Sixties. Sixties. Sixties. The importance of this decade is obscured by the same type of media hype that helped to create it. The culture wars that appear every election cycle in the United States are, generally speaking, echoes of the sharp division in the American cultural polity that shook US society in the 1960s and 1970s. The recent attack on the common sense of Planned Parenthood and the reaction to the decision by the anti-choice leadership of the non-profit that has painted the advertising world pink to fight breast cancer is but the most recent battle in the cultural civil war. Of course, the GOP primary in South Carolina provided further evidence of the continuing divide as Newt Gingrich shifted the blame for his adulterous ways onto the media and Rick Santorum continued his embarrassing campaign against contraception, gay people and women while joining Gingrich in a not-so-veiled attack on African-Americans and other people of a darker hue.
Meanwhile, in the economic and military sphere, the drum beat continues essentially the same as it ever did. There is no doubt who won the battles of the Sixties in those arenas: big business and the Pentagon. Even though union membership is down drastically from its heyday years of the 1960s, a concerted drive to destroy the unions that remain has kicked into high gear. While governments and big business work together to disempower the remaining unions, the demagogues among them work overtime in their attempts to tie every problem the common man and woman has to those workers that dare to fight for their union. Instead of talking honestly about the failures of neoliberalism, right wing corporate shills denounce school teachers and nurses for demanding a decent wage while simultaneously privatizing whatever services they can. Unemployment remains high, especially among black men, who have only known full employment when they were forced to work as slaves. Indeed, the only place where most African-American men are working is in the network of prisons across the USA, where they work for minimal wages while reaping profits for Wall Street corporations that have the taxpayers pay the bills those prisons rack up. It can be reasonably argued that US prisons are the historical successors to those plantations where many of today’s prisoners’ ancestors worked.
September 13, 1971 is a day I will never forget. It was my sixteenth birthday, but that fact serves only as a marker for the unforgettable events of that historical moment. On September 8, 1971 several hundred men at Attica State prison in New York took over a part of the prison. This act was the direct result of a scuffle that occurred in what was known as D Yard. In truth, though, it was the culmination of a months-long campaign for prison reforms in Attica and other prisons in the New York system. It can actually be argued that the campaign in New York was part of a larger campaign that was occurring across the United States. This upsurge in the prison struggle had been fueled by other movements in the US and also by a growing awareness of the role prisons play in the oppression of disenfranchised groups in a society. The assassination of Black Panther George Jackson barely a month before the uprising at Attica served as a vicious reminder of how far the State would go to maintain that oppression.
Back to the story of September 13, 1971. As I sat at the dinner table that evening I simmered with anger. That morning Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York had ordered an assault on Attica which resulted in the deaths of 39 men, mostly prisoners but also including nine hostages. This massacre took place after four days of negotiations orchestrated by the prisoners and conducted by a group of outside observers selected by the prisoners. Suffice it to say, the birthday celebration was muted, a cloud of death hanging over the dining room. I could only imagine how the families of the dead men felt. The primary official representing the state of New York was Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald, a liberal within the prison administration. The group of observers was composed of almost two dozen men and included radical attorney William Kunstler, New York State Senator John Dunne, New York City councilman Herman Badillo, members of the Young Lords, Louis Farrakhan, and New York Times writer Tom Wicker.
Almost four years later Wicker would publish an account of the uprising titled A Time to Die. This account is a testament of the times. Wicker was an unabashed liberal when that word defined a certain political and cultural mindset that included support for civil rights, civil liberties, and the consideration that radical and revolutionary leftists not only made some valid points but that they were often right when it came to analyzing the nature of race and class in the United States. His book on Attica stands as one of the best pieces of journalism to come out of the period known as the Sixties. Fortunately, it was recently republished in a paperback edition by Haymarket Books of Chicago. Written in the third person — like much of Norman Mailer’s best journalism — Wicker describes the events that took place in Attica after he arrived there sometime during the night of September 8, 1971. His chronicle reflects the genuine concern for the lives of the prisoners and the hostages and is witness to his growing disbelief that there can ever be a peaceful resolution to the situation. That awareness is accompanied by his acknowledgement that the blame for this does not fall on the prisoners but on those in the New York government apparatus that cannot or will not see the men of Attica as human beings. The tension inside the prison and between and within the various groups involved forces Wicker to reflect on his life growing up in a union anti-segregationist family in the apartheid US South. This personal history and the contrast between the prisoners desire to be treated like humans and the bureaucrats’ determination to deny that desire causes Wicker to forsake his journalistic objectivity in favor of the inmates. In what is certainly one of his finest journalistic moments, after hearing Rockefeller tell him that granting amnesty to the prisoners would undermine the basic tenets of our society, Wicker writes:
Wicker had to stop himself from laughing–not with amusement– at this astounding irony. In a country where so many wealthy or well-represented lawbreakers could go free, where the killers at Kent State and Jackson State were not even prosecuted, where minorities (blacks and Mexican-Americans, for two good examples) suffered from openly prejudiced law in whole regions, where the poor and disadvantaged of all races usually felt the whole weight of the police, the courts, the prisons–in that country, the “equal application of the laws” was to be upheld in the case of the Attica Brothers!
If the Sixties were about freedom, and I believe that they were, then the men in Attica were ready to die for theirs. And many did. There were others in associated milieus that fought for theirs and for men like the Attica Brothers. Poet, writer, counterculture mischief-maker and rock musician Ed Sanders was one of those. His recently released biography Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side is a look at that battle. Sanders could be described as a member of the group of ramblers, mystics, poets, and plain old lunatics that formed a bridge between the Beatnik and hippie/freak culture. Like Neal Cassady, his age and refusal to go along with the dominant culture of the grey-flannel suit led him to places that existed on the fringes of US society, especially white US society. In the search to disengage from the mainstream culture, the men and women involved often went out of their way to offend. Given the Puritan confusion and hypocrisy about all things sexual, it was in that arena that artists and poets often played in when they wished to push the limits outward. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg — two men who make occasional appearances in Sanders’ jerry-built memoir — knew this territory well. Indeed, by the very fact of their homosexuality, they were already outside of society (like Patti Smith sings in her tune “Rock and Roll Nigger”).
Sanders is the author of one of the best true crime books ever written in the United States. That book, titled The Family, is about Charles Manson and his group of twisted souls. Fug You is primarily about the decade before Sanders published that book. It was a decade that was full of activity for Sanders. He published one of the best known mimeographed poetry and art journals of the period. Like the photocopied zines of the 1980s and 1990s, mimeo journals were the samizdat of the art and poetry countercultures of the period. Sanders journal, known as Fuck You, published Burroughs, Ginsberg and the poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, among others. His magazine gained him invites to parties with the burgeoning literary and artistic elite of 1960s New York. This access in turn gave him access to patrons and a ready set of defenders whenever the obscenity police came down on his magazine, as they did somewhat frequently.
All of this, however, was but a prelude to Sanders best known (and most popular) endeavor: the creation of the rock and roll band The Fugs. I gave their first album a few listens while reading this book and am still amazed not only by the fact that they got a recording contract but that they actually broke the Billboard Top 100 a couple times. On top of that, The Fugs played on bills featuring some of the biggest bands of the period. The music The Fugs created was a mixture of straight blues, some rock and roll, a little Indian influence and just plain freakin’ noise. The lyrics were a combination of beat poetry, antiwar visions, visionary hopes, sexist nonsense and just plain babble. Like I said, it’s hard to remember that The Fugs were actually somewhat popular. That fact alone is testament itself to how much the cultural boundaries were being stretched and redefined. As for that sexism, let me clarify.
Sexism was an unfortunate part of the freedom defined by the Sixties. Not because many men were more sexist than many men are now, but because their sexism had never been challenged. The sexual repression that had ruled US popular culture to that point was being broken down. Given the generally sexist nature of the culture, that sexual freedom may have opened up minds, bodies and souls, but it did little to end the objectification of the female person. That task would fall on the feminist movement that rose from the cultural revolution of which Ed Sanders writes about in Fug You.
One could argue that, unlike the sexism of today’s media, which bases itself on the complete commodification of the body while also putting a price tag on the emotion of love, it can be argued that the sexism of the Beats and hippies was a genuine attempt to create a world of Eros referred to in Herbert Marcuse’s classic text Eros and Civilization which visualized a society “based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations.”
There was a genuine joy in that revolution. It would soon be tempered by the repression from the State, various religious figures and institutions and the military. Sanders memoir captures all of that. He writes snippets of remembrances that together tell a good part of the story. The Living Theatre putting on their play The Brig; the authorities shutting them down. The Human Be-Ins and the attempt to bust Allen Ginsberg for marijuana. The Yippies desire to host a festival of life and the police riot that was Chicago 1968. Sanders book covers the late fifties to 1970. Wicker’s covers four days in 1971. The men in Attica, however, were there for crimes that happened during the same period that Sanders book takes place. Their denouement was a violent end to the Sixties in a much more cataclysmic way than the Altamont concert portrayed in the film Gimme Shelter, or the police murders at Kent and Jackson State. These two books represent elements of the zeitgeist of the Sixties. They also hold both possibilities and warnings for our future.