The Phantom Bomb Plot of 1969

Forty years later, the fallout remains from a notorious case.

By Jonathan Valania

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Dec. 22, 2009

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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 . 

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Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. josh freeman said... on Dec 23, 2009 at 08:32AM

“thought you'd get a kick out of this. steve”

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2. Maslauskas said... on Dec 23, 2009 at 02:39PM

“at government surveillence of SDS and other activists continues to this day. did you know the military was spying on activists in Olympia? Fort Lewis, the army, navy, US capitol police from DC and air force intell agents from New Jersey are all spying on SDSers and other activists in Olympia. look up John Towery (the military spy) and Maslauskas Dunn (an SDSer) on google or to get the story.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 23, 2009 at 05:58PM

“Fencl was an arrogant, egomaniacal fascist. He tried to stir up trouble during a student sit-in at City Hall that was an attempt to settle the very first teachers' strike, so he could arrest somebody and make an example -- and headlines. He was a pig in the truest sense of the word. It's a joke that the Philly cops have an an award named after him.”

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4. Beverly C. said... on Dec 24, 2009 at 09:13AM

“I think the whole story would make a great movie!”

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5. Anonymous said... on Dec 24, 2009 at 12:54PM

“i agree on the movie.”

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6. The Ponderer said... on Dec 25, 2009 at 04:54PM

“The SDS, and the Weathermen Underground, which really were, and still are one in the same, won, they have the admitted bomber Bill Ayers as a Poster Child, and his protege in the Presidency. Why do we have to feel sorry for any of them?”

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7. Hylozoic Hedgehog said... on Dec 26, 2009 at 04:30PM

“Readers interested in a far more detailed look at this case may want to consult the website and specifically a study entitled "'Leninist Boomers' Build the 'Fifth International'" available at .

The Fraser-Borghmann story constitutes an important part of the early history of the SDS Labor Committee which later became the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). By 1973 the NCLC had deteriorated into a political cult led by Lyndon LaRouche (a/k/a "Lyn Marcus"). By that time both Steve Fraser and Richard Borghmann had long left the organization.

The file section on Philadelphia also includes an examination of the case taken from Frank Donner's book Protectors of Privilege, and Paul Lyons superb study of the Philadelphia New Left entitled The People of This Generation. The file also reprints Judge Spaeth's decision to dismiss the case.

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8. Quercus Alba said... on Dec 27, 2009 at 02:02PM

“Thank you for a fine article. I see the value of the alternative press growing as the mainstream media becomes further corrupted by commercial and political influences. I knew nothing of this story, and it recalls my own experience as an accused West Philly bomb builder. In that infamous case, I had rented my building to some protesters during the RNC. In order to subvert a politcal protest, the police and associated authorities levied the same baseless accusations of bomb building. What I find ironic is that the only documented case of a bombing in Philadelphia that I know of was carried out BY the police, in the Move case. Several children were burned to death by their actions, and no one was ever held responsible, to my knowledge.”

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9. The Ponderer said... on Dec 28, 2009 at 03:17PM

“Quercus Alba, while we are most likely political opposites, I do agree with you that the PW article is something that we would not see in the mainstream media, and that PW is to be commended for printing this article. Now, if in the interest of true journalism, if PW could investigate and publish articles that take into account the any nefarious activities they could find on the left and ultra left side of the spectrum, that would be refreshing.”

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10. Chuck Stevens said... on Jun 12, 2010 at 01:06PM

“I was one of the original SDS Labor Committee members from the Fall of 1968. I had just begun moving to Baltimore, my home, where I was setting up another SDS Labor Committee and we did form a Baltimore Strike Support Coalition which helped win the Schmidt's Bakery strike in 1970. I remember Fencl trying to disrupt our leaflet distribution at Philadelphia high schools. This was most ironical. Indeed, our leaflets called for a program of more housing, better schools and jobs, but also discussed the coming monetary crisis, which did evolve into the August 1971 collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. (This original monetary crisis foreshadows the much worse one we are in today.) The irony was that all of this was a little much to expect high schools students to seriously read, let alone comprehend. But Fencl's intervention peaked their curiosity. I had visited Fraser's apartment, noticing the curious construction trailer parked outside, the day before the raid.”

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11. Hylozoic Hedgehog said... on Mar 25, 2013 at 04:43PM

“I have recently published a long study of the early SDS Labor Committee entitled How It All Began. It examines the bomb plot case in some detail.

How It All Began is available at”

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12. Anonymous said... on Sep 8, 2014 at 03:58PM

“Not in position to argue with the allegations re the bomb plot. As someone who was at Penn during that period and covered protests for the Daily Pennsylvanian I have some comments.
1. SDS did not spearhead the College Hall sit-in. The organizers, led by Ira Harkavy, were not associated with SDS.
2. I observed Fencl many times, especially during protest marches (e.g. the one from Penn to Independence Hall during the Cambodia incursion) and found him to be calming, not disruptive, His squad did not impede peaceful demonstrations or interfere with speeches made in connection with the protests. My 4 years at Penn (68 to 72) coincided with the height of anti-war actions and other activism (e.g. Jerry Rubin's 1971 Irvine Auditorium speech).
3. The Labor movement wanted no part of SDS. During the GE strike (at the 30th and Walnut facility) the workers shunned their offers of support.
4. SDS belittled women. One infamous remark: "The position of women in the movement should be prone."”

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13. Charles Mac Donald said... on Dec 5, 2014 at 12:48PM

“My grandfather, George Fencl, was a well respected police officer who went above and beyond to do the job he was paid to do. No one is perfect. He died an early death due to the stress related to the job. He sacrificed time with his family and on this earth to help people in the city he loved.”

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14. Cindy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 16, 2014 at 04:55PM

“I was a member of the SDS Labor Committee during these years, and this article is accurate to the best of my knowledge and memory. Harkavy and others may have organized the protest at the site of the Science Center, but it was largely at the urging of Fraser and other Labor Committee members that College Hall was taken over, and the terms of the sit-in widened from protesting the war-related research of the Science Center to protesting the eviction of hundreds of African American residents from the area and demanding new housing. As for those high school leaflets, I remember writing them. I think Chuck's memory might be a little off; we always tried to gear toward the audience. And as for the Fencl award; I suppose it's about as appropriate as having a statue of Rizzo at the MSB. I know I always give the latter a one-fingered salute when I go by.”

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15. Cindy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 16, 2014 at 05:31PM

“Can't edit these things, I see. Meant to say, Harkavy and other Penn SDS members may have been *part* of organizing the protest...

Re: Other ill-informed comments above: the SDS Labor Committee was not SDS as a whole, which had already split into factions by then. We were quite vocally opposed to the Weather Underground. Did you read the article?”

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16. Cindy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 16, 2014 at 06:50PM

“If anyone is still reading this after five years -- wish it was like Facebook so I could edit -- I should think longer before I type. Right, Anonymous 12, Harkavy wasn't SDS, but he didn't spearhead anything. The sit-in was initiated by the SDS Labor Committee and taken over by Harkavy and more moderate students once it grew and drew in liberals as opposed to radicals.They were in a great hurry to settle the sit-in once the Labor Commitee started actively trying to bring in high school students and demanding the University make concrete commitments to providing housing units to replace those destroyed by the Science Center. Harkavy made his career at Penn; this was his first step.”

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17. CIndy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 17, 2014 at 04:38PM

“And hey, Anonymous 12, "The position of women in the movement should be prone" is actually a quote from Stokely Carmichael of SNCC.”


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