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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Prior to Fraser’s arrival as a student at Temple in 1967, the SDS had struggled to gain a foothold in Philly, but it’s a testament to his charismatic leadership, tenacious organizing and persuasive public speaking that the ranks of the Philly SDS swelled from a few handfuls to hundreds during his tenure. 

Among these new converts was Richard Borghmann, who prior to meeting Fraser had little to show for his two semesters at Swarthmore spent majoring in dope-smoking and birddogging. Fraser opened Borghmann’s eyes to the gross inequities and social injustices of the American system, and to the power of committed activists to bring about substantive change. 

Another key Philly SDS member was Jane “Muffin” Friedman, a 19-year-old sophomore at Penn who manned the SDS mimeograph machine, cranking out the leaflets the group used to get their message out and lure new recruits to the cause of change. 

In February of 1969, the Philly SDS spearheaded a sit-in at Penn, where hundreds of students took over College Hall for six days to protest the construction of the universities Science Center, in which it was rumored biological- and chemical-weapon research was to be conducted. Although nobody realized it at the time, the Penn sit-in would prove to be the high point of SDS activism in Philadelphia and the beginning of the end.

The Philly SDS developed an offshoot which attempted to engage high-school students in the city’s poorest precincts. “We were forming a movement called the Alliance for Jobs, Housing and Education, which was addressing deprivation that many parts of the city suffered, not only with job opportunities and housing, but with the lousy education that the students were getting,” says Fraser. “We would picket and hand out leaflets outside the high schools, and that’s how we forged an alliance with a number of smart, young, committed black students, and some of them were self-styled Black Panthers.” 

Such an alliance was anathema to Rizzo, and in March of 1969 he floated a story in the local media that the SDS was planning to blow up schools and was distributing leaflets explaining how to make Molotov cocktails in the ghettos of North and West Philly. 

Fraser went on TV and radio and denied any plan to blow up schools or disseminate bomb-making leaflets. Still, the word was out: the SDS was dangerous. “This was clearly designed, in hindsight, to provide a pretext to the arrests that followed,” says Fraser. 

In late March of 1969, emboldened by their success at Penn, the Philly SDS members attempted a similar sit-in at Temple, in part to bring media attention to the deplorable quality of life in the ghetto that surrounded the university. Roughly 50 protesters took over the administration building at Temple, assuming that, as with the Penn sit-in, word would spread and reinforcements would come. But they never did. “The sit-in failed to attract wide attention and wasn’t heavily supported on the campus,” says Fraser. “The consequence was that it showed us to be vulnerable. And it’s right after that, just days after, that the police did their things with us.”

The leader of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Civil Disobedience Unit was Lt. George Fencl, a thick-necked man with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair. Fencl was a regular fixture at protests and demonstrations in the ’60s and ’70s. It was his job to monitor, identify, photograph and track dissident groups and their sympathizers. Fencl, dressed in his trademark black overcoat with a white armband emblazoned with the word POLICE, and his CDU boys would show up at demonstrations and photograph everyone in the crowd, taking down names and license-plate numbers of those participating. Sometimes Fencl’s men would brandish cameras that had no film, snapping away nonexistent pictures to intimidate and disperse protesters. 

On a 1970 episode of NBC news program First Tuesday , Fencl bragged that the police had a list of over 18,000 names. He also enlisted an army of informers, some of which were criminals cooperating in exchange for charges being dropped and others the wives of police officers encouraged to join activist groups and report back to the CDU in exchange for “pin money.” By 1969, the Philly SDS was well-acquainted with Fencl and vice versa.

There were three people in the West Philly apartment Fraser and Borghmann shared on the night of April 9, 1969: Fraser, Friedman and Fraser’s friend Paul Milkman, an SDS member from New York who worked as a librarian at Columbia University. Milkman was sweet on Friedman and had come to Philadelphia with hopes of romance. 

As Milkman recalls, all three were about to leave for the movies when Lt. Fencl and his boys—10 cops all told—showed up around 8 p.m. “The first thing that struck me as odd was that they were all wearing these big heavy overcoats and it was unseasonably warm that day, I remember going in and out of the apartment in shirtsleeves,” recalls Milkman. Fencl instructed Milkman and Friedman to remain seated in the living room and assigned two officers to watch them. Fraser was allowed to follow the rest of the cops as they searched the five-room, two-floor apartment. Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang; Fencl stopped Fraser from answering sending one of his officers instead. It was a camera crew from KYW, which had somehow gotten word of the raid, and they were invited in despite Fraser’s protests. 

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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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