As I walk into the Long Haul for the Slingshot newspaper meeting, the smell of boiling beans hits me first, then the moldy odor of old paper.
Or perhaps it’s a whiff of history: Thirty years ago, this Berkeley storefront housed The Black Panther newspaper.
Panther cadres sold as many as 100,000 copies of the paper around the country every week; Slingshot runs 8,000 to 10,000 copies and augments its quarterly mailings by sending bundles home with travelers who agree to distribute them. The Black Panthers operated as a revolutionary organization; Slingshot is one of dozens of independent papers published in the Bay Area, with no ties to any organization or party line. But the two papers share more than a location: Both started from the same impulse.
“We needed to give our own point of view on issues we were involved in,” says Emory Douglas, former Black Panther minister of culture and production manager for the paper from its third issue in 1967 to its last in 1980.
“We need a place to put our politics out directly,” says P.B. Floyd of the Slingshot collective, which has been publishing in support of direct-action movements such as Earth First, micro-power radio, and police accountability for over a decade.
In these differences and similarities you can read a bit of the evolution of the Bay Area’s alternative press. The movements and organizations that rocked the late ’60s gave birth to dozens of publications that reflected and fed them. Today the alternative press flourishes in a greater variety of forms, but the audience for each is typically more defined by common identity and less organized into mass movements for social change.
Whatever the era, the alternative press gives voice to communities more often spoken about–or simply ignored–than allowed to speak for themselves in the corporate media. Whether they define community by ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or politics, these publications raise consciousness and connect the isolated, offer tools for change, and publicize the organizing that’s one of the most-often censored stories in the evening news.
From Pamphlets to Web Zines
Alternative media have been abetting movements–and movements have organized through alternative media–ever since Thomas Paine agitated against British rule in Common Sense, as San Francisco Examiner media critic David Armstrong points out in his book A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America.
The Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate fought government-sponsored land theft in the 1820s and ’30s. Frederick Douglass’s North Star advocated the abolition of slavery, as did some two dozen other papers. Ida B. Wells-Barnett used the Free Speech to crusade against lynching until she was driven from Memphis in 1892. The Masses lost its second-class mailing permit for opposing World War I. And the ’60s underground press carried on this agitator tradition.
“There was massive social ferment in the late 1960s; some 400,000 people flooded Golden Gate Park for the October 1969 mobilization against the war in Vietnam,” says KPFA’s Larry Bensky, who was managing editor of the monthly muckraker Ramparts in 1968. “You saw civil rights work, national revolutionary organizations like the Black Panthers and SDS, the start of the feminist movement, dozens of overlaid and connected mass movements. And they were all hungry for information.”
Not for long. Several key national publications came out of the Bay Area to feed that hunger: the anti-war GI paper The Bond; The Movement, which started as the newsletter of the friends of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and grew to cover every strain of radical organizing; and Ramparts and The Black Panther.
Locally, anti-war servicemen produced Up Against the Bulkhead, while the Berkeley Barb and the Tribe chronicled the general anti-war movement. El Tecolote covered San Francisco’s Mission District, Dock of the Bay the whole city. The Oracle, in all its esoteric rainbow glory, embodied and informed the Haight-Ashbury scene. Leviathan published in-depth analyses for activists. Change, Mother Lode, and It Ain’t Me Babe articulated the emerging women’s movement, and some two dozen papers gave voice to the beginnings of gay liberation, including Vanguard, Sisters, and Gays in Action.
But COINTELPRO, the FBI-led harassment, disinformation, and assassination campaign against anti-war and civil rights organizations, along with co-optation, economic recession, burn-out, and a host of other factors took their toll on ’60s movements and alternative media. Only El Tecolote survives today. It’s been joined by other bilingual newspapers, weekly papers from various communities of color, issue-based monthlies, quarterly journals, zines, Websites, and online publications. (See sidebars page 6.) (This article leaves out newsweeklies like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and magazines like Mother Jones, because, while they have roots in the ’60s and carry on the American muckraking tradition, they function as general-interest publications with an oppositional slant, rather than the voices of particular communities or movements.)
Readership for these various forms at least equals that of the late ’60s press at its height, says John Anner, executive director of the Independent Press Association. Local audience figures are hard to come by, but IPA’s 150 member publications across the country have some seven million readers, Anner says. And IPA’s members represent only a fraction of the 1,200 publications on its mailing list.
‘The movement was the media was the movement’
Numbers alone tell only half the story. The alternative media’s relation to movements and organizations–then and now–tells the rest.
“Without the party the [Black Panther] paper wouldn’t have had the same impact,” says Emory Douglas. The Panthers gathered news by being out in the community, selling the paper, or running projects such as free breakfast programs and health clinics. They wrote, organized, then wrote some more.
The Panthers first organized in response to police brutality and tracked the subject consistently in the paper. The first issue led with a story on the death of 22-year-old Denzil Dowell at the hands of a sheriff’s deputy in Richmond. “People would come to the Panthers if a family member was beaten, harassed, or brutalized by the police,” says JoNina Abron, editor of The Black Panther from 1978 to 1980. “And people did become politicized. It took a long time, but Oakland got a police review board.”
The paper also ran national and international stories. “We gave a context for Black and poor people to understand what was going on,” Abron says. With its 1972 series on sickle-cell anemia, The Panther became the first paper to expose the damage the disease did to the African American community.
Investigative reporting by El Tecolote spurred the successful fights for Spanish-speaking interpreters at San Francisco General Hospital and bilingual phone services, says founder and editor Juan Gonzalez.
Working with other journalism students and Mission District activists, he started the bilingual El Tecolote in 1970 to report on neighborhood issues and events overlooked by citywide media.
“People came to look at us as a vehicle,” Gonzalez says. “They’d call and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem.'” The paper would investigate and sometimes find a deeper issue–as in the case of a pregnant woman who lost her baby because San Francisco General had no Spanish-speaking staff on hand to communicate with her. The initial story prompted a year-long campaign for interpreters at the hospital; El Tecolote‘s coverage spurred the community to keep the heat on.
Ramparts became staple reading for anti-war activists around the country, regularly exposing the bankruptcy and brutality of U.S. government policy. It published the first excerpts of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, for example, and a stunning ground-level account of the war by Sgt. Donald Duncan, the first defector from the Green Berets.
The magazine’s specific impact was hard to gauge–partly because it circulated nationally, partly because it became such a part of the movement. “The movement was the media was the movement,” Bensky says.
That kind of interplay didn’t end with the ’70s: It shows up whenever a politically mobilized community works with its own media. “There was a positive synergy between reporters covering AIDS for the queer press and the AIDS activist movement,” says Tim Kingston, who reported for the San Francisco Bay Times from 1987 to 1995.
Research by reporters informed Act-Up’s campaigns to reduce the price of AIDS drugs and speed their release, pressure drug companies, and open up the Food and Drug Administration; Act-Up’s media-savvy actions in turn made good copy, and the resulting stories built the movement. Now people with AIDS are deeply involved with the drug approval process at every level, Kingston says.
These examples illustrate the results alternative papers can get when they become part of the organizing efforts of broad movements, activated communities, or specific groups. But “politicization is a complex process,” says Mimi Nguyen, a feminist zine writer and Web designer, and the alternative press contributes in complex ways. It doesn’t just rouse rabble: It relates individual experience to institutional structures, identifying shared interests in the process.
Alternative media’s consciousness-raising and community-building roles come to the fore when movements are dormant as they are now, or very young, like the women’s liberation movement was at the end of the ’60s.
Deborah Gerson, who participated in the budding women’s movement and later wrote a doctoral thesis on it, recalls that nothing in the broadside Mother Lode was news by journalism school standards: First-person articles on such topics as body image, family relations, women in prison, and lesbian mothers dominated its five issues. “The news was our re-understanding and reflecting on our lives through consciousness-raising, understanding how women’s oppression worked,” Gerson says.
Change and It Ain’t Me Babe carried reports of feminist activities around the country and the world, but still leaned heavily to essays and first-person features.
Some early movement gains have become facts of life for young women, but *censored* magazine still finds plenty of targets for contemporary consciousness-raising. This lively “feminist response to pop culture” takes on TV, film, magazines, advertising–you name it. “We want people to think critically about messages from any source,” says editor and publisher Lisa Miya-Jervis.
“Anytime you try to change the way people think about their daily lives, you’ve got an activist project,” she says. “We see this particularly in letters from young women, like the 15-year-old who wrote and said, ‘I’ve been reading Seventeen for years and now I know why it made me feel so bad.’
“It sounds cheesy, but I think giving young girls tools that help them be more confident prepares them for activism,” she says.
Such work doesn’t create a movement, says John Anner, but by connecting people and revealing structural problems, “It creates conditions in which a movement can happen.”
In a variety of different ways, today’s alternative media are attempting to bring people who share common interests or identity in touch with one another and to open avenues of action for social change.
“With ColorLines we want to create an institution, a context in which people can read serious stuff and interact with each other,” says editor Bob Wing. The Center for Third World Organizing and the Applied Research Center launched this journal of “Race, Culture, and Action” to fill the gap between an often-conservative ethnic press and an often-Eurocentric progressive press. The magazine’s multicultural perspective allows it to focus on racism from all angles, and to address cross-racial issues among people of color, Wing says. “With our numbers rising, our ability to build unity is one of the biggest challenges we face,” he says.
Linking women who felt dissed by the “so-called welfare debates,” Ariel Gore started the parenting zine HipMama in late 1993. “If you’re a parent you have to confront everything,” Gore says. “You have to deal with the school system and worry about the environment. The state is automatically allowed to be in your business and kids are marketed to at an incredible level.”
HipMama mixes explicitly activist articles on welfare “reform” and reproductive freedom with parenting tips and mothering rants. For moms feeling overwhelmed and alone, the magazine and its Website (www.hipmama.com) offer an outlet and “a definite assurance you’re not a freak of nature,” Gore says.
Searching “asian + women” on the Web, Mimi Nguyen found little but pages of heterosexual porn and mail-order brides; feminist sites made few links to women of color. So she started the Website Exoticize This (alternately Exoticize My Fist) at http://members.aol.com/critchicks/–a resource site for Asian and Asian American women with links to services, books, activist groups, and more, including dozens of zines by girls of color.
“There are some amazing girls of color who do zines, really brilliant,” Nguyen says. “We play off each other’s ideas, explore the intersection of race and gender.” Some of these women’s writing appears in Evolution of a Race Riot, Nguyen’s compilation of zine writing by youth of color. Zine networks–online or off–can connect isolated individuals and facilitate discussion, Nguyen says. (See “Zine Scene” sidebar.)
California’s dozens of Indian tribes, which have been displaced, decimated, and deracinated by 200 years of white incursion, began a cultural renaissance about 15 years ago. News from Native California grew out of that renaissance and strengthens it in practical and intangible ways. For example, the magazine consistently features articles on preservation of endangered languages and arts. “People who have an idea or a project can read about each others’ work and hook up,” says Jeannine Gendar, co-editor.
News prefers that its writers be Native themselves or quote Native sources heavily. “Because of the way we Americans are about print media, we find it validating to see ourselves in print,” Gendar says. “It’s a community esteem-builder: Empowering, even though that word is overused.”
The Times Change,
The Press Remains . . .
Gendar’s comment brings home the similarities in the functions of the alternative press now and 30 years ago. Writers and sources for The Black Panther and El Tecolote came from the community, as they do now for News. HipMama and *censored* view individual women’s experiences through a social prism, much as did Mother Lode and Babe.
Even the issues echo. When the Slingshot collective brainstormed its most recent list of stories, it touched on many key themes from The Black Panther: Youth of color shot by police, prisons becoming the new plantations, and globalization–’90s-speak for imperialism.
The resonance makes sense. Writing on issues like these reveals power relations in the best alternative-press tradition, exposing the underpinnings of events and social structures, which are hidden in corporate press coverage.
Publications then and now differ where the circumstances differ. Today’s outlets seldom participate in mass movements aimed at confronting and overthrowing the power structure, because, for the most part, those movements don’t exist anymore–and media alone can’t bring them to life.
Arguably, some of today’s alternative media could connect thought and action more explicitly and stretch harder to analyze particular events in their social and economic contexts. But they have a lot going for them: production flair and a healthy aversion to rhetoric, new technology, and a multicultural sensibility. There’s every reason to believe that as organizing gathers steam, the alternative media will play as vibrant a role as ever.
Photo ©1998 Marcy Rein
Here’s a diverse sampling–but by no means an exhaustive list–of locally published alternative papers and magazines:
Ethnic community publications include San Francisco Bay View, covering the predominantly African American Hunters Point area; the bilingual El Mensajero; AsianWeek; and the quarterly News from Native California.
An array of queer papers and magazines fill newsstands, among them the lesbian paper Icon; the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender biweekly Bay Times; a local edition of Los Angeles-based Frontiers; and the glossy Girlfriends.
Alternative women’s magazines such as *censored*, HipMama, and Fabula are a hot category. Environmental activists publish the Berkeley-based Urban Ecologist and Terrain, as well as Earth Island Journal and the sporadic but provocative San Francisco-based Race, Poverty, and the Environment.
Street Sheet (San Francisco), Street Spirit (East Bay), and Poor Magazine are written by and about poor and homeless people. Hard Hat talks grassroots unionism, while the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s The Dispatcher covers labor issues beyond the ILWU’s own organizing.
And this short list doesn’t even touch on the hundreds of youth-published zines, catalogs devoted to them (Factsheet 5, a pioneer in the genre, is defunct but may be resurrected), and their online siblings.
Over-30 mediaphiles may have missed the zine explosion, though the first of the breed appeared in the late ’70s, inspired by punk rock and its ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic. Now there are literally millions of zines, says Craig O’Hara of AK Press, a worker-owned publishing and distribution company.
All kinds of publications fall into the zine bag, but personal journals predominate. “You’ll find almost every subject, but most often people write about what they do with their life and why they do it,” says O’Hara.
Though some larger publications such as *censored* and Slingshot show up in zine catalogs, the typical zine is a one-person production. Unlike magazines, which may provide a living for their publishers, zines almost never do. Zine writers trade their publications at punk shows and zine fairs, sell via mail order, or distribute copies through book and record stores.
With copy machines and computers relatively easy to access these days, almost any kid who wants to can publish a zine. “The only reason zines didn’t come out in 1968 is that there wasn’t a 24-hour Kinko’s on every block,” says O’Hara. “Can you imagine what Jerry Rubin would’ve done with a Kinko’s?”
Marcy Rein belongs to the National Writers Union / UAW Local 1981 and edits its quarterly magazine, American Writer. She missed the heaviest ’60s action but has written for various women’s, queer, left and labor papers over the last 21 years.