Among Twin Cities peace activists, Marv Davidov was a long-time fixture. A proponent of nonviolent direct action, Davidov was heavily involved in the civil-rights movement and later actively opposed the Vietnam War through protests and pickets. Starting in the late 1960s, his anti-war activism focused on the Honeywell Corp. — then a Minneapolis-based armaments manufacturer. Later in life, Davidov taught at the University of St. Thomas, but continued nonviolent protests against defense contractor Alliant Techsystems, which was spun off from Honeywell in 1990.
Davidov’s death in 2012 presented an opportunity to examine the interaction between government surveillance and radical politics, aided in large part by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Once deceased, the subjects of federal government records lose many privacy protections afforded by federal law, and their records become accessible to the general public. The government transparency nonprofit Public Record Media (PRM, of which I am founder and president) filed a FOIA request for Davidov’s records in January of 2012, and received its first set of documents just over three years later. The records (obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation) provide a detailed glimpse into how government surveillance and leftist politics interfaced over a 60-year period.
The fact that Marv Davidov had been under FBI surveillance was well documented, even during his lifetime. In the early 1980s, Davidov had been part of a lawsuit against the FBI, which alleged that the agency had illegally surveilled him and other activists, and had sought to disrupt their political activities. The lawsuit resulted in document releases indicating that Davidov had been the subject of government surveillance for many years.
Documents obtained by PRM provide additional details about the extent of the FBI’s attention to Davidov — attention that had started at least as early as 1961.
PRM’s document cache highlights the detailed filing system that the government maintained on certain domestic political activists during the 1960s and ’70s. Davidov’s name shows up in reference to a series of index cards held by the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice — cards that included information collected by the FBI and other federal agencies.
The index cards tracked Davidov’s activities over multiple years, and include everything from mass protests to mundane undertakings. For instance, the cards note Davidov’s inclusion in the mailing lists of various leftist political groups such as “Californians for New Politics” and the “Fair Play for Cuba” committee that opposed the American embargo of Cuba.
The FBI’s index card system was a product of J. Edgar Hoover’s highly categorical management style, and grew out of his early years working for the Library of Congress. Hoover’s focus on radical politics stemmed from his tenure under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during World War I. Palmer’s efforts to prosecute and deport anarchists during the war years left an impression on Hoover, and influenced his subsequent, systematic pursuit of political radicals.
Hoover’s focus on leftist politics is evidenced through other files obtained through PRM’s request — files that include references to the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). 1940s-era index cards feature a variety of claims about AFSC — including allegations that it was involved in mail fraud, and that various members were foreign agents. A 1943-era reference also indicates that the FBI recommended terminating the services of AFSC conscientious objectors employed at the Colorado River War Relocation Center (a Japanese-American internment camp) because their employment “may result in embarrassment” to the government.
Davidov arrested in 1965 Washington protests
References to Marv Davidov surface again in mid-1960s FBI files, after Davidov had walked from Canada to Miami in opposition to the Cuba embargo. A 1967 intelligence report [PDF] also notes that Davidov and three others were stopped by the Coast Guard off the coast of Florida, reportedly en route to Cuba. The file states that the incident did not result in evidence sufficient for a criminal prosecution.
Davidov is next mentioned in several arrest records connected to sit-in protests [PDF] that occurred at the U.S. Capitol during the summer of 1965. The records [PDF] report that Davidov had failed to move when ordered by police, and that he was subsequently arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
According to the FBI’s files [PDF], notice of the anti-war event was based on information from a confidential informant. Unnamed sources also informed local police that several demonstrators were planning [PDF] to jump the White House fence in order to gain access to the presidential grounds. Police were likewise told that still other protesters planned to rush the rostrum in the House of Representatives to make anti-war speeches.
The list of arrestees at the 1965 anti-war event included names that would show up throughout the protest movements of the 1960s, including David Dellinger (spelled “Dollinger” in the files) who later earned notoriety as an organizer of the mass protest of the 1968 Democratic convention.
The Honeywell Project
By the late 1960s, Davidov’s activities were largely centered around the Twin Cities area, where he was active in formulating protests against the Honeywell Corp. While anti-war protests flashed across the University of Minnesota campus, Davidov and several companions made Honeywell the focus of their efforts, fliering and picketing at the company’s Minneapolis headquarters, and staging recurring sit-in protests. Davidov’s focus on Honeywell stemmed from the fact that the company produced cluster bombs — air-dropped ordinance that exploded into lethal, fragmentary shards designed to spread over a wide area. Davidov’s group contended that the bombs were primarily used against civilian populations, and were unnecessary as military weapons.
Davidov and his collaborators (including Sharon Vaughn, James Halley, Evan Stark and others) dubbed the ongoing protest enterprise “The Honeywell Project.” Many of the index cards in the document cache relate to the nonviolent protests that occurred at the Honeywell campus, with dozens of such events covered by the FBI.
In a handful of instances, the cards reveal criminal activity undertaken against corporate facilities outside of the Twin Cities. For instance, the index files reveal bombings at Honeywell plants in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon.
The FBI documents also include files relevant to the Honeywell Corp. itself, including allegations of criminal misconduct on the part of the company. Index cards from DOJ’s criminal division contain allegations of “improper use of time, material, and equipment” by the company in connection with a government contract. Various alleged customs violations, instances of fraud, and illegal political contributions are also noted.
Davidov investigated for sabotage
Several FBI records illuminate the agency’s perspective on the aims, tactics and goals of the Honeywell Project. A 1976 letter from then-FBI Director Clarence Kelly states that the objective of Davidov’s group was to “counter the national defense effort by attacking national defense contracts and production of defense materials.” This perspective appeared to inform the bureau’s approach to Davidov and his associates throughout their interactions during the 1960s and ’70s.
FBI documents show that the Honeywell Project often worked in conjunction with an ecumenical faith organization called Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC). CALC members would sometimes coordinate directly with the Honeywell Project, and at other times would undertake separate but complementary actions.
During a 1972 anti-war strategy meeting, CALC members decided to meet with then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey to seek his support for a cessation of bombing in Vietnam. According to FBI files, Davidov disagreed with the approach. Notes [PDF] from an undercover informant quote Davidov as saying that “discussions with Senators and Congressman had, over the years, proved fruitless.” Instead, Davidov held that “a more dramatic form of action was preferable.”
Davidov proposed [PDF] appealing directly to plant workers by distributing printed fliers. The draft text urged workers to take an active step toward opposing the war by failing to arm cluster bomb munitions. The flier read, in part, “You can continue to pick up your paycheck and participate in the total effort. No one knows better than you what makes munitions work. And no one knows better than you what will make munitions not work. These munitions are not necessary to protect remaining troops.”
Subsequent to the strategy meeting, Davidov and others placed [PDF] the literature on car windshields at the Twin Cities Honeywell facility. Based on the content of the fliers, the Minneapolis FBI office opened [PDF] an investigation into whether a violation of the federal sabotage statute had occurred. However, in February of 1974, FBI headquarters advised [PDF] that “no further investigative action” needed to be taken, and asked that the case be closed.
Honeywell shareholder protest
FBI records chronicle numerous arrests during Honeywell protests, but few overt acts of violence. One exception occurred in 1970, during the annual shareholders’ meeting.
Files indicate that the shareholder protest was the largest such event to that point, with hundreds of participants involved. Toward the end of the demonstration, a group of men rushed the front door of the Honeywell facility, but they were repelled by police and corporate security. The group then responded by hurling objects, effectively ending the demonstration as law enforcement scattered the protesters.
In the aftermath of the violence, many Honeywell Project organizers expressed the belief that the agitators were undercover provocateurs working with law enforcement. Sharon Vaughn asserted as much in a 1980 lawsuit interrogatory, stating that “violent and destructive acts at anti-war demonstrations were perpetrated — as far as I could see — by strangers to our planning groups.”
For its part, the violence at the stockholders meeting underscored the FBI’s rationale for surveilling the Honeywell Project. Documents indicate that the agency had long been anticipating the use of violence by Honeywell Project members, based on the group’s publicly stated goal of halting cluster bomb production. According to notes written by FBI Special Agent David Barham, “Honeywell Project was investigated to determine [PDF, p. 16] whether it was attempting, or would attempt, to achieve its purpose through illegal means.”
Church Committee report
In 1976, a Star Tribune reporter called Marv Davidov to get his reaction to a report released by the Church Committee. The committee was an investigative panel of the United States Senate convened to examine government surveillance abuses and related misdeeds. Its findings included revelations that American intelligence agencies had conducted warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, had engaged in mind-control research, and had harassed and threatened the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Among the voluminous supporting documents filed with the committee’s report was a letter from then-FBI Director Clarence Kelly to then-Rep. Donald Fraser that provided an overview of the agency’s Honeywell Project investigation.
Kelly’s letter stated that the Minneapolis field office was providing FBI data to paid informants within Davidov’s group, and was also furnishing information about the Honeywell Project to a confidential source within Honeywell itself, in order to help the company avoid “corporate embarrassment.”
Lawsuit against the FBI
In the wake of the Church Committee report, Davidov and others filed suit against the FBI, seeking damages stemming from the government’s alleged political targeting of the group. The case was handled by civil rights attorney Ken Tilsen, who had also been active with other leftist and populist causes, including the American Indian Movement.
The FBI’s document release contains significant batches of material from the lawsuit, including a series of interrogatories — the formal sets of questions that attorneys serve on parties to gather information. The interrogatories completed by Davidov and other plaintiffs provide a detailed look at activist life in the 1960s, and include multiple allegations of government misconduct.
Allegations of government intimidation
One common allegation that runs throughout the interrogatories involves the use of intimidation to stifle protest organizers and their aims. In some cases, the plaintiffs alleged that pressure was applied to professional colleagues or prospective employers. James Halley — then employed as an associate professor of physics at the University of Minnesota — indicated that senior faculty members at the university had been informed about his political activities by persons unknown. Halley also noted that one professor had asked him to halt his political actions.
Similar stories were related by protest organizer Evan Stark. Stark taught in the sociology department at the U of M, and listed multiple instances [PDF] where he was told that federal agents had visited senior faculty members to tell them that Stark was a “dangerous revolutionary.” Stark wrote of his belief that the withdrawal of a promised academic job was related to the episodes. Stark also received materials from the FBI (via the FOIA) that included memos [PDF] referencing various “counter-intelligence” operations to be performed against Stark.
Anonymous telephone threats also feature prominently in the interrogatories. Marv Davidov related that he received “threatening phone calls” [PDF] whenever he was mentioned in news coverage. Likewise, Davidov associate Mollie Babizie mentioned threats telephoned in to the mother of two brothers — Keith and Greg Filion — who were active with the group. According to Babizie, Dorothy Filion was contacted by an FBI agent and told that her sons would be in “considerable trouble [PDF] if they did not watch their anti-war activities.”
Allegations of break-ins and eavesdropping
Virtually all of the interrogatories filed by the plaintiffs included tales of suspected telephonic eavesdropping [PDF]. Most commonly, the plaintiff’s described “clicking” or “static” heard on phone lines during their conversations about political matters.
Likewise, almost every plaintiff reported break-ins at residences or places where the Honeywell Project operated. Files were allegedly disrupted [PDF]; materials were stolen. In one instance, mimeograph machines were reportedly broken [PDF]. Sharon Vaughn’s interrogatory contains details about a 1970-era break-in that occurred at her home when she was absent. Vaughn stated that her home was entered at approximately 1:30 a.m. by an intruder “wearing gloves with brass knuckles.” According to Vaughn, the intruder severely beat her mother-in-law on the face and head, and broke several facial bones that required reconstructive surgery.
Impact on protesters
Each plaintiff held that the government’s alleged misconduct caused them some manner of financial, material or emotional hardship. Marv Davidov noted the deleterious effect that the use of undercover agents had on his political organizing. “Informants within an organization are more destructive than electronic surveillance or personal harassment,” he wrote. “They make deception instead of trust a primary assumption.”
Plaintiff Evan Stark stated that the FBI’s actions directly affected [PDF] his political activity as he became more aware of the scrutiny he was undergoing. To that point, his interrogatory related the following story:
“In 1972, in Mama Rosa’s Pizza Parlor in Minneapolis, I met a man who told me that he had worked for Army Intelligence, assigned to me, from 1968-1970, and during this time had made a number of attempts to prevent my securing employment or being politically effective in my work. He also told me he had direct knowledge that the FBI had been engaged in similar activities during this period. He also told me he wanted me to be aware of what he had done before he presented this information publicly to a Senate (or Congressional) investigating committee. I had no further contact or knowledge of him.”
Stark noted that by the mid-1970s, he was largely divorced from political activity. To support his claim, he noted that FBI materials he obtained through a subsequent FOIA request indicated that his level of “political activity was so low” that his file was closed in 1974.
FBI response to lawsuit
FBI files included in the Church Committee report reference an unidentified group that “helped” Davidov’s Honeywell Project — a group that espoused violent means to accomplish its goals. In addition to seeking damages, Davidov’s lawsuit aimed to uncover the identity of that particular group.
Interrogatories completed by FBI personnel do not resolve the identity question raised by Davidov’s suit, but they do disclose other information. For instance, the agency affirmed that it used paid informants to infiltrate Davidov’s group. However, it withheld all information about the identity of those specific individuals.
FBI interrogatories directly denied [PDF] some allegations made by the plaintiffs — such as the use of warrantless eavesdropping to surveil Honeywell Project members. In other instances, agency personnel avoided answering questions on technical grounds — objecting to questions as being outside the scope of the lawsuit — or else claiming that no responsive documents [PDF] existed.
In some of the interrogatories, FBI agents claimed that memory lapses prevented them from answering particular questions. For example, FBI agent Richard Held admitted knowing Fred Clary of the Honeywell Corporation in both a “social and professional” capacity, but could not recall having conversations with him about Marv Davidov or other plaintiffs. Likewise, when Held served as Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis office, he stated that he attended quarterly meetings of the “intelligence community in Minneapolis,” but could not recall having discussions about about the plaintiffs.
The Honeywell Project lawsuit continued until April of 1985, at which point the case was settled. Honeywell and the government admitted no wrongdoing, and equally shared the $70,000 settlement costs.
The lawsuit documents paint a picture of FBI surveillance during the agency’s COINTELPRO — or “counterintelligence” — era of the 1960s and ’70s. COINTELPRO was a J. Edgar Hoover initiative designed to proactively disrupt political activity he deemed to be harmful to national interests. The program’s existence was extensively documented by the Church Committee and other investigative bodies of the era. In the wake of the Church report, U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi instituted changes to investigative guidelines, including the addition of a criminal predicate threshold for opening investigations.
Scalia, other notable figures appear in records
Several notable figures in American politics make appearances in the FBI document cache. For instance, former CIA director William Webster is referenced in the Davidov files, where he appears as a defendant in the Honeywell lawsuit. At the time of the lawsuit, Webster was the director of the FBI.
A 1978 affidavit of Mary C. Lawton of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) noted that OLC held one record related to the Honeywell Project. That document was a 1976 memorandum from Antonin Scalia entitled “Correspondence Concerning Honeywell Project.” At the time, Scalia was an assistant attorney general within OLC. He was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1986, where he currently serves as an associate justice.
Finally, the FBI files note that Marion Barry provided an FBI special agent with the identity of the local coordinator for the 1965 “Washington Summer Action” protests at which Marv Davidov was arrested. At the time, Barry was the staff director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil-rights organization. He was later elected mayor of Washington.
Later life, additional surveillance
The Honeywell Project continued to exist throughout the years of Honeywell weapons production, and was highly active during the 1980s when the company produced missile guidance systems and other ordnance. Davidov’s group garnered frequent headlines through the arrest of high-profile protest participants including Erica Bouza, wife of then-Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza.
Honeywell eventually spun-off its weapons manufacturing operations to Alliant Techsystems, which was also located in the Twin Cities. By the late 1990s, Davidov (then in his 70s) was teaching part-time at the University of St. Thomas, in its Justice and Peace studies program. During that period, Davidov continued his direct action protests against Alliant, often in conjunction with nuns from the Sisters of Saint Joseph [PDF] convent and a variety of student protesters.
2005 Alliant Techsystems protests
Based on the FBI’s files, the agency appeared to take a renewed interest [PDF] in Davidov’s activities around 2005. Starting in January of that year, agents began filing surveillance reports [PDF] related to “Alliant Action” (AA) Davidov’s Alliant Techsystem-focused protest group. As with his Honeywell organization, Davidov made frequent public statements about the group’s intention to halt weapons production by Alliant Techsystems, as well as equally frequent statements that AA was a nonviolent organization. An FBI counterterrorism report [PDF] from this period noted that “nonviolent may have a different meaning in the context of the way the group chooses to use the term.”
FBI reports [PDF] from this period chronicled a series of AA protests using various tactics — blockading doors during sit-in arrests; painting body outlines on the ground; laying flowers on the company doorstep. In a January 2005 report, a confidential source quoted [PDF] Davidov as saying that “corporations only understand violence.” In that same report, the source also noted that protesters could be heard expressing their belief that the organization needed to “raise its profile.”
A report from February of the same year noted that demonstrators were overheard formulating plans to take over and occupy offices within the corporate headquarters. The report’s author further wrote that, “Minneapolis is concerned that this information may be indicative of the group’s intention to commit further violence to achieve its objective.”
Reports [PDF] likewise indicated that both the FBI and Alliant Techsystems were concerned about younger protesters showing up wearing “Earth Liberation Front” shirts and (in one instance) black masks. A theft at Alliant Techsystems (the subject of a separate FBI investigation) appeared to spur additional concerns.
FBI assigns more agents
In March of 2005, the agency appeared to be assigning additional resources toward the surveillance of Alliant Action. For instance, records show that the bureau not only surveilled the protests themselves, but also stationed additional agents at the Bakers Square restaurant where demonstrators held a morning meal after each of their protests.
By late spring, the FBI was filing reports that showed divergent trends and analysis. On April 27, an agent reported that AA protests no longer contained much content related to Alliant Techsystems, and surmised [PDF] that the group “may be fracturing and losing direction.”
A few weeks later, an FBI report [PDF] noted that the sign at Alliant’s main entrance had been vandalized with red spray paint — paint that spelled out the word “Killers.” According to the report, “the word choice, rhetoric, and the style of vandalism appears synonymous with the graffiti and tactics of the Earth Liberation Front.”
By June, FBI files indicated that agents were concentrating their efforts on specific, unnamed individuals. Surveillance reports filed in June of 2005 show that agents followed a target from an AA protest into South Minneapolis. A week later, FBI agents followed [PDF] an individual from an AA protest to a storage shed in Edina, and then to Southdale Mall and a Best Buy store.
Reports filed over the summer and fall of 2005 chronicled various cases of trespass by AA members, sit-in arrests, and instances in which protesters held wooden crosses [PDF] outside of the main Alliantech gate. One report noted that a specific protester admitted to being a member of ELF, and of having defaced a “We Support Our Troops” sign at an undisclosed location.
FBI categorizes Alliant Action as nonviolent
By November of 2005, the FBI had been surveilling Alliant Action on a weekly basis for almost a year. A report [PDF] from Nov. 16 concluded that based on “the constant surveillance of AA’s weekly protests, (the agency) determines the protesters adhere to their creed of nonviolence” and sought to promote their cause in a peaceful manner.
Despite this, FBI surveillance continued, with additional field reports filed in late November. Dates on the last documents produced by the FBI indicate that the bureau was collecting [PDF] news clippings about the protests into January of 2006.
The last news clipping on Alliant Action came from a report filed by the Star Tribune, when the paper was covering a change in an Edina ordinance related to the protests. According to the Star Tribune story, Edina reduced the charge associated with trespassing to a petty misdemeanor, thus reducing its corresponding penalties as well. Alliant Action protester David Harris was quoted in the article, saying that due to the change, “it’s impossible to get taken to jail.”
Getting taken to jail was never a problem for Marv Davidov, however. As noted in his Star Tribune obituary, he was taken into police custody between 40 and 50 times during the course of this life.
Marv Davidov died on Jan. 14, 2012, at Walker Methodist Health Center.
Matt Ehling is a St. Paul-based writer and media producer who is active in government transparency and accountability efforts. He is the president of the transparency nonprofit Public Record Media.