Meet the original Snowdens

by longformphilly

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Steve Volk | Philadelphia Magazine | January 2015

John Raines sat in the family station wagon, parked in a dark lot on the Swarthmore campus, waiting to see if his wife would return to him, or if police lights would appear, flashing doom. In years past, he and Bonnie had sat together on this same front seat, three kids lining the back bench, and driven to his parents’ vacation house near Lake Michigan. Even now, back in Germantown, those three children slept soundly. Would they wake to find empty spaces where their parents used to be? Raines passed a couple of hours like this, his mind a crazy haze of worry, till finally a car drew near and he realized that it was Bonnie.

The night of March 8, 1971, had passed so slowly. Now he needed to speed up. Raines flung open his door, popped the trunk, and helped transfer four heavy suitcases from this arriving car to his own — all part of their meticulous getaway plan. Once Bonnie was beside him in the passenger seat, he drove, glancing anxiously in the rearview mirror.

The Raineses brought all this on themselves, after plotting to rob an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, motivated by their intention to stop the Vietnam War. The burglars, a total of eight Philadelphia peace activists, had planned this action for months on the third floor of the Raineses’ home. Now, the deed done, they came together in four separate cars at a small Quaker farmhouse just a few miles from the scene of the crime. They opened a bag of sandwiches and bottles of beer. Then they donned gloves and divided up what they’d stolen — a trove of 1,000 files from the FBI’s own offices.

No one remembers who shouted first. But someone started reading aloud from a memo urging FBI agents to increase interviews of anti-war activists and student protest groups. “It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles,” the document stated, “and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

J. Edgar Hoover, they’d find, had ordered surveillance of anyone who’d expressed views critical of the Vietnam War or espoused civil rights, of hippies, intellectuals and black people. Much of the country still regarded Hoover as a heroic figure. But the truth, which the burglars now held in their hands, was that he’d run the bureau as a political suppression unit.

As dawn neared, Bonnie drove her husband to a pay phone outside a gas station near Chestnut Hill. John called a reporter at Reuters and anonymously announced the burglary, reading from a statement he’d led in crafting. A break-in had been mounted, he intoned, by a group calling itself “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.”

Raines got back in the car, settling into the passenger seat as Bonnie drove home. He breathed deeply. And somewhere along Lincoln Drive, all the anxiety he’d felt disappeared, quickly replaced by a sense of relief, of joy. John Raines filled the station wagon with his great, resonant laugh. He cackled. He hooted. He tore the announcement he’d read to the reporter into pieces, rolled down his window, and sent the bits of paper spiraling out into the air — a secret, celebratory confetti whirling in the wind of Fairmount Park.

The Temple University professor and his wife planned, like the other burglars, to get the documents they’d stolen to the press and disappear — to take their role in this story to their graves. But sometimes even the gravest of secrets lasts long enough to take on new life — to be revealed, and wielded, in the waging of an old war.

Writer bio: Steve Volk is a writer-at-large for Philadelphia Magazine. Volk, a University of Florida graduate, wrote for alt-weeklies in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for 20 years. He is one of the city’s foremost narrative journalists.

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