Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor: Young, Gifted and Media-Savvy
Issue #47, January 2000
The kids want a little action
The kids want a little fun
The kids all want to get their kicks
Before the evening comes
Cuz they're going to high school, rah rah rah..."
--"High School",The MC5, Back in the USA, Atlantic Records 1969
Lucrecia Bermudez is a socialist activist who ran as one of fourteen contenders for Mayor of San Francisco in 1999. One of her campaign advertisements lists several of her credentials under the category "Self Determination for Youth." I haven't heard that sort of phrase since Ann Arbor in the early 1970s.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a center of youth politics in the early 1970s. The university town was generally more liberal than the rest of Michigan and the midwest, yet it also contained a visible radical population for whom fear of McCarthyism was dead and gone. Red-diaper kids in my junior high would brag of summers spent cutting cane in the international volunteer Venceremos Brigade. Ann Arbor's highschool student newspaper offices were on the mailing list to receive posters from the Prague-based Communist Party-led International Union of Students, exhorting support for Cuba and North Vietnam with colorful graphics reminiscent of Polish movie posters. The Socialist Worker's Party had University of Michigan campus activists like Randy Prince who promulgated The High School Bill of Rights by organizing meetings in church basements near junior high schools. In Ann Arbor ageism was critiqued as an institutional force of oppression akin to racism or sexism. Kids were a hot topic, not only because they were controlled by institutions in which they had no say but also because they often had the energy and gumption to combat it. And an autonomous, unaffiliated organization of teenagers calling themselves Youth Liberation proved adept at developing, attracting, and distributing their own print media on an impressive scale. Then one of their members put forth a respectable, if quixotic, showing in electoral politics.
Hippies vs. Honkies. Freaks vs. Jocks. Heads vs. Straights. Kids vs. Authority. This was an era of antithetical Manichean dualities. Rambunctious teenage kids, then as now, were the target of music industry marketing. Alice Cooper tapped into natural fuck-all youth rebelliousness with the anthemic "School's Out," an energy that would soon devolve into the Brownsville Station's "Smokin' In the Boys' Room" (from the album School Punks), fun loud rock' n' roll but as sentimentalized as TV's 1950s comedy Happy Days.
It was an era exploding with alternative publications. There were constantly shifting, fluid lines defining what "underground" media was -- Rolling Stone? ... or even Detroit-based CREEM? -- while each underground paper was rife with contradictions in its own way. Underground comix featured intricate graphics pleasant to look at when stoned or tripping, and depictions of drug use and exuberant sex (thanks for the education, Robert Crumb). Excerpts or panels of these comix often appeared -- with or without the artist's permission -- in underground newspapers, alternative newsprint monthlies reliant on an advertising base of local head shops, record companies and, in some places, sex ads. The Fifth Estate, still in print in the 1990s as an international anarchist paper, had begun on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit. In 1968 history buff Ken Kelley had named his new Ann Arbor paper the Argus, for that had been the name of the first newspaper in pre-statehood Michigan territory in the 1830s. Even established high school newspapers often met with administrative action if they too adeptly critiqued their school, the local establishment, or the war machine that menaced students with the armed forces' draft and possible death in a Vietnamese rice paddy. Because of this, ambitious teenagers were often inspired to launch their own newspapers. Copy shops were just starting to appear on university campuses, though high school endeavors were usually mimeographed or produced on a Ditto machine (an inkyblue chemical process with memorable fumes), and sometimes resorted to the faint and scratchy photocopy machines that were appearing in offices and libraries. The Foundation of Every State was named after the inscription (which ended with ... "Is the Education of Its Youth") that appeared over the door of Ann Arbor's Tappan Junior High School where the alternative newspaper was published. The Ann Arbor Gazette, heralding a "message to the toke world," was produced by garage musicians at Pioneer High School that included Roger Miller. He was later of the edgy Boston Punk band Mission of Burma, prepared-piano and detuned-guitar solo albums and now incidental music for MTV.
By 1970 media activists such as Tom Forcade had organized geographically-disparate counterculture publications into the Underground Press Syndicate and the Liberation News Service. These services put out news of the counterculture, anti-war movement and revolution from all over. Soon one news service even stepped in to serve publications by hip kids. Youth Liberation began as CHIPS, the Cooperative High School Independent Press Service, exchanging newspapers in Chicago suburbs in 1968. FPS (it stood for nothing, they claimed, not even "Fuck Public Schools") was a news service founded in Houston 1970, and a year later incorporated as part of Youth Liberation.
FPS was a "somewhat tri-weekly" newsservice providing packets of news and graphics on youth-related, national and world issues for high school papers, to both official school newspapers and underground ones. It was subscription-based, with nearly 2000 subscribers at its peak, and it ran for 65 issues. FPS contained many graphics and cartoons as well as articles, sometimes drawn in a Jules Feiffer-like narrative mode and some in European-looking styles comparable to Tomi Ungerer or Claire Bettecher. Its cartoons of kids purchasing bomb-making materials and shouldering rifles give pause in this era of the Littleton massacre and similar schoolyard carnage. Youth Liberation also provided information to help youth organizers, providing back issues of FPS, sample packets of other kids' underground papers, pamphlets, posters, and buttons. It sold over 50, 000 copies of the booklets it produced. It published a local paper given out free in Ann Arbor public schools called Venceremos, a name later changed to Youth Rising. The organization's budget ranged from $5000 to $20,000 a year over its lifetime, some of it raised by a benefit with local bands the Brat,the Up (of the regional hit "Just Like an Aborigine") and even the Stooges; it's not remembered whether Iggy rubbed copies of FPS upon his body along with broken glass and peanut butter.
Youth Liberation presented a fifteen point program that began "We want the power to determine our own destiny. We want the immediate end of adult chauvinism. We want full human and civil rights...". It went on to demand control of education, freedom to form communal families and authentic culture, and the end of sexism, racism, colonialism and class antagonism. That concluding prejudice was a condemnation of academic tracking, honors and "all other class divisions" imposed on youth in school. Youth Liberation was completely independent of any political organization, though I suspect their multi-point program was written with one eye on the program of the White Panthers, local radicals who at one point allowed the kids to use their printing facilities. Youth Liberation were fashionably environmentalist and unabashedly socialist. They used in their symbol both a theta -- then prominent as the Ecology symbol -- and the yellow, red, and blue of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the North Vietnam-supporting Viet Cong, who American troops were fighting). They proclaimed: "The goal of Youth Liberation is socialism...based on collective ownership and democratic management of the means of producing and distributing goods...so that we can create a life of equality for everyone on an earth that will survive. Power to young people." Youth Liberation sometimes spoke in terms of class struggle but was more properly waging a nationalist one. To put it in comic-strip terms, Richie Rich and middle-class Charlie Brown would have been seen as just as oppressed as Dondi or even the Yellow Kid of Hogan's Alley. Nevertheless, the group members did their best to analyze their situation with the critical tools at hand.
The collective voice (articles were often unsigned) was aggressive and heartfelt. "Young people are tricked and lied to from the first. Truth is confused, mystified, turned inside out and then crammed down our throats. When we revolt as individuals we are isolated." It gloated "Our enemy is nearing extinction while we are approaching victory. We are young. We want to live. We are the future." There were a couple of adults involved the group -- one a kindergarten teacher in Monroe, MI -- plus a few high schoolers and an even greater number of junior high cadres. I was never a member of Youth Liberation nor a contributor, though as a junior art editor of my official high school paper I once visited its home basement headquarters when one of its honchos was senior editor. I left impressed by this media organization, a committee of correspondence in touch with underground and official student papers around the country and world.
There remains a small book Youth Liberation: News, Politics and Survival Information put together by Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor and published by Times Change Press of Washington, New York, in 1972. In the inside front cover, Times Change Press apologizes right off the bat, that because of small print runs and other disadvantages that mass-market publishers don't share "Our prices are high, we know" -- this book had a sticker price of $1.75. That same year the Times Change offered a variety of books on women's and prisoners' issues, the Tupamaro guerrillas of Uruguay, and Gay liberation that could fit in a jeans pocket. They published both Murray Bookchin's Ecology and Revolutionary Thought and Unbecoming Men: a Men's Group Writes on Oppression and Themselves (fifteen years before the men's movement spawned by Robert Bly's Iron John), as well as posters of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and the 19th century feminist Lucy Stone.
The Youth Liberation book is not just a manifesto, but an anthology of articles, theoretical analyses, helpful hints and first-person memoirs of a kind not unfamiliar to Bad Subjects readers today. From attempts to analyze "youth as a class" -- again, "nation" would be more appropriate -- to the humorous tips for "Sleeping in Class," the book is a digest of reflections on much of the public high school student experience circa 1970. The book opens with a collection of short memoirs of running away from home, and then the Youth Liberation platform is explained in depth. From there follow grim conclusions about the drab and dehumanizing aspect of public school curricula and methods, drawn from Charles Silberman's Carnegie Corporation study of schools across the United States. The story of the Chelsea 223 is recounted with pride. It was a sit-in involving that number of students in protest of the school administration canceling -- because of the band's affiliation with the White Panthers -- the student council's contract for the MC5 to play the Christmas Dance. Accompanying the article on the Chelsea 223 as proof that suspension isn't always an effective policy is a picture of the check for $96,421 awarded in settlement of a suit brought by three students in Joliet Illinois suspended for passing out their underground paper.
Other articles call for day care, studies of sex-role stereotyping in elementary school readers, and the ridiculous excuses then used by school administrations against instituting high school women's sports programs. There's a long analysis of high school women reprinted from Women: a Journal of Liberation and part of the RESIST high school organizing kit. One woman writes of how a woman scheduled to speak at the Mayday End the War Festival in Washington DC was booed with violent, obscene catcalls when she tried to talk about rape prevention, from a crowd more in the spirit of Woodstock '99 than Woodstock Nation. Towards the end of the book is a detailed first-person account of the Monroe Mindfuck squad's destruction of the student files at Monroe High School. Come to think of it, a similar school records building burned down in Ann Arbor about a year later... Finally after a disclaimer regarding the illegalities it's about to recommend, the book closes with a commonsense guide to the runaway life by Long Gone John reprinted from the underground Chicago newspaper Seed, which reads like a hobo memoir of four decades before. The opening caveat about petty criminal acts foreshadowed the hassles brought about by another Youth Liberation publication.
The most controversial Youth Liberation effort was a Dick Tracy-style wiseass booklet called Schoolstoppers' Textbook that suggested tactics more in the style of Bart Simpson than V. I. Lenin. Its Punk-Dada pranks included "Urinate in your pants while giving an oral report" and "To protest the Vietnam War, defoliate all plants surrounding your school.." This was the era of bombs going off on campuses (in response to those being dumped on Vietnam in greater number); the era in which TheAnarchist Cookbook first appeared in print. Youth Liberation soon learned that the power structure couldn't take a joke, or even accept the admonition: "Don't have a cow, man." Realizing the inherent risks of this publishing gaffe, after much soul-searching and pissed-off debate, the group voted in 1973 to cease the booklet's distribution and disavow it. Nevertheless, a copy of Schoolstoppers found its way into the hands of Senator John Stennis, the Mississippi Republican in President Nixon's embattled corner. In an incident weirdly recalling conservative (and soon Mayoral candidate) Jack Garris' publication and distribution of the White Panther Party platform to Ann Arbor voters, roughly 2,000 copies of Schoolstoppers were reprinted and distributed by Stennis at taxpayers' expense. State attorneys general and school superintendents were sent copies, along with Stennis' warnings about youth terrorists set on destroying America's schools. National media, including the Washington Post and the National Enquirer, picked up on this story. Yet they all neglected the fact that the group behind the booklet's publication had disavowed it. I certainly hope Schoolstoppers didn't inspire the dirty tricks textbook produced by the CIA in Spanish for the Nicaraguan Contras in the mid-1980s. That book urged dissident Nicaraguans to stuff rolls of paper in the toilets of public buildings and -- most helpfully -- to frequently call in sick to work. Kids' stuff compared to mining Corinto harbor, I guess.
In 1972 the Human Rights Party, a local democratic leftist organization with a couple of Ann Arbor City Councilseats, ran fifteen-year-old Youth Liberation activist Sonia Yaco as a candidate for the Ann Arbor School Board in citywide November elections. She attracted to her campaign more than just teenagers, also adult supporters who shared her conviction that it took a high school student to really know and evaluate what went on inside the schools. "I'm running to prove a political point", Sonia said, "The Board of Education controls the lives of students, and therefore students should have a voice on the Board." Though election regulations kept her name off the ballot, she received over 1300 write-in votes, a respectable 8% of the total votes cast. How many more might she have gotten if teenagers could have voted? Sonia's campaign affected me directly when, because of the publicity it generated, my parents forbade me to join her brother Lincoln's porn-rock garage band the Naked Sultans. Yet I'm told that once at aband practice Sonia sang with them a lewd rockabilly song I'd written; perhaps my consolation prize.
Though underage, the Youth Liberation gang were generally perceived both positively and negatively as serious and intelligent radicals. When classmates of one member were chopping down roadside billboards -- a regional teen sport that made it to Time magazine (March 22,1971, p. 48) -- the Ann Arbor Police Department sent a threatening letter to his parents, since undoubtedly such a rabble-rouser was deeply involved (but he wasn't). When some members later sought to obtain their FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act, they found a list of subscribers that consisted of five blanked-out pages. When others requested similar Michigan State Police surveillance files, they were shown two cartons labeled "Youth Liberation."
Yet despite the presence cops and the government snoops, the ultimate authority ruling over most teens is their parents. Veteran Youth Liberation participants today acknowledge fondly that the of most active participants' parents were progressive and proud their kids were into politics and political organizing. Ann Arbor lefties and liberals weren't just university faculty, for the Youth Liberation gang included children of a realtor, a civil rights lawyer, an auto-industry advertising copywriter, an educational TV producer, and a family active the in Society of Friends (Quakers). Yet others were from seriously dysfunctional, dangerous homes, and the critical ideology gave a universalizing validation to their own particular suffering. Two of the most powerful pieces in the book Youth Liberation are the memoir of a girl temporarily sent to the horrible Wayne County Youth Home in Detroit when removed from her abusive parents, and a despairing poem by a student who committed suicide shortly after its submission. These are kids who need help more personal than the politics which followed their cries. One founder of Youth Liberation has since committed suicide.
Nearly three decades later it seems most of the Youth Liberation politicos are involved in socially responsible work. One is executive director of a publication produced by and for at-risk urban youth, while another mentors a girls' computer club and has clashed with a mean-spirited high school administration embarrassed at its success. Another is a globe-trotting UN agricultural economist, while one founded a major independent Gay publishing concern. Filmmaker Greta Schiller, who as a teen in 1970 first called her Ann Arbor friends with the idea of a youth underground newspaper, has in the 1990s won awards for her documentaries "Before Stonewall" and "Paris Was a Woman" on Gay and Lesbian history.
Youth Liberation functioned from Spring 1970 to Fall 1979, a when a crucial member departed for New York City. The kid, who was by then in his mid-20s, had used his folks' home as FPS' basement headquarters. By 1974 Ann Arbor's cable television franchise offered a public access station plus the loan of Sony Portapak camera-and-recorder setups and sufficient training to use them, so many media-heads were turning their attention there. Thirty years later highschool students have technologies at hand that facilitate publication and communication, from readily available desktop publishing tools and laser printers with which to churn out 'zines at home, to email and the World Wide Web with which bypass the hassles of physical distribution...or even incriminating physical evidence. The September 9-15 Metro of San José, California, tells of two 16-year-old women editing their online 'zine BlackSheep, which critiques police brutality, their conformist Palo Alto private school, schoolmates' alcohol and drug use, and name-brand clothes. "The whole irony of my existence is the conflict between me and my parents. I mean, I live in Saratoga [a wealthy Silicon Valley town] and I read Chomsky." Somebody get these kids some Youth Liberation.
Warm thanks to Keith Hefner and Sonia Yaco for sharing valuable information, stories and historical resources in preparation of this essay. Graphics and group photo from Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor. Sonia Yaco photo from an ancient copy of the Ann Arbor News, probably by Cecil Lockard.
Child of conservatives who loathed everything of the sixties that culminated in the early 1970s, artist Mike Mosher still managed to draw and publish over a dozen comic' zines in 1971-73 with his high school buds, who bogusly incorporated as a school club just to use the school Ditto copy machine.