On February 6, an exceptional documentary about the unacknowledged whistleblowing group The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, 1971, previously only screened at festivals, is beginning a limited theatrical run at New York City’s Cinema Village. As of this writing, there are limited engagements planned in Santa Fe, Portland (Oregon), Los Angeles, Bellingham, Columbus, and internationally in Toronto, Canada.
Structured and paced like a heist film (which in a sense it is), the documentary is as laser-focused and as unencumbered by unnecessary clutter as the action it chronicles.
The Commission, despite its imposing sesquipedalian title, was in fact a tiny group of a mere eight people. Yet they were able to pull off a carefully targeted plan that produced a significant dent in the national security state.
Determined to uncover the FBI’s own documentation of its abuses of power, they found out that many perfunctorily guarded local branch offices kept full copies of many of their secret files — including in nearby Media, Pennsylvania. They planned to break in to the office after hours, obtain the documents, and get copies of material self-incriminating of FBI crimes and dirty tricks to the press.
And they did.
This exposure preceded that of the Pentagon Papers (and the filming itself antedated Snowden’s NSA revelations), blew the cover of COINTELPRO, and led directly to limits on the scope of domestic surveillance unequaled before or since.
So determined and trustworthy were the Commissioners that not only did they avoid capture, but their identities remained completely secret until survivors came forward in 2013. But apart from maturity and self-control, it’s striking how ordinary they were.
In moving, in their words, “from nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption,” the Commissioners exemplify the strategy Howard Zinn called non-violent direct action — a “technique which is more energetic than parliamentary reform and yet not subject to the dangers which war and revolution pose in the atomic age.”
And while the operation paralleled the FBI’s need for secrecy, it benefited from being suited to the small-scale local operation that was the FBI’s Achilles heel. Indeed, since decentralization multiplies points of vulnerability, it being a weakness for an organization is itself a weakness many times over. And this becomes ever more so in a network age. Eric Frank Russell pointed out that the ideal spy would be as much an ignoramus as possibly consistent with doing the job; this is an ever-harder balance to maintain in a knowledge society.
Creating an engaging story about a long-gone event lacking direct documentation is always a formidable challenge for a documentarian. It’s even more so for a historical period that, conversely, is so media-saturated that its images are as cliché as they come. But the blend of new interviews with decades-old historical footage may be the best since the 1970s documentary The Wobblies tracked down elderly veterans from the One Big Union’s heyday almost three-quarters of a century before. And the re-enactments channel the spirit of the young conspirators, with an attention to detail that satisfies on a heist-movie level while showing the effectiveness of micro-organization.
With a common focus on FBI abuses, 1971 serves well as a companion piece to Selma. Indeed, the FBI’s intimidation of Martin Luther King, Jr. — down to attempts to induce him to commit suicide — are covered. LBJ’s cronies have made desperate efforts to leverage the dramatic licenses of Selma to discredit its devastating portrait (while not seeing any shame in taking the side that lost the battle for history). 1971 shows that no dramatic license is necessary. (And that’s not even getting into the Bureau’s origins in the original post-Russian Revolution Red Scare of the 1920s. It was always primarily about cracking down on domestic radicalism, not the interstate crime that was the purported rationale.)
If it’s hard to watch without wondering why the FBI hasn’t been shut down, it’s even harder to realize that almost all of the restrictions the aftermath of the Commission placed on the FBI have been subsequently rolled back since 9/11.
Significantly, the film mentions how the surveillance also covered far-right groups as well as far-left ones, so that it was a brown scare as well as a red scare. The United States’s polarized politics has been a boon to the domestic security apparatus, with partisans only complaining when their opponents are in office. Republicans who complained about Waco and Ruby Ridge during Bill Clinton’s administration fell silent when George W. Bush replaced Clinton; Democrats did the same for the post-9/11 surveillance state when Bush yielded to Obama. (The cycle will invariably turn again when a Republican reclaims the Oval Office.) Many of the same baby boomers who lionized Daniel Ellsberg learned to stop worrying when it came time to call for locking up Assange, Manning and Snowden (and seeing no irony in calling them — and sentencing them as — worse criminals than the alphabet-soup-agency criminals they exposed). Frank Rich called Charles and David Koch’s opposition to the FBI “to the right of Reagan.”
But the culture outside that blinkered realm is a different story. 1971 points out that the straightforwardly law-and-order television series The F.B.I. was a mainstream hit for a decade (with most of that span being in “the Sixties” — it was the Seventies that really put an end to the Fifties). By the Nineties, even shows about FBI agents with cool government jobs were suffused with suspicion of the government’s motives, and it’s only snowballed since then. (Even one of the participants laments “the destruction of public belief in government” the Commission played a role in instigating.)
The title “1971” is itself a reminder to not dismiss a decade usually considered, in the words of The New Yorker’s George Packer, “a long and often embarrassing anticlimax — a shapeless, burned-out interregnum between the high dramas of the sixties and the bright, hard edges of the Reagan era.” While not fitting into a narrative of political partisanship and mass movements, the tactics of the 1970s were superior to the overrated Sixties (whose most detrimental aspects are the most imitated — the immaturity, the preaching to the choir, the concern with sheer size of mass movements). And as an operation that hinged on lockpicking before locks went virtual indicates, the techniques of the decade that foresaw computer liberation and space colonies are more relevant to a post-industrial age. The very titles of books of the 1970s — Neighborhood Power, Free Schools, Community Technology — reads like a list of roads not taken that are worth a second look.
There’s no better place to begin such a second look than this film.