Notes from underground

Booknotes looks at the golden age of the Underground press.

Art Kunkin

Mike Selby

In August of 1964, Los Angeles became a city ignited. The DUI arrest of a young African-American sparked a full-scale riot that lasted six days. 1,600 police were joined by 14,000 National Guard members to help quell the destruction — which resulted in 4,000 arrests and 34 deaths. Watts made headlines around the world, with the L.A. Times labelling the citizens of Watts as “criminal terrorists.” The paper also urged people not to think of the riot “as the inevitable result of economic and sociological pressures.” This was the stance taken by every single newspaper in the United States.

Except for one: The L.A. Free Press.

The Free Press — often referred to as the Freep — was the very first Underground newspaper of the ’60s. At the exact moment when the values of mainstream America violently collided with the values of its youth, a revolution in printing technology happened. Mimeograph and offset presses became unbelievably inexpensive; one could print 5,000 copies of a small newspaper for just under $200. It was the perfect medium for the counterculture to express their hopes as well as their rage. It also acted as a unifying force, where people of the Movement could connect with each other. The war in Vietnam, civil rights, peace and love, flower power, and smoking banana peels were the most frequent topics of the Underground papers.

It was Art Kunkin who wrote about Watts in the L.A. Free Press, which he printed himself, having started it just a few weeks before. While the national news press dissected just about everything they could about the riot, none of them thought to ask what started the disturbance in the first place. By interviewing those who lived in Watts, he was able to report about the inherit anti-negro stance of the authorities, as well as a complete denial of the neighbourhood’s overwhelming poverty.

Being the first Underground paper, the L.A. Free Press was the model for all the ones that followed. These included the Berkley Barb, East Village Other, Chicago Seed, SF Oracle, and the Rat. Although there were less than a half dozen papers in the early ’60s, by the mid-’60s there were well over 500, not including the thousands of high-school and GI protest papers of the time. In fact, there were so many papers being produced that two separate syndicates were formed to at least try to manage and support this new outbreak of publishing. Contemporary studies have shown the underground press to have a readership of over 15 million.

And it was about this time that the underground press had an underground press of its own. Using tactics they had successfully used to bring down the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI began to publish and distribute a handful of their own counterculture papers. Hoover himself authored a twelve-step plan, hoping to cause dissent which would divide and end the counterculture’s papers.

He needn’t have bothered.

By the time the ’70s came around, the Underground press was all but gone. The Movement itself had been co-opted by the more political radicals (such as members of the Weather Underground), who began to advocate for violence and terrorism as a means to their ends. Success began to kill off the papers as well. The Vietnam War was winding down; so was the draft. Much of the outrageous topics the papers featured had slowly been adopted into the mainstream. Some papers began to make a massive profit, which didn’t sit well with the Age of Aquarius people.

Art Kunkin, the person most responsible for the Underground press, left the hard way. After he had published the names and home addresses of 40 undercover narcotics agents (not realizing he had put the agent’s wives and children in danger), a lawsuit forced him to turn over ownership of the L.A. Free Press (which by then was grossing over a million dollars annually). The last thing Kunkin wrote at this time was a piece about a break-in at the Watergate hotel…but the paper’s new owners weren’t interested.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library