From Underground Press to Indymedia

From Underground Press to Indymedia

Underground Baltimore Newspapers. Image Compiled By: John Duda
Underground Baltimore Newspapers. Image Compiled By: John Duda

a brief history of the activists and publications that made the Indypendent Reader possible --- Early Historical and Political Context: 1967–1973

The time period between the late 1960s and the early 1970s was a high point for the protest movements in the US. Many radical movements and projects were started during this time. Several of these projects were media-based: newspapers, pamphlets, fliers, and other print materials helped independent and underground groups circulate news, ideas, and updates about events.

The Students for a Democratic Society reached its height in 1968 with 350 chapters and possibly 100,000 members or adherents.1 It then disintegrated into the Progressive Labor Party and Weather Underground factions in 1969. The “Battle of Chicago” occurred when police rioted on protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was founded in Detroit in 1969. In that same year, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered by government agents in his Chicago apartment, part of a wide-spread US government attack on radical activists. The radical feminist group RedStockings was founded in New York City. The Stonewall Rebellion of gays and lesbians against police raids in New York City occurred. The Altamont and Woodstock rock music festivals took place. Huge demonstrations against the US government’s war on Vietnam’s National Liberation Front took place in Washington DC. Outside the US, 10 million workers and students struck in France in May and June of 1968. Hundreds of students and other protesters were massacred in Mexico City in October, 1968 (exact number is still controversial). Workers struck during the “Hot Autumn” in Italy—massive strikes with over 440 million hours struck from late 1969 into 1970. The election of the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile occured in 1970; a brutal military coup ended Allende’s regime on September 11, 1973. The US government pulled its troops out of South Vietnam in 1973, though the war continued until the mid 1970s.

“The Underground Press”

These years, roughly 1967–1973, were when the so-called “underground press” thrived. In the United States, there have been times when the number of social critical periodicals was extensive. In 1912, there were 323 socialist newspapers or magazines, many published in foreign languages.2 And by the end of World War II there were about 200 African-American newspapers. However, the Red Scare of 1919–1920 and the Cold War put a chill on radical sentiment in print.

During the early part of the 1960s, only a handful of stable independent periodicals, all with limited circulation, including The Guardian, I.F.Stone’s Bi-Weekly, Monthly Review, Liberation, The Nation, New Politics, and The Progressive, were documenting events and analyzing them from a left perspective. But, by 1969, the world of radical periodicals had expanded. This was partly a result of developments in offset printing technology. It became easier for a group of self-organized radicals to write, edit, and produce colorful tabloids. These “underground press” papers would be more accurately described as radical and bohemian since the offices were public.

These radical weeklies and bi-weeklies included Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird, the Ann Arbor Sun, the Portland Scribe, New Orleans’s Nola Express, the Berkeley Barb, the Chicago Seed, the DC Gazette, East Village Other, and Baltimore’s Harry and Dragonseed. By 1971, there were estimated to be between 400 and 800 underground newspapers with a readership ranging from 2 million (according to Newsweek) to 30 million people (according to the Underground Press Syndicate). The Liberation News Service had 600 regular subscribers.3

These newspapers are now gone. This decline is partly related to the waning of the 1960s movements and the lack of development of institution-building skills, but also to the 1973 decision of the Underground Press Syndicate to be open to advertising in member newspapers, changing its name at the same time to the Alternative Press Syndicate. The character of alternative publishing changed. So, instead of radical papers like the Great Speckled Bird—one of the best “underground” weeklies—today, we have entertainment weeklies like The City Paper.

However, microfilm collections of these newspapers still exist, as well as print copies in library archives. University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) has many, as its Special Collections department houses the Alternative Press Center collection.

Baltimore’s Harry and Dragonseed

Harry was published out of 233 E. 25th Street and later 30 E. Lanvale Street from 1969 to 1971. Its subtitle was “Serving the Baltimore Underground Community.” Conceived at Woodstock by Michael Carliner, who knew of underground papers elsewhere, the original group included PJ O’Rourke, who also joined the East Village Other, Art Levine, and Tom D’Antoni. Tabloid in format with news articles in front and culture pieces and a community calendar toward the end, Harry subscribed to Liberation News Service, College Press Service, and Underground Press Syndicate.

If you review the 1971 issues in UMBC’s Special Collections, you’ll find articles by William Kunstler on the trials of Baltimore Black Panthers and their lawyer Arthur Turco, an interview with Panther Paul Coates, now publisher of Black Classics Press, an article on the conviction of Marshall Eddie Conway, who remains unjustly imprisoned 38 years later, reports on the US bombing of Laos and related protests, an article on the Winter Soldier investigation in which veterans testified to war crimes in Vietnam, an article on the Philip Berrigan case in which this pacifist former priest was absurdly accused of trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow-up heat tunnels in DC, articles on the 1971 May Day protests in which thousands were arrested protesting the war, a how-to piece on disabling wiretaps, and an article exposing the role of the Goldseker real estate company in selling houses to blacks with up to an 80 percent mark-up.

Harry also published an article by a Sunpapers reporter, Nellie Bly, concerned that the Morning Sun would be merged with the Evening Sun. “That would probably be the end,” she said, the Sun would go the way of “journalism in the US, littered on the bones of good newspapers like the New York Herald Tribune.” This was 37 years ago; by 2003 only five corporations owned 85% of US media resources. Unfortunately, The Sun has continued its decline.

You can also find in Kuhn Library another Baltimore underground paper—Dragonseed. This was published at 1623 Bellona Avenue. Its contributors included peace activist Dave Everhardt, and Bob Goren—who later helped found The Plain Talker in 1975, an activist monthly newspaper. But most of the bylines in Dragonseed were simply first names or noms de plume. The coverage here was a bit more community-based than Harry; you find articles on farm workers boycotts, utility rate hikes, the Baltimore Experimental High School, but also Watergate, the 1972 protests at the RNC, and the campaign of George McGovern.

But there is also interesting material about Harry being infiltrated by the BCPD “Red Squad.”4 These stories concern Harry photographer Glenn Barry Ehasz, who was close to Tom D’Antoni (a contributor to Harry—a recent City Paper article on D’Antoni does not review this case). Ehasz was discovered as a police agent during the “Freeman Trial.” Apparently, Ehasz infiltrated the Peace Action Center, the Baltimore Defense Committee, and the Vietnam War Moratorium organizing committee. This was quite a situation for radical editor D’Antoni to be in. D’Antoni wrote in Harry that “Ehasz’s photography, writing, and car were effectively subsidized by BCPD” as if by way of justification for Harry’s work. However, Dragonseed wrote: “Don’t talk to grand juries. Don’t talk to the FBI. Don’t talk to Harry!”

While the papers from the 1960s and ’70s are gone, left analytical journals continued to publish and the work of their writers has influenced a new generation which came of age in the 1990s. From the radical caucuses in the 1960s academia sprang Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Insurgent Sociologist, Feminist Studies, New Political Science, Radical History Review, and Review of Radical Political Economics. While 1960s activists tended to refer their critique to “The System” or “Advanced Industrial Society,” relying as they did on maverick scholars, like C. Wright Mills (who wrote under the pressure of the conservative 1950s), activists in today’s alternative globalization movement, regardless of tendency, clearly see the “system” as capitalist. While left academics have been criticized from the Left for becoming academics—rather than public intellectuals—their teaching of radical texts has likely had influence on many students activists.

Independent Media Centers and the Indy Reader

The first Independent Media Center (IMC) was founded to report on the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. This first IMC created an environment for independent media makers of all types (audio, video, print, and internet) to work together covering the protests in a democratic and collaborative manner. It took three months for the Seattle IMC to get organized to provide grassroots coverage of the “Battle of Seattle.” Open-source software was used to develop the Indymedia website. It turns out that this was the beginning of a global independent media movement which focuses on reporting on the world-wide struggle against neoliberal capitalism and a range of local issues. There are now more than 170 IMCs around the world. A half million to two million hits per day are logged, according to indymedia.org.5 The film “i” gives a sense of both the global and participatory nature of this media movement as it focuses on Buenos Aires, Argentina, but also visits IMC collectives in New York City and Genoa, Italy.6

While direct action protesters were battling with police in Seattle in November of 1999, Baltimore activists organized a solidarity protest of 250 people across from the World Trade Center on Pratt Street. A subset of these protesters later got organized to form Baltimore Indymedia. They were Wobblies, art students, nonviolent peace activists, Greens, and New Leftists. Baltimore Indymedia’s website launched in July of 2001 with an account of the 60-day Up-To-Date Laundry strike. Besides local coverage focusing on labor and community struggles, Baltimore IMC has written on the activities in the streets at national protests against the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Iraq War, and Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, in Washington DC, New York City, and Miami.

Like other IMCs, Baltimore Indymedia has recently slipped into a lower level of activity. However, in 2006 Baltimore Indymedia joined with the artist-activist group CampBaltimore to launch the Indypendent Reader, now in its fourth year of print publication. Its more nationally-oriented solidarity publication in New York City, The Indypendent, is approaching its 150th issue.

In a sense, the current Indymedia movement is like the radical weeklies of the 1960s and ’70s. Both are or were urban-based. Both have or had high levels of activist involvement. Both report or reported the advocacy of radical social change. Both express or expressed a commitment to independence and free speech. Both were partly enabled by technical innovation in media production. The IMCs, being internet-based, are less costly. However, The Indypendent and the Indypendent Reader demonstrate the crucial value of print newspapers for radical activism. They also indicate a connection between the 1960s radical weeklies and the IMCs—one which notes the social movement-alternative media connection: broad-based left libertarian politics connecting with a similar media movement.

Endnotes

1 Kirkpatrick Sale. “Students for a Democratic Society” in Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakas (editors). Encyclopedia of the American Left. University of Illinois Press, 1990, p757.

2 James Weinstein. The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925. New York: Vintage Books, 1969, pp 84-93.

3 Bob Ostertag. People’s Movements, People’s Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements. Beacon Press: 2006, p 120.

4 More on the red squads can be found in “Political Surveillance in Second-Tier Cities,” a chapter of Protectors of Privilege, by Frank Donner. In that chapter, he writes about Baltimore under Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau. Baltimore’s red squad was formed on July 1, 1966 when Pomerleau was appointed commissioner, and it was formally known as the intelligence section of the Inspectional Services Division (ISD).

5 Quoted in Extra!, July 2009, p 13.

6 “i”: Argentina, Indymedia, and the Questions of Communication. Directed by Andres Ingoglia and Raphael Lyon. 2006.