It is 2005, 40 years after the Watts riots, the death of Malcolm X and the prime time of Motown Records. On his WRIF radio show, Night Call, Peter Werbe’s husky voice is intoning some of the 217 reasons why he didn’t feel joyous about the recent “coronation” of George W. Bush. Some of Werbe’s callers are longtime listeners, so disturbed by America’s current political reality that the words stammer out of their mouths. Still others call in, clearly believing they have exposed a late-night communist conspiracy.
Werbe’s radio voice has been heard for decades. But it was his voice as a radical print journalist, once part of the Fifth Estate magazine collective, that first got the attention of Detroit’s old new left.
Fifth Estate was launched in 1965 as a quarterly publication dedicated to pursuing a gritty yet idealistic critique that was rarely found anywhere else in the media. Its name and mission came from the idea that the mainstream press, otherwise known as the fourth estate, was not doing its job. Decades later, the group is still going strong and the publication is just as relevant. Last year, the nationally and internationally read magazine tackled racism, education, primitivism, the election and resistance. This year marks the quarterly publication’s 40th anniversary.
Harvey Ovshinsky started the magazine when he was 17 years old, financed by his rich father and inspired by a summer working for the Los Angeles Free Times. Ovshinsky, now an Ann Arbor-based filmmaker, educator and consultant, quickly moved the paper out of his parents’ basement in their affluent suburban home and onto Plum Street, Detroit’s one-time freak-haven that was bulldozed in the ’70s.
FE was initially printed by Reverend Albert Cleage’s Shrine of the Black Madonna organization. The paper carried stories from the Underground Press Syndicate and tapped local writers, such as John Sinclair, the twentysomething manager of the MC5, in order to create a unique outlet for a growing youth community finding its voice. “I wanted it to be a bridge between the politicos and the freaks and druggies,” Ovshinksy says. “My opinion was, ‘Look, you are all going to get arrested by the same police.’”
The magazine relocated its office to Detroit’s Cass Corridor, where it flourished, covering revolution and unrest both abroad (the Third World, Vietnam) and at home (civil rights in Mississippi, hippie protests in Berkeley, uprisings on 12th Street). By 1967, though, Ovshinksy was interested in other media, including radio. He eventually became the first news director at WABX, Detroit’s infamous freeform FM station.
In 1975, a group calling itself the “Eat the Rich Gang” (ETR) took over the paper. Fredy Perlman, who helped found Detroit’s Black and Red Press in the ’70s, became a contributor. Perlman helped bring a wider array of influences to bear on the new FE, including ideas from the Situationist International and Italian council communists. Black and Red Press published the first English edition of Situationist theorist Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
The Fifth Estate crew called out lefty intellectual Noam Chomsky as an “idiot savant,” and participated in street theater, poetry readings and demonstrations against incinerators and nuclear plants. They even printed Big Three CEOs’ home phone numbers. Capitalism and empire were always targets of FE prose but, increasingly, so were the false hopes and reactionary reformists on the left. Eventually the critique came full circle with the paper’s own history, culminating in a fake ad, “Jail John Now!” branding its own former writer John Sinclair as a plastic revolutionary.
David Watson, now a Cranbook educator, states in his memoirs that, “We were not genteel in our approach, but the ideas had merit.”
The years have taken their toll. FE’s grand theorist, Fredy Perlman, died on an operating table in 1985. Other members have dispersed into the Detroit suburbs and around the country. But Andy “Sunfrog Bonobo” Smith and his wife, Victoria “Viva Bonobo” Jackson, are at the FE helm now in Liberty, Tenn. Pumpkin Hollow is the anarchist community currently putting out the publication.
The magazine’s contributors now meet largely over the Internet, instead of in the Cass Corridor. But as recent issues of the magazine show, the current publication is offering a different take than much of the new media’s blogosphere and Indy Media Web outlets. According to Sunfrog, “the FE is creating something that can germinate and be thought about over time.”
At the end of 2004, the collective reached consensus on not achieving consensus by printing a number of ambiguous yet distrustful critiques about choosing between John Kerry and George W. Bush. The issue also included a full-color center poster that stated, “If war is the last step … then voting is the first!” and “Don’t vote! Change Your Life Not Your Leader.”
Though recent issues — such as last fall’s “Unschooling the World,” and winter’s “Deconstructing Race” — have utilized diverse voices and international perspectives, the 20 or so active collective members are still majority male and, at the moment, all white.
Sunfrog doesn’t want to get drawn into guilt ideology though. “We support the self-determination of all people. But we aren’t interested in just exchanging one power for another. As Fredy Perlman talked about, we want to do away with power not seize power.”
Big words. The FE has always had them, yet corrupt conditions and right-wing revolutions maintain their ascendance. Perhaps not properly practical, the FE’s gritty idealism does encourage its readers to ponder a new world just a rant away.
The 40th Anniversary issue — filled with personal histories and explorations by longtime members such as Peter Werbe, David Watson, Lorraine Perlman and Sunfrog — launches with a release party 5-7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 26, at Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park. 248-968-1190.