Forty years later, the fallout remains from a notorious case.
In the spring of 1969, four activists from the Philadelphia chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were arrested for plotting to blow up the Liberty Bell after the police found bomb-making materials in the refrigerator of a West Philly apartment. According to the police, the planned destruction of the Liberty Bell was part of a larger plot hatched by a network of student radicals to destroy national landmarks across the country.
The shocking news spread quickly when footage of the police search of the apartment surfaced—captured by a KYW film crew invited in by police to document the raid—and the ensuing arrests made the evening news. The Daily News trumpeted details of the plot in two separate cover stories with the blaring headlines “College Rebels Held as Raiders Find ‘Makings of Bomb’” and “Rebel Student Plot to Blow Up Phila. Historical Shrines Revealed by Police.”
A potentially tragic incident of domestic terrorism was narrowly averted, it seemed, thanks to the aggressive due diligence of the Philadelphia Police Department and its take-no-bull commissioner Frank Rizzo. There was just one problem: There was no plot to blow up the Liberty Bell and no evidence that the four activists had acquired any bomb-making materials. None of that really mattered, though.
For two long years the case kicked around the courts—long enough to put the SDS out of business in Philadelphia.
Forty years later, Rizzo and just about everyone on the police and prosecution side of the case are dead and buried. But all four of the accused SDS activists—Steve Fraser, Richard Borghmann, Jane “Muffin” Friedman and Paul Milkman—continue to insist there never was a plot to blow up the Liberty Bell, that the Philadelphia SDS was loudly and proudly nonviolent and that the cops planted the bomb-making materials to discredit the activists’ politics and scare off potential sympathizers.
The judge overseeing the case seemed inclined to agree, and eventually threw the case out after two years of pretrial hearings. But by then it was too late: The Philadelphia SDS, having been successfully tarred and feathered as a dangerous terrorist organization, was dead in the water, and so was their ambitious social-justice agenda for improving schools, housing and job prospects for the city’s downtrodden.
“The backlash happened very quickly; by the time I got out of jail and went back to the Penn campus, people were scared of me,” says Friedman, one of the four SDS members arrested that day. “When I tried to organize a rally in support of us, people would back away from me when they saw me coming like I was some kind of mad bomber.”
On the face of it, the plot to blow up the Liberty Bell seems like an historical curiosity, a lurid footnote from the Age of Aquarius in the City of Brotherly Love, an incident indicative of then but irrelevant to now. But in the Age of Terror, with its never-ending string of shadowy, violent conspiracies in low places, vastly expanded police powers, diminished transparency and accountability and prevailing air of “just trust us,” the story of the bogus plot to blow up the Liberty Bell serves as a tragicomic cautionary tale.
To fully understand the significance of the case, it must be placed in the wider context of the Philadelphia Police Department’s war on per- ceived subversives in the late '60s—the way they systematically harassed, intimidated and brutalized blacks and white college-boy troublemakers—under Frank Rizzo’s leadership. Rizzo had been known to routinely invent or exaggerate these threats to scare the public and amass political power, resulting in two contentious and deeply divisive terms as mayor in the 1970s.
The bogus Liberty Bell Bomb Plot bust was just the latest in a series of trumped-up arrests of activists by the police department’s Civil Disobedience Unit, which was created in the early ’60s to protect the constitutional rights of demonstrators while keeping the peace. Upon the appointment of Rizzo as police commissioner in 1967, the CDU became a blunt instrument of surveillance, intimidation and infiltration used to neutralize political dissent.
Steve Fraser, then 23 years old, was the chief organizer of SDS activities in Philadelphia. Fraser had been active in the Civil Rights movement since high school, having gone to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, when white, Northern liberals flooded the South, registering blacks to vote and ensuring that they got to exercise that right. He arrived shortly after three activists were murdered by white racists, events that were portrayed in the film Mississippi Burning .