BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY 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 their 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 — captured by a KYW film crew invited by police to document the raid — and the ensuing arrests made the evening news. The Daily News trumpeted news 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. Once again, 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 there were no bomb-making materials, aside from what the police brought with them. But for the two long years the case kicked around the courts — long enough to put the SDS out of business in Philadelphia — none of that really mattered.
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 avowedly non-violent, and the cops planted the bomb-making material to discredit their 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 pre-trial hearings. But by then it was too late, the Philadelphia SDS, having been successfully tarred as a dangerous terrorist organization, was dead in the water, along with 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.”
To fully understand the significance of the case, it must be placed in the wider context of Philadelphia police’s war on perceived subversives in the late 60s — the way they systematically harassed, intimidated and brutalized ‘uppity blacks’ and white collegeboy troublemakers — under Frank Rizzo’s leadership. Rizzo routinely invented or exaggerated 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 the early 60s to protect the constitutional rights of demonstrators while keeping the peace. Upon the appointment of Rizzo to police commissioner in 1967, the CDU became an blunt instrument of surveillance, intimidation and infiltration used to neutralize political dissent. MORE