By Frank Gormlie
When it finally dawned on me that today was Tuesday, the ninth of April – I began immediately having flashbacks – not hallucinogenic ones – but ones that surrounded another Tuesday the 9th – a Tuesday the ninth of April exactly 45 years ago. It’s a date that has poignancy for us at the San Diego Free Press and for all of our readers and contributors.
For it was this day 45 years ago – itself just a few days after Martin Luther King was assassinated – that students at UCSD decided once and for all to begin publishing an underground newspaper, called the San Diego Free Press.
If we go back four and a half decades to that time, you’d find me as a new sophomore at the University of California at San Diego – totally unpoliticized, walking around in a daze, a definite neophyte in the land of politics. I had just left the US Army and had transferred right into the bowels of left-wing radicalism as I began taking classes from philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse. He and his graduate student assistants were beginning to fill my brain with all kinds of new thoughts – but I was still new to it all, still very wet behind my ears, more interested in completing my courses than in understanding what was going on across the country in 1968.
Then Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th – and even I was disturbed and very concerned about what was happening. As images of Black people rioting and burning cities filled the TV screens, the students at UCSD decided they had to do something. So, a meeting was called – a meeting of the campus community. And it was called for Tuesday, the ninth of April in a large auditorium on campus.
The gathering had been organized by a group called Students of the Independent Left (SIL) – the largest on-campus organization involved in politics. UCSD did have an active radical network – it had a chapter of SDS – Students for a Democratic Society – then the largest organization of radicalized students in the country, and some of its members transferred to the regional or even national leadership circles of SDS. There was a blossoming anti-Vietnam war movement on campus as well.
Plus graduate students had formed a protective circle around Herbert Marcuse, as the world-renowned left-wing philosopher was coming under attack by the arch-conservative local San Diego Union newspaper as well as by local Marines, and was suffering threatening phone-calls and other forms of harassment.
In an interview that is now a decade old, former Marcuse-grad student Lowell Bergman described what was going down:
[I]n San Diego the very conservative community reacted [to Marcuse’s popularity] at first with virulent publicity and then physical harassment. Marcuse’s telephone lines at home were cut. Someone drove by and fired at his garage door. There were phone threats. The tension was mounting. San Diego had an active right-wing vigilante movement ….
So his graduate students decided to start escorting him to school every morning, a 15-minute walk. This was in the time when UCSD was a small campus with a small undergraduate college and as many graduate students.
So, on Tuesday, the ninth of April, I attended this meeting of the campus community. I had never been to a political meeting or gathering before – and the auditorium was packed. Students, grad-students, even some professors got up and delivered fiery speeches – most of which were over my head – then. They generally went something like this: ‘It was a time to act, for students to get out of the “Ivory Tower” (which is what they called UCSD) and get into the communities of San Diego for work for radical change.’
I left the meeting perplexed and confused. What was going on in my country? I asked myself.
Other students, fortunately, were not so confused. Those many who stuck through the meeting formed a large, umbrella group – called Tuesday the Ninth Committee (TNC) – after obviously the date that so many people came together to do something.
And TNC was divided up into a dozen or so different committees. The various committees had pledged to carry out certain political work or duties, much of it educational, I recall. One group – made of radical men and women graduate students and a few undergrads – was a particularly militant combination. They actually formed a collective – and decided as a group that they would publish an underground newspaper for San Diego.
They would call it the San Diego Free Press.
This group did move off campus, and eventually into a old, large two-story house in Hillcrest at Second and Thorn – called the “Thorn Street House” or “commune” – and began publishing the Free Press, a black and white tabloid that was to make San Diego history. Here’s how Lowell Bergman – a founding member of the paper – described the beginning of SDFP in that interview:
This experience led the students to discuss the idea of putting out an alternative newspaper in what was and is a monopoly newspaper town. San Diego was not only the largest staging area for the Vietnam War; it was also home to a large military retirement community and politics that made parts of the deep South look liberal. Thus was born the San Diego Free Press, which a year later was renamed the San Diego Street Journal.
The paper did go on and did change its name after a year, to the Street Journal. There was plenty of material to dig into, as Bergman states:
When I started out in the “underground” press in San Diego, we decided to focus our attention … on profiles of the “power elite” à la Mills. In a time (1969) when public information about the people who ran the town was scarce at best, our stories turned out to be not only explosive but also newsworthy.
Many people were involved in the Free Press/ Street Journal besides Lowell Bergman, and one of them was John Lawrence – who coincidentally writes for the current San Diego Free Press. Here are some historical notes that Lawrence wrote in 2007 about those days, from his own blog Will Blog for Food:
I used to work for the San Diego Free Press. It flourished for about two years from about 1968 to 1970. … It was an “underground” newspaper meaning that it was devoted to radical politics, alternative lifestyles, the counterculture in general. But mainly it was a political newspaper.
I used to sell papers at the San Diego Zoo among other spots, one of the few people who actually went out and sold them on the street. Most of the staff just liked to put out the paper, do the art work, write the articles etc. I also wrote for the paper, took photos and was a reporter.
We all lived in a commune at Second and Thorn in Hillcrest. How we were able to rent this house I don’t know because it’s a really nice house. It’s been totally refurbished [since then] and is in private hands. I wonder if the present owner knows the history of the house, how it housed a bunch of 60s era radicals.
There I had my own room on the second floor. Across from me was Jan Diepersloot the guy as much in charge as anyone. He wrote most of the editorials. In the masthead it says he’s the policy coordinator. I don’t even remember some of the people who worked on the paper, and some of the people who lived at the house didn’t even really work on the paper.
I remember Richard Blackburn, “Black Dick” they called him. I remember Herman Rumper. Most of these people were present or former UCSD students. Larry Gottlieb was a Physics major. I was a Computer Science major. We were the only two from the science and engineering type schools. All the rest were liberal arts majors, mainly Philosophy students. Matie Belle lived with us but I don’t think she worked on the paper. …
Our main goal was to create a new society which would require a revolution. We never quite reached that goal. In fact we never even came close.
John Lawrence’s criticism at the end there is a bit harsh.
For a sample of the SDFP writings from 1968, see these. The Free Press / Street Journal accomplished mighty things – such as publishing their investigation into C. Arnholt Smith – “Mr San Diego of 1960” – and his corrupt shenanigans – an investigation that lead to the collapse of his bank and empire and even some jail for him.
And the Street Journal inspired others – including myself – and when I left UCSD in the Summer of 1970, I began publishing the original OB Rag. And years later, the online OB Rag in turn developed the online San Diego daily – called … the San Diego Free Press.