Protest History: Underground Press Syndicate pt. 2 (of 4)
Continuing from last week’s installment, here is part two of Laurie Charnigo’s essay, Occupy the OccuPAST: Echoes of Dissidence in the UPS Underground Newspaper Collection.
While the underground newspapers of the sixties and early seventies were united in their opposition to the Vietnam War, their content and purpose was by no means uniform. Some of the papers focused on hippie “drop out” culture, such as the short-lived but beautifully- illustrated San Francisco Oracle published from 1966 to 1968. The Oracle captured the pinnacle of the “Summer of Love” in Haight-Ashbury, covering such subjects as expanding consciousness, experimentation with Eastern spirituality, and human be-ins. Contributors to the Oracle included writers, poets, thinkers, and artists such as Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Bowen, and Allen Cohen. Revolution, as espoused in the Oracle, is an expansion and change of consciousness which occurs within an individual. As Timothy Leary proclaimed in the first issue of the Oracle, “Drop out! Modern civilization is a dangerous, insane process– destructive of man’s natural potential, murderous to other species of life, symbol addicted, anti-life. Drop out of the social game.” Perhaps no other paper in the underground newspaper collection achieved the Oracle’s sophistication in artistic expression. The paper is just as interesting to look at, with its beautiful psychedelic imagery, as it is to read. Allen Cohen, the paper’s editor, wrote that the idea for the Oracle came to him in a “rainbow newspaper” dream. The Oracle, however, only represented one spectrum of the rainbow of underground papers. On the other end of the spectrum were papers which were opposed to flowers, peace, and mind expansion as a central means to obtain social and political justice.
Music may have been the most powerful and unifying expression of the counter-cultural movement. In Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America, Rodger Streitmatter writes “Despite rock ‘n’ Roll’s evolution into a potent cultural force, the established media largely ignored it.” (211). Streitmatter goes on to assert that underground newspapers helped “legitimize” rock n’ roll by providing the first serious reviews and analysis of records. One of the most beautiful counterculture essays is “Liberation Music” written by John Sinclair, former White Panther Party member, while he was serving time in Marquette Prison in July 1970. In “Liberation Music” which was published in Creem Magazine, Sinclair warns about the commercialization of music and how it is was being co-opted by big corporate interests. In this piece, Sinclair writes about the origins of the counterculture movement “Our culture started to develop about five years ago  as a real alternative to the death culture of the straight world. We started from where we were then, which was almost nowhere, and we built up our culture from the ground.” Sinclair found parallels between what was happening in the rock and roll world and society as a whole, writing:
“…if we study the way the pig has infiltrated and taken over and manipulated our culture, we can not only discover how to put an end to this exploitation but we can also see how monopoly capitalism and imperialism works in the larger society as well. What we have to realize, finally, is that everything that happens in the macrocosm of the American consumer culture can be seen in detail at work in the microcosm of the rock and roll world, and if we can combat the consumer mentality in our culture then we can combat it in the mother country culture too, and save ourselves and eventually all the people of the earth from destruction at the hands of the greed creeps and “owners” who are causing all of us all this grief.”
While underground papers served as the journalistic voice of the counterculture movement, rock n’ roll was the greatest and most lasting expression of the movement.
While sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll surface frequently in the underground newspapers, hundreds of others focused solely on serious social and political issues. New Left Notes, the official paper of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, focused on New Left ideology. The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service (BPINS) was the voice of the Black Panther Party and addressed Black Power and African American issues. Papers in the south, such at The Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, the Kudzu in Jackson, Mississippi, T-Town’s High Gauge (roll tide, crimson hippies!) and NOLA Express in New Orleans spent a great deal of time reporting on civil rights issues. Although hippies and college-educated New Left did not exactly fit in with the working class, Rising up Angry addressed workers rights in Chicago. Free Palestine (Washington, D.C.) took up the issue of Palestinian rights and ran from 1969-1971. In the January 1969 issue of Free Palestine, Justin Harris urged Americans to become more informed about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict writing:
“One can make a fine start towards the goal of wider understanding by reading the message of the Palestinian resistance as presented by Free Palestine, and then continue with additional study of the historical roots of the problem and the present-day ramifications. Careful consideration should be given to this movement’s revolutionary contribution to the Arab world; its political impact on American society and its spiritual significance to all the oppressed people of the world.”
Dine’ Baa Hani gives readers a glimpse into the social issues surrounding the Navajo during 1970 to 1973. Modern Utopia provided information about communal living and compiled lists and addresses of social organizations. Gay Sunshine was one of the first papers to focus on gay and Lesbian rights following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. G.I. Press Service was an example of the many underground newspapers created by soldiers who opposed the War in Vietnam. Perhaps G.I. papers, more than any other paper, would have been considered “underground.”
Women’s rights were the central focus of Rat (New York), It’ Aint Me Babe (Berkeley), and Ain’t I a Woman (Iowa). In 1970, the women who worked at Rat staged a coup and took over the entire paper, opening up “LiberRATion” from their alleged sexist- male coworkers whom they believed had relegated them to secretarial or non-important positions in the paper. In her exposé, “Goodbye to All That,” printed in Rat’s “take over” edition, Robin Morgan wrote:
“Goodbye, goodbye forever, counterfeit Left, counterleft, male-dominated cracked-glass mirror reflection of the Amerikan Nightmare. Women are the real Left. We are rising, powerful in our unclean bodies; bright glowing mad in our inferior brains; wild hair flying, wild eyes staring, wild voices keening…We are rising with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history, and this time we will be free or no one will survive. Power to the people or to none. All the way down this time.”
Morgan’s “Goodbye to All That” was widely reprinted and considered one of the best underground newspaper essays on the role of women in the counterculture movement.
Numerous papers were centered around or started as college newspapers. These papers tended to create a counterculture environment on or around campuses, with many forming SDS chapters. In September 1969, NOLO Express (New Orleans) put out a special “Student Handbook” in which they exposed the big corporate affiliations of the LSU at New Orleans Board of Supervisors in “Freshman Orientation 101: Introduction to LSU Board of Supervisors”. The editors proceeded to lambaste the monopoly of the campus bookstore and the outrageous prices of textbooks in “Book Store Code Exposed.” Other pieces in the “Student Handbook” included “Busting the Ban on SDS “ (the University felt the organization was too radical for LSUNO), disgruntlement at the high prices of coffee and the “cardboard hamburgers” in the University Cafeteria, a “Freshman Orientation Quiz” with a section on maps titled “Know your Empire,” and a piece bemoaning the increase in student fees. On the cover of the handbook is a cartoon by R. Cobb of Satan tempting a hippie- looking Adam and Eve couple with the caption “Besides…Just how far do you think you can get in today’s world without a good education?”