What I Learned From Breaking the Law

What I Learned From Breaking the Law

In 1971, I helped burglarize an FBI office and leaked documents that exposed J. Edgar Hoover’s abuses of power. Here’s what that experience taught me.


Editor’s Note: This lecture, given to the Society of Christian Ethics on January 10, 2015, is reprinted with the permission of the author.

I have been asked to develop a set of reflections on the moral lessons I learned from breaking the law. Here is part of that story. In 1961 I was arrested and put in jail in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was a “freedom rider.” Then, ten years later, a group of us calling ourselves “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into the Media, Pennsylvania office of the FBI, removed the files and released them to the news media. What did I learn from breaking the law? Here are five lessons I learned. I learned that:

1) Law is not to be trusted without interrogating its complicity with privilege and power.

2) Identity is morally problematic, especially if you get yourself born a white male of class privilege.

3) A nation that lets itself be governed by fear will become a poorly governed nation.

4) The arrogance of power contributes to its own demise when confronted by persistent resistance, and finally….

5) I learned that the anger called hope can overcome despair, create a community of resistance and build a future that seemed impossible.

Let me begin with the issue of law and criminality. It is my contention that breaking the law and committing a crime are not identical. Indeed, I would go further. I would claim that under certain circumstances not to break the law is a crime—a crime against justice. That is what I learned back in 1961 when being found guilty of “threatening a breach of the peace” when four of us—two blacks and two whites—sat down together in the “White” waiting room of the Trailways bus station in Little Rock.

The law, indeed the set of laws we challenged and broke imposed segregation. It was a clear violation of the civil liberties guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution and its several Amendments. Law, as there conceived, was the crime, and the only way to stop the multiple injustices it was imposing was to break that law and expose its criminal intent.

What I was forced to examine by that experience was the whole relationship between law, on the one side, and privilege and power on the other. I was forced to examine how law for the most part is imposed by the powerful to protect and defend their own interests. There is and always has been a complicity between law and how it is practiced with racial, gender and class structures of privilege. I concluded that my task as an ethicist was to approach law with a hermeneutic of suspicion. But that hermeneutic was not an easy task for folks of my kind, for folks enjoying the promise of a future secure position within the professional-managerial class.

For many of us, or even for most of us that future class position was assigned to us by our birth. And none of us get to choose our birth!! Our birth, all births, reveal the puzzling moral paradox of the sheer arbitrariness of all human beginnings. Neither you nor I got to choose our gender. We did not choose our race. We did not choose our place and time of birth. We did not choose our genetic heritage that would determine our body type, the shape of our face or the resistance to or proclivity for sundry diseases. There is more. We did not choose the social world into which we were thrown. We did not choose and could not choose how we first lived in and therefore understood that world. And what that meant is that we did not choose our original and originating identity. John Raines began as a moral accident, and so did you.

In my case, I woke up one day and found I was a white male of class privilege, born into a nation that in the early 1930s was becoming a new global empire. The first self I learned and knew was a self born within a tiny bubble called power and privilege. And here is an important moral truth. None of my teachers in those private schools and later elite universities ever told me that. They did not challenge the moral arbitrariness of me being me. Yes, I competed with others of my own class for grades and in sports. But all of us in those protected enclaves were already winners in the Lottery Wheel of future life chances. We were born into it. The law was our law—passed and adjudicated by “our own kind.” And schools were our class-rooms, rooms where we learned our class. How clever–to hide the engine of inter-generational social class replication behind the myth of meritocracy. We teachers, whatever our personal moral values, do not so much change as administer the given social realities. There was no hermeneutic of suspicion because suspicion would have put into question the whole enterprise of education and the function of educators in the system of privilege.

Back in 1961, we civil rights workers were called “outside agitators” by those living comfortably inside those segregation laws. And indeed, that is what we were, or were becoming—those living outside the way power and privilege worked in the Old South. I found myself in that Little Rock courtroom standing for the first time in a social space I had never imagined, outside of power and regarded by power as the enemy of power. And power had the power to punish me for that. I was beginning to get a second education, one I was not supposed to get. I was getting a second chance to become the John Raines I was just then starting to become.

In Little Rock in 1961 I broke the law, was put in jail and lost my freedom. But in so doing I began to acquire a freedom I once did not know I needed—freedom from the moral confines of my birth. It was an unexpected freedom, a freedom to learn that the “I” of me was not finished but somebody still ahead.

Ten years later that second education I got from my teachers of color, that “second birth” would lead me to join with others to burglarize the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. Why? What led me from Little Rock, Arkansas to Media, PA?

I had discovered two important moral truths: law is to be questioned as to its complicity with privilege and power. And second, identity is morally problematic and must be subjected to critical examination.

I was about to learn a third moral lesson and this time, strange to say, J. Edgar Hoover would be my instructor. Hoover taught me that a nation that allows itself to be governed by fear will become a poorly governed nation. J. Edgar Hoover was a master of fear and its uses. Yes, he was feared in Washington for his special files. But even more he was revered. We need to hold on to that fact. Hoover was both the most powerful man in Washington but also the most popular. For the vast majority of us, he and his FBI were beyond suspicion. Why? Because he told us what we should fear and we believed him. We should fear subversion, and fear and despise any person or group who did not join the holy crusade against what Hoover called “the international communist conspiracy.” Politicians, pundits, and not a few preachers joined in that holy war. To question J. Edgar Hoover and what he was doing with his FBI was to question the politics and policies of the Cold War. Fear ruled, and those who questioned that fear were deemed subversives. To question, for example, the efficacy of the “domino theory” was apostasy. The task of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI was to perform a public exorcism.

From our experiences in the civil rights movement we knew about the FBI and its uses of mass surveillance, of infiltrators and informers, of dirty tricks that ruined reputations and careers. And we knew from our own experience that those same tactics were being deployed against the war resisters. But how could we document that? Given the political climate, there was no effective questioning of Hoover by government officials or by the press or by popular public pundits. People in power and enjoying that power would not hold accountable their own kind. So, ordinary people had to do what we should not have had to do. We had to put our futures at risk. We had to become robbers. We tried to catch Hoover red-handed (ha!) in the handwriting of his own internal documents. It proved to be much easier than we had anticipated. And this leads me to conclude a fourth moral lesson: the arrogance of power blinds it to its own vulnerability. The ability of power to silence its critics encourages a false sense of self-confidence. And out of that silence would arise the tragedy of Vietnam.

The tragedy would not end there. Our nation, the most powerful military force in the world, lost or is losing and will lose the last three wars we fought against what seemed to be far less powerful nations. Driven by arrogance, we assumed a quick and easy victory in nation’s whose cultures we didn’t think we needed to understand. We lost in Vietnam. We are losing in Iraq. And we will lose in Afghanistan. We all know this, but we can’t say it publicly. It is too humiliating.

Embarrassing or not, it illustrates a fundamental truth. The arrogance of power leads to the unraveling of its own plans when confronted by persistence resistance. It’s a truth empires need to know but always refuse to learn.

Back to 1971. Members of the Citizens’ Commission chose my wife Bonnie to pose as a Swarthmore College student interested in a possible career in the FBI. She called and made an appointment to visit the FBI office nearby Swarthmore in Media, Pennsylvania. She was greeted warmly by the resident agent who did not notice that she never removed her gloves, and did not even ask her name. It was beyond the imagination of the FBI—beginning at the top with Hoover—to think that the investigators might be investigated using their own weapon—a clandestine burglary to obtain information held in secret. She reported back the astonishing news that there were no electronic security devices and that the file cabinets had no locks.

We had done our casing well. We knew the nightly routines of the people living in the apartments above the FBI office, the routines of police activity in and around the county courthouse just across the street. We had learned our burglary skills from priests and nuns—members of the Berrigan brothers’ East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, who successfully broke into selective service offices to destroy the 1-A draft records.

The robbery went well. The files revealed activities that clearly violated both First and Fourth Amendment rights. And one paper, the Washington Post, after a fierce battle between the in-house legal counsel who wanted the Post to do what John Mitchell the Attorney General was demanding that they do and refuse publication just as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times had done—the Washington Post instead published the story on its front page. Suddenly, the deafening silence of the news media about Hoover and his FBI ended. And later, when Hoover’s Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program) was revealed, a Senate Committee was formed and for the first time there was a Congressional investigation of the intelligence community—both the FBI and the CIA. Strict new guidelines were imposed that protected civil liberties from intrusive government surveillance. For a while.

All of that would end abruptly with 9/11 and the Patriots Act which eviscerated those regulations and opened wide the doors to a technology of surveillance and government intrusion into our private lives that would have warmed Hoover’s heart. 1961, 1971, and now again in the new millennium, we became a nation ruled by fear and therefore governed by secrecy. “Do anything you want to that protects us from the terrorists” has become our new national mantra.

Here’s the huge irony in all of that. The terrorists and the anti-terrorists are two foxes tied together by the tail. They sing the same music and dance the same dance. Both of them depend upon successfully making us feel afraid. Both run on the same gasoline—the endless black hole called fear.

But here’s a truth we often ignore. Mostly I don’t act like I’m afraid, and neither do you. I wake up in the morning, get on the bus and go to work without once thinking, “is the bus driver a mass kidnapper in disguise?” Of course not! It would be an absurd over-reach of suspicion. I take for granted, we all take for granted, and must take for granted our common safety in public spaces. That is the Common Grace, that is the gift each of us gives to each other, a presumed safety that welcomes us every morning as we leave our front door.

But precisely such an overreach of suspicion has in recent years become the driving force of our federal budget. The price we pay for that, both financially and psychologically, is that we increasingly live and agree to live in what has come to be called “the surveillance state.” Think of all the pay checks, all the personal and institutional ambitions that depend upon us feeling afraid. It’s not just The National Security Agency or The Central Intelligence Agency or The Federal Bureau Of Investigation; it’s all those other intelligence units in the military, in local police departments, and the massive spread into private industry of profits made from intelligence work. They all drink at the well of fear, and the rest of us pay the price for that. The money that should be going into our schools, the money that should be repairing our old and broken infrastructure, the money that should go into developing sustainable sources of energy, and the money that could and should be used to end the practice of sending out our college graduates as indentured servants—all that money instead disappears into the endless and ill-defined land called fear.

There’s worse. Just like J. Edgar Hoover our new national protectors ask us that we ask them no questions, that we let them do their work behind the closed doors of secrecy. What We The People need today is what we needed back in the 1960s and 1970s, we need a national debate about the uses and abuses of government intrusion into our private lives. How many protectors do we really need and at what cost? But for that debate to happen we need the information that was denied to us until Mr. Snowden took up the watch armed with his flash drive. Without his blowing the whistle there would be no debate today about The NSA or The CIA; there would be instead the silence of sleeping citizens.

The fifth lesson I learned from breaking the law is the way anger can overcome cynicism and create community, especially the anger that is called hope.

The 1960s was a time of hope. It was the last time our national agenda was ordered by hope. But the 1960s was also a time of anger—anger at the way things were. There are two, very different kinds of anger. One is sloppy anger. Sloppy anger does not attack the source of injury; it just ventilates. Sloppy anger targets those that lack power, not those that have power. But there is a different kind of anger. It is righteous anger. Righteous anger is patient; it takes its time to discover and name the actual source of injury. Righteous anger is persistent because it is driven by hope.

The 1960s was the last time We The People looked with hope to government to solve our problems. It was to Washington that we took our anger and our hope. We rode the buses and trains to Washington. We took to the streets in Washington. We carried our signs and sang our songs in Washington. Now here we are more than 40 years later, and as a nation we are once again locked in a battle between cynicism and hope.

Most of us are classroom teachers. I don’t know about you, but my students are angry. They are angry that the so-called “recovery” is a recovery of Wall Street that leaves Main Street behind. They are angry that the old white guys who run things in our country turn their backs on a sustainable future. After all, it is their future, not the old fat cats who soon will be dead. And they are angry that their vote is getting drowned in a sea of money, our democracy rapidly becoming a plutocracy. But the best and the brightest of my students are not just angry. They are also flirting with despair.

It is an interesting time to be a teacher of ethics as your students teeter between despair and hope. How do we help them preserve their conscience and continue to bring strong expectations to themselves and to our country? Here is what I’ve learned. You ask them to consider the past. A future of fundamental change has always seemed impossible. Who, for example, in 1959 would have predicted that the 1960s were about to happen? Significant change, precisely because it is significant always seems impossible, until in retrospect it appears inevitable. We learned, those many years ago, the truth about power and possibility, that there is always possibility beyond the reach of power to control. We learned that persistent resistance can “make a way where there is no way.”

That happened in this nation in the 1960s and it can happen again in the new millennium. Our students, the best and the brightest are furious. And they are not alone. Take, for example, what happened with the Occupy Movement. Starting in New York City it spread via the social media around the world within a week. Such is the anger and momentum out there just waiting for a spark to ignite it.

It is an interesting time to be saddled with the responsibility of mentoring the conscience of the young. Why? Because it tests the very meaning of our own lives as teachers. And that is good. It provokes us and keeps us alive, still hungry and unsatisfied.

Let me conclude with this final reflection. We will always need whistleblowers, in government, in corporations—wherever there is concentrated power, there we will need whistleblowers. Why? Because it is the nature of power and the privileges that power brings to perpetuate itself. And how better to do that than to sequester the most important decisions behind closed doors—away from the scrutiny of rivals or of critics. Power is always most powerful when it is not seen as an arbitrary imposition, but rather just the way things are. Into that silence a voice of dissent must arise—as it did with the Citizens’ Commission in 1971, as it did with Snowden in 2013, as it will have to happen again and again in years to come. As Christian Social Ethicists, we need to prepare our students, some of them at least, to be that voice speaking out of the silence against that silence, to become whistleblowers exposing the secrets of power and interests to public scrutiny and debate. It is the voice the people need to hear and power cannot silence.

In conclusion, these then are the five lessons I learned by breaking the law. I learned that:

1) Law is not to be trusted without interrogating its complicity with power.

2) Identity is morally problematic for those enjoying gender, racial or class privilege.

3) A nation that permits itself to be governed by fear will become a poorly governed nation.

4) The arrogance of power will undo its plans for the future when met with persistent resistance. And finally…

5) The anger called hope can overcome despair, create a community of resistance and build a future that seemed impossible.

What did I learn? I learned how to be a better teacher of Christian Social Ethics. By breaking the law I got a second education, one I was not supposed to get, an education I got and, given my social class origin, could only get starting in jail. It was the classroom I needed, and I found it in Little Rock.


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