AADL Talks To David Fenton
While he was in town during the 40th anniversary of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, we had the chance to sit down with David Fenton about his time in Ann Arbor during the late 1960s and early 1970s. During these years David lived at the Hill Street Commune, worked on the Ann Arbor Sun, and helped with the campaign to free John Sinclair. David discusses Sinclair's influence on his personal and professional life; reflects on the excesses - both good and bad - of the countercultural movement as he experienced it, and its legacy 40 years later in its modern counterparts, including moveon.org and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
David also participated in our panel discussion, Culture Jamming: A Long View Back.
- [00:00:06.76] AMY: Hi this is Amy.
- [00:00:08.02] ANDREW: And this is Andrew, and in this episode AADL talks to David Fenton.
- [00:00:14.77] AMY: While he was in town for the events surrounding the 40th anniversary of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, we had the opportunity to talk with David Fenton, founder and CEO of Fenton Communications, about his years in Ann Arbor and their impact on his life and work. David recalls his start in photojournalism, life in the Hill Street Commune, working on the Ann Arbor Sun, and some of the public relations tricks he learned from John Sinclair and Abbie Hoffman. He also touches on the darker aspects of the 1960s counter cultural excesses and the movement's legacy 40 years on.
- [00:00:45.00] DAVID FENTON: I was working at an organization called, Liberation News Service, which was the AP/UPI writers of the anti-war underground newspapers around the country, and the local paper was called the Ann Arbor Argus. And in that community, Sinclair's case was a cause célèbre, everybody knew about it, and we had contact with the White Panther Party. And I was on my way-- I had decided to leave New York, and I was on my way to California, I thought, to set up and be a photographer and organizer there. And I stopped off to visit the people in the Hill Street House, because I had met some of them in New York a couple of times. And I liked it a lot, and I got very taken up with it, and I never left, basically. I moved in early 1971, and then we moved the whole thing to Detroit briefly, in and around late '75 or early '76. And In the summer of '76, I went back to New York.
- [00:01:54.92] ANDREW: What was it that you found so appealing that you couldn't continue on your journey?
- [00:01:59.18] DAVID FENTON: Well, it was a combination of political, cultural, and personal-- isn't everything? I liked the people a lot. I thought that the notion that you could use music and culture to help achieve political change and to rally the population and a generation, which at that time had a lot of commonality of views, and viewpoints. I thought that made a lot of political sense. And, personally, the aesthetic, the music, the lifestyle, the freedom of it, the personal exploration-- the utopianism of it was very appealing, it was very positive
- [00:02:46.34] And plus, soon after I arrived, I started learning a bunch of new skills. I was just a photographer, and all a sudden, I'm like writing the Free John Sinclair campaign, and publishing a newspaper, and doing a radio show, and I'm doing press conferences for a third political party, and taking over the city government and, you know, who could leave?
- [00:03:11.43] ANDREW: How did you get started in journalism? How did you decide to go into papers, and particularly alternative papers?
- [00:03:17.45] DAVID FENTON: I was a student in New York in the late '60s at the Bronx High School of Science, and we had a non-official underground newspaper at the school called, Sans Culottes, which if you know your French Revolution history-- and I started publishing photos in there, and through spending time with the people who had started that newspaper, which we were constantly being suspended from school and banned. The school didn't want it's own newspaper, and then we were terrible troublemakers.
- [00:03:50.28] We started demanding an African American studies program at the high school, and when our demands were not met, we sat-in in the principal's office, and refused to leave, and the police had to come and clear us out. My favorite story actually, from that period, which I tell my children, is we had a dress code at the high school. You were not allowed to wear blue jeans. So one day the entire student body, all 3,000 kids, showed up wearing bluejeans. That was the end of the dress code.
- [00:04:26.46] So anyway, through that newspaper, I started meeting people from Liberation News Service, and an anti-war film cooperative called, Newsreel, and the sort of community of counter cultural, anti-war journalists. And working with some of those people who ran a newspaper in New York called the, New York Free Press, we started the New York High School Underground Free Press. The first issue was a photo I took of a naked Black baby holding a Black Anarchist flag. I have these, by the way.
- [00:05:11.58] So my photographs started getting noticed and published by some of these newspapers and then by Liberation News Service, and by underground papers around the country. And eventually, that existence became far more interesting and fulfilling for me than going to school. So I stopped going to school at the beginning of 11th grade, and that was the end of my formal education. I never finished high school, and I never went to college.
- [00:05:40.79] AMY: I read in an interview that you said you were permanently damaged by the events of the late 1960s and you cannot recover. Can you elaborate?
- [00:05:48.39] DAVID FENTON: Sure. Well, that's kind of like-- the ghetto use of the word "bad." Most of the damage was good. And this is part of what was the positive side of the Hill Street experience. I really don't-- I'm never comfortable calling it the "White Panther Party." I got there at that was ending, and I always thought that the notion that there were some equivalence between hippies and people being killed by the police in the Black community was a little off. But at the same time, I can understand it, because the police were brutal, and in some places they still are.
- [00:06:35.42] Large segments of a whole generation broke with almost all tradition almost instantaneously. And when else does this happen? You're no longer a Christian, you're no longer a Jew-- you're a Buddhist. Your rituals, your holidays, I mean, all that's out the window like that. And so the sense of an ability to forge a new identity, a new social system, a new community to do really deep personal exploration to throw off all kinds of antiquated values and puritanism, mindless accepting of conventional wisdom and authority. That was very heady stuff, and a lot of it was very positive. And you can see some of this happening now with these Occupy Wall Street kids, so we're going through something similar.
- [00:07:33.43] And I think societies need that kind of refreshing. In fact, I think we need it a lot right now. So yeah, that was part of what I meant by permanently damaged. I really can't see the world the way I used to ever again. And in the work that my company does, which is all values based, and all progressive, that's a direct outgrowth of what happened to me. In other words, I personally could not do what so many people in the public relations field do, and just take any client as long as they were paying me, no matter whether they were ethical, or honest, or telling the truth, or doing something valuable for society, or polluting the environment, or ripping off workers-- I just couldn't do it.
- [00:08:21.72] And it's not because I'm better than somebody else, but this value system, and sense of morality, and ethical system, really got instilled in me back then by that community of alternative journalists and activists. And I'm very fortunate I've never had to abandon it, but it came from that-- it really came from that.
- [00:08:47.04] AMY: You also mentioned-- and maybe this starts going into the dark side a little bit, but there was a lot of craziness and delusion among some of the counter cultural leaders. Did that-- how did that negatively affect the movement at the time?
- [00:09:00.13] DAVID FENTON: Well I think it negatively affected the whole country, and I think it's still negatively affecting it. There were crazy excesses of rhetoric. I knew Abbie Hoffman very well, and I considered him a very dear friend. And I think he's a truly great and important historical figure, but he was crazy as a loon. And he was clinically crazy. He was deeply bipolar, and he eventually committed suicide. It was very tragic. I mean Abbie would walk around at demonstrations chanting, "Off the pig."
- [00:09:38.85] Now this is not exactly going to endure this movement to the average American, and nor should it. Just because some police are brutal, doesn't mean you talk about killing them, even metaphorically. That is nuts. And, OK, you could sort of understand it. I used to see people carrying signs saying that in Harlem, and in Spanish Harlem, and in Oakland at the height of the police repression. So that was an authentic response, even though I think it was very misguided.
- [00:10:11.03] But Abbie came out here to Ann Arbor once. I don't think I was there, but I know this happened. And at one of the press conferences he had to demand that Sinclair be released from prison, he took a knife out of his pocket, and put it on the table, and said, "We're going to get these people. " So the over in your face rhetoric I think-- and some, this is tougher, because some of the cultural experimentation was very good, and thank goodness it happened, or you wouldn't-- the amount of change that's happened in the status of women, and of gays, and the sexual revolution, and the throwing off all this mindless puritanism that was very ensconced, especially in the Midwest.
- [00:11:03.54] That was all great, but the excesses of it, I mean, this is part of what fueled Nixon, Reagan, Newt Gingrich, the whole Republican counter reaction-- we overdid it, let's face it. And then you take a look at another group that I had contact with at that time, the people that became the Weather Underground. Now they were really delusional. They thought that they were going to carry out an armed revolution in the United States of America. That's insane. And they really believed it.
- [00:11:39.08] I was living with a woman in New York just before I moved out here, and she was a Radcliffe-- Barnard graduate, very educated, upper middle class family, and she was spending time with Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. And one day she came home after being gone all day, and her clothes were tattered, and she was bruised. And said to her, "What happened?" And she said, "Oh, it was the greatest day of my life." I said, "What?" She said, "Oh yeah, we went to a high school in Pittsburgh, and liberated the students, and fought with the police." This is the kind of craziness that was happening.
- [00:12:20.61] And another aspect of this that I think is poorly understood historically is that, there was a real negative impact of psychedelic drugs on some of this. You'd have to talk to the psychologist, but psychedelic drugs can be beneficial if properly used under good supervision, in the right circumstances, in nature, with the right people. I believe that the country should authorize more therapeutic use of these substances. At the same time, like anything else, they can have a really dark and horrible side, and they can induce psychosis, and they did.
- [00:13:07.90] And one of the hallmarks of psychosis, of course, is grandiosity-- "We're going to make a revolution, and have an armed rebellion," and paranoia. And these people were definitely affected by this, and that happened here, too. I think there's no question about it. But again, it's a really complex situation, because, at the same time, much of what came out of that period that's good-- the human potential movement, the growth of the environmental movement, the movement towards greater physical fitness, towards cleaner and healthier food, towards medical self-care-- all the way to Gary Grimshaw's art and changes in the whole aesthetic. That was the positive side of what some of the drug experimentation did.
- [00:14:05.35] But there was a dark side, and that's why, in my opinion, these substances being totally illegal is completely crazy, because there's no assistance. Kids are going to take them. They take them. So to have it outside of medical and mental health framework, is just really counterproductive.
- [00:14:25.68] ANDREW: Had the Hill Street community-- you said the White Panther period had sort of ended. Had they ended their rhetoric? Because there was a time when they were taking pictures of the MC5, and the 'up with guns,' and Pun Plamondon was out shouting all kinds of things.
- [00:14:39.63] DAVID FENTON: By the time I moved here, thank God that had ended.
- [00:14:42.35] ANDREW: OK, so you didn't have to play a role in trying to help them tone it down? They already knew they had to do that?
- [00:14:46.95] DAVID FENTON: No, no way. John was in jail. The first time I met Pun Plamondon, it was in federal penitentiary in Indiana, and there were no guns around. And I would not have been comfortable with that. Now I had been-- my memory of this is a little murky. There was a thing-- we used to have conferences every now and then, where people that ran all the underground newspapers around the country would gather. I'm sure the first one I went to was in Madison, Wisconsin, probably late 1968.
- [00:15:25.70] And then there was one here in Ann Arbor in an area just outside of town, a rural area, and the reason that's important is, we were meeting, and Pun, and I think Genie Plamondon were guarding the entryway with rifles. This was the height of the White Panther aesthetic. And we're all, sitting there having a meeting and all of a sudden, we realize that from every direction, 360 degrees, the police are descending upon us. And there was absolutely no escape, and I remember watching people start emptying their pockets and throwing things on the ground.
- [00:16:07.67] And it was very scary. These were armed police emerging from the woods like we were some kind of group of terrorists. We're a bunch of journalists. And a bunch of people were arrested, so I mean, it was really unfortunate. I think the imagery and rhetoric of the White Panthers understandably provoked the police, and made them paranoid, which came back again the other way. So no, by the time I got here that had thankfully all ended. That was gone.
- [00:16:41.70] AMY: I'm curious. You have this very successful public relations company, and do you feel that that was the logical next step? And how come more people didn't go that route? Why were many of the leaders, the counter cultural leaders unable to do that-- unable to do what you did? And, for example, where do you see John Sinclair on that spectrum?
- [00:17:00.83] DAVID FENTON: Well, I learned public relations from John, I mean, I did. And I really owe him a huge debt for that, and he's a genius at it. And I also learned it from Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who literally taught me. But the first way I learned-- so I come to Ann Arbor, I'm 18 years old, I'm a high school dropout-- all I've ever done is photography. And so Leni decides that I should start being involved in this effort to get her husband out of jail.
- [00:17:37.44] So I visit John at Jackson State Prison. We meet for the first time, and I guess he sizes me, and starts telling me about some things that I should start thinking about to do for him. And then, I start getting letters from prison, and I wonder if these letters are in the Bentley Collection. We should look. So these are hand written, very long, very detailed letters on yellow legal pads telling me exactly what journalists to call.
- [00:18:06.72] And I remember one said, "Take my wife, Leni, to the Michigan Supreme Court, and bind her hands behind her back, and put a gag in her mouth. This was right after Bobby Seale had been bound and gagged at the Chicago Seven trial-- and call the press. You know, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just following instructions, and it worked. So my introduction to talking to journalists, organizing messages, creating imagery-- that all came from John. There's no question about it.
- [00:18:43.68] So as to why other people from that era weren't able to go on and do other kinds of enterprises, well, a lot of people did. The leaders didn't. And people used to joke that Abbie should start an advertising firm. In fact, somebody made a movie once that, a Hollywood movie, that had an Abbie-like figure who eventually became the head of a Madison Avenue advertising firm. I forget the name of it. And I used to call Abbie up when I had trouble-- I needed to name something, I had to figure out some message-- and he was incredible at it.
- [00:19:23.77] Like my first book of photographs, which was called, Shots, which is a great name, right? So when I asked Abbie, what I should call it he came up with that name. But this was sort of typical, he said, "No, call it, Shots of War, you know, Mr. Militant. And I thought, Abbie, that's a little much. How about just, Shots? So I think that-- you know, when you become a celebrity, it's really hard not to have your ego go completely berserk. And I've known a lot of celebrities, and a lot of politicians, and heads of state, and it happens to all of them. Movie stars, et cetera
- [00:20:06.63] So I think that there must be something about the psychological and ego impact of that kind of experience that makes sort of the step-by-step, nose to the grindstone work of building an enterprise-- "Hey I'm a celebrity." But at the same time, a lot of those people wrote great books and made enormous contributions. So I don't really know the answer to that. But below the level of leadership, there are '60s people everywhere running companies, and arts institutions, and universities, and being great scientists, and great artists-- we're kind of everywhere.
- [00:20:50.09] Look at Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs, who if you read the new Walter Isaacson biography, he was such a hippy, people would throw him out of their offices because he smelled bad. And he thought he didn't smell bad. He ate all fruits and vegetables, so he figured he only needed to bathe once a week, and didn't need to use deodorant. And Steve Jobs, a number of times on the record, talked about how the aesthetic and the self searching-- he went to India to study with his guru. He acknowledged taking LSD, and he said that it had a positive impact on his sense of design. So it's not like that era didn't also lead to great enterprises. Look at Apple. It's the most valuable company in the world.
- [00:21:43.81] ANDREW: So when you were starting out doing this kind of PR work, because everyone, including you, was either self-taught or learning from someone who was self-taught-- because no one taught John Sinclair how to get the word out about things-- were you guys making up new methods of getting the word out about things as you went along? Were you making up new PR strategies that no one had really used before?
- [00:22:07.36] DAVID FENTON: Yeah, yeah. I kind of look at it like this. Abbie Hoffman and Roger Ailes-- Roger Ailes runs Fox News now, and he ran Nixon's reelection campaign. And the book, The Making of the President in 1972, chronicles what he did. So I think in postwar American history, the two people who understood the most the influence and the impact that television was going to have on politics were Abbie and Roger Ailes. So they made it all up. How could you teach it? Television was new. How could you teach electric guitar when it first came out? You couldn't. You had to figure it out.
- [00:22:52.20] And of course the other thing is, the way that they were similar was they both understood the use of television to project mythologies. And I would say Abbie was better at it than Ailes, because Ailes had the machinery of state at his disposal and the Republican Party-- quite a lot of resources. Abbie had nothing, and yet, Abbie started this thing that he called the Youth International Party, right? The Yippies, which Jerry later desecrated by making it materialistic and becoming the yuppies.
- [00:23:29.94] So who was the Youth International Party? Open the New York Times, "A spokesman for the Youth International Party today--" and the Walter Cronkite News, "The Youth International Party is doing this." It was like Abbie and three people. It was a totally made up myth that had a gigantic impact-- gigantic-- on politics and culture. So sure, you couldn't teach that. And the other thing is that my staff won't let me use the word, "public relations." It's such a pejorative word. What it really means in our culture is, "We'll say anything for money," so we don't want to think we do that.
- [00:24:13.67] But communications, sure you can teach aspects of it, but, ultimately, it's like sales, it's persuasion, it's being articulate, it's knowing what a story is. You don't really have to go to school to do it. Most of the people that we hire have never studied it.
- [00:24:33.45] AMY: You had said that moveon.org is the modern inheritor of underground press. And I wonder if you can talk about what you learned with working on the Ann Arbor and Detroit Sun, and how that translates into modern media.
- [00:24:46.13] DAVID FENTON: I didn't work on the Detroit Sun.
- [00:24:47.27] AMY: You didn't.
- [00:24:48.01] DAVID FENTON: Oh, actually wait a minute. We renamed it that. I forgot, because there was a Detroit Sun prior to the Ann Arbor Sun--
- [00:24:56.16] ANDREW: Right, the Warren Forest Sun.
- [00:24:57.93] DAVID FENTON: --transfer of energies and all that, right. And that's interesting. I thought moving the Sun to Detroit was a giant mistake. And let's hold on to that question for a minute-- but I'd like to pursue this. Part of why Sinclair left Ann Arbor and moved everything to Detroit, was because he was being rejected here. And when you first-- before he went to jail, and when he first got out of prison, the whole operation was very popular. And through the Human Rights Party victory, which was April or May of 1972-- very popular.
- [00:25:47.77] By a year later than that, not popular, plummeting. Two reasons I think-- one is that the people that got elected to the swing seats on the City Council, Nancy Wechsler and--
- [00:26:01.80] AMY: Jerry DeGrieck?
- [00:26:02.43] DAVID FENTON: There you go. They turned out to be very sectarian. They were members of some I think, Trotskyite weird group called the International Socialist. And I knew we were in trouble when one day, I saw Nancy give a speech where she said that what should happen in Vietnam is that the Viet Cong should win. And I agreed with that-- it was their country, but politically, that was a very stupid thing to emphasize, and completely irrelevant to anything that was going to happen in Ann Arbor anyway.
- [00:26:41.65] So meanwhile, on the Sinclair front, we started alienating people, too. There was a certain arrogance, and this was linked to this kind of comical attempt to have a Marxist-Leninist organizing structure-- the central committee is issuing communiques. And page after page of the Sun started being devoted to the self-criticism and reexamination of the central committee, and people were going, "What?" And then I think there was another element, which I can't precisely verify, but I'm sure that there were police provocateurs operating here.
- [00:27:34.92] The thing about the rhetoric, or the White Panthers, and then the Lenin thing, and the Nixon move to deport him-- it was potentially very powerful. So all of a sudden, a lot of very disparaging false information started being hurled at us, including from a newspaper in this town, that I think was called New Morning. And it was run by a guy-- you'll have to ask other people-- George something. And we were always very suspicious of this operation.
- [00:28:10.67] And we've all looked at our Ann Arbor Police and FBI files, and all the identities of all the agents are redacted. That's the right word, right? Yeah, they're all crossed out. So there clearly were quite a few of them. So I think that there's no question that there were COINTELPRO-type-- you know, the FBI counter insurgency stuff-- happening here, but you can't just blame it on that. We were arrogant. We knew better. We told people what kind of music they should like, how they should think. And as John got to be more of a celebrity, got more and more cut off, and so I think that that was eventually-- John was not very well liked here.
- [00:29:03.04] So his solution to that was to move to Detroit, and to embrace the movement of local African American self-determination in Detroit, is what he was going to go back to. And, of course, his roots were as, in the beatnik era, of being very close to especially the artists and poets in the Black community. So he was kind of going back to his roots. Now I thought that that wasn't our community, and that the notion that a bunch of white kids were going to go to Detroit and publish a newspaper for the Black community was crazy. And, of course, it was, and it was a giant failure.
- [00:29:49.24] Had the paper gone to Detroit and focused on white kids in the suburbs, who we knew how to appeal to, and also had money to spend, and where there were advertisers, then it might have worked. So I think it was driven largely by emotional reasons, not real strategic calculations, and it was a giant mistake, and it went bust. Think the Sun would still be here today possibly, if it wasn't for that. Now did I answer your question?
- [00:30:23.34] AMY: I just meant I had asked about the moveon.org thing in the new media, what you--
- [00:30:28.94] DAVID FENTON: Oh, OK. MoveOn's not really a media. It's an organization for democratic action, and it's not very cultural. I think a lot of its demographic is older, so there are '60s-type people in there. It's 5 million people. It's quite significant. Certainly the ability to reach people directly, without going through corporate media, is a very good thing, and reflect some of that kind of change.
- [00:31:08.68] I actually don't think right now that there is an effective equivalent to the underground press online. There's a lot of very scattered stuff you can find, and some of it's terrific, but it takes a lot of work to find it. And the Huffington Post fulfills some of this, but it's also a place for celebrity watching, and it doesn't have a lot of deep narrative journalism, it has excellent blogs. So I don't think it's come along yet really. I think it will.
- [00:31:48.82] And I think the Occupy movement, if it grows, which I'm quite sure it will, will eventually lead us to this. And some MoveOn people are talking about setting up more of a system to get people easy access to alternative information and videos. But it's still in ferment. I think it's not there yet.
- [00:32:11.77] ANDREW: The picture you just painted a second ago about the Ann Arbor Sun moving to Detroit, made it sound as though John Sinclair was very much still in charge of the organization, and the newspaper, and it was published in the paper. Was it not-- even though there was a central committee, was that central committee not quite as democratic as it could have been? If John decided something, is that--
- [00:32:38.43] DAVID FENTON: Well, this all went through different phases. By the later years of the Sun here I think-- '75 certainly, there was no more central committee, there was no more commune, and we all got to have our own personal property. That was a big change. I went three years where I had to ask permission to buy a pair of bluejeans. We didn't have any money. And so, yes, Sinclair still ran the show, basically, yes. And when something came along that he didn't like that was important, he would overturn it.
- [00:33:18.95] There were a lot of great things about this. People had huge opportunities to transform themselves, and to grow, and change, and examine themselves, and it's beautiful. But there were cult-like aspects to it. There was intimidation, there was abuse, there was emotional abuse, and people were hurt. There was some brainwashing, there was some mind control, there were power struggles-- these are human beings. We all have a dark side, and it was not all fun, and beds of roses.
- [00:34:04.76] And John is, and again, I've learned so much from him, and I wouldn't be who I am today without his influence. And by the way, one of his greatest influences, I think, was his knowledge and propagation of the most amazing music that this country's ever produced My kids-- my 15-year-old son is named Cole, after John Coltrane. My 11-year-old son is named, Theo after Thelonious Monk. I wouldn't have known hardly any of that without John, and that's a deeply important thing.
- [00:34:45.50] And I wish the country had more access and exposure to that music. I think it's a tragedy that kids in America today never hear Duke Ellington. I mean, what? It's the greatest thing America's ever produced. So that was all great, but he's an extremely narcissistic person, and he was abusive.
- [00:35:14.45] ANDREW: Have you ever gone back to look at the Sun, or look at any of the other work that you produced, or just thought back to the time and thought about how quickly and significantly you grew as people and as an organization? I mean, you can look at the beginning of the Sun, and just a few years later, you have moved to putting out a very professional viable newspaper. And four years before that, no one would have looked at the mimeographed things that were coming out I thought that was in any way possible.
- [00:35:46.06] DAVID FENTON: Then they shouldn't have looked at it. I remember the first article I wrote for the Sun I had never written an article before. I flew to Washington for Rennie Davis' Shut Down the Government demonstration. That must have been May of 1971. It was May Day. I came back and wrote this thing. There was no editor. I just put it in the paper. I didn't know how to write. I mean, that stuff was juvenile. It's amazing it survived. Yeah, I've looked at it.
- [00:36:20.62] I think one of the greatest things about the Sun is over time, it became a really brilliantly designed newspaper. And I'm biased. I married the art director, Barbara Weinberg who's here. You should talk to--
- [00:36:36.12] AMY: We plan to.
- [00:36:36.96] DAVID FENTON: You should talk to her. I wonder if she-- she's had particular experiences with John that you might find interesting. Yeah, when you look back on it, the whole natural foods emphasis that the countries adopted, we were early in there. The whole alternative energy, anti-nuclear power, anti-fossil fuel effort-- of course, the hole in the ozone work was done here at the University of Michigan, so we were the first to publish that. The music and cultural coverage, I think, was phenomenal and really ahead of its time.
- [00:37:19.48] And we launched quite a few careers. There's a guy here Michael Castleman who was our health writer. And one day, we realized that circulation was lagging, and we figured we need to come up with some really strong cover idea to boost sales. And we figured, well, better use sex. It's tried and true. So we went to Michael and said you need to write a cover story about sex. We had no idea about what. And he said, "I'll never do that. Are you kidding? How embarrassing." So he did, and it was a big selling issue, and he started writing regular sex advice columns and then later he became the Playboy advisor. And he's written a bunch of health and sex books, and became like the leading-- I think he runs a sex site now called, Great Sex over 40.
- [00:38:12.72] Kathy Kelley who worked with Barbara on the design of the newspaper, I saw her last night for the first time since [INAUDIBLE]. And she's had a long career as a graphic designer in publishing. Bill Adler, who was our music critic, later went on to be the chief of all the marketing public relations for Def Jam Records. And basically played a seminal role in the crossover of rap music to the white mainstream audience. So, yeah, people made some good use of all this. They did.
- [00:38:51.43] ANDREW: So at what point did you break with Sinclair, and with that whole group, and move on to other things? Was immediately to Rolling Stone? Is that what you moved on to immediately?
- [00:39:03.84] DAVID FENTON: Yeah. I went back to New York very disillusioned. And it was a combination of personal and political. Yeah, what happened is, we had a certain amount of funding available for the newspaper, and at a certain point, it was going to run out. And when John pushed us to move to Detroit, we start spending a lot of money, and the funding was disappearing very quickly. And so I reached the conclusion that we should shut the paper rather than use up all the money. Because it came from someone who had inherited money, and I thought it would be quite unfair to use it all up.
- [00:39:58.88] And this meant that John was going to lose his source of income. And I'm not saying that would be the only reason he would do this. He was committed to the course he was on, and I'm sure, in his mind, he thought he was doing the right thing. So I recommended closing, and he put a great deal of pressure on the people who had inherited the money to keep it going. And so I just left, because I could just see it was headed to disaster. And it lasted another six or nine months, and they spent a fortune. And it all really just went completely down the tubes, and really hurt the lives of some people.
- [00:40:52.29] So I went back to New York, and very disillusioned and really questioning my own role in-- I mean, what are the hallmarks of a cult? You have an all-knowing guru, you're unquestioning, there's no criticism, you have a sense of grandiosity of your mission together. I realized that, for all the good things that came out of the experience, this was my substitute family. And I had had a very wrecked family as a kid. My mother was very mentally ill, and in institutions a lot, and my father was quite absent.
- [00:41:34.14] So as much as anything else, the reason I stayed here was I had moved into a commune, I had a family. And so I think it's healthy to eventually reach the point where you don't need that anymore, and you see through the mythology. But again, John I are friends. I've seen him. We spend time together. All in all, that was a very positive experience, and I'm glad I knew him.
- [00:42:06.53] The Marxist-Leninist organization thing was kind of funny when you think about it. Hair down to our waist, getting high, playing all this loud music, and we were having central committees, and criticism, self-criticism meetings. Now, they were brutal. Thirty people sitting around this massive table about this long, and we'd go around and tell each other what we didn't like about each other. Sounds horrible, right? And it was, but it was also good. We learned to appreciate hearing other people's perspectives about ourselves. And we developed, many of us, a greater openness to that than comes naturally to people in our culture.
- [00:42:57.82] I learned to really try hard to understand other people's perspectives about me, and it changed me a lot. It was great, but it was brutal, it was hard, it was awful. And when you read about how the Chinese used this in the Maoist era, and the period before the cultural revolution went completely nuts, which it did. But there was a period before then where peasants would sit down with landlords and tell them what it felt like to be oppressed by them, and some of it was good. So we had all that.
- [00:43:35.53] So at that time, in our commune, and in some others around the country, in line with the emergence of the women's movement, but not exactly, there was a lot of questioning of monogamy. A lot of the women in these relationships were really dominated, that was one aspect of it. The other aspect of it was just plain old lust. It was a very sexually active time, there was no HIV, you didn't need to use condoms, everybody was on the pill. And we were questioning all social norms, and all social morays, and there was a lot of experimentation.
- [00:44:22.94] So in a number of these criticism, self-criticism group meetings we started discussing whether monogamy should be allowed. And eventually, we decided one day that it shouldn't be. Kind of Stalinist, right? So we actually decreed-- this was not like top down, the whole group decided we were going to end it that day. And that night, all the couples slept with other people. Now, this must have lasted one or two days, and it was really hurtful to people, it was awful, it was crazy. And luckily we recovered from it and kind of went back to norm.
- [00:45:15.94] Another aspect of our craziness-- so on the one hand, we had this very good thing, which is we had this chart system where everybody was assigned to do chores. And everybody had to work for the benefit of the organization, and like I said, nobody had any private property-- none, not a book, nothing. That was a bourgeois something or other.
- [00:45:42.64] So people were assigned to cook, or to watch the front door, or do clean up duties, or to help staff the community organizations in Ann Arbor like the drug crisis hot line, and the free clinic. But one of the things that was put on a chart system was taking care of the children. There were three kids, Una Bach--I think you have a photo of her, and Celia and Marion Sunny Sinclair So each day a different person would take care of those kids, and spend time with them, and play with them, and feed them, and put them to bed. And they saw their parents, but not so much. Was that good? I don't think so.
- [00:46:37.04] So I get to Ann Arbor. I'm 18 years old. I've never taken care of a child. All a sudden one night a week from, I think it was, right after dinner until the next morning. I was in charge of three kids by myself. I think the parents would feed them, and then I'd have to play with them, and clean them, and put them to bed, and this was my duty to the cause. Was that good for those children? I mean I did the best I could, but I don't think that was too smart. So there are a lot of crazy excesses in that, and what do expect? We didn't think we were bound by any tradition whatsoever. So it was an unusual time.
- [00:47:21.30] Here's another document I wonder if it's in the Bentley Library. When Pun's case for allegedly blowing up the CIA office in Ann Arbor, and this was before I got here, and I have no idea if he did it. I'm going to ask him today. See he wasn't allowed to have an office here. It was totally illegal. The charter of the CIA forbade them, specifically, from having any offices anywhere but Langley, Virginia. Oh yeah. That's a fact.
- [00:47:50.86] So the case was thrown out when it turned out they were wiretapping the Hill Street phone without a warrant. And when this was revealed in court, the judge threw it out, illegal wiretapping. So my understanding, and Buck Davis, the lawyer, is here-- is they had transcribed hours, and hours, and days, and days, and days, of everything that happened on the phone. And Buck got the transcripts. Where are they?
- [00:48:19.28] AMY: We talked to him about that. We've interviewed him. And he's got them, but--
- [00:48:24.60] ANDREW: Is there some kind of an injunction?
- [00:48:26.10] AMY: There's some reason he can't release them. We also interviewed Judge Damon Keith, and it's on there, and he said-- it was a funny moment-- he says, "I looked at those, and there's nothing on there."
- [00:48:37.30] DAVID FENTON: I would think it's mostly like drug deals, not much-- people talking to their love partners. Well I wish he could release them I'd love to look at it.
- [00:48:50.33] AMY: We would, too. We asked.
- [00:48:53.47] DAVID FENTON: This is very Yin-Yang also, like everything, so on the negative side, the over celebration of drugs was terrible. I mean, I know people who died. The guy that was the ad salesman for the Sun, Tom Pomaski a lovely guy I think was from Ypsilanti, he would drive stoned all the time, and was killed in a car crash. I saw people have epileptic seizures. I saw people lose all motivation. I saw people have psychotic episodes, bad ones, and a lot of damage. I saw people who would take LSD and have a really bad experience.
- [00:49:54.87] But because the mythology of the organization, and the writings, and the culture of music at the time, and Tim Leary, and all that, they'd say, "Well, I'm just going to keep doing it until I have this mystical, wonderful, transcendent, experience." And some of them got really hurt, really hurt. Let's face it, if people get up in the morning and smoke pot, and smoke it again at lunch time, and smoke it again in the afternoon, and smoke it again at night, and do that every day for years, and years, and years, something is the matter.
- [00:50:27.90] Sure, it's not physiologically addicting, and federal law still classifies marijuana as in the same schedule as morphine. That's just insane. But all the celebration of pot as a sacrament and all this as part of spiritual practice was never accompanied, ever, by any warnings of abuse, or overuse, or what to look out for, or for what would constitute behavior that would be excessive. It'd be like promoting alcohol as just only a great thing no matter how much you took. That's what we did, and that was John, and that was not helpful and hurt a lot of people.
- [00:51:25.67] I talked before about the positive side of psychedelic experimentation, which I really do believe, and occasional recreational use of marijuana, is more benign than drinking beer. It is. All the medical and scientific evidence is clear about that, not to mention that beer can't help cancer patients reduce pain or increase their appetite. But it was overly promoted, and unquestionably over promoted, and I think that is a dark legacy of this thing that I've never heard anybody else talk about.
- [00:52:05.20] ANDREW: A lot of the people we've talked to have almost nothing but positive things to say about the entire experience of being in the commune, and it's all very positive. How do you account for that? The sort of different--
- [00:52:19.45] DAVID FENTON: Maybe they've done less psychoanalysis than I have. I think it's a human tendency, right, to just celebrate the positive. It's also a very Midwestern tendency isn't it? So maybe that's the answer. I don't really know. I guess the answer to that is, people don't like to relive and face painful experiences. But you can't learn if you don't, and you certainly can't write accurate history if you don't.
- [00:52:54.30] Here's a public story so-- you have to understand the mindset of the time. Kids were smoking marijuana everywhere. Hash Bash on the Diag at the University of Michigan-- what was one of the very first things we did when we got the swing votes on the Ann Arbor City Council? We made the sale and possession of marijuana a $5 parking ticket. I've heard it's $10 now, is that true?
- [00:53:22.26] AMY: Or is it a little more? I think, $25
- [00:53:24.42] DAVID FENTON: See, OK, that was us. The first thing we did. And, understandably, because you lived in fear of your life being ruined and disrupted by this madness, this Puritan crazy madness And it's hard to imagine how bad it was. And it was bad here. This guy, Sheriff Harvey, he was terrible. But if you lived in places like Mississippi, and Texas, and Alabama, your life was ruined. And the police, if they found somebody in a car with one joint, goodbye. Your life is over.
- [00:54:01.86] So you can understand why we thought we should get rid of this, and we did. So with that as the mindset of the time, unfortunately, the police were viewed as the enemy, and I think that's really a shame. And that's why I really think these drug laws need to be fixed, because I actually think respect for the law is an important thing, so we should have laws that people can respect.
- [00:54:27.27] So we decided that, as a public service, the Sun was going to start publishing photographs of undercover narcotics agents who were busting people solely for marijuana. I mean, heroin dealing, that's a whole other thing. And, as you might imagine, the police were not happy about this. And we would stake out the courthouse, and when the undercover agents would testify at trials, we would take their photograph. And we'd put them in the paper saying-- I forget what we called it, "Watch a Nark," or something.
- [00:55:02.10] And one of the photographers who did this was a very petite blond woman. She must have been 20 years old, and one day as she was standing outside the courthouse, she started photographing this very broad chested, big, football player, cop, and he saw her taking his picture, and he knew what this was. And he rushed her, and knocked her to the ground violently, and tried to take her camera, which he did not get. And so, we sued him for assault.
- [00:55:42.97] And you should look this up, because I probably don't have the exact details of this exactly right, but I know that what happened is, after we sued him for assault, he counter-sued us-- intentional infliction of emotional harm. That by publishing his photograph, we were exposing him to emotional harm, and perhaps real harm.
- [00:56:09.61] So I called the ACLU national office in New York, and said, "Help," because this was going to put the Sun out of business. And it was a very complicated issue, because on one hand, it's a free press. If you can't publish the photos of the police, how's it a free press? And it was also, from our perspective, a genuine public service, because these people were really hurting innocent people who were smoking a joint in between going to a bar at night or something. I mean, who cares?
- [00:56:44.83] And, understandably, from the police's perspective, this was pressure on them, and causing them stress and grief. This was a very delicate thing. So the ACLU got involved and took the case, and the jury found for the policeman against us at the local court level-- huge judgment, like goodbye, we're out And this went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they protected our right to publish the photographs. It's a really important case that very few people know about.
- [00:57:22.54] AMY: Yeah, we didn't know.
- [00:57:23.41] ANDREW: We didn't know about that.
- [00:57:25.13] AMY: We're going to be digging things out as we go along with this project.
- [00:57:28.75] DAVID FENTON: I don't remember who the ACLU lawyer was. But, yeah, that was an important case and a tough one. How would you decide? That's a tough case. But for us it was these people were hurting students, hurting all these people.
- [00:57:50.06] So did you see the other unique promotion the Sun engaged in?
- [00:57:55.63] AMY: The pound of Columbia?
- [00:57:57.15] ANDREW: The contest?
- [00:57:58.49] DAVID FENTON: Yeah, that was pretty unique, two years in a row. And did you see where we held the drawing for the winner?
- [00:58:09.83] AMY: Wasn't it in the city--
- [00:58:12.21] DAVID FENTON: In front of the police station. And did you see who picked the winner? The Democratic county commissioner. So you can see from our perspective back then, that was majoritarian rule. And I'll never forget, it was very funny, when we decided to do that contest, we talked to the lawyers, you know, what is our risk here? And they said you have to be very careful you can't require people to buy the Sun in order to enter the contest, because no purchase necessary-- that's the law.
- [00:58:49.53] And we said, "This whole thing is so illegal. We're just not going to listen to that," and we required people to buy the Sun to get the entry coupon, and got a lot of entries, sold a lot of papers. And, of course, a lot of people thought that this was all a spoof. Who would be crazy enough to risk actually delivering the prize to somebody, but we were very committed to truth in journalism.
- [00:59:25.06] As we get closer to complete national decriminalization of marijuana, which I think we're very close to in this country-- we're at 60% support. It's now what, 18 states? And also, do you know the first attempt to legalize marijuana on a state ballot was in Michigan. It failed miserably, but it was the first. I think all of these efforts will appear very charming and pioneering. It's easy to talk about it now. Bill Clinton only thought he could say he never inhaled, nobody believed him. Just look at pictures of what he looked like back then, and see if you really believe he didn't inhale. Did you ever see pictures of Bill Clinton inhale? And then we have a president who says, "Oh, yeah, I did a little blow." So it's now safe to talk about this stuff.
- [01:00:22.10] But as I said, there was a downside to the over celebration of this, and it's not fair you have to have warning labels on things, you do.
- [01:00:36.05] ANDREW: So I have to ask you. Part of the whole aesthetic, the whole movement, was forming alternatives to institutions that already existed. So we don't like the way the cops do security, we're going to make the Psychedelic Rangers. We don't like the Ann Arbor News, we're going to do the Ann Arbor Sun. Did that have-- how much of an impact did that have on you as someone, who seven years later, founded your company, which is a PR firm dedicated to progressive causes, which was not done.
- [01:01:09.31] DAVID FENTON: Yeah, totally.
- [01:01:09.65] ANDREW: I mean that's not a thing that existed then.
- [01:01:11.23] DAVID FENTON: It's where it came from. Doing things normally was no longer in my genome. That's what I meant by permanently damaged. You were supposed to do things like that. But the primary motivation for starting Fenton Communications was not economic. I mean I thought maybe it could be a business. I wasn't sure. And the early supporters of the company were mostly philanthropists, especially the Rockefeller family, which supported a lot of our anti-nuclear weapons and social justice work.
- [01:01:54.08] It was easy for me to think that way, because look what I've come from. I remember when I left Ann Arbor. I left Detroit. As I said, I was very disillusioned, really depressed. I was a high school dropout, I'd never been to college, I had never had anything that anyone could describe as a job. At I'm flinging myself on New York. I have no idea what I'm going to do.
- [01:02:22.13] And so I take the train to New York from Detroit, which is, what, 14 hours or something ridiculous. And I struggle on this train to write a resume. How the hell am I going to package myself for employment? And I remembered-- because by then I already gotten my FBI files-- that the FBI had said I was very good at public relations. I did two versions of my resume. I figure they're going to be activists I'm going to interview with, and then there's going to be just plain old vanilla jobs. So I did two versions, and one version started with the FBI court. It said, "Subject David Fenton demonstrated himself as an outstanding public relations man-- FBI." That was my calling card.
- [01:03:14.30] Who could make this stuff up? It was just wild. And, of course, the FBI was following me in New York when I was 16 and 17 years old taking photographs. There were debates in the FBI files-- was he advocating the violent overthrow of the government, or not? At 17-- insane. It was just completely insane. I've got my Michigan State Police files, too. They were watching everything. I really think a very important historic question is, what was the counter intelligence, police provocateur, and infiltration work that was done here. You can be sure there was a lot of it and we've never unearthed it. So there's a project for a Ph.D candidate.
- [01:04:06.49] AMY: I wanted to ask you about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Are you working with them, and are you optimistic about where it's going?
- [01:04:16.51] DAVID FENTON: I am very optimistic, and I think what's been accomplished is breathtaking. In 45 days, the notion of the importance of income inequality in this country has become a dominant theme. That's breathtaking. You go out on the street, and I don't mean in Ann Arbor, you can go to Grand Rapids and say what is 99% vs 1% mean? And everybody can tell you. And in August, nobody could. Wow. And now, the President's talking about income inequality, and the Governor of New York just reversed himself and put forward a millionaire's tax. Bill Gates was just at the G20 meeting insisting there be a financial transactions tax, so the whole context has changed. And I don't think it will ever go back.
- [01:05:23.83] Probably the Mayor of New York did those kids a favor clearing them out of the park, because the story was moving too much towards the seedy characters, and the sanitation, and so now, they don't have that problem. And as often the case in history, it was certainly true in the '60s, they excesses of the police were probably the main catalyst that made it crossover. So I've done some volunteer work with some of them, I'm not deeply involved. My ex-wife is very involved. She's kind of their press secretary, den mother, and she was just beat up by the police and had a terrible concussion-- 55-year-old petite blonde woman.
- [01:06:11.48] But I've helped some of them with their designated spokespeople with some message work and some language, and put them in front of a camera, and rehearsed them some. And a lot of it's very familiar to me, because first of all, they have these crazy anarchists in their group, and eventually they're going to have to break with them. Then I suggested to some of them, I said, "Well, why don't you negotiate with the mayor for a permanent encampment, because they're not going to let you stay in this park-- it's too noisy, and there's no facilities." And they said, "Well, we're not going to negotiate with the mayor." I said, "Why not?" They said, "Well, we don't recognize the legitimacy of his authority." So I understood exactly.
- [01:07:03.48] AMY: You've been through that before.
- [01:07:05.99] DAVID FENTON: And I said, "Well, maybe, I mean, that's a little abstract, and more important is, you've captured the imagination of the country, you should try to keep this thing going. " And then, I would write things for them and, of course, they'd have to take it back to the general assembly and get consensus on every word, and then come back. And actually it worked. We kept the message stuff very strong, and a lot of times, when you go through committees, it just gets turned into mush.
- [01:07:40.68] So yes it's been interesting. I'm sure it will have a lasting impact. I'm certain of it, because America's not supposed to be about 1% owning 40% of the wealth and getting one out of every $4 in the economy. I mean that's just not America. ANDREW: To learn more about David Fenton, visit freeingjohnsinclair.org
- [01:08:09.02] AADL talks with David Fenton has been a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.
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