The date was March 8, 1971. Most of the United States was glued to television sets that evening for what was to become known as The Fight of the Century.
Ali had been boxing's World Heavyweight Champion until he was stripped of his title for refusing to report for the armed forces draft. Ali was convicted, sentenced to 5 years in prison, but was free on bond pending appeal of his case. However state after state denied Ali a license to box there. His passport was revoked. The champ went into exile.
In Ali's absence, Joe Frazier rose through the ranks to become the World Heavyweight Champion. But the Supreme Court overturn Ali's conviction. Now Ali and Frazier were about to face off at Madison Square Garden.
But in the town of Media, Pennsylvania, 8 people were not watching the fight. The were using a lock pick and crowbar to break into the area FBI office. What they found there, and what they did with it, would shake the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation to its foundations, changing policy and exposing ongoing operations that had been only suspected for years.
Now, almost 43 years hence, and after the passing of the statute of limitations on prosecuting that burglary, those people have come forward. Now grandparents, John and Bonnie Raines are telling why they did it, what they accomplished, and encouraging others to stand up to unlawful activities kept secret by their government.
In an article she wrote for The Guardian, Bonnie Raines explains that she and her husband John and their cohorts wanted to hold J. Edgar Hoover, then Director of the FBI, accountable for what they considered to be unconstitutional acts of surveillance against American citizens, sometimes simply for holding differing political views. Hoover particularly went after people protesting against the Vietnam War.
"In Philadelphia we participated in anti-war protests against Vientnam. Through that activity we knew that the FBI was actively trying to squelch dissent, illegally and secretly. We knew that they were sending informants into university classrooms, infiltrating meetings, and tapping phones. The problem was that though we knew all this, there was no way to prove it."
A friend suggested that they get proof by breaking into the FBI office, then give that information anonymously to the press.
Raines herself went into the FBI office during the day, under the pretense of looking for a job. She noted that there was no security system, and the the filing cabinets were not even locked.
The small group planned their break-in.
The Raines had three children at the time, and they knew that getting caught could mean certain ruin for their family. They would likely be imprisoned, and their children would never see them again.
"We talked to my husband's brother and to my parents, without telling them the details, and asked them to take care of our children if the worst happened," she said.
The night of the Ali/Frazier fight, 4 people broke in to the FBI office in Media and stole over 1000 documents. Once they got away and perused their haul, they realized they had hit the motherlode.
The break-in led to the exposure of COINTELPRO, an FBI activity that involved "wiretaps, microphone "bugs", surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins", according to the Senate committee set up to review it.
Even once documents were found and sent to the press, pressure from the FBI to not print documents was so great that the story almost didn't get out. There was no Internet to post items to at the time, so newspapers were the only chance the group had of exposing Hoover's plans. Without cooperation from the press, their activities would have been for naught.
Finally, the Washington Post, the same paper that would eventually expose Watergate, ran with the story.
"We spent a week going through the documents and then mailing them out anonymously to congresspeople and some progressive journalists. All the journalists, including the New York Times, returned the documents to the FBI under pressure from the Nixon White House. Everyone was afraid of Hoover, except the Washington Post. After the Post published the documents, everyone else jumped on board."
None of the burglars can now be convicted of the crime. And the American public can now see in hindsight that these COINTELPRO activities were un-American and illegal. But the question of how to treat similar activities today still lingers.
"Democracy needs whistleblowers," Raines says. "[Edward] Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he's sacrificed a lot."
Image via Wikimedia Commons