Break-In: 50 Years After The Event That Exposed COINTELPRO

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On March 8, 1971, a group of anti-war activists calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI’s Media, Pennsylvania office. They sought to gather definitive proof that the FBI was undermining social movements and waging war on domestic dissent. The documents they liberated changed the course of U.S. history, as some of them featured the cryptic words “COINTELPRO.”

On March 8, 2021 – the 50th anniversary of the break-in – Defending Rights & Dissent hosted an all-star panel featuring:

  • Bonnie Raines, one of the burglars who liberated the FBI documents in 1971;
  • Betty Medsger, the journalist who helped expose COINTELPRO and author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI;
  • Johanna Hamilton, director of 1971the film about the break-in
  • Paul Coates, founder and director of Black Classic Press and former member of the Baltimore Black Panthers;
  • Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, author of Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy,  and former FBI agent.

The discussion was moderated by Chip Gibbons, Defending Rights & Dissent’s Policy Director, host of The Still Spying Podcast, and author of an upcoming book that through a retelling of the history of the FBI explores the relationship between domestic political surveillance and the emergence of the US national security state.

With COINTELPRO, the FBI went beyond spying on dissent, engaging in a series of illegal covert actions to stifle the domestic exercise of First Amendment rights. Decades later it remains a shocking abuse of power that has become synonymous with repression of domestic political dissent. The panelists recounted the history of the break-in, explore the legacy of COINTELPRO, and discuss what has and hasn’t changed with the current FBI.