by David Downs
The arrests and office ransackings of journalists in Egypt resonates a little bit more deeply with American history professor John McMillian: the same kind of intimidation and outright sabotage of revolutionary dissent occurred just two generations ago in a more familiar country — the United States.
The U.S. government's coordinated campaign to bring down the country's radical press is a little known story, but McMillian tells it expertly in his new book Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, released February 17th in hardcover by the Oxford University Press.
McMillian logged 1,000 hours of research and criss-crossed the country over nine years studying back issues of The Berkeley Barb, Los Angeles Free Press, East Village Other and dozens of others. It was papers like these, McMillian contends — more so than groups like the Students for Democratic Society — that provided the script for the counter-cultural revolution.
Fueled by the hit new IT of the time — the mimeograph machine — the underground press offered the vocabulary and mythology of “radical democracy," unifying far-flung activists through wire services like the Liberation News Service. Genuinely subversive, underground papers provided a lurid, drug-addled rough draft of history as written by its makers, and they were read by millions across the country.
America has since become a country of amnesiacs — quick to assume what is must have always been. Smoking Typewriters clearly illustrates what has changed, and what has stayed the same, making it a must-read for anyone who wants context on today's IT-fueled freedom fights. Below, an interview, edited and structured for brevity and clarity, between Legalization Nation and McMillian, a Georgia State University Assistant Professor.
Legalization Nation: So what put you on the trail of all this stuff nine years ago?
John McMillian: I was a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic. At the time, in the mid- to late Nineties, the only people who had written about the Sixties were people who lived through the decade, veterans who had done good work, but there was a critique building up saying that having lived through the decade, they didn't use a lot of primary resources outside of themselves, they relied a little too heavily on maybe their own idiosyncratic memories, tended to romanticize the parts they were involved with and tended to conflate the whole rebellion with the Students for a Democratic Society, because the SDS had left behind all their papers. They were easy to use.
I think they overemphasized the importance of the SDS, and the underground papers are a great way to do lot of cool things at once: they're a great source of records that didn't have a lot do with SDS. The SDS were elites and the papers were accessible. Anyone who wanted to contribute could have their voice heard. This was a source that allowed you to study the movement from the bottom up.
At the time, the only book on the underground press was by Abe Peck, released in 1984 —a great book, a fast read of popular history, but he wasn't aware of the manuscript sources available. The one thing I'm really proud of is I really do bring a lot of primary sources to light that scholars have never seen. … No one has seen this material before, and as a historian it's what you live for.
When you ask the question, 'How did the Sixties happen with millions of young Americans thinking America was not just in need of reform but rotten to the core?' it was due to this underground press playing a crucial role in socializing people to the movement and making them more radical, more confident about their radicalism.
Especially people who didn't live in big cities, these things spread out far and wide into the South and small communities and it gave them a way to communicate with the larger movement, and amplified their traits.
LN: I was reading your chapter on COINTELPRO vs. the underground press while I was watching TV about Egyptian cops raiding journalists' offices in Cairo, suppressing the press, beating the press, and I imagine a lot of Americans look down their noses at that and go 'See how much better America is.' But it seems like two generations ago we were doing the same exact stuff.
JM: I've had that exact same thought myself. Even people who are generally protective of free speech rights and concerned about attempts to censor or stifle the free press are still unaware of the lengths to which people went to try to sabotage the underground press. Even among Sixties scholars and media studies people it's still not as well-known ...
This effort was massive. It wasn't really a Hoover thing or an FBI thing — it was at all levels, it was local vigilantes and the police and different federal authorities. It was uncoordinated, but still a massive attempt to stifle these papers, and it happened right here, and it hardly drew any protest except for the underground press, who were victims of all this.
LN: You write about a newspaper meeting on a farm that was surrounded by police sticking shotguns in people's faces.
JM: Yeah, the Underground Press Syndicate farm raid. I think that was a deplorable situation, but I would not hold them up as Exhibit A of the people who were unfairly maligned, because they were in fact pretty provocative themselves. They had their shotguns. John Sinclair, one of the organizers of that conference, pushed a politics of confrontation with the police. They had a tendency to be very provocative and then at the same time complain a lot when people loaded up against them.
LN: You describe government acts of sabotage, provocateurs, undercover police, and the use of all levers possible to disrupt these papers, including going after their printers, their advertisers, arresting staff on drug charges — one reporter got nine and half years for two joints?
JM: They did all of those things and they also had a couple far out things. The government made their own radical papers, more like mimeographed pamphlets that were short-lived because they did such a poor job. They were moderate, as opposed to radical, and those didn't last very long. I think they went all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover and he put the kibosh on those, because they were so lackluster.
The most amazing thing they did was, I found a memo where someone had this plan of spraying some sort of chemical on the bundles to make them smell like feces and make them unusable.
LN: Reading this stuff, I thought, 'God, these kids were incredibly naïve to think they actually had First Amendment rights and that there would not be an overreaction to their calls for revolutionary change.'
JM: The First Amendment is pretty unequivocal about allowing people to criticize the government even in the most strident terms, but I guess if they had a better sense of American history they should not have been quite as surprised. All this material was constitutionally protected —
LN: — if you could prove it in court with a million dollars.
JM: I agree. They may have been a little bit naïve.
LN: What's your sense of all of this government sabotage stopping? Are we living in a bright day for the U.S. government spying on its people?
JM: I do know during the Bush administration the FBI infiltrated peaceful protest groups. The Quakers were infiltrated. I don't know of any radical press that's left.
LN: The radical press is Wikileaks.
JM: That Assange guy is probably right to be as nervous as he seems to be. He's done a lot more than any underground paper ever did.
LN: The EFF has written about counter-terrorists looking at tons of peaceful groups after 9/11. It sounds like these G-men have jobs, they need to justify their pay and they're still out there looking under rocks for good or ill, and few citizens understand how their tax dollars pay for what amounts to spying on each other. … Which brings me to my next parallel, this new bath salts scare. I'm watching people freak out about bath salts, when in your book it was the lowly banana and the rumor the underground press started that smoking banana peels gets you high.
JM: The big difference here I think is, from what I can tell, these bath salts do work. I don't think they are the best drugs for getting high, then again there's these lurid media reports of people going crazy on them. They seem to have some real effect, whereas the bananas of course didn't.
The rumor was you could get high smoking banana peels, but obviously that never works. I thought it was such an unusual story — for a three- to six-month period, every paper was obsessed with this banana thing. I'd heard about this rumor myself and I don't think anyone had ever traced it the underground press.
It appeared in the Berkeley Barb — and maybe it's known that the Barb was the first reference to banana; I'm not sure. It was clear that the underground press was how this rumor spread very quickly. It was just a thrill for these young people to pass this information around. It was so exciting to them: the possibility you could get high from smoking bananas. They had a lot of fun with it. I think a lot of people knew it didn't work but they liked the idea.
LN: It seems like a huge prank on the mainstream press.
JM: It's hard to tell who had which intention. Certainly they had a lot of fun over the fact that mainstream people, the squares, were freaking out about this. Absolutely, they were conscious of that. They were very impish about it.
LN: Both instances underline the fact that if people want to get twisted they can go get cinnamon, huff paint, whatever — it puts the lie to the idea of a “drug-free America”.
JM: Nutmeg is still the real thing. ... You can still absolutely get spaced out on nutmeg and you can buy that at any corner market.
LN: What role did the Controlled Substances Act play in the rise of the underground press, or its downfall?
JM: A lot of these people were, in fact, drug users, and they always claimed they were targeted through drug laws. They said it wasn't about the drugs, it was about shutting down their papers.
A lot of people used marijuana and discovered it wasn't such a terrible thing to do and were put off by the fact they'd been exposed to propaganda that it was such a pernicious thing. It led them to have a distrust in the establishment, and the establishment media.
A lot of otherwise good citizens were being thrown in the slammer for smoking marijuana, which they thought was harmless. Certainly the drug penalties could be a lot more severe. It just again contributed to their general frustration or complaint with the establishment, for lack of a better word.
LN: It seems clear that the center of gravity of dissent has shifted out from newspapers and America to the net and the globe in general — what's your take?
JM: I'm not sure I believe that. There's a new book out combating the idea that social networks are going to be revolutionary. In Iran during the uprising, something like 0.27 percent of Iranians were on Twitter. Dictators and autocrats can use this material to find dissidents and hunt them down. It's a tool that can be used to greater effect by bad guys than maybe good guys. I'm not so 'woo woo' that Facecbook or Twitter is going to be a new locus for the expression of radical dissent, especially in places that don't have the free speech protections we at least have on the books.
LN: It seems like you're at least a little wrong. In your book you talk about how COINTELPRO used underground papers to recon the radicals the same way counter-revolutionaries use Twitter to recon radicals. The medium is just a medium. You can learn as much from them as the revolutionaries can, and go after their power nodes the way you could by shutting down a paper. Now you just shut down the server. It's the old lesson all over again: at a certain point, if you become a threat, they'll come for your printer, they'll come for your server, they'll come for your funding. If you start to really get to them they do the same things. It doesn't matter if it's a mimeograph or a server.
JM: Especially with the Egyptian protests, the big news was they shut down Facebook and it had little discernible effect on protest. It's going to be really interesting to see how this plays out: the old cliche that anyone with an internet provider and a laptop has their own press nowadays, whether or not this works to the advantage of critics of governments or autocrats.
LN: I think they're just tools. It's like a rock. It's neither right nor wrong — it depends on who's throwing it and at what. And it sounds like, compared to the Sixties, today's dissenters using today's tools have learned the lessons of the Sixties press. Wikileaks knows governments are going to come for Wikileaks' people and servers. Assange has released an encrypted file as insurance against his arrest, and he promises to release the key if he's ever arrested. To me, it seems that at least they're playing the game a little better, as opposed to saying, 'How dare you come after me just because I fomented revolution?'
JM: I think you're right about that.
LN: I was also fascinated to read about how, every time I pass by High Times in the supermarket I'm walking by a radical publication started by an insanely eclectic drug smuggler who committed suicide with a pearl-handled gun. Was I just born in a cave when everyone else learned this story?
JM: It's an incredible story. This guy, Forcade, his whole life was very interesting. This character from Arizona becomes the national director of UPS, he was also heavy into drugs, and they described him as this "high priest of cool on the search for supplicants." He was probably maybe a bit bipolar and a bit paranoid, but he financed this documentary on punk rock. He thought correctly that punk rock was the next big thing. He went to Hollywood where he had the best cocaine anybody had and was in with all these directors.
LN: Then his best buddy turned out to be an informant and he shot himself?
JM: One of his friends had also died. He had given him plane lessons after he had taught himself to fly these planes to smuggle planeloads of contraband into Florida. And he was on the ground with a walkie-talkie giving directions to his buddy and he saw his friend crash this plane. He had psychological problems that ran pretty deep.
LN: There's a surprisingly large number of Hollywood-sized tragic arcs in your book.
JM: There's two suicides in the book. I think it is sort of cinematic in its craziness and that story of Famous Long Ago was optioned for Hollywood by Robert Redford. They got as far as a script. [Liberation News Service founder] Raymond Mungo just signed a contract with someone who's going to make a musical out of Famous Long Ago. That's one of my favorite books; I'm trying to get it republished and write a new intro and have Ray write a forward for it.
LN: This book comes out as the first Baby Boomers turn 65, which makes it all the more shocking to see how hard they sold out. They invented the term “sell-out,” before they became self-described “neoconservatives”. They used to want to overthrow the government and now they're ready to collect Social Security.
JM: I don't endorse everything people were for in the Sixties. They were naive and reckless and immature. But when I look at politics today, where politicians are trying to win the ten percent of independent voters in the center to win a national election — the drift rightward has been quite phenomenal.
Author John McMillian will also be doing a talk/signing at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco on Thursday, February 24th at 7 p.m.