Film: "1971" tells story of activists who broke into FBI offices to expose domestic surveillance

Airing Monday, May 18 on PBS stations around the U.S.: "1971," a documentary by Johanna Hamilton on a brave group of activists who worked to expose unchecked power and corrupt activities in the Nixon/Vietnam/COINTELPRO era, when the FBI's main job was to suppress dissent.

In the past several decades, whistleblowers have helped shape the nation's history, from Deep Throat exposing President Nixon's Watergate scandal to Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's surveillance. But long before the dawning of the digital age, one group of citizens risked everything when they uncovered illegal government spying programs.

The FBI, established in 1908, was for 60 years held unaccountable and untouchable until March 8, 1971, when The Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, as they called themselves, broke into a small FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, took every file, and shared them with the American public. After the break-in, the group sent the files to journalists at the Washington Post, which published them and shed light on the FBI's widespread abuse of power. These actions exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI's illegal surveillance program that involved the intimidation of law-abiding Americans, and helped lead to the country's first congressional investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The activist-burglars then disappeared into anonymity for forty years. Until now. Never caught, these previously anonymous Americans — parents, teachers and citizens — publicly reveal themselves for the first time and share their story in the documentary 1971. Using a mix of dramatic re-enactments and candid interviews with all involved, the film vividly brings to life one of the more important, yet relatively unexplored, chapters in modern American history.


The stolen document with the greatest impact. Photographer: Andreas Burgess

The stolen document with the greatest impact. Photographer: Andreas Burgess