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New film tells the story of eight courageous citizens who unveiled the FBI's illegal actions

Mar 24, 2015

FBI director J Edgar Hoover.
Credit Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

The new film 1971 tells the story of the eight members who made up the self-titled Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI. The group stole more than 1,000 classified documents from the FBI in order to expose some of the government agency's unconstitutional and illegal actions.

The film marks the first time these eight citizens are telling their story. Among them is West Michigan native Bonnie Raines and her husband John Raines.

Director Johanna Hamilton says in telling the story she was able to reveal the full impact of the group's actions. Often their impact gets abbreviated to a few pages in a history book, but Hamilton wanted to expand on that.

"I think it was because they were never caught, that they were never found out, that this story is not better known," Hamilton says.

The Rainses are both lifelong activists. John was a freedom rider, and was arrested for it in 1961, and Bonnie participated in the Civil Rights movement as well. Then they focused on the draft resistance movement.

"The war was horrific and the draft was horrific and we were determined to try to have our voices heard in Washington to bring that war to an end," Bonnie says.

The couple's anti-war actions began with breaking into draft board offices in the middle of the night to destroy files. For Bonnie, the logical next step to make a larger impact was to target an FBI office.

Hamilton describes the group as essentially training itself for a heist. John was in charge of the getaway car, while Bonnie cased the place beforehand, and stayed outside to create a distraction during the operation.

"It was amazingly easy to break into that FBI office and the reason is important, because it's the arrogance of the FBI back then," John says.

Their actions that night eventually led to the Church Committee hearings, marking the first time the public was exposed to FBI documents. Hamilton says ultimately these led to the first set of guidelines for the FBI's behavior.

While Bonnie and John say they were confident they would find documents that would display the FBI's immoral actions, John says the public outrage and eventual response from the government was more than they had hoped for.

Hamilton hopes the film "will deepen the meaning and impact of the actions taken by these eight, very courageous citizens."