John W. Whitehead
December 2, 2008
“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.”
— John Lennon (1969)
In recent years, there have been countless stories about the U.S. government abusing its surveillance powers. They range from government agents listening in on the telephone calls of American citizens to the FBI harassing innocent people over their free speech rights for simply criticizing the government. And once some government bureaucrat decides to focus on a certain person, the data files are collected and civil liberties are undermined. This type of behavior, however, has been going on for a long time. Such was the relentless harassment and government stalking of John Lennon. It is not only a chilling tale of paranoia and abuse of power, it is also a lesson for our times.
In December 1971 at a concert in Ann Arbor, Mich., Lennon took to 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.
What Lennon did not know at the time was that FBI agents were in the audience, taking notes on everything from the attendance (15,000) to the artistic merits of his new song. The U.S. government was spying on Lennon. Supposedly, the goal was to collect enough information to have him deported.
By March 1971, when his “Power to the People” single was released, it was clear where Lennon stood. 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.
It certainly helped that Lennon was a natural in the spotlight, with one of the most recognizable faces in the world. And with the Beatles’ break-up, Lennon began doing his own thing, posing for publicity photos, decked out in Japanese riot gear and singing “Say you want a revolution, We better get it on right away, Well you get on your feet, And into the street.”
Lennon had learned early on that rock music could serve a political end by proclaiming a radical message. More importantly, he saw that his music could mobilize the public. For example, on November 15, 1969, during a peace rally in Washington, DC, Pete Seeger led nearly half a million demonstrators in singing Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” at the Washington Monument. “The people started swaying their bodies and banners and flags in time,” Seeger later recalled, “several hundred thousand people, parents with their small children on their shoulders. It was a tremendously moving thing.”
The 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 was served with deportation orders. While the orders were supposedly for a four-year-old marijuana conviction in Great Britain, what Lennon didn’t realize was that Nixon was personally 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 between senators, the FBI and the U.S. Immigration Office. Clearly forces were at work to “neutralize” 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 1972 Republican National Convention. The government’s paranoia, however, was misplaced.
Left-wing activists who were on government watch lists and who shared an interest in bringing down the Nixon Administration had been congregating at Lennon’s New York apartment. But when they 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. Finally, in 1976, Lennon won the battle to stay in the country. As he said afterwards, “I have a love for this country. This is where the action is.”
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. The old radical was back and ready to cause trouble. In his final interview on Dec. 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–dropping into a two-handed 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.”