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The East Village Other: Government Harassment of Underground Newspapers in the 1960s

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Underground newspapers

Underground newspapers

Underground Press Charged With Obscenity

While the CIA conducted more secret operations, local police forces targeted the underground press for arrests on obscenity and narcotics charges. The call by New Left publications for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs made it that much easier for police to obtain search warrants. Even when no drugs were found, police either confiscated material or photographed it.4

After publishing an investigative report exposing a corrupt local businessman, sellers of the San Diego Free Press were "arrested at the rate of two a week." The editors of Spokane's Natural were arrested on vagrancy charges while trying to sell their paper, and people selling the Nola Express in New Orleans were arrested many times, once for "carrying a dangerous weapon" - an umbrella.5

At times, the local police resorted to outright terroristic forms of harassment. In New York, in an incident apparently abetted, if not instigated by New York's "finest," Donald Katzman of The East Village Other had a man approach him with a forty-five Colt, point the gun at his head, and pull the trigger. An officer watching the whole thing casually handcuffed the man after a group of citizens got the gun. However, when Katzman went down to police headquarters to file a report, he found the officer's badge number was non-existent.6


The 1960s Underground Press Was Highly Influential

The underground press was part of the New Left, a diffuse movement that included Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panthers. By an establishment definition, the New Left often extended beyond the confines of political organizations to include the counterculture or any individual who protested the war in Vietnam. In the course of their publications, marches, and protests, members of this movement found themselves being beaten senseless by police, their telephones bugged, and their every action under surveillance.

Controversy Followed EVO in the Form of Harassment

Agents from a variety of sources, including local police, FBI, CIA, FDA, and the Army, conducted raids on the offices of underground newspaper publishers. They threatened and often arrested printers and distributors on obscenity charges and then dropped the charges, leaving those charged with hundreds and thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyers fees. Even worse, underground papers' offices were the targets of bomb threats, actual bombings, and arson. What the underground did not fully realize at the time, and what the public was blind to, was the extensive involvement by government agencies revealed by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (the Church Committee) in 1976.

"The government's offensive against the underground press primarily involved three agencies - the CIA, the FBI, and the Army. In many cases, their activities stemmed from what they could claim were legitimate concerns."1 Operation CHAOS grew out of an investigation of Ramparts magazine, making the CIA the first federal agency to plan action against domestic publications. But because the CIA's charter prevented it from conducting an "internal security function" they justified their activity by claiming that the reason for investigating Ramparts was to "search out possible foreign funding or control."2 Four months after CHAOS, the CIA set up its second domestic spying program, Project Resistance, designed to protect CIA recruiters on college campuses, but whose main purpose was to "infiltrate the underground press."3


Police Raids Were the Norm

In 1969, local police raided the UPS office in Phoenix under Tom Forcade of Orpheus magazine with a warrant for illegal drugs. The raid was conducted by a narcotics agent who had worked on the Orpheus staff for six months. While the search did not result in any arrests or any drugs, the police successfully damaged the UPS library, stole UPS subscription lists, and destroyed files—among them, the legal records of newspapers to which UPS was giving legal aid. With regards to narcotics arrests among underground journalists, Forcade noted that they were one hundred times the norm.

Along with the CIA, the Army also participated covertly in the interference and sabotaging of the underground press. Not only did Army intelligence provide information to both the CIA and FBI but they participated in raids as well. On January 14, 1969, the Washington Free Press offices were "searched" by members of the FBI and Army Intelligence, and the documents found were kept by the Army. When the Army was required to destroy files kept on civilians in 1971, Army agents in Chicago, Cleveland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., gave the files to the local and state police.9 But for all their combined activities, neither the CIA nor Army came close to the FBI's program of counterintelligence, known as COINTELPRO.

Note: The COINTELPRO files on the East Village Other are extensive and require a separate article broken into several different parts. Those articles will be published soon.

Sources and Further Reading


1 Angus Mackenzie, "Sabotaging the Dissident Press," Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1981, p. 57.

2 Ibid, p. 59.

3 Ibid, p. 60.

4 Geoffrey Rips, UnAmerican Acitivities: The Campaign Against the Underground Press. (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1981), p. 102.

5 Ibid, p. 82.

6 Interview with Donald Katzman, June 1988.

7 Rips, p. 57.

8 Ibid, p. 10-11.

9 Ibid, p. 12.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Allen Donald