Activist Memories Fuel Former Red Tide Staff : Radical High School Paper Celebrated in 15-Year Reunion
. . . It razed classrooms, flinging textbooks to the winds, screaming out of turn. . . . Tardy slips, suspension notices, bad-conduct notices, report cards -- all were swept away in its churning mist. It was . . . The RED TIDE.
--Manifesto of University High School underground
A bunch of friends from University High School in West Los Angeles were smoking a joint on Venice Beach one night in 1971 when they were smitten by one of those collective delusions of power that sometimes overcome kids who really don’t have much power.
Dissatisfied with the official school line on history and current events, the students resolved to start a newspaper that would publish alternative views on issues like the anti-war movement, women’s rights and civil rights.
The waves that evening had a greenish hue that comes from a condition called a red tide. Inspired by the ocean and by their own boldness, the youths decided they’d call the paper the Red Tide.
Precocious and Determined
Plenty of other teen-agers have concocted similarly grandiose plans, and often the fantasy fades as quickly as the effects of the marijuana. But University High School--or Uni High as they called it--contained an unusual concentration of precocious and determined activists that year.
Karen Pomer, for instance, wrote anti-war poetry in elementary school, and quit her all-white Brentwood Bluebird troop when her request to network with a sister Bluebird troop in Watts was refused.
Michael Letwin’s grandparents and parents were union organizers, anti-war workers and champions of civil rights. Growing up in such an environment, Letwin believed it was possible for people--even 15-year-olds--to change the world.
It was Letwin’s parents who harbored the infant newspaper in the garage of their home on Manning Avenue near the West Los Angeles high school. Alita and Leon Letwin waited patiently for the youths’ initial outpourings of rebellion and anger to exhaust themselves in the first few issues of the Red Tide. They were proud to see the paper evolve into a forum for a wide range of radical causes. Soon the paper was being sold for 10 cents a copy at several schools in the Los Angeles area; in later years the paper would be distributed in cities around the country.
“We felt the paper was a positive outlet for teen-age energy and concerns,” Alita Letwin said. “For a lot of young people who didn’t have such an outlet, it became a time of great alienation.”
When school administrators insisted that the principal have the right to prior censorship of any article appearing in the Red Tide because it was distributed on campus, Leon Letwin, a professor of law at UCLA, represented the students in a case that eventually went to the state Supreme Court. The court ruled in the students’ favor, saying that state law “does not authorize prior restraint by school officials.”
About 50 former Red Tide staffers who spanned the nine-year history of the newspaper gathered at the Letwin home last Sunday for a 15-year reunion. The organizers were apprehensive that their gathering might turn out like the fictional reunion of ‘60s activists in the film “The Big Chill.” Now that they were in their late 20s and early 30s, had the former Red Tide staffers’ youthful idealism given way to self-interest and disillusion?
“It’s not like ‘The Big Chill,’ ” said Pomer, now a documentary film maker who won several awards for her film on the MOVE organization in Philadelphia. “We’re still involved. There are not too many yuppies among us. Our activism just comes out in different ways now.”
After graduation, Pomer went to work for the United Parcel Service, where she organized clerks to join the Teamsters Union. At ABC, where she later worked as a page, she organized employees to combat sexual harassment. Pomer, 31, said that her current work as an independent film maker is simply an extension of ideals that first found expression in the Red Tide.
“It never occurred to me to become part of the system,” Pomer said.
Pomer has attempted to locate the former administrators at the high school--several of whom are retired--to interview them for a documentary about the Red Tide. John Welch, who took over as principal of University High School during the Red Tide years, still works for the Los Angeles Unified School District as coordinator of priority housing.
“There was a lot of churning, a lot of yeasty things going on at that time,” Welch said of the early ‘70s. “This (the Red Tide controversy) was just one more issue that needed to be resolved.” Welch said he didn’t remember much about individual members of the Red Tide or the group’s activities, except that they were always testing the rules.
During the peak years of Red Tide activity at the Letwin home, Alita Letwin said she sometimes longed for the days when she had just three kids mobbing the refrigerator instead of 16.
But last Sunday, Alita and Leon Letwin enthusiastically welcomed the old gang back into their fold. This time the guests brought their own food: brownies, pasta salad, barbecued chicken and punch. Bob Dylan and Sly and the Family Stone records played on the stereo just like in the old days. Some of the former Red Tide members have wives, husbands and babies now.
Susie Bright said she was something of a social nitwit in high school. She wore thick glasses and spent too much time reading books to be cool. One day someone handed her a flyer saying that the Red Tide group had been denied permission to bring a gynecologist to campus to speak about birth control.
Said Bright, who works as a sex educator in the San Francisco Bay Area: “I knew I was old enough to hear these ideas.”
When she started hanging around the Red Tide collective, Bright found for the first time that she was appreciated for her intelligence and opinions. Red Tiders did not limit their activities to the newspaper, but also organized boycotts and took part in demonstrations. (Pomer was one of two Red Tide members arrested in 1973 while taking food, clothing and medical supplies to Indian activists at Wounded Knee.) Bright and other Red Tide staff members organized Women’s Week in response to the school’s traditional Girl’s Week, which featured powder-puff football and a mother-daughter fashion show. Women’s Week brought rape education, self-defense training and other activities to campus.
“The way I got my self-esteem was through politics and the Red Tide,” Bright said.
Larry Robinson said that being a part of the newspaper “gave us a lot of confidence to make things happen. We really thought there was nothing we couldn’t do.”
A 28-year-old musician and record producer who is musical director for the “Fame” TV series, Robinson said, “If nothing else, the Red Tide taught us to take care of business. Our writing skills developed considerably. We were dealing with intricate issues in a way a 14- or 15-year-old kid could understand.”
The first issue of the Red Tide was distributed on the University High School campus on Nov. 1, 1971. “Four students were immediately suspended,” Pomer said. One of them was Michael Letwin, unofficial ringleader of the clan.
In March, 1972, they distributed the newspaper’s second issue, with stories about police sweeps on campus, abortion counseling and the Los Angeles Black Panthers. Three students were suspended this time.
The Red Tide staff wrote an open letter to the administration demanding an apology for the suspensions and a promise that they would be allowed to exercise free speech. In the letter, they invited school administrators to meet them on the women’s athletic field during the scheduled nutrition break. Seven hundred students turned out to see the show.
“Of course, the administration didn’t come,” Pomer said. “So we decided we’d go to them. We marched up and took over the administration building, very much in ‘60s fashion.”
When attempts to reason with the administration failed, the student publishers filed suit against the school district. Bright had the distinction of being the Red Tide member named in the case: Bright vs. the Los Angeles Unified School District. Bright said she was chosen for the role partly because her parents supported the newspaper. There were other Red Tide members, she said, who were restricted to their rooms for working on the paper.
By the time a decision was handed down by the state Supreme Court in 1976, there was hardly anyone left around Uni High or the old A&W; root-beer-stand hangout to celebrate. The paper had shifted its focus to issues of the black working class, and, in 1975, the Red Tide had moved operations from Southern California to Detroit. Bright dropped out of school in the 11th grade to follow the paper. Some other staffers, who had graduated by that time, also moved to Detroit.
Continued in Detroit
Retha Hill was 16 at the time the transplanted Red Tiders leafletted her Detroit high school. The flyer told about the plight of Gary Tyler, a 16-year-old black who’d been sentenced to death in Louisiana for the murder of a white youth in what the Red Tide viewed as a racist frame-up. (After an extensive protest campaign by the Red Tide and other groups, Tyler’s death sentence was commuted. He is still in prison.)
At first, Hill said, she was intimidated by the Red Tide members. “They were so different, kind of scary, with long hair and beards, like hippies I saw on TV.”
At 17, Hill took over as editor of the Red Tide. She grew up in a black neighborhood in Detroit; Red Tide members were her first white friends. She had her first glass of beer at a Red Tide party. Her first boyfriend was one of the Red Tide staffers who moved to Detroit from Los Angeles.
Now a newspaper reporter in Charlotte, S.C. (she came to California for the reunion), Hill said she was impressed by the fact that middle-class white youths would move across the country, live in a crowded, roach-infested flat and get up in freezing weather to leaflet schools before first-period classes.
“It (the Red Tide team) was just the way I think society should be, and the way I think it will be eventually,” Hill said.
Hill edited the 40th and final issue of the Red Tide in 1980. Staff members were graduating to adult pursuits and “people were moving away from the long hair and questioning,” Hill said.
“In some way we’re still connected (to Red Tide ideals),” she said. “We’ve changed, but we haven’t forgotten what we are.”
Dan Letwin was known to the Red Tide group as Danny. He was Michael Letwin’s little brother, and he was always underfoot during meetings at the Letwin’s house.
Dan Letwin caught the Red Tide fever, too, and “for two or three years, the Red Tide was the major thing in my life,” he said. (Another Letwin brother, David, was also involved with the paper. He is studying drama in New York and was unable to attend the reunion.)
Now a graduate student in history at Yale, Dan Letwin said it seems to him that young people today are far less interested in the large issues the Red Tide took on.
“There was a culture then that may not exist now,” he said. “My current friends are bemused. They think the paper is terribly quaint. But I still feel pretty proud of it.”
Michael Letwin said he believes there will be a resurgence of activism among high school students eventually. When that time comes, he said, the precedent set by the Red Tide will be of use to others trying to secure the right to distribute literature on campus.
He said: “Working on the paper was an inducement to re-think the way we had grown up. Everybody who passed through the Red Tide was, I think, dramatically changed.”
Michael Letwin, 30, is a public defender in New York City and is married to Ellen Dichner, an attorney who specializes in labor law. They have a son, Brian, 2.
Although he believes his current profession is a worthy one, Michael Letwin said, “It doesn’t amount to changing the world. I would much rather be using my life to do what I was doing (publishing the Red Tide).”