By Betty Medsger. Knopf, 2014. 608 pages. $29.95/hardcover. Purchase on Amazon.com.
Reviewed by Martin Kelley
Betty Medsger’s new book is the inside story of eight Philadelphia, Pa., antiwar activists who broke into a sleepy FBI office in Media, Pa., in 1971, and stole documents that exposed massive FBI surveillance of antiwar protesters, African American student organizations, and liberal members of Congress. Never caught, five of the participants have finally come forward to tell Medsger their story in The Burglary. She deftly weaves the activists’ firsthand stories with details pulled from the declassified FBI investigation of the burglary.
As a Washington Post reporter in 1971, Medsger was one of the first journalists to write about stolen files, and she has a great eye for the seemingly random serendipities of that tumultuous era.
The most adrenaline-raising part of the book is of course the robbery itself—the planning, execution, and narrow escapes as 200 investigating FBI agents camped out in radical Philadelphia neighborhoods in the months following the break-in. The details grip one like a classic 1970s heist movie. The choice to time the burglary during the prize fight of the century was brilliant, both logistically and symbolically (it was Muhammad Ali’s first fight after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War and being stripped of his title). J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s paranoid and blackmailing director for over three decades, makes frequent appearances, more concerned about the exposure of bureau secrets than national security.
But while there’s excitement and drama to it all, 40 years later it feels almost nostalgic and quaint. This is a period piece, like some antiwar hippie Mad Men. It startles the modern reader to realize that there was a time not so very long ago when a group of amateurs could break into an office and not get caught.
That the burglars weren’t caught is one of their most remarkable accomplishments. They certainly made repeated mistakes. One burglar walked into the FBI office a month before to case it out, giving agents her real name and the flimsiest of excuses. Bill Davidon, one of the burglars, rented a nearby hotel room and car for the burglary, charging both on a personal credit card. When a press release about the burglary didn’t get published, he made front-page headlines by reading it himself to a packed public audience. Two other participants of the burglary team were arrested (and later acquitted) a few months later in the even-riskier “Camden 28” action.
Today, any would-be burglary team would be filmed by dozens of street cameras as they drove through Media. Investigating agents would subpoena emails, triangulate cell phones locations, and cross-reference bank records. However, today’s target wouldn’t be filing cabinets in a branch office: it’d be secure computer networks. A journalist’s story would feature long technical passages on encryption and ways to avoid electronic surveillance.
The parallels to modern-day whistle-blower Edward Snowden are obvious. But just as telling are the differences. The closest thing to religion he has is a hacker’s social libertarianism and its twin demands for government transparency and individual privacy. The community in which he refined and forged his ideals was found in online chat forums.
In Medsger’s book, religious identities serve as shorthand for particular styles of political activism. The “Quaker” style was largely symbolic and public. A newer generation of “Catholic Left” actions was more pranksterish, eschewing Quakerly staidness in favor of covert actions to monkey-wrench the system. In 1971, Catholic Left activists were known for breaking into draft board offices, a template the Media activists adapted.
But for all of the religious identifications, there are no processes of spiritual discernment documented in these accounts: no clearness committees or priestly confessions, no visits to churches or meetinghouses. No one recalls stopping to pray before joining the break-in team. The ecumenism of this activist generation resisted formal boundaries and reserved the right to hold multiple identities.
Medsger’s book is a wonderful time capsule to another era. Friends who lived through the events will find it rousing. The bravery of the activists is inspiring. The long-deferred limelight for those still living is well-deserved.
I think the book will serve another purpose for younger Friends trying to reconcile our Society’s activist legacy. In 2014, federal employees in suburban Philadelphia offices pilot drone aircraft over Afghanistan while protesters make YouTube videos to share on Facebook. How do we bring some of the 1970s spirit of determination and prankishness to these new protest forms? How do we answer the questions The Burglary raises about the relationship of faith and activism, membership and lived community?