ESSAY- </span>Crushing a Beatle: The U.S. vs. John Lennon<span class="s1">
In December 1971, at a concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John Lennon took the stage, and in his usual confrontational style belted out "John Sinclair," a song he had written about a man sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing two marijuana cigarettes. Within days of Lennon's call for action, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair released.
However, as Adam Cohen observes in the New York Times of September 21, 2006, "What Lennon did not know at the time was that there were F.B.I. informants in the audience taking notes on everything from the attendance (15,000) to the artistic merits of his new song...The government spied on Lennon for the next 12 months, and tried to have him deported to England."
The government's surveillance campaign against Lennon is the subject of a new documentary, The U.S. vs. John Lennon. It could not have debuted at a better time– especially in light of recent revelations about the government's efforts to spy on American citizens through phone calls and e-mails.
Indeed, Lennon's battle with the U.S. government is not only a chilling tale of paranoia and abuse of power– it's a lesson for our times. As Cohen recognizes: "It's the story not only of one man being harassed, but of a democracy being undermined."
Yet Lennon's battle with the government started long before that concert in Ann Arbor. By 1968, he had already philosophically moved a long way from the message embodied in Beatle songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand." And there was no mistaking his anti-establishment beliefs as expressed during a 1969 "Bed-In" with Yoko Ono in Montreal: "You gotta remember, establishment, it's just a name for evil. The monster doesn't care whether it kills all the students or whether there's a revolution. It's not thinking logically, it's out of control."
By March 1971, when his "Power to the People" single was released, there was no holding him– or his message– back. Having moved to New York City that same year, Lennon was ready to participate in political activism against the U. S. government, the "monster" that was financing the war in Vietnam.
He had learned that rock and roll could serve a political end by proclaiming a radical message. More importantly, Lennon saw that his music could mobilize the public. It certainly helped that he was a natural in the spotlight, with one of the most recognizable faces in the world. And with the Beatles having broken up the year before, Lennon and Yoko Ono were doing their own thing, posing for publicity photos, decked out in Japanese riot gear, and John was singing "Say you want a revolution, We better get it on right away, Well you get on your feet, And into the street."
The subsequent release of Lennon's Sometime in New York City album, which contained a radical message in every song and depicted Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao dancing together nude on the cover, only fanned the flames of the conflict to come.
Government officials had been keeping strict tabs on the ex-Beatle they referred to as "Mr. Lennon." But the official U.S. war against Lennon began in earnest in 1972 when he and Yoko were served with deportation orders. While the orders were supposedly over a four-year-old marijuana conviction from Great Britain, what Lennon didn't realize was that Nixon himself was driving the effort to have him deported.
FBI files, made public after years of lawsuits, reveal the extent of the Nixon Administration's efforts to "neutralize" Lennon. (However, while ominous in tone, the term "neutralize"– as used by government agents– was never really defined.) With FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at the helm and reporting to the Nixon White House about the FBI's surveillance of Lennon, memos and reports had been flying back and forth among senators, the FBI, and the U.S. Immigration Office. Clearly forces were at work to silence Lennon.
Nixon's pursuit of Lennon was relentless– and in large part based on the misperception that Lennon and his comrades were planning to disrupt the Republican National Convention scheduled to take place in Miami in August 1972. The authorities' paranoia, however, was misplaced.
Left-wing radicals like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman– activists who were also on government watch lists and who shared an interest in bringing down the Nixon Administration– had been congregating at John and Yoko's New York apartment.
But when Rubin, Hoffman, and the rest revealed that they were planning to cause a riot, Lennon balked. As he recounted in a 1980 interview, "We said, We ain't buying this. We're not going to draw children into a situation to create violence so you can overthrow what? And replace it with what?... It was all based on this illusion, that you can create violence and overthrow what is, and get communism or get some right-wing lunatic or a left-wing lunatic. They're all lunatics."
Despite the fact that Lennon was not part of the "lunatic" plot, the government persisted in its efforts to have him deported. Equally determined to resist, Lennon dug in and fought back. Every time he was ordered out of the country, his lawyers delayed the process by filing an appeal. Finally, in 1976, Lennon won the battle to stay in the country when he was granted a green card. As he said afterwards, "I have a love for this country.... This is where the action is. I think we'll just go home, open a tea bag, and look at each other."
Lennon's time of repose didn't last long, however. By 1980, he had re-emerged with a new album and plans to become politically active again. In his final interview on December 8, 1980, Lennon mused, "The whole map's changed, and we're going into an unknown future, but we're still all here, and while there's life there's hope."
That very night, when Lennon returned to his New York apartment building, Mark David Chapman was waiting in the shadows. As Lennon stepped outside the car to greet the fans congregating outside, Chapman, in an eerie echo of the FBI's moniker for Lennon, called out, "Mr. Lennon!" Lennon turned and was met with a barrage of gunfire as Chapman–squatting in combat stance– emptied his .38-caliber pistol and pumped four bullets into his back and left arm. Lennon stumbled, staggered forward and, with blood pouring from his mouth and chest, collapsed to the ground.
John Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. He had finally been "neutralized."
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning Grasping for the Wind.