behind the news

Notes from Underground

Revisiting the Vietnam-era radical press
March 9, 2009

Storm clouds threaten downtown San Francisco tonight. The San Francisco Chronicle faces closure. Craigslist and its kind starve the local alt-weeklies with every click. Yet inside the Babylon Falling “revolutionary” bookstore, the warm, musty air roars with people excited about newspapers.

Plastic-wrapped vintage newspapers cover the walls and bookshelves: the Seed, the Berkeley Barb, the East Village Other, the Realist, The Black Panther. Former Ramparts publisher Warren Hinckle mingles with young store owner Sean Stewart. Local art students chat with legendary agitprop artist Emory Douglas and former Panther Billy X. Jennings—the archival source of the seventy radical, underground newspapers from the 1960s and ’70s on display through March 11.

The Babylon Falling exhibit comes amid a bona fide resurgence of interest in the Vietnam-era radical press. The Village Voice is scanning and posting all of its old archives to the Net. The Chicago Reader just dug up its founding manifesto, posting it as a blog item. Geoff Kaplan’s new book, Power of the People: The Graphic Design of Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, will come out this summer.

“For all their flaws, they captured the period,” says Abe Peck, a former Seed writer and author of Uncovering the ‘60s: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. Peck ascribes this resurgence in interest in part to nostalgia—but also to a renewed appreciation for news sources that are in touch with the tenor of their times. “They were innovative in terms of their display and in terms of the prose that wasn’t jibberish. Some of it was very smart. Some of it was very weird. It’s a manifestation of a time that’s almost time-capsuled, so I think it’s very real when you go back and look.”

How did the underground papers of the 1960s and ‘70s get started? In large part, you can blame it on the kids. The largest crop of seventeen-year-olds in American history were coming of age as conflict raged over issues like civil rights, the sexual revolution, the military draft, and the Vietnam War. Many of these stories were being reported from the establishment perspective; it made sense that youthful activists would try to create their own media.

“There was an official version of reality that flew in the face of the way millions of people were experiencing the world,” remembers Columbia professor and former ’60s activist Todd Gitlin. “You had a supply of writers charged up on telling some different versions of the truth and you have demand from publics who are out of joint with the official version and you had the technological wherewithal to enable rapid transmission.”

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From Emory Douglas’s incendiary art for The Black Panther, to Scanlan’s Monthly running an article entitled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” to the SDS New Left Notes‘s coverage of the Berkeley free speech clashes, the papers were the ascendant rock and roll of the fourth estate.

“The underground press was much hipper. It was fun-loving, druggy, musical. They had energy. You could see it. It’s not cookie cutter stuff. Lot of interesting artwork. There were no party lines. Not initially,” says Gitlin. “They were of a moment to which they contributed and in which they mirrored and in some ways focused and in some ways revealed and in some ways purveyed.”

But almost as soon as they arrived, they were gone.

“It ended for a bunch of reasons,” says Peck. “Number one: mission accomplished in some areas. The U.S. left Vietnam. There was the beginnings of an environmental movement, feminism was launched, gay rights was launched. But I think also you deal with a lot of people—primarily young—who are giving their post education lives to being in the crucible 24-7, who, after three or four years, were fried.”

“The consciousness that was embedded in the underground was anarchic and unruly,” says Gitlin. “The organizations were unruly. They harbored people who were quite divergent, and there were often—by ’68, ’69, ’70—huge cleavages between different groups. The movement was becoming demoralized and people were on their way into a different era.”

As the underground press turned inward and fought amongst itself, late capitalism digested the discontent. The papers’ most visible descendants—the alt-weeklies of today—are distant cousins, for good and bad.

Fred Turner, assistant professor of communication at Stanford and author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, says the spirit of the radical press still exists, but not in print. “I would say their lineal descendants—the alt-weeklies—are fading away, but the critical voices of communities they represent have come alive online,” he says, arguing that emerging social networks are becoming the matrices of modern political and social movements—similar to what the Whole Earth Catalog did for commune-dwellers—and that bloggers are the newest descendants of the counter-cultural press.

Peck agrees: “I think zines. Some blogs. Some web sites. Graphic novels. Underground comics—that’s where more of the continuity is.”

Indeed, the speakers at the Babylon Falling show were eager to draw parallels between the two eras. In the words of Billy X. Jennings, “people are looking back to understand how to go forward.” So what lessons can this new generation learn from these ’60s papers? How can they confront the neutering effects of late capitalism?

Peck says it’s difficult to extrapolate lessons for today’s young entrepreneurs, other than the need for fortitude and humility: “Be human to your brothers. Don’t cannibalize each other.”

Turner says to avoid insularity: “Make sure that your model reaches beyond people like yourself. One of the great failures of the radical press is it tended to speak to the converted.”

Gitlin says own your moment. “It’s an opportune time for people who want to take chances with their lives to develop solid, useful, in the best sense serious forms of journalism, but it won’t be the forms of the ’60s. One should study what happened not in the spirit of reverence but in the spirit of curiosity and deep consideration of how the cultural sparks that flew then were the ones that [would] fly at that moment, and, comparably, how the ones that ought to fly now would belong to this moment.”

Real-time social networks—we’re looking at you.

“If we had Twitter,” quips Peck, “our demonstrations would’ve been more succesful.”

David Downs is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former editor for Village Voice Media, he has contributed to Wired magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and The Onion in addition to other publications.