San Francisco in the 1970s…By Ron Jacobs
Weekend Edition November 28th-30th
Decades ago, before any state in the US had ever had any kind of vote to legalize marijuana, a group of marijuana capitalists and reformers held a convention in San Francisco’s Convention Center underneath Market Street. A friend and I attended this convention as members of the interested public. Imagine our surprise when we were met at the entrance by signs forbidding the smoking, selling or otherwise using any illegal substances including marijuana. After asking around a little, we understood that the signs were for real and that San Francisco’s finest were inside the hall in uniform and civilian clothing ready to bust anyone who might decide they wanted to light up and get high. My friend and I left the building for an hour or so, found a good alleyway to smoke a joint or two, bought a six pack of malt liquor, stashed it and went back inside. The hall was full of smokers and people hoping to make money off of smokers. Bongs, papers, books on growing–the whole freaking market place was there. Around noon, we found some paper cups, poured malt liquor into them and sat in some chairs in a corner of the convention center to listen to one of my favorite newspaper writers and Yippie, Paul Krassner, provide his take on things. For an hour and a half, Krassner talked about the SLA, the cops, Nixon, Abbie Hoffman, hippies, Patty Hearst and the irony of a marijuana convention where one couldn’t smoke marijuana.
Krassner had founded his news/satire sheet The Realist almost two decades before that event. Like the satirist Jonathan Swift and Krassner’s contemporary Lenny Bruce, Krassner’s newspaper utilized satire to report the news and, more importantly, to expose the often slimy and nefarious machinations behind that news. All sacred cows were slaughtered and rendered like trophies during hunting season. His point seemed to be telling the truth and pissing off the right people; the latter often being the result of the former. Sometimes those he pissed off were allies in other ways, just a bit too doctrinaire and dogmatic for a Yippie like Krassner.
Usuallly, though, the targets of The Realist’s search for truth were the rulers of the nation, those who funded them and those who protected them. In other words, politicians, generals, bankers, CEOs, newspaper publishers, the courts and the cops.
Not long after that marijuana-less marijuana convention, my friends and I moved to San Diego for a few months. During our stay there, former SF cop Dan White murdered George Moscone the mayor and Harvey milk a city councilman and gay rights activist. The trigger for the murders was the mayor’s refusal to reinstate White to the city council after he had quit. The real motivation seemed to actually lie in White’s homophobia and right wing politics. Right before these murders, hundreds of folks from the Bay Area had died in a mass murder-suicide at the Peoples Temple compound in Guyana. Krassner had recently finished covering the trial resulting from another notorious Bay Area event–the kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), conversion to radical revolutionary and capture by police of heiress Patty Hearst. He would eventually also cover the trial of the ex-cop turned city councilmember turned assassin Dan White. His recently released book Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders presents Krassner’s take on both of these trials.
The Patty Hearst story raised a lot of questions on the Left. There were those who believed the SLA was a covert operation to ferret out radicals and set them up to commit spectacular and suicidal acts in the name of revolution. Others on the Left considered the group’s members to be legitimate leftist revolutionaries and supported the deeds of the SLA. Still others believed the SLA were legitimate and their actions were foolish and based on very faulty politics. Krassner’s coverage of the trial was some of the best being printed, with skepticism fairly meted out to all sides involved. His work was partially informed by the investigative work of Mae Brussell, whose recently released collection of writings, titled The Essential Mae Brussell:Investigations of Fascism in America, includes a good amount of her investigation into the origins of the SLA. Questionable connections of some of its members to far-right groups and the verifiable fact that the group’s leader Donald DeFreeze had been in the employ of the California Highway Patrol’s internal security division informing on Black revolutionary groups seemed to lend legitimacy to the possibility that the SLA was a black op.
The Dan White trial took place in 1979. What should have been an open and shut case of premeditated murder became a showcase for a San Francisco divided amongst itself. Dan White’s defense team, with a good deal of help from the mainstream press in the city, turned him into a martyr for the old white heterosexual and religious power structure which was fighting to retain its grip on San Francisco’s City Hall and other power centers. White’s victims–George Moscone and Harvey Milk–represented the post Haight-Ashbury San Francisco, with drugs, gay sex, leftist politics and every other aspect of a world feared by the Old Guard and celebrated by the new. Paul Krassner is obviously of the latter world. His reportage of the Dan White trial used that cultural/political divide as a contextual framework and succeeded wonderfully. The section in this new release captures this perfectly.
Like I stated before, just like his predecessors Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce (to create an unlikely trinity of men who plied a trade in satire), Paul Krassner understands satire’s purpose. He is a master at exposing the truths beyond and behind the presented facts and their manipulation by the powers that be. Utilizing humor, quality reporting, and a healthy and essential sense of the absurd is what made his magazine The Realist such fun for so many years. HIs latest offering, Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders, continues the tradition.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the most recent novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Sunset Daydream: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.