This book, written by Betty Medsger in 2014, tells the incredible true story of the 1971 burglary of an FBI office in Media, PA by a we-group of eight who were never detected and kept their secret for 43 years. Stolen documents were made public and revealed extensive wrongdoing by the FBI, which precipitated a massive shakeup. Inspiring, especially from the standpoint of precious democratic values, perennially under attack from without and within.
On the night of March 8, 1971, Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier were trading punches at Madison Square Garden. The bout had been promoted as “The Fight of the Century”. Both men were undefeated; the winner would be the World Heavyweight Champion. But that was not all that was at stake. The fight was hugely symbolic for America, sharply divided over the war in Vietnam. Ali had refused to obey military draft orders in 1967, and was stripped of his Heavyweight title and his boxing license; this would be his first bout after his re-instatement. Frazier, who had ascended to the title in Ali’s absence, supported the war, and had a photo-op with Richard Nixon prior to the fight.
Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, and Ted Kennedy were at ringside. Most Americans were glued to their radios. WHAT!? you ask. It wasn’t televised? Yes, it was, though over closed-circuit showings, adding $45 million to the box-office revenue. But some Americans weren’t focused on the fight that evening. This story is about them.
William Davidon, 42, a physics-mathematics professor at Haverford College, joined John Raines, 38, a divinity professor at Temple University, and his 29 year old wife Bonnie Raines, owner of a daycare center, and five of their colleagues to wait for Keith Forsyth, a 20 year old part-time cab driver, to execute the critical phase of that evening’s project. Keith entered a 4-story commercial/residential building in Media, Pennsylvania. He headed for the second floor field office of the FBI. Equipped with handmade burglary tools, he was aiming to pick the office door lock, and clear the way for his accomplices to clean out the desks and empty the file cabinets. So, why did these young people plan this rather audacious caper, risking years of hard time in prison? And what were they going to do with all that paperwork if they safely hauled it away? Let’s flash back a few years.
Bill Davidon was a very bright guy. On his way to his PhD from the University of Chicago, he developed “the first quasi-Newton algorithm, now known as the Davidon–Fletcher–Powell formula.” That’s a very impressive feat. It yields an original solution to problems in matrix calculus, a field well established since the 1800s.
In his parallel life, Bill was also a fierce, principled advocate for peace and justice.
He was a sponsor of the War Tax Resistance Project and a board member of the ACLU Philadelphia branch while pursuing his faculty career at Haverford College and, as if that weren’t enough, plotted raids with Quaker and Catholic activists to steal and destroy draft board records. One must wonder when he slept.
John Raines was a son of a prominent Minneapolis clergyman. He had gone straight from Union Theological Seminary into the civil rights movement. In 1961, on a Freedom Bus ride from St. Louis to Little Rock, he was accosted by a white mob and jailed. It was a frightening episode he would never forget. Nevertheless, he persisted in civil disobedience together with his wife, Bonnie. In 1970, John, by then a professor of religion at Temple University, met Davidon while he and Bonnie were engaged in draft board raids in protest of the war in Vietnam.
Keith Forsyth was raised by a conservative family in small-town Ohio. He shared those values – but his principled and curious soul was put to the test as the Vietnam War heated up. He came across a Quaker publication challenging the legitimacy of the U.S. involvement which raised foundational questions that he needed to resolve. So Keith, then a freshman at Wooster College, phoned the State Department, requesting solid academic research that would reassure him that his support of the war was well-founded. Their recommended documents were flimsy and unconvincing. The matter was settled then and there. Keith quit school, thumbed a ride to Philly, and found his “tribe”: the anti-war activists. Draft board raids were where the action was. He became an accomplished lock picker in no time.
Not a very homogeneous cast of characters, they had at least two things in common: an overwhelming preference for justice; and a fierce determination to stand up for it.
Necessity Begets Invention
In those days Philadelphia was a hotbed of antiwar and civil rights activities, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was on them like glue. There was widespread fear and suspicion that Hoover’s agents were infiltrating their groups, wiretapping and using other illegal tactics to disrupt peaceful protests. The activist community was gripped with paranoia. Furthermore, Hoover had demonstrated that he was unaccountable when in the Fall of 1970 he destroyed the career of a United States Senator who persisted in asking too many questions.
Davidon, feeling trapped in that dragnet, summoned his superior inductive mind to find a way to turn the tables and right the wrongs. He concluded that getting hands on the FBI’s office files and broadcasting them would do the trick. The only way to do that would be to break into an FBI office and steal them. Bill was hardly an average burglar. He had not left a scrap of evidence at his draft board raids, although the feds had already amassed a fat dossier on him due to his tax refusals and his standing with the ACLU.
He had the plan. All that was missing were the details – and his co-conspirators.
Davidon figured he would need at least a half-dozen accomplices. He had met John and Bonnie Raines as they planned and executed draft board raids. The couple had a long track record of activism on the ground, dating back to John’s Freedom Bus rides a decade earlier and Bonnie’s tenure as a school teacher in Harlem. They were passionately dedicated to justice in all its forms. So, Bill Davidon asked them one evening in December 1970: “What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?” Their initial shock was followed by days of anguished discussions (they had three small children), eventually followed by their agreement. They would put their own family’s future freedom on the line. Freedom everywhere was in peril, and they felt a moral obligation to fight for it. They agreed that the FBI was illegally and immorally standing in the way, and must be called to account.
The remainder of the crew was recruited later that month. It turned out to be easy. Davidon rounded up his “usual suspects” by inviting them to a party at his house. Ann Davidon’s reaction to her husband’s plot was unequivocal: ”Count me out”. She was a lifelong peace activist, but this was a bridge too far. Their kids, at least, would still have one parent if things went south. All of the guests accepted the summons to clean out an FBI office – after catching their breath and collecting their thoughts, that is. Keith Forsyth, the kid from Ohio, had made a name for himself picking locks at draft board raids and maintaining calm under pressure. His skills were vital in a lineup heavy in academic achievement, not so much in mechanical arts. Susan Smith, Bob Williamson, Ron Durst, and Janet Fessenden rounded out the crew. In addition to being a gifted scientist, Davidon was an astute judge of character. He had observed them in action and judged them to be in it for something bigger than their egos or a rush of adrenaline. Initially, he had considered approaching John Peter Doyle, a charismatic leading organizer in the local Catholic peace movement, but decided that he should be kept uninvolved and unaware of these plans (a wise move, as Doyle was the first suspect to be grilled by the authorities after the burglary). Above all else, secrecy would need to be airtight.
“Paradoxically, in order for a community to forge extraordinary bonds of trust and practice, some structural separation from the outer society is needed. Without such walls around the garden, the whole effort will be diluted and will likely fail.”. . . A New Republic of the Heart, Chapter 9, p. 275.
A Room with No View
With the team in place, it was time to enact the plan. They would give themselves a name: “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI”. All of their planning sessions would be held in the third floor attic of the Raines’s house. The window curtains were drawn and would stay that way. Davidon had checked out the Philadelphia office – it was untouchable. The small field office in suburban Media looked promising. These meetings would be preceded by a dinner with John, Bonnie, and their kids; a baby-sitter’s arrival; a trip to “case the joint”; and a return home and tiptoe up to the attic for debriefing. Their first meeting would take place before the year’s end. Their lives were about to change forever.