Political leaders and FBI officials are frantically rushing to address the renewed threat of White Supremacist violence in the wake of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. But as they do so it is worth recalling the lessons of one of the most consequential acts of nonviolent resistance in American history, which happened 50 years ago this month.
On March 8, 1971, a group of Philadelphia-area peace activists broke into a small FBI office, and stole a cache of secret documents which they subsequently shared with the press. Their burglary led to the exposure of mass FBI surveillance of American political dissidents, a chilling example of government power infringing on people’s rights. The FBI had initiated the mass surveillance in a desperate attempt to thwart the Weather Underground and other clandestine leftist guerrillas involved in bombings and attacks on police officers, yet the operation had cast a wide net, surveilling political activists because of their dissident views rather than criminal activity.
Daniel S. Chard is visiting assistant professor of history at Western Washington University and author of "Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism," forthcoming in September 2021, University of North Carolina Press.