Bill Kunstler and Judy Clavir hold homing device placed on their car by the FBI. (Courtesy of Greg Mitchell)
Of course, NSA snooping, collection of meta-data, checking e-mails and photographing our mailing envelopes is nothing to laugh about. But back in the day—that day being the late 1960s and early 1970s—the spying got more personal.
Even into my bedroom.
Stew Albert, the former Yippie leader once a suspect in a bombing of the US Capitol, wrote regular pieces for us (often with his wife, Judy “Gumbo” Clavir) at Crawdaddy throughout the 1970s. Stew had strong credentials, in our minds: unindicted co-conspirator at the Chicago 8 trial. Left-wing candidate for sheriff of Alameda (he carried Berkeley). Introduced John Lennon to local Yippies during John’s brief embrace of the left in New York City in the early 1970s. Helped get us to hire William Kunstler as our legal writer and Abbie Hoffman, then on the lam, as our “Travel Editor.” But he was more of a peacemaker than an agitator—a “lovable blond teddy bear,” a “wise old rabbi,” in Paul Krassner’s estimation.
In one haunting piece, Stew recalled meeting the great folk singer Victor Jara during an early-’70s visit to Chile with Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin. Not long after that, Jara, only 27, had been tortured—his fingers cut off—and killed by Pinochet’s thugs following the coup that deposed of democratically elected Salvador Allende. (Phil Ochs, in probably the final major act of his tortured life, later organized a tribute to Jara in New York that I attended, featuring a surprise guest appearance by Bob Dylan.)
An easygoing chap, partly because of a heart condition, Stew had endorsed McGovern in 1972, but maintained his left-wing views. For Crawdaddy he met up again with his old friend Tom Hayden when he ran for the US Senate in California.
During this period, I often visited Stew and Judy at their modest mountaintop home in Hurley, New York, near Woodstock. And apparently I wasn’t alone.
One Sunday morning, at my Barrow Street apartment in New York, I got a call from Bill Kunstler and was urged to come quick, with a camera. Stew and Judy, who were staying with him in the West Village (we had attended an Emmylou Harris concert the night previous), had come out to their car and noticed that a few weeks of dust on its rear bumper had been cleared away in one spot. Judy reached under and—presto, pulled out an electronic “homing device,” complete with tiny antenna. It was the first such nefarious object captured by any lefty in recent years, as far as we knew.
Naturally, Stew and Judy quickly wrote a piece for us, which we first titled “Bug Up My Ass!”, then changed to “Get the Secret Police Off My Tail!”, complete with my photo of them holding the device (see above), a plea for an explanation from the feds and the promise of a lawsuit (their lawyer, after all, was close at hand).
Well, a little later, they would win that suit and collect $20,000. Turned out that the FBI, under its notorious COINTELPRO program—no wonder the left was in disarray—had also placed listening devices in Stew and Judy’s mountaintop home, even in the bedrooms, surely active when I visited with a girlfriend on at least one occasion. (So perhaps they had listened to us while we, well, you know.) Apparently they thought that the couple might harbor Patty Hearst, or Abbie Hoffman or, who knows, Judge Crater or Jimmy Hoffa?
A top FBI intel official, James O. Ingram, was now being probed for lying to Congress about ordering that bug. We also learned that agents had broken into their home and seized objects that they sent to a lab for testing; monitored their bank account; and examined the couple’s mail at the Hurley, New York, post office, including many letters I had sent. They also on occasion followed visitors, such as yours truly, home.
When we published some of their FBI files, mainly from 1973–74 (but going back to Berkeley in 1970), we billed it as “perhaps the most realistic look ever at the day-to-day life of FBI huntsmen and their radical prey,” and it drew wide media attention. And plenty of laughs, especially at the agents who blamed their inability to tail the couple in their crappy old car, due to Judy’s erratic driving. Or the weather. One of the agent’s reports noted an “unidentified individual” visiting their cabin, and for that week, it could have only been me.
About three decades later we’d learn that the man behind the operation, and much of COINTELPRO, was none other than Mark Felt, a k a “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame.
When Robert Greenwald made his movie about Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Movie, Stew and Judy served as consultants—and were portrayed in the film, in major roles, by Donal Logue and Janeane Garafolo. Stew died in 2006. Two days before that he posted on his blog, “My politics have not changed.”
Greg Mitchell’s memoir of the 1970s, This Ain’t No Disco, is coming soon. He blogs daily at Pressing Issues.