Monday, August 4, 2008

Building a Queen City Agenda

Despite the opening created by the Watergate scandal, not to mention the desperate desire of political leaders to prove that the “system” still worked, the general atmosphere wasn’t encouraging in the mid-1970s. Reporters in four states were jailed during 1975 for refusing to reveal their sources. Fifty others were subpoenaed. Frame ups and false arrests continued. And President Gerald Ford, who was appointed Vice-President by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew had to resign — and then had the audacity to pardon the disgraced President – proposed a law that would jail reporters who revealed public government papers that hadn’t been “officially” approved for release.

Despite the chill, small alternative papers like the North Country Star in Burlington continued to talk openly about imperialism, sexism, and capitalist impacts, and stir the pot about welfare cutbacks, skyrocketing medical and housing costs, and local business schemes. At the start, Public Occurrence, the magazine launched through The Frayed Page bookstore, had a “softer” focus – ecology, diversity, progressive viewpoints, poetry and “new age” features. In response to community input, upcoming events and underreported stories were added.

Community connections developed through the publication and bookstore gradually shaped its editorial agenda. The August 1975 edition looked at worker cooperatives, wages for housework, skewed income distribution, and Vermont’s recent economic downturn. A majority of new jobs were in the “trades and services” sector, mostly low-wage, non-union and tourist-related, we explained. As a result, the state’s per capita income was dropping, and the overall trend was bidding down wages in other areas. The same issue also included an illustrated center spread on America’s astrological chart and the first installment of an historical series on spirit phenomena at a Vermont farmhouse, a story that would become a passion project for me in later years. The object was to appeal to both political and cultural progressives, to somehow combine conscience with consciousness.

We also kept our eyes open for ways to show how the mainstream media restricted open discussion of vital public issues. The perfect chance to make the point was provided that October by Vermont’s leading television station, WCAX. Run by the conservative Martin family for decades, the station decided not to air a breakthrough documentary on the environmental links to cancer, replacing it with a re-run of The Mod Squad. Station owner Red Martin had shared a preview copy with some friends at the local hospital. The doctors conveniently echoed his conclusion that the show painted a biased portrait.

Obtaining a copy of the program, The American Way of Cancer, from the producers at CBS, we set up screenings downtown and on the university campus. Concern was growing about the links between cancer and agents like food additives, drugs, pollution and industrial materials, and hundreds of people attended. After each screening, medical researchers and representatives of the ACLU, Vermont Public Interest research Group, and American Friends Service Committee put the issue in perspective. A mailing list was developed, additional showings were planned, and several groups formed to follow up. Important local connections were being made and two key issues – cancer and censorship – had been linked. The emerging campaign also tied in nicely with a VPIRG effort to pass legislation banning the sale of Aerosol spray cans.

As Public Occurrence entered a second year, its political focus sharpened. At another community meeting, the publication’s goals were revised to include development of a communication network for social change groups, support for resistance movements, and “access to news and ideas which are ignored and distorted by large media systems.” Advertising began to cover the production costs, and 3,000 free copies of each issue were being distributed statewide.

The bookstore also evolved. Our original partners became uncomfortable with the growing political thrust of the project and bowed out at the end of 1975, a problem we saw as an opportunity to turn the business into a collective. A young couple, Steve Cram and Wendy Curran, were invited to join the new Frayed Page Collective and become partners by putting in “sweat equity” rather than cash. We split our time between selling recycled books, publishing the magazine, and participating in various organizing projects, including the growing anti-nuclear movement. We also developed a consensus-based process for making decisions that equalized power and incorporated healthy self-criticism. Since I was pulling down a decent salary at the college, more income from the business could go into stock and better pay for those who needed it.

By early 1976, my plate was overflowing: Teaching at Burlington College, plus coordinating the school’s internship program; at the Frayed Page, part of the collective, participating as much as possible in its expanding activities. I was also editing Public Occurrence, although we’d developed a production model that allowed guest editors to handle most of the content for different issues while keeping the design, advertising and distribution under the collective’s control. Still, life was about to get even busier and more complex. A position had opened up with the City Planning Office to coordinate a local study of youth needs, and the search committee wanted me to take it.

Chapter Five of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: Educating Minds & Influencing Hearts

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