As Armstrong reports, neither the Phoenix nor its alt-weekly contemporaries were designed to be overtly radical or styled solely to provide entertainment news. Instead, they were adaptive vehicles—adored for their “use of the personal voice in writing; their willingness to do in-depth, magazine-style features about issues generally skimmed by daily newspapers”—that reacted to whatever readers needed at a given moment. Sometimes, that was advice on which new bands to worship; other times, it was a unifying drum to follow into protest. Though I never scored a single cover story in the sleek new Phoenix, editors still gave me ample inches to publish investigative pieces, wage class warfare, and, in one instance, report from the Democratic National Convention on acid.
Considering my own experience, it’s natural that I found A Trumpet to Arms to be at its most dramatic when it flashes back to the cultural mayhem of the ’60s, from Black Panther papers having their distribution lines cut by government saboteurs to the arrest and even murder of key alternative players. Armstrong brightly illustrates the summer of 1968, when underground sheets like the Seed helped lure thousands of young people to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As the history books now show—thanks to detailed documentation by alternative outlets—chaos ensued for that entire week, on a scale that would only erupt sporadically across America for years to follow. That was true until 2011, when Occupy Wall Street protesters, along with their own media networks, surfaced from coast to coast in the tradition of the many aforementioned crusaders, and like those before them, were indiscriminately beaten and imprisoned.
Along with hundreds of other maverick reporters who filled voids left by the mainstream’s generally shallow coverage of Occupy, I followed the encampment era up close and all across the country. In my travels, I bonded with other sympathetic journalists. Some gave me a couch to crash on; others shared sources, photographs, and inside information. Even then, I was aware of a connection to the fringe media of protests past—especially after reporting on last year’s demonstrations outside of the NATO summit in Chicago. At a rally in Grant Park, I asked one officer about the chipped and battered old batons that a few of his colleagues were wielding. Avoiding eye contact, the cop whispered without moving his lips, “That’s his daddy’s from ‘68.”
The experience in Chicago alerted me to the all-powerful, multigenerational enemy with which alternative media is at perpetual odds. I’m prepared for that battle, and also hopeful that the marginal press will live at least as long as the agents we ride against.
Like Armstrong, I plan to play a part in keeping alt ideals alive. I recently teamed with another local weekly—Dig Boston, where I started my career in 2004—to convene a gang of young dissidents to trade ideas and network regularly. So far it’s gone well, with more than a dozen eager writers whose interests range from dismantling Monsanto to reporting on the oft-forgotten corners of the city’s minority neighborhoods. I’m uncertain of what will come of our efforts in the longer term—if the appetite for passionate reporting will eventually erode entirely, or if we can carry on tradition, and sound a trumpet to arms. Wherever this trampled road takes me, I’ll use Armstrong’s wisdom as a compass:
When one underground enterprise succeeded, all the others were strengthened. . . . This did not only benefit activists. The public benefitted, too, from the much greater availability of new visions and values, which broadened the political, cultural, and spiritual options of millions. . . . Without [the alternative press], the counterculture and the New Left would not have taken root and flourished.