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E 11-2020        November 2-9th, 2020

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The First Underground Newspaper

Art Kunkin at a Los Angeles bookstore in 1999 with a special edition of The Los Angeles Free Press, the weekly newspaper he started in 1964. It ceased publication in the late 1970s, but Mr. Kunkin was later involved in revivals. Credit: Gary Leonard Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

By Anna Kunkin

“Six months earlier or six months later, and ‘The Los Angeles Free Press’ never would have made it,” its founder and editor, Art Kunkin, was known to say. It was a moment of crazy turmoil, ripe for a vehicle to bring together all the diverse alternative communities that existed in their own bubbles.

The Vietnam War was raging and the draft and possible death was a constant, looming over the heads of young men and their families. The government’s covert FBI operation “Cointelpro” was at work infiltrating and causing havoc among any dissenting groups. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing; the second wave of the Women’s movement.

President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas the year before, leaving the country in traumatized tatters… and the Beatles had just invaded the shores, changing music and the culture forever.

In the vast sprawl of Los Angeles without an internet or Zoom to bring people together, people worked in isolated groups to make sense of it all and to create positive change, many times unaware that a group across town might be working on the same thing. “It’s time to stop reinventing the wheel,” Art used to say.

And so the “Freep” was born.

In 1964, the Los Angeles Free Press caught the tidal wave and the imagination of the sixties, championing and representing what was happening in the streets. Art said, “If there’s a rock concert or a riot, the Free Press will be there.”  He encouraged readers to contribute stories. “Every reader is a reporter,” he said.

In that spirit the paper did more than simply be present and report news. The Freep became a reflection of the activities of all the LA activist and minority communities. For the first time there was a space in print for Blacks, Gays, Women, Chicanos, Hippies, Poets, and War Resisters. No one was excluded.

What put the LA Free Press on the map was an in-depth analysis it did of the 1965 Watts Riots (now called rebellion), which put the LA Times reporting to shame and forced them to issue a retraction of their so-called analysis. After that the Times and the other local mainstream paper, the Herald Examiner, “lived in fear” - according to journalist Lionel Rolfe - of how the Freep would report on events, and it went from a little community paper with a readership of around 5,000 to a contender that would eventually claim a worldwide distribution of over 125,000.

The “Freep” became an integral part of the community. Street kids picked up bundles of papers from a warehouse weekly and sold them on the street, providing an income for the kids and putting the paper everywhere. In the heady times full of drug experimentation, there was a weekly column that people came to depend on with a list of which drugs were safe and which ones to stay away from. The paper published regular columns of writers like Charles Bukowski and Harlan Ellison, launching their careers as iconic writers of their time. The Free Press classifieds became famous for accepting personal ads from any group or gender.

Gilbert Shelton’s “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” were a regular feature, as were Ron Cobb's famous satirical drawings.

Major events, Love-Ins, Be-Ins, and concerts that attracted “Freaks” from everywhere were hosted by the Freep. “GUAMBO,” the Great Underground Arts Masked Ball and Orgy, in July 1966, was the Freep’s  second  anniversary and the party that launched Frank Zappa’s “Mothers of Invention.”

The paper covered all the important news stories of the time… and more. It was a living part of the community. The first Underground newspaper.

Art encouraged people in other cities to produce their own local versions of alternative papers. He gave them the template and taught them how to do it. Before long there was a loose network of over 600 “Underground” papers throughout the country based on the LA Free Press model. The Vietnam War was raging and the Free Press was circulated among soldiers in and out of Vietnam. Soon soldiers and veterans were producing their own papers which contributed to the ending of the war.

By that time the Freep had a distribution of 125,000 and an uncountable readership when you consider how many times a paper would be passed around. Its empire had also grown to three bookstores, a publishing company, and a printing plant.

In August 1969 Art was offered a list of 80 undercover narcotics agents’ names, phone numbers, and home addresses to publish. The agents had been guilty of staging unlawful raids, breaking into people’s homes without warrants and falsely setting them up and arresting them. They were the ultimate enemy at the time and Art felt justified in exposing them. The headline read, “There Should be no Secret Police.” This was a huge tactical error as it caused a spiral of lawsuits and expenses which ultimately destroyed the Free Press and the entire publishing project. Art finally declared bankruptcy in 1973 and was forced to sell the paper to the porno mafia.

Now we find ourselves in an era equally if not more tumultuous. And even with the internet, with its power of uniting people worldwide, there is a dearth of good journalism. With all the division that exists, not by accident, there is an urgent need to find a way to create community bonds between individuals and groups.

At this moment, in the midst of all the current chaos, Zach Lowry was handed a copy of the Free Press. The “Narc” issue. He saw it and was inspired to believe that it was the missing vehicle necessary to help create change.

And maybe this is the moment. The moment for getting to the gritty core of life in this mess and digging it out. Because the “Freep” can’t be just another newspaper reporting stories. It must come alive and become a part of the world it wants to report on. The Los Angeles Free Press was never intended to be a venture of “balanced journalism.”

The Freep was always a “movement” paper. And in Art’s words, “a true movement paper is an organizing paper.”  It lets people know what is happening, what is being organized, and how to get involved.

Is it risky? Yes. The Freep offices were bombed  numerous times, and the paper had the federal and local governments on its back all the time. It did what civil rights hero and later Congressman John Lewis, called “getting into good trouble.”

That’s what’s needed.