon, and their cohorts permeate not just our understanding of the FBI — and a deeper and arguably understandable suspicion of government — but even our popular culture. A slew of recent top movies — including the documentary MLK/FBI, Judas and the Black Messiah about the FBI role in the 1969 killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and The United States Vs. Billie Holiday — are all informed by the awareness of the government’s war on lawful dissent first revealed by the Media break-in.

Yet on the 50th anniversary, public awareness of the burglary, the perpetrators who in 1971 called themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, and the significance of the purloined files remains spotty, even here in the Philadelphia region. Arguably, some of that is because of the burglars’ remarkable success in keeping the secret of their identities until 2014, when most came out to author Betty Medsger — who also broke the story of the files for the Washington Post in 1971 — in her riveting 2014 book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I. (That year also saw the release of an acclaimed documentary about the caper, Johanna Hamilton’s 1971.)


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