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Photographing the Revolution

David Fenton's new book of photographs captures the passion and the turbulence of the last years of the '60s.
 
 
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David Fenton is a longtime publicist for many liberal and progressive causes and organizations, including Moveon.org. His company, Fenton Communications, has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Fenton says he learned the tricks of communication as a teenage drop-out, under the wings of legendary activists Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden. And he has the pictures to prove it.

Fenton's new book Shots is a compelling and evocative collection of photographs taken for Liberation News Service during an era marked by its passion and upheaval -- known now as the '60s -- but in the book covering the period from 1968 -'72.

The images evoke a flood of conflicting feelings, both for those who were there and those who have heard the stories. Shots reflects the struggles and the joys of progressives' last great succeses -- civil rights, the environment, women's rights, and the Vietnam antiwar movement. Then came political assassinations and the Nixon administration, and the tactics of a police state turned the times very dark.

Times have changed, to say the least, and so has Fenton. Yet he insists they will change again. The values and lessons of this turbulent period-- which have inspired tremendous inspirations and defensive derision -- will again come to the fore.

David Fenton was interviewed by AlterNet executive editor Don Hazen on May 20, 2005 in New York City.

So why this book, now?

David Fenton: I think that this is a period of history that a lot of people don't know a whole lot about. And the late '60s in particular, I think, was very intense, apocalyptic and frustrated and passionate, and a little delusional also on the part of the movement. This is the era that George Bush wishes never happened, and is still trying to put back in the bottle.

The culture wars of today started in this period, basically, and they started, on one hand, from real, significant, lasting, wonderful changes that were intrinsically good: the end of segregation, emancipation of women, rights of gays, the break from traditional culture and conformity of thought. The assertion that you can't have a draft and send people away to an unpopular war. There were a lot of great things that were accomplished. But there was craziness.

This is the delusional part?

Yeah, there was excess... how could there not be? There is in all these points in history. I remember Abbie Hoffman, whom I adored, and who was my mentor, went crazy one day at a press conference and took a knife out of his hand at the press conference and put the knife on the top of the table and said, "We're not gonna let this happen!"

I remember people going around in front of the police and chanting the slogan "Off the pigs!" I watched people I thought were sensible in SDS go underground and blow up buildings and help turn the country against us. That was insane.

We don't have Abbie, we don't have the Chicago Seven, we don't have the symbols of protest from back in the '60s.

They'll emerge ... if the theocratic corporate state continues the takeover of our government, believe me... there'll be rebellion at some point. I mean, conditions will bring that about.

How bad does it have to get?

I'm no expert on that. I'm a photographer. [Laughs] In my own life, the Vietnam War totally changed everything I knew. I remember I went to my first antiwar demonstration as a photographer and I wore a "Bomb Hanoi" button because I was concerned that they would think I was an anti-war demonstrator. That's how little I knew. Of course, I was 15 years old or something in 1967.

Do you think your precociousness affected you? The fact that you were so young -- did that influence the pictures you took, the relationships you had, the whole Liberation News Service?

I was a baby. Sure, it affected me. But what I proceeded to do was go to school with the anti-war movement. I dropped out of high school, ran away from home, went to work for the Liberation News Service, supported myself selling photographs, and lived on my own and never went back to school. My education basically was with the Chicago, with Abbie and Jerry [Rubin].

That was my introduction to the American legal system. I walk into the courtroom and these big burly federal marshals seize this black man, they push him into a chair, they push a cloth into his mouth, right? They tie his hands behind him and they tie his legs and then next thing I know some guy is sailing over the pews, the rows in the courtroom, landing on top of the federal marshal to protest him, pulling him to the ground. There's fistfights in the courtroom. And this is court!

And I started learning about public relations watching Tom [Hayden] and Abbie and Jerry, and [David Dellinger and [William] Kunstler and [Leonard] Weinglass... they'd go back to their office every day after the trial and the big event was to watch the Walter Cronkite news to see how they did that day.

And that's the way it was.

Yeah, so it was like watching your theatrical reviews every day. You know, "How did the judges' robes gambit work?"

How did you take that and apply that to the world of public relations?

Well, I think that Abbie was very ahead of his time in understanding the impact of television on politics. I think maybe only Richard Nixon understood it as well as Abbie did. He really understood it, too. The other thing that Abbie understood was that you didn't need half a million people in the streets to get the country's attention. In fact, he was able to continue to get the country's attention with an imaginary political party that didn't really exist. [Laughs]

It used to be funny... the so-called Youth International Party was like four people and the New York Times would report the "activities of the Youth International Party." So creative direct action, with the emphasis on creative, and activity that is designed to appeal to the culture of the mainstream media works, and a lot of people were into it.

Now it's not so easy to do street theater. Why is there so little of it?

I don't know that it's harder or easier. I think maybe the living was easier in the '60s. Things were a lot cheaper, people were being supported by their parents, there was a college generation, there wasn't this fear. I'm not sure I understand why. But certainly Abbie understood what Margaret Mead said: A small group of thoughtful people can change the world. But he did some very silly, counterproductive things too, and he was not well. He did have manic-depressive syndrome [bipolar disorder] very badly; he did commit suicide, which was really tragic. So then you get into these questions about where creativity and madness intersect. You'll never be able to dissect that, but there's clearly a connection.

You say right at the beginning that the '60s is this period of time that people don't know very much about.

The late '60s, especially.

My sense is that people think they know about it; they stereotype it, they treat it very superficially.

That may be true. For example, when I talk about the fact that Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was assassinated in his bed while asleep, unarmed, by the FBI, people say, "You're some kind of crazy radical. There's no way that ever happened." And, of course, it's completely well-documented. The FBI paid money to the family. There's a documentary film that documents the whole thing, but nobody knows this happened.

Or another example: there's a photo that was in my last book...of Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. A women's dormitory, a 10-story building full of bullet holes, and it was the same week as the Kent State massacre, and the Jackson State women's dorm was fired upon by machine guns by the police... well, I'm not gonna say machine guns... multiple fire. And nobody remembers this -- they only remember the white people at Kent State.

Were there fatalities?

I believe there were, yeah. [Editor's Note: There were two fatalies, both black students. Many were wounded. More than 160 bullet holes were found in the dorm.]

So the degree to which J. Edgar Hoover destroyed the reputations and purposely brought false charges against them is not very well known. And it's something we should be on the lookout for, because their tactics of spreading disinformation, and causing groups to fight each other and essentially fractioning... they could try again. They may even be doing it right now.

The whole COINTELPRO stuff.

All of that. I don't think that a lot of this is very well known today. A lot of people looked at the book and came to the gallery and said, "I forgot about this." And some of this you couldn't imagine happening today. Like this picture of the people in the reflecting pool. [A half-naked couple making out amongst hundreds of others in the reflecting pool on the Washington Mall.] Could you imagine that happening now? People would be afraid to try. It wouldn't occur to them, and they wouldn't be allowed. Nude and in the reflecting pool in front of the... forget it.

Yet to me, as an impressionable teenager, this was normal. And this violence I saw -- I saw a lot -- was normal. I mean, I had to have a helmet and a gas mask with me everywhere I went. I was constantly being threatened by the police with violence. At the Weathermen's so-called Days of Rage, I saw police fire on them. And I also saw the demonstrators take truncheons out from under their leather jackets, and break every window on the Chicago Gold Coast. Which was a little berserk.

Well, May Day in 1970, too... it was literally anarchy in Washington. The whole day you were moving packs and trying to stop traffic and take over buses and smash things and the police would come and you'd run and....

You would run, not me -- I was a member of the press! [Laughs] I was permanently damaged by this period and I cannot recover.

How were you damaged?

I don't want to recover. We're still basically carrying on, in a modernized way -- I hope -- the tradition of what I learned at Liberation News Service, and from Abbie and all those people. That's what we do. Same thing. It's still: take a progressive issue and find creative ways to bring it to the public's attention and report on it. That's damage, don't you think? If I hadn't gone through that, I probably I wouldn't be doing any of this. I would've gone to college, and been socialized, and be a lawyer somewhere. Or a Hollywood agent.

What's your take on the distinction between the political and the cultural of that period? There are no Woodstock pictures in here.

No, I was breaking up with my girlfriend and I didn't go. Big mistake.

You did news, and you did a lot of work, where you were bringing the rock and youth culture into politics. Why do you think that those things remained separate for a long time?

They were a lot more united then, than they are now. In the '60s, it was a cultural agenda that was also political that was very widespread. Lots of people were growing their hair long and hating Richard Nixon and breaking with centuries of religious and family and other traditions all at once, instantly.

The Beatles were a huge influence as far as putting forward a role model there. All these young people started copying them. And there was a value to some of the time and the identification and link to the music that was pretty unified. Now it's all... there's nothing like that. It's scattered.

It was a very hopeful time. This [points to book] is when the '60s started getting less hopeful. The Panthers were destroyed, the Weathermen came about, some excesses took place.

This was 1970, '71?

Sixty-seven was the summer of love, the anti-war movement grew really strong in '68, but the assassinations started happening and riots happened and it started to ugly.

Kent State was 1970.

Tom writes in the introduction that this was the time of the '60s where there was much more turmoil and violence. Really tough time. We were all convinced that the 1972 elections were going to be canceled by Richard Nixon.

Also, we didn't think we were going to lose 49 states. That was a real stark reality to me that we were so marginalized that McGovern, who was barely progressive enough, could only win one state.

Yeah, sure. It was an interesting time... for me, imagine, I had a press pass for the Fillmore East, and every weekend I could go free and hear Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Pretty good for a kid.

I learned so much at the Liberation News Service, which was started by people who thought the mainstream media coverage of the Vietnam War was horrendous, which it was. And it parallels today's coverage of Iraq, which is pretty awful -- some of the coverage that led up to the war was heinous. Very similarly, it was dominated by this government's approach, which turned out to be purposely phony.

And what you guys at AlterNet do is also very much in the tradition of what those people started and there's more a need for it than ever. That's the main thing: there's more media than ever, and people know less than ever. It's incredible. How hegemonic the falsehood has become, the way that the right had set out to manufacture that false sense of reality and to use it.

How do you fight that now with your communications strategy?

I think the way that it has to be fought is the way that they did it. There has to be significant amount of sustained, committed money to keep the alternative message and political infrastructure at a high level of functioning. We've got the language and the thought.

Are the messages clear enough?

No, obviously not. I think the values are.

Do they have their roots in this book?

In that period, and before. They have their roots in the Beatnik era, that came before that, and the importation of Eastern philosophy into Western values in that period... all of that, sure. And the American Progressive era. The values are the easy part... but I think that's what's missing, is that we're just completely outgunned.

I asked George Lakoff once, "Why do they take it all so much more seriously than we do?" They're much more organized, and it's not just money. There's a lot of money available for the Left. That's easy. Lakoff said, The right-wing foundations, their dominant metaphor is: preserve the system at all costs. The liberal foundation's metaphor is: engage in lots of small individual acts of charity to worthy people. Which one's gonna win? Which approach works? The static or the complicated?

Progressives/liberals have always felt that over time the facts will solve the problem.

Yeah, that's right.

That people are gonna figure this out eventually.

Yeah, after we're all dead. [laughs]

The facts are not so relevant.

That's still a big problem... it's not that they're irrelevant, it's that there's a difference between putting facts in front of people and communicating them.

We have all this faith that information alone will set us free. It's kinda silly. But I think that's what's missing, and I think a lot of people realize that. There's a lot of movement to do something about that.

Are you optimistic about those things coming together?

Yeah, I'm very optimistic. I have to be. There's really no alternative. The country's being taken over. Like pod people; they kinda took our method and did it better.

What do you want young people to take away from this book? Do you want them to be excited? Uplifted?

Yeah, this was a very passionate time and we changed a lot of things in a very few years. A lot of excesses in creating them, but a lot of accomplishments. It is possible to do these kinds of things, you don't have to look at the way things are and accept them with conformity. Things can change quickly; very few people can change them quickly. We know that these kind of social movements are recurring. They're cyclical -- they will come back, so we'll plan. How's that?

You could argue that they're cycles, which there clearly are, but you could also argue that the right wing is on a pretty big march.

Yeah, but that's a cycle, since they lost the '64 election. It won't last when the atmosphere melts and the economy tanks.

There's the memo that Rob Stein talks about, written in 1970 by Lewis Powell for the Chamber of Commerce, that was produced as a result of the business establishment thinking that we were winning.

It wasn't so much winning, as... yeah. I was a 16-year-old photographer. But I think this sense of enormous anarchy was created... you talked about how the movement bought a mythology, right? Maybe the right, and the Nixon people, bought a mythology too: that the movement was more powerful than it was.

They certainly wanted people to think that, because then they could justify whatever oppression/repression....

Right... but they were worried.

You said a small group of people can change the world.

The fact that they were stupid enough to bring charges against the Chicago 7... That gave them that platform. A dumb move.

That was about as big an opportunity that we had to communicate. The whole world was watching that.

Did you read Tom Hayden's introduction? Read it -- there's a lot of good quotes in it.

Tom is the only one of the prominent leaders still visible.

That's why I asked him to do it. I do think the tradition of the underground press and the conveying of information through non-traditional channels -- MoveOn is the modern inheritor of this. It's the equivalent today -- you get on their list, or others like it, and find alternative narratives about the world, and now instead of just buying the paper and ink, you can do something about it collectively. That's pretty amazing. We're really in the infant stages of this.

So, imagine... these kind of phenomena are going to keep growing in power and influence and the number of people in those communities. I really think this is a direct legacy of this period. You, AlterNet, are the underground press of today, right?

Right!