This morning I watched two documentaries about the sixties that were structured around the reminiscences of senior citizens (like me) who were radicals back then. One titled “Here Come the Videofreex” opens today at the IFC Center in NY and tells the story of the pioneering efforts of a video-making collective of the same name to record some of the most important events and personalities of the period using the Sony CV-2400 Porta Pak, the first hand-held camcorder to hit the market. The other is a Youtube video titled “Activist State” that allows veterans of the San Francisco State student strike of 1968 to reflect on the struggle and its lingering impact on student activism. It was made by Jonathan Craig, who during his junior year of college in 2008-2009 developed and produced it on behalf of the broadcast department at San Francisco State University.
Sometimes when I am watching films such as these, I have to step back and consider how far we have travelled chronologically. With the Videofreex collective getting started in 1968, the same year as the SF student strike, you are talking about a nearly half-century in the past. It would be around the same timespan as between the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the events that the Videofreex, SF State activists and my entry into the Trotskyist movement. I try to imagine what it would have been like for Lenin and his band of merry revolutionaries to have camcorders on hand in the Smolny Institute or for Farrell Dobbs to have them in Minneapolis in 1934. It makes my head spin.
Part of the pleasure of watching “Here Come the Videofreex” is seeing how much the elderly members of the collective appear to have the same counter-cultural and radical sensibility as they had in their youth. Not a repentant figure among them, least of all David Cort who was the founder of the group by virtue of being able to buy Sony equipment on the cheap after the commercial video recording company he worked for went under. Although he has put on a few pounds, he still wears his hair long.
Cort soon gathered around him a group of like-minded people with technical experience, including a woman who was being recruited by CBS executive Don West to provide an “alternative” youth oriented dimension to his network.
As might be expected, the romance between mammon and the movement came to a quick end after the network preferred to show footage they recorded of people in a procession past Fred Hampton’s coffin in 1969 rather than an interview they did with him when he was alive. That interview and ones with Abby Hoffman are priceless. Since most of “Videofreex” consists of archival footage they shot in the sixties and seventies, the film is indispensable as history as well as oral history with the principals providing voiceover looking back in retrospect.
The problem for the Videofreex was how to get an audience for their videos, especially after they bailed out on CBS. Abby Hoffman had a brainstorm to set up portable broadcasting studios in panel trucks that could be deployed around New York. Like many of his ideas, this was impractical.
The group finally found a place where they could connect with the people, even if it was on a small scale. Using money from an arts grant, they moved to Lanesville in the northern Catskills and rented a big and somewhat dilapidated house. From there, they launched a pirate TV channel where they recorded the quotidian events of the local population who welcomed the long-haired young people with open arms.
Check out “Here Come the Videofreex” if you want to understand the sixties as well as have a good time.
Like the Columbia student strike that occurred the same year, the SF strike involved some of the same issues. If Columbia was bent on colonizing Morningside park for a new gym against the wishes of Harlem, SF State administrators had dragged their feet over implementing an ethnic studies department. Perhaps because SF State had more of a proletarian orientation so to speak, there were far more non-white students in the leadership of the movement than at Columbia, where Mark Rudd and other whites played the major role. For example, a Chicano student named Roger Alvarado represented the Third World Liberation Front that provided most of the leadership of the struggle.
While I cannot gauge the exact weight of SDS in the student strike, I have always been under the impression that the faction associated with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party was an important part of the strike leadership as well. One of its members was Hari Dillon who would spend a year in prison for trumped up charges on rioting, etc. I got to know Hari well when he went to work for Tecnica in 1989 to head up our expansion into Africa. After Tecnica folded, Hari became the Executive Director of the Vanguard Foundation, a leftist philanthropy whose funds he misused in the pursuit of a fraudulent investment scheme and personal luxuries landed him in prison once again. I was touched to see the young Hari Dillon in 2:41 of Craig’s video.