Yes, We Can! Oppose The State…But Be Careful ‘How’


You can fight City Hall. You can win. And win without suffering devastating (or any) consequences to your life. But there are rules. They include: secrecy, having trustworthy companions, being discreet rather than arrogant, hiding in plain sight or removing yourself to a ‘safe’ jurisdiction, and being willing to disappear.

By Wendy McElroy @ The Dollar Vigilante

You can’t fight City Hall. This is propaganda issued by City Hall – government and bureaucrats – to discourage those who would dissent, rebel or resist. “Nothing can be done to change the situation,” they declare, “so nothing should be attempted.”

A corollary lie is that one person cannot successfully stand up against the system. Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden prove the opposite. Each contributed a surprise plot twist in the history of totalitarianism being written by officials. Each also point to the price individuals can pay for speaking truth to power. They provide valuable lessons on how to dissent, rebel or resist while sustaining the least possible damage to your life. [Note: the following are examples of extreme dissent, not more muted protest such as walking down a street while carrying a sign.]

Spotlighting Others Who Made a Difference

Other dissidents have grabbed recent headlines for counter-state actions in the past.

On the night of March 8, 1971, eight proto-Snowdens stole files from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. They were anonymous members of the leftist anti-Vietnam war group, Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. After careful surveillance, the activist-burglars timed the break-in to coincide with the hyped boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; they figured security guards would be glued to their radios.

The resulting files documented the FBI’s COINTELPRO program with its explicit mission to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize” groups considered to be “subversive.” Anti-Vietnam war and civil rights organizations were particular targets. The purloined information was disseminated to media sources, many of whom initially declined to publish. Enough information became public to create a furor, however, especially in concert with the Watergate scandal. The ensuing Church Committee, named after its chairman Senator Frank Church, investigated the FBI, CIA, and NSA for illegal gathering of information. COINTELPRO was disbanded. And Americans learned shocking secrets about government such as the FBI bugging of Martin Luther King and the CIA medical experiments on American citizens.

Despite a massive FBI campaign, the eight activist-burglars were never identified. Most of them voluntarily revealed themselves 43 years later in a book entitled The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (2014) by former Washington Post reporter, Betty Medsger; Medsger was one of the first journalists to receive the original documents. The last activist-burglar to speak out was Judi Feingold. A recent headline in The Nation declared, “Breaking 43 Years of Silence, the Last FBI Burglar Tells the Story of Her Years in the Underground.”

Why now? One of the eight died in 2013. According to The New York Times, William C. Davidon, the recruiter and leader of the team, had planned to reveal his involvement.  Perhaps the others realized time would make a decision for them if they did not decide for themselves. Besides which, the statute of limitations has passed, children have grown, retirements have been taken. Other radicals, such as members of the Weathermen, had emerged without consequence. The government is unlikely to prosecute or persecute senior citizens whom many consider to be heroes. For one thing, they would be articulate, unrepentant defendants who resembled everyone’s grandparents while they raised issues the current NSA would rather not address.

How did the eight remain undetected? All but one member of the team (Feingold) stayed in the general area of Philadelphia because sudden moves could draw suspicion. Davidon continued to teach physics at Haverford College and went on to become a leader in the antiwar community, as he otherwise would have. Two others, John and Bonnie Raines, made the break-in their final act of rebellion, and focused instead on daily life. John is now retired from his many years as a professor of religion at Temple University. During that time, Bonnie ran a daycare center and went on to become a children’s rights advocate. The couple blended in, and hid in plain sight. With one exception, the lives of the eight were remarkably unchanged by their act of dramatic defiance.

A key to their success: no one broke ranks or spoke out…until Medsger’s book.  Although they were in close proximity for decades, members of the team rarely spoke to each other, and they never gathered together. When they spoke out, they believed Feingold was dead.

Feingold had fallen off the radar. She had pursued the equally successful but far more arduous strategy of going underground with many relocations and jobs that paid cash. Feingold called it “horizontal” rather than “vertical” living. By this she meant a life that did not rise through the expected stages of college, career, marriage, children… It moved across the board on the same economic and lifestyle level only in different venues.

Feingold stated her motive, “I chose a path of nonviolent direct action. I committed a federal crime with serious consequences. I knew my life would be fundamentally changed. I had made the right decision for me. My heart was breaking then over the deaths in Southeast Asia.” She claims to have no regrets even though she is the one activist-burglar whose life was thrown into chaos.

What Can Be Learned From Manning, Assange and Snowden?

None of the three more current whistle blowers chose to hide in plain sight or to go underground. Manning seemed content to stay at the same military position from which he had transmitted government documents to Wikileaks. But he made the one mistake the activist-burglars had eschewed: he confessed to a friend who did not participate in the leak. Adrian Lamo turned Manning over to the authorities.

The lesson: shut up about it.

Julian Assange took the opposite tack from ‘hiding in plain sight’. He flaunted the whistle blowing. He seemed to count on hubris, public prominence and popularity to shield him from persecution. The charge that drove him into sanctuary within the Ecuadorian embassy in London is telling. Sweden launched an unprecedented attempt to extradite him on suspicion of rape. From Sweden, he would almost certainly have been re-extradited to the dubious justice of the United States, a justice of which Manning is so painfully aware.

The rape accusation is clearly manufactured and a pretense. But Assange is also clearly a careless man – perhaps through arrogance – who allowed sexual and other situations to damage him unnecessarily. He played a high-profile game that was doomed to fail because his opponents were so much more powerful. He finally fled to the only option left open – neutral ground upon which American authority flexed no muscle. That should have been his starting point.

The lesson: do not go high profile while playing ball on your enemy’s court…unless, of course, you wish an end-game confrontation that will almost certainly not turn out well. It doesn’t matter if you are innocent. The other side will manufacture crimes, if necessary. .

Edward Snowden is more instructive. Snowden knew to get as far away as possible from America’s sphere of authority and influence. He ended up in Russia, with his long-term girlfriend ultimately joining him in exile. He knew to partner with kindred-spirits in the media – first and foremost, Glenn Greenwald – upon whose support he could depend. Snowden also knew to downplay any arrogance or taunting of authority. He presented facts and arguments, and then walked away from the camera.

The lesson: if you eschew anonymity, then don’t shake your fist within the jurisdiction of the targeted authority. Use media but be discerning because, more often than not, the popular ones will turn against you. Do not make the act of dissent all about you rather than about the exposed injustice. You will look foolish and become fodder.


You can fight City Hall. You can win. And win without suffering devastating (or any) consequences to your life. But there are rules. They include: secrecy, having trustworthy companions, being discreet rather than arrogant, hiding in plain sight or removing yourself to a ‘safe’ jurisdiction, and being willing to disappear.

[Editor’s Note: Whether you are a whistleblower or not one of the most prudent actions to take is to remove yourself from the US government in every way possible.  For Americans that can mean expatriating, living outside the US and especially getting a foreign passport.  If Edward Snowden had a second passport he would have many more options than he does today.  Check out TDV Passports to find out how to free yourself from oppressive regimes as thousands of other Americans have already done.]

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picWendy McElroy is a regular contributor to the Dollar Vigilante, and a renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is “The Art of Being Free”. Follow her work at

This article originally appeared at The Dollar Vigilante