APRIL 14, 2020
The following is an excerpt from Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, published today by Verso. It is a monumental history of rebellion and resistance, a “movement history” of Los Angeles, examining the history of Black, Chicano, LGBT, women’s, and student activism in the city.
A Quarter of a Million Readers: The LA Free Press (1964–70)
The underground press of the Sixties is often described as self-indulgent; critics said it “trampled the tenets of accuracy and fairness,” while the mainstream media of the era is often portrayed as bland and cautious, and as practicing a phony objectivity. That was not true of the newspaper landscape in Los Angeles. The LA Times was firmly and loudly right-wing, while the LA Free Press (the “Freep”), the first underground paper of the era, and the most successful, was often a voice of reason, albeit a passionate one. A simple comparison of the coverage of the 1965 Watts uprising reveals a great deal. The first day of the riots, the Times front-page headline read “‘Get Whitey,’ Scream Blood-Hungry Mobs” (an “eyewitness account”), accompanied by an “expert” analysis (“Racial Unrest Laid to Negro Family Failure”) and the editorial “Anarchy Must End.”
The headline in the Freep read “The Negroes Have Voted!” Freep editor Art Kunkin declared on page one, “It is time to listen to the Negro.” The problem in Watts, he said, wasn’t the breakdown of “law and order,” but rather the old order itself, which in any case was “doomed.” On the front page, a map of Watts was captioned with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville: “It is always a great crime to deprive a people of its liberty on the pretext that it is using it wrongly.” Meanwhile at the Times, the editorial declared that the “criminal terrorism” in the streets of Watts should not be “dismissed … as the inevitable result of economic and sociological pressures.” The Freep instead pointed to root causes: jobs, education, housing, “a super-disaster situation in the Negro ghetto for years,” Kunkin wrote. “The people are fed up with unemployment, with subsistence on government handouts and Bureau of Public Assistance checks.”
The Times called for a governor’s commission to investigate, but said the number one question they should take up was why the National Guard wasn’t called sooner. And, the editors warned, “the commission should be cautious of irresponsible critics of the Los Angeles Police Department and its chief, William H. Parker.”
It wasn’t just the editorials in the Times; their reporters in Watts—all white, of course—emphasized the threat from “screaming” mobs of Black “wild men,” who were reported to be shouting, “It’s too late, white man. You had your chance. Now it’s our turn”; “Next time you see us we’ll be carrying guns”; and, “We have nothing to lose.” The reporter concluded that the mood of Black people in the streets was “sickening.”
The Freep, for its part, published reports of the uprising written by Blacks—its most significant contribution. One, on the front page, described a corner where four cops were beating a Black man with billy clubs, as a Black crowd gathered, shouting, “Don’t kill that man!” Then, “the crowd began to attack the officers.” The cops told them, “Go home, niggers.” The crowd grew; “The officers first attempted to fight but then ran away.” In the Freep’s reporting, the Blacks’ target was not “whitey” in general; instead they were retaliating against particular LAPD officers who were acting particularly brutally. Kunkin was able to recruit Black writers, he said, because “I did a lot of work with CORE. I built up personal capital in the Black community, so as soon as Watts happened there were people there writing for the paper.”
The nation’s first and most successful underground paper of the Sixties, the Freep at its peak in 1970 published forty-eight pages every week, had a guaranteed paid circulation of 85,000, and boasted a “faithful readership” estimated at a quarter of a million. At the time, among alternative weeklies, only the Village Voice, started a decade earlier, had more readers. The Freep’s founder, Kunkin, was not a naïve hippie or flower child, but rather an experienced Old Left journalist. When he published the first issue in 1964, he was thirty-five and already a movement elder. A New Yorker who had gone to Bronx High School of Science, he had become a tool and die maker, and—by then a Marxist—joined the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP), working at GM and Ford in the 1950s and becoming business manager of the SWP newspaper, the Militant. In the early 1960s he moved to L.A. and, he says, “went back to school to become a history professor.” A faculty member asked whether he wanted to work on a new Mexican-American newspaper, the East LA Almanac. It published eight pages, once a month, 5,000 copies, and was associated with MAPA, the new Mexican American Political Association, headed by Edward Roybal—the first Latino on the LA City Council, and later the first Latino member of Congress from California. “I was the political editor,” Kunkin said, “listed on the masthead as Arturo, and I’m writing about garbage collections in East Los Angeles.” By that time he had left the SWP, joined the less radical Socialist Party, and become its Southern California chairman: “I was working closely with Norman Thomas and with Erich Fromm, the famous psychologist,” he said. “I wrote some resolutions with Erich Fromm against the Democratic Party drift of the Socialist Party.”
He started planning the Freep in January 1963, after a visit from the FBI. They had read his criticisms of LBJ in the East LA Almanac, and asked whether he was a Communist and whether he could identify names on a list of suspected Communists. He told them he was a socialist and an anti-communist, and that he refused to talk about other people. Two days later, after the FBI visited the East LA Almanac, he was fired. He had long been complaining to friends hanging out at the Sunset Strip coffee shop Xanadu about the Village Voice: while it excelled at covering the hip scene and ran some strong writing, politically it always supported liberal Democrats. People told Kunkin he couldn’t publish a Voice-type independent paper in L.A. because the city had no Greenwich Village; it was too spread out and fragmented, and besides, it would require at least $10,000 to get started. But Kunkin went ahead anyway, looking for financial backers.
Meanwhile, he became a commentator at KPFK, producing a show called “What I Would Like to Do with a Newspaper in Los Angeles.” That was two weeks before the station’s annual fundraiser, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. The volunteer in charge of the fair, Phyllis Patterson, told him “I was going to do a paper for the fair, but I didn’t have time to get it together. Maybe you’d like to do a paper for the fair.” So he sold $200 in advertising, printed 5,000 copies of an eight-page paper, and put together a clever front page, reporting on contemporary issues as if they were medieval news: students holding ban-the-crossbow demonstrations, Shakespeare getting arrested for obscenity, a review of an exhibit of the Mona Lisa.
Inside the “Faire” issue, the distinctive logo appeared for the first time: “Los Angeles Free Press,” and real news: a report on a police bust of a theater manager for showing the soon-to-be-legendary Kenneth Anger short Scorpio Rising (gay bikers apparently offended the DA); a story about Joan Baez’s refusal to pay her taxes in protest of the military budget; and some music reviews—along with a statement that the editors wanted to start a paper like the Village Voice and a subscription coupon. They had a couple of thousand copies left when the Faire ended. So, Kunkin says, “I refolded the paper and put the Free Press pages on the outside.” Those were sold mainly at coffee houses on Sunset Strip, and one of them, the Fifth Estate, run by Al Mitchell, let Kunkin use the basement as an office. “I spent the next month writing a business plan and trying to raise $10,000”—but got only $600. “I started the paper with that,” he said. John Bryan, a one-time mainstream journalist who became managing editor of the Free Press before he quit in protest to start his own weekly, Open City, called Kunkin “a disappointed Trotskyist factory organizer.” Indeed, it turned out that Kunkin was much better at running a radical weekly in L.A. than at organizing auto workers in Detroit: he published the Freep every week for the next ten years without missing a single issue.
The first stand-alone issue of the Freep was dated July 30, 1964. “A New Weekly,” it proclaimed in a front-page statement, “Why We Appear.” Kunkin opened by declaring that while the paper represented no party or group, “we class ourselves … among the liberals.” Of course, Kunkin himself was not a liberal; he had been a member of the SWP and at the time was a leader of the Socialist Party in L.A., which made it a point to criticize liberals. Apparently he thought that L.A. in 1964 was not ready for a paper that criticized liberals from the left. Kunkin did promise that the Freep would be “free enough to print material disagreeing with liberal organizations,” and indeed the paper would start doing that pretty quickly. But at the beginning, Kunkin declared his goal was “to link together the various sections of our far flung liberal community.” He also said “we do not plan to deal with national and international events”—instead, the paper would focus on Los Angeles.
The top story in that first stand-alone issue, however, was not about L.A., but San Francisco: headlined “Bank of America vs. CORE,” it reported on protests against discrimination in hiring at the bank headquarters, where hundreds marched and eleven had been arrested. The cover also included a photo of a sculpture by a local LA artist charged with obscenity—an issue the Freep would cover often. Inside the issue readers found a critique of L.A.’s mainstream newspapers; a column by the grand old man of the Beat era, Lawrence Lipton; a “calendar of hip events”; and reviews of Brecht, Baldwin and Nabokov.
The paper was sold on the street by hippies—mostly on Sunset Strip—and from street-corner vending boxes. After a year, circulation was only 5,000, a far cry from Kunkin’s goal: to match the Village Voice’s paid circulation of 27,600. However, his outstanding coverage of Watts brought a dramatic jump in paid circulation—to 25,000—and by the end of summer 1965, Kunkin considered the Freep a success. Another measure of success came in 1966, when the Times ran a big feature on the paper. The reporter opened the piece not with an analysis of the paper’s contents or agenda, but rather with a description of “the little girl of 14” reading the paper on Sunset Strip. She had, he said, “the blondest of golden surfer-girl hair”; bare feet, “tight-tight red bellbottoms, and on top she wears a French, frilly-lace, crop-top halter that shows only about 12 inches of bronzed midriff.” And amazingly, she was “holding a newspaper. Not a copy of Tiger Beat, or Teen, or True Romance.” The Times article went on to describe Kunkin, in his “dismally brown sports jacket—no one could accuse him of being a beatnik”—and yet his receptionist was a girl who wore “fashionable sandals.”
Over the next decade the Freep covered the full range of Sixties issues: anti-war protest, civil rights action, draft resistance, the farmworkers’ struggle, environmental politics. It published Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg and Susan Sontag. It supported the gay rights movement in L.A. enthusiastically. Despite Kunkin’s first-issue declaration that the paper was “liberal,” the Freep consistently opposed the Democrats. “He Who Votes for Lesser of 2 Evils Forgets That He Is Voting for Evil,” a front-page article declared just before midterm election of 1966. The piece challenged the argument made in an essay titled “Young Democrat Answers New Left,” written by Henry Waxman, president of the California Young Democrats (and future hero of liberals for his thirty years in the House). Waxman said the real enemy of progress was “Birchites, Southern rednecks, and old-fashioned conservatives,” but the New Left had “adopted an extreme hostility toward ‘liberals’ and a so-called ‘establishment.’” The Freep replied that LBJ had been elected after promising not to send American boys to fight in Southeast Asia, while liberals had called Goldwater a warmonger—but once in office, LBJ sent 300,000 US troops to “wage war on the legitimate aspirations of the Vietnamese people.” In 1968 the paper covered the rise of the Peace and Freedom Party. But the paper’s readers remained divided: in a 1968 “Man of the Year” poll, anti-war Democratic Eugene McCarthy beat Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver—by one vote.
To his credit, Kunkin rejected attempts to paper over movement problems in print. Once, a reporter submitted an article about a memorial observance of Martin Luther King’s assassination that failed to mention that a Black nationalist had shot at one of the scheduled speakers, or that a guard had accidentally fired into the ceiling of the room. “Why not? Kunkin asked. “We didn’t want to criticize the black movement,” the writer replied. Kunkin responded with incredulity; in his eyes, the incident evinced “the divisions of the black movement, and the inadequate preparations of the guards. This story ought to be written before somebody gets killed.” Not long after, two LA Black Panthers were killed at UCLA by Black nationalists. Of course, the Freep covered popular culture as well. For instance, it ran an outstanding column of TV criticism by legendary fantasy and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. He described his “credentials” at the outset: “I am not a Communist, a drunkard, a doper, a lunatic, a straight, a hippie, a Democrat, a Republican, an astrology freak, a macrobiotic nut, a subscriber to The National Review, or even a member of the staff of the Freep. I am all alone out here, setting down what I’ve seen and what it means to me.” But “make no mistake,” he declared: “I am not really talking about tv here, I am talking about dissidence, repression, censorship, the brutality and stupidity of much of our culture … the dangers of being passive in a time when the individual is merely cannon-fodder, the lying and cheating and killing … in the sweet name of the American Way.”
One of the most distinctive elements of the underground press was the cartoons, which were crucial in defining the Sixties sensibility. Kunkin found the right cartoonist for the new era: Ron Cobb, whose work for the Freep was syndicated widely and became emblematic of the underground press, second only to that of Robert Crumb. A former Disney cartoonist and Vietnam vet, Cobb’s unmistakable style featured grim black humor: in one cartoon, a confused man wanders through a postnuclear landscape carrying a broken portable TV, looking for a place to plug it in; in another, on the moon, two Black men in space suits clean up the junk left by previous missions.
The Free Press covered the music scene and reviewed movies, and, like the rest of the underground press, ran the “Dr. Hip Pocrates” syndicated column of drug and sex advice from a Berkeley psychiatrist. But compared to the rest of the underground press, the Freep’s focus was less on the counterculture and more on radical politics. One key example: criticism of Eastern and New Age religion. A few months after the Beatles met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, Kunkin published the piece “Maharishi’s Take on Vietnam: Obey your Leaders.” The Freep was a New Left paper rather than a hippie paper.
But despite its anti-capitalist politics, the paper was not collectively owned or managed. “I wasn’t really concerned with making the paper a representative of the new society,” Kunkin later explained. “What I was concerned with was making it into as strong an influence as possible. My own attitude was that there was nobody else’s name on the line. From one year to the next, there were entirely different people involved.” So Kunkin remained the owner as well as publisher and editor.
What about women’s liberation? That topic, and movement, were blind spots for much of the rest of the underground press, where male editors were wedded to the notion that they were in charge, and that freedom meant publishing photos or drawings of naked women and ads for sex. At the San Francisco Express Times, editor Marvin Garson said “‘Women’s Liberation Front’ sounded like a joke, then like a lesbian conspiracy … and finally like a Trotskyist splinter group.” At the Berkeley Barb, editor Max Scherr published a dismissive article on the new Berkeley women’s movement headlined “The Women are Revolting.” Those were not Kunkin’s responses. When he invited critics to a public meeting in March 1970, a lot of people (sixty) showed up. “Those representing women’s liberation” were “the most visible, the most numerous, and the most vocal,” he wrote in the following week’s issue. They complained first about the sex ads—which, they said, “depict women in demeaning and offensive ways”—and also about the position, and pay, of women on the staff. Responding in print, Kunkin pledged to help a group planning to launch a “women’s lib paper in LA”—a very good idea. He also promised to publish an agreement with the staff that would include a minimum wage and a fully prepaid medical and dental plan—which sounds amazing today—along with an equally amazing grievance procedure, providing for “an arbitration panel of movement leaders to intervene with full decision-making powers.” As for the sex ads, he said he “would be willing to listen to anyone who had a serious plan to finance the Free Press without resorting to advertising, but doubted that such a plan would materialize.”
The Free Press did cover some aspects of the nascent women’s liberation movement, especially abortion. “Is Mexican Abortion Dangerous?” a front-page headline asked in 1967—well before abortion rights became a national issue. (The answer was “yes.”) Starting in 1969 it regularly ran stories criticizing the conventional notions of feminine beauty, attacking the institution of marriage, and supporting lesbian rights. And, true to Kunkin’s word, the Free Press celebrated the publication of the local feminist underground paper Everywoman when it appeared in 1970.
The Freep didn’t just report on events—it helped organize them. A month after Watts the Freep held a two-hour forum onstage at a movie theater in the Black neighborhood on West Adams Boulevard near La Brea. The six panelists included Black Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who served as moderator, and leaders of the local chapters of CORE, N-VAC, United Citizens of Watts, and the Afro-American Cultural Association. Their main theme: the underlying cause of the riots was “the fact that over 30% of the people in Watts don’t have jobs … and do not control their community.”
The Freep also sponsored free music festivals. The 1968 “Bastille Day Bash” on Venice Pier featured Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and other bands, including the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. “Wear costumes and masks,” the Free Press poster said. “Do your thing on the beach: swimming, body painting, sculpture, sand castles, listening, loafing, dancing, playing, freaking… Be kind, be pure, avoid busts.” 25,000 people showed up.
And the Freep ran bookstores—in Westwood, Pasadena and Fairfax. Its Fairfax store, “The Kazoo,” was located right across the street from Canter’s legendary late-night deli. The New Yorker’s Renata Adler visited, reporting that the Kazoo was open until two in the morning, and that along with books, it carried “innumerable little magazines and obscure works,” including “works on drugs and hallucinogens, and some works on religions of the East.” The store also sold posters, cigarette papers, roach clips, and buttons, including “Be Creative, Invent a Sexual Perversion.”
The Freep had all kind of enemies. Its offices were firebombed on May 1, 1968; sheriff’s deputies seized eighty street-corner vending boxes in January 1968; and in September 1968, the FBI decided to mail copies of the Freep to the paper’s landlord in the hope of getting them evicted. (It didn’t work.) The FBI investigated the paper in 1970 for “ITOM”—Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter—and the FBI file on the Freep includes carefully cut and pasted items from the paper’s classified ads: “Male Nude ‘Action’ Photos,” “Pornography from Denmark,” “Color Climax Magazines.” The FBI closed its investigation after being told that the US Postal Service was considering prosecution of the Freep for mailing obscene matter, while the US Attorney concluded that the Freep’s advertising policy “appeared similar to other newspapers including legitimate Santa Monica and San Francisco newspapers.” The US Attorney also noted that “The FREE PRESS is milder in content than many currently in distribution.”
It was an official national “problem”; Congress established a national Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, which held hearings in L.A., at which Kunkin testified. “The young American today knows more about sex and its place in human relationships than perhaps any other comparable group in human history,” he told the commissioners, and “they do not see anything at all obscene about the human body.” What was “obscene,” he said, was “to kill people in Southeast Asia … while mouthing words about democracy.” The real function of obscenity prosecution, he said, was “to attempt a censorship of unpopular political and literary expression” with criminal trials that bankrupted small radical publications that relied on sex ads to pay the bills.
The underground paper that the Freep gave birth to, Open City, began publishing in May 1967. Editor John Bryan, before working as Kunkin’s managing editor, had been a reporter and editor for the LA Herald-Examiner, the LA Mirror and the San Francisco Chronicle. He was from the older generation—like Kunkin, in his mid thirties in the mid Sixties—and he quit the Freep when Kunkin refused to run a horrifying photo of a napalm-seared Vietnamese baby on the front page. Open City’s circulation peaked at 30,000 before it stopped publication early in 1969. Bryan started Open City with his own money, and in the first issue he promised that the paper would highlight “the angry and determined minorities who continue to challenge the worst contemporary madness and injustice”—which “the town’s sell-out daily press so nervously ignores.” And, he said, the paper would cover “the perpetuation of police state terrorism which singles out socially harmless psychic voyagers whose experiences with hallucinogenic drugs make them less likely to join in the current militarist-materialist rat race.” He also published a column, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” by LA beat poet Charles Bukowski; even Time called Bukowski “a laureate of American low life.”
Open City’s greatest coup was reporting that mainstream media photos of LBJ bidding farewell to Vietnam-bound marines at Camp Pendleton had been staged; all the marines scheduled to leave for Vietnam, Open City discovered, had left a week earlier. When the brass at Camp Pendleton were told the president was on his way to give a speech to departing troops, they “rounded up all available Marines—many from local bars,” put them in full battle dress, turned them out to hear the president, and then “marched them into waiting transport planes.” The president, according to Open City, never knew the truth.
It was obscenity charges that brought down Open City. The paper published a half-page ad for best-selling rocker Leon Russell that featured a photo of a naked woman with Russell and his partner, who was holding her knees apart. Defenders said it was a parody of the use of sex to sell products, and columnist Art Seidenbaum argued in the LA Times, “I’d rather see prosecutors restrain themselves instead of the press.” Still, Kunkin himself had turned the ad down, calling it “exploitative.” Bryan was put on trial and fined $1,000, and Open City was shut down shortly thereafter, in March 1968. Kunkin paid tribute in an editorial: “The establishment didn’t like Open City. It saw too much and said too much … It let voices be heard which too often were smothered … Where Open City died another must spring up. There’s room in this town and this society for more than one alternate voice paper.”
At its peak in 1969, the Free Press sold a hundred thousand copies a week. The company, including the three bookstores, employed 150 people and made $2 million a year. Although Kunkin was publisher and editor, “the staff collectively decided what articles ran in the papers.” The only clearly defined jobs were ad sales and bookkeeping. “Money was pooled,” historian Abe Peck reports. Kunkin welcomed a union, and Free Press staffers “could be nearly as well paid as mainstream ad reps and editors.”
Then the trouble began. On August 8, 1969, the Freep front-page headline read “Narcotics Agents Listed: There Should be no Secret Police.” Inside was a list of eighty undercover agents of the state bureau of narcotics, along with their home phone numbers and addresses. The paper called it “a public service announcement.” Kunkin and reporter Jerry Applebaum were charged with receiving stolen property—the list—and the state attorney general filed a $10 million obstruction of justice suit against Kunkin, his corporation, and the staff. The agents also filed a separate civil suit for invasion of privacy, seeking $15 million.
You might say Kunkin had been foolish to risk everything on this one story, but his lawyers had told him there was no law against publishing the names—which was true at the time. (In response to the Free Press case, Governor Reagan quickly signed a bill making unauthorized publication of names of “peace officers” a misdemeanor.) The list, provided by a mail clerk in the state attorney general’s office, had not been stolen; it was xeroxed and then returned. Nothing on the document indicated that it was classified or secret. In fact, it was the Bureau’s Christmas card mailing list.
Kunkin’s front-page editorial made the case for publishing the names: “History demonstrates that the secret policeman invariably uses his anonymity to become unaccountable to the people over whom power is exercised.” And the goal of the undercover narcs, the Freep declared, was to “enforce laws as unwise and unenforceable as the now-banished prohibition of liquor.” Fifty years later, that assessment of the law became the basis for decriminalizing marijuana possession in many states, including California.
At the trial, the prosecutor (Ronald George, who later went on to become chief justice of the state supreme court) had to prove the list had been stolen, and that Kunkin and Applebaum had known it was stolen. Kunkin told the judge he was acting as a journalist and that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press entitled him to examine any public document not classified or marked confidential. The prosecutor replied that it was not a freedom of the press case, but rather a stolen property case. In July 1970, the jury convicted the two of receiving stolen property, a felony, and the judge sentenced them to three years’ probation plus fines of $1,000 for Kunkin and $500 for Applebaum. By the end of the year, the Freep settled the obstruction of justice case by agreeing to a payment of $10,000; according to Peck, “a larger deal was made with the agents.” Kunkin and Applebaum appealed their criminal convictions, winning their cases in April 1973 when the state supreme court ruled unanimously that the prosecution had not established that the defendants had received property knowing it was stolen. And, according to Peck, “the narcs never received the money.”
The paper began a downhill editorial slide with its enthusiastic defense of Charles Manson, arrested in October 1969. Starting in January 1970, the Freep featured Manson on its front page for three weeks in a row: “Manson Can Go Free!” “M. D. On Manson’s Sex Life!” “Manson Interview! Exclusive Exclusive!” Then the paper began a weekly column by Manson written from jail. Several dozen “news” stories followed. Rolling Stone tried to explain: The Freep was “undoubtedly hypersensitive to the relentless gloating of the cops who, after a five-year search, finally found a longhaired devil you could love to hate.” To others it looked like Kunkin was choosing sensationalism over New Left politics.
In the meantime, in 1969, the company that printed the Freep had refused to continue—Kunkin said the prosecutors in the narcs case had told the owner he too would be sued unless he quit printing the paper. No other Southern California printer would take the job, and Kunkin was forced to print the paper in the Bay Area and put the new issues on the train to L.A. To end his reliance on fearful printing companies, Kunkin bought his own printing plant and a new state-of-the-art press—a monster twenty feet high, printing sixteen tabloid pages at a time (most presses at that point did eight). It cost a quarter of a million dollars but promised independence and freedom—and he could make money printing for other newspapers. But, he said, “the press didn’t work!”
The expense bankrupted Kunkin. The staff quit and started their own paper, the Staff, which didn’t last long. Kunkin was forced to sell the Free Press and its crippled printing operation to two pornographers, remaining as editor while becoming an employee. In July 1973, he was fired from the paper he had founded ten years earlier. For the rest of the Seventies, it published mostly sex ads.