How to Burglarize the FBI: The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI Did It Back in 1971
For most of US history, spies didn’t have rules—even when they were targeting US citizens. The spymasters and their agents did whatever was necessary: blackbag break-ins, illegal phone taps, telegram and mail intercepts, plus the usual lying, stealing, and killing. But in late 1970, a collection of ordinary citizens became so outraged by illegal government spying that they began to meticulously plan a daring mission: They would raid an FBI office.
On March 8, 1971, a group of activists calling themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an office outside of Philadelphia, stole nearly all the FBI’s own documents, and mailed them to Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. This leak led to massive reforms of the rules of surveillance. Any limits on NSA and FBI actions inside the United States are thanks in part to these daring citizen burglars. They kept their story a secret for 43 years. Meet the men and women who burglarized the FBI.
Their secret planning began with a spaghetti dinner. A pair of college professors, several university students, a social worker, a daycare worker, and a taxi driver gathered around a homey dinner table, children underfoot at a three-story stone townhouse in Philadelphia. Some of the guests were on edge, while others laughed like old friends. Their leader William “Bill” Davidon, a physics professor at nearby Haverford College, was the oldest at 43. He leaned back, quietly observing the crew that ranged in age down to 20. Several of the members had been arrested in earlier actions. But this operation was on a different scale of danger. Even sitting at the table slurping spaghetti and discussing plans was enough for conspiracy charges, perhaps up to ten years in Federal Prison. If the FBI catches you in the act, a friendly lawyer warned, you might be shot.
1 On April 1, Malcolm L. Shabazz was arrested at a bar in South Bend, Indiana, where he was visiting friends. “America is eating me alive,” he told his imam.
2 He returned to his hometown in the Hudson Valley and flew to Los Angeles to meet his friend Miguel Suarez.
3 Miguel, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant and labor organizer, was deported from Oakland on April 18. Malcolm met him in Tijuana, hoping a trip south would inspire him to live up to his legacy as Malcolm X’s grandson.
4 Miguel and Malcolm took a two-day bus ride to Mexico City. They dreamed up a plan to unite black and brown people in Mexico and beyond.
5 On May 8, their plans—and Malcolm’s tumultuous life—were cut short after a bar scam they fell for went horribly wrong near the Plaza Garibaldi.
—Investigating the unsolved murder of Malcolm X’s grandson
If it was a time for anything, 2013 was a year that saw the Snow Fall(ing) full-bleed layout solidify itself as the du jour template for longform non-fiction storytelling on the Internet.
Inside the Heroin Epidemic Sweeping Through Vermont
One Saturday afternoon this fall, the two of us drove toward Burlington, Vermont, on a narrow highway that snakes through the Green Mountains. Rolling fields gave way to hardwood forests, maple trees aflame with red and orange leaves—the kind of bucolic scenery that brings in nearly 14 million tourists and $1.7 billion of their money every year. Our destination was a small farm in Colchester that looks like something right out of a postcard: a red barn, a sign that said “Community Pig Roast,” even chickens and dogs running around in the yard.
Josh was waiting for us at a table on the porch in a flat-brim hat and hoodie. He’s a Vermonter born and bred, a 23-year-old with an easygoing stoner charisma familiar to anyone who grew up in the area. The stories he told, on the other hand, sound like they could have come out of the worst drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods of a big city.
He’s run heroin to Vermont from New Jersey six times in the last 18 months. His suppliers hand Josh 25 bricks of the stuff and tell them it’s his responsibility until he gets to Vermont and to “hide it good.” Heroin is much cheaper in the big cities to the south than it is in the Green Mountain State, and Josh takes full advantage of this—he can make $600 off of $10 worth of the raw he buys. He doesn’t have much in the way of professional ethics. “I’ve ripped people off by throwing hot cocoa in an empty bag,” he told us. “Scoop a little dirt off the ground and throw that in there, dude.”
Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Unaccompanied Miners: Down the Shaft with Bolivia’s Child Laborers
In 1936, George Orwell visited a coal mine in Grimethorpe, England. “The place is like… my own mental picture of hell,” he wrote of the experience. “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” Orwell was a lanky guy, 6’3” or 6’2”, and I am too. So I was reminded of his comparison recently while crawling through a tunnel as dank and dark as a medieval sewer, nearly a mile underground in one of the oldest active mines in Latin America, the Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. The chutes were so narrow that I couldn’t have turned around—or turned back—even if I’d wanted to.
Orwell wasn’t the first to equate mines with hell; Bolivian miners already know they labor in the inferno. In the past 500 years, at least 4 million of them have died from cave-ins, starvation, or black lung in Cerro Rico, and as a sly fuck-you to the pious Spaniards who set up shop here in 1554 and enslaved the native Quechua Indians, Bolivian miners worship the devil—part of a schizophrenic cosmology in which God governs above while Satan rules the subterranean.
As an offering to him, miners slaughter llamas and smear blood around the entrances to the 650 mineshafts that swiss-cheese this hill. Near the bloodstains, just inside the mine, a visitor can find beady-eyed statues with beards and raging boners—a goofy caricature of Satan known as El Tio, or “the Uncle,” to whom workers give moonshine and cigarettes in exchange for good luck. Before entering the mountain, I’d offered a small pouch of coca leaves to one of these little devils, requesting a bendiga, a blessing for my safety.
A few hours later, I was hundreds of feet underground, shambling through three-foot-tall tunnels, bony knees bruising over hard rock. My guide, Dani, a miniature man with the strength and temperament of a donkey, had burrowed so far ahead that he’d disappeared into the darkness. I called out to him. When he didn’t reply, my photographer Jackson turned to me and coughed. “I’m freaking out,” he said, and we soldiered on, trying to trace Dani’s path through the hot, sulfur-stinking tunnel.
The Boxer, the Murder, the Fall from Grace
The argument started over gas money. It escalated to the point where a man got shot in the testicles. And it finished with one of the participants murdered and the other—a professional boxer with 20 victories to his name—in prison.
The dead man’s name was Raul Bennett Sambola, and I’ll get to him, but it was the boxer’s involvement that made the argument and its aftermath famous up and down Nicaragua’s poverty-stricken Atlantic coast. Evans Quinn was a 28-year-old heavyweight at the time of the February 2012 murder; just nine months earlier he had been in Nevada fighting Seth Mitchell. That bout ended with Quinn getting knocked out in the first round, after which he returned to his hometown of Bluefields. But before that humiliation, before he got involved in a feud, killed Sambola, went on the run, and was finally thrown in prison, Quinn was already a local legend, beloved by the people of Bluefields because he was one of them. As he came up through the boxing ranks, they imagined he’d make it to the top and show the world that the people in this poor but lively region are fighters and winners.
“God gave Evans Quinn the ability to rise up the people of Bluefields,” a local pastor told me. “But he threw it away.”
It’s hard to describe Quinn without using words like “potential” and “ability.” He was charismatic as hell, handsome, successful, and able to make whoever he talked to feel like he was the most important person in the world. He claimed to have seven wives (“I’m Muslim,” he told me) and surrounded himself with friends, drugs, women, and guns. But he could also be dangerous—if you crossed him, he wasn’t afraid to use his immense physical talents to show you who was boss. Like when he punched that pastor’s son in the mouth just because the kid was at a nightclub with a girl Quinn thought would be better off with him.
“He was crazy, but he could have done great things,” the pastor said. That’s how eager many in Bluefields were to look the other way when Quinn did something most people would be hated for. That was the influence the boxer had once had here. Today Quinn is still a legend, but now that he’s in prison, his glory days long burned away to ash, his story is now one about wasted potential, or a cautionary tale about what happens when a man takes justice into his own hands. If you’re willing to forgive his excesses and his ugly violent streak, he could even be a folk hero who got thrown in prison by cops with a grudge against him.
Lean On Me: Instagram’s Codeine Kingpin Sent Me Emoji Death Threats
As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead. It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat’s a death threat.
There is an Atlanta-based drug dealer who is convinced I ripped him off for at least a few pints of Actavis-brand prescription cough syrup—a potent mixture of codeine and promethazine. You and I know it as “lean” or “drank.”
I’ve never consumed lean. I’ve never met this dealer. I’ve never even been to Atlanta.
This entire “encounter” took place on Instagram, where hundreds of accounts are selling lean, weed, and a variety of prescription pills in a virtual open-air drug market. Many of these accounts aren’t even private.
Remember Silk Road? That mysterious, deep-web drug market? (Which, by the way, was recently shut down and seized by the United States government) It’s kind of like that, but on the same iPhone app that you use to take a photo of your brunch. The same app that Facebook bought for a billion dollars, or roughly 2.85 million pints of Actavis, the leading lean brand.
They sell it, often overnight it, and you can text them your order.
/ / /
Lean, Oil, Mud, Texas Tea, Dirty Sprite, Drank, Sizzurp—the archetypal Styrofoam cup filled with purple liquid you’re picturing is a cocktail of promethazine and codeine, mixed with Sprite, and garnished with a Jolly Rancher. Lean is often touted by rappers and, like hip-hop itself, it took off in an isolated area (Houston) and propagated itself outwardly. H-Town luminaries like DJ Screw and UGK’s Pimp C championed the stuff—and they also died from overdoses.
And, recently, everything is purple. Houston-based rapper Fat Tony—who claims to never drink lean himself—says, “[Lean] has a long history of being associated with rap music because of DJ Screw and Houston music, but now, it’s so popular now because every rap song mentions lean.” The 25-year-old continues, “Look at the top 20 tapes on like livemixtapes and I guarantee that every one of them has several lean mentions, whether it’s a Lil Wayne tape, a Jeremih tape, a Chief Keef tape, a Migos tape, a Rich Homie Quan tape, a Kevin Gates tape, an A$AP tape, or TDE artists like Schoolboy Q or Ab-Soul—even Odd Future artists like Mellowhype. It’s more popular in rap music than I’ve ever seen it before.”
America’s First Hippie: Living, Learning, and Going Long with Gypsy Boots
Photos courtesy of Kees Van Voorthuizen
My mother hated hippies. She also wasn’t keen on meeting strangers, long-haired or otherwise. And her mood was especially dark that day in 1970 when the two of us were vacationing at the Hilton in Beverly Hills. She’d been waging a long battle with my father, her ex-husband, over me, their seven-year-old, and worried that she’d either lose custody or I’d “turn hippie” thanks to California’s corrupting influence. So when a hyperactive senior citizen with shoulder-length silver hair, a scraggly beard, and love beads around his neck approached us in the hotel lobby while banging a tambourine, shaking maracas, dancing a Russian cossack jig, and chanting, “I’m-a the Gypsy Boots, I live on nuts and fruits,” I wasn’t surprised when my mother yelled at him to get lost. I wanted him to scram, too. Ordinary hippies—the ones I saw on TV or hitchhiking through our New Jersey suburb—they intrigued me, but this one seemed crazy. Scary crazy. Why was this man who looked older than my grandparents behaving like a kindergarten escapee?
“Make him leave, Ma,” I whispered.
She certainly tried to. But Gypsy Boots was a man on a mission, which was to cheer up the sad-sack divorcee and kid he’d just come across. And, being irresistible, he succeeded. Within minutes, Gypsy had my mother and me smiling at him, then laughing with him, applauding his antics, trying out his musical instruments, and humming along to his inane ditties. Boots wasn’t drunk or on drugs, as I had heard other hippies were. Like the female protagonist of the film Harold And Maude, this guy was just chronically jubilant, the archetypal holy fool. After he was gone, leaving me with a free autographed copy of his self-published memoir, Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat, my mother admitted that she hadn’t felt this happy since before my father left her. It amazed me to hear her say that. And it amazed me to realize I felt the same way.
What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t know for a long time, was that Gypsy Boots was important, nationally important, an odd figure who had changed the course of American culture. He wasn’t just an old hippie, he was the ur hippie. His journey started in the late 1930s, when Boots, nearing 20, left the working world, grew his hair and beard long, and went “back to nature.” This was way beyond Thoreau at Walden Pond: For years at a time, Boots would sleep in California forests, bathe in mountain streams, feed himself by foraging for nuts and fruits and vegetables, practice yoga, and wear practically nothing in the way of clothing. A dozen other Nature Boys, as they were called, kept him company (including eden ahbez, who wrote “Nature Boy,” the hit song for Nat King Cole, supposedly about Boots), but Gypsy was the most visible of the gang, the one who would eventually become a star.
Long before the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, “Hollywood’s ageless athlete,” as Boots was known, created a counterculture for them to inhabit. He did this by performing fitness demonstrations on network television and in movies, opening one of America’s first health-food restaurants, racing around LA in his crazily painted van with organic treats for a network of customers—all to spread his message, which was deadly serious in spite of his constant clowning: “Why cling to sickly, fretful, conformist ways when you can be your healthiest, happiest, most authentic self?”
Gypsy died in 2004, just short of his 90th birthday. With his centennial coming up next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about him—what he meant to history and what he meant to me.
Two and a half decades after our encounter in Beverly Hills, Gypsy reappeared in my life. By this time, my mother was long gone—she’d died of breast cancer at 49—and I was living in New York City, volunteering as a cook at a soup kitchen for the homeless. I didn’t think much about Boots; he was a luminous childhood memory, nothing more. Then, while browsing my shelves, I came across the memoir he’d given me, and I decided to bring it to the soup kitchen. Maybe we could use some of the vegetarian recipes he’d included in his book. As I consulted Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat while cooking, a middle-aged woman I worked with noticed the book and grinned and said, “Wow, Gypsy Boots! When I was a flower child in Hollywood in the 60s, Gypsy was such an inspiration. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s still going—I just ran into him last year!”
“Wait,” I said, “he’s still alive?”
“Sure, and he hasn’t changed one bit since the old days. He came roaring into this ashram I was at, shouting, ‘Don’t panic, go organic,’ and making everybody crack up.”
Until then, I’d never met anyone who’d known of Gypsy. So, he was still around, inhabiting the present as well as the past! That night, I called 411 in Los Angeles County and requested a listing for Gypsy Boots. I was doing this out of curiosity, but also as a sort of tribute to my late mother.