THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The EXTRA! Files

by Alana Baer, Ben Bienstock, Sarah Goldman, Tara Sharma, Ivy Scott, Wen Zhuang, Kion You, Leslie Benavides & Ella Spungen

published May 1, 2020


Volume 40 of the College Hill Independent marks, strangely enough, our 30th anniversary. Thirty years of Metro reporting, 600 Weeks Reviewed, countless copies abandoned on Coffee Exchange tables. Since 1990, students at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design have committed themselves to ensuring the existence of the alternative press in Providence. We have been lucky to survive when so many other vital publications—the Phoenix; Spark Mag—haven’t. We aren’t oblivious as to why: our funding from Brown, even as the University threatens to cut student journalism off like clockwork every few years, anchors us to perhaps the city’s least alternative institution. But we also emerged from a lineage of local papers that, to varying degrees of success, have engaged the wider political world of their Providence readership.

This milestone sent us into the archives—not of the Independent, but of our predecessors. In 2018, the Independent looked back at the Rake, the 1980s radical publication founded by Brown students that investigated and exposed cover-ups of police brutality in Providence. We went searching a little farther back and found Extra!.

Over the past months, a team of Independent writers, editors, illustrators, copy editors, and designers pored over Extra!, Providence’s radical late-60s underground paper, whose complete archives are held at Special Collections at Brown’s John Hay Library. We read about protests at Hope High School, rallies to free Huey Newton, and the policies that Brown enacted to displace Cape Verdean residents of Fox Point. Our eyes flicked from gaudy, dated ads for stereo equipment to the absurd cartoons of the Mad Peck (one of the so-called “Extra! People,” now famous for his iconic “Rich folks live on Power Street/But the rest of us live off Hope” poster). Some of us spoke over the phone to some of the key Extra! People to bring together generations of progressive young journalists, to hear their stories, and, in some self-centered way, to see how we might learn from them as we look to 30 more years of the Independent.

 

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Extra! began in 1968 with three Brown students and a 3000 dollar stipend from the Religious Chaplain’s office. 

“You have to put this whole thing in the context of the times,” Arn Strasser, a Brown Ph.D. candidate who would become managing editor of the paper, told the Independent. “Anti-war, civil rights, there was a stirring up of the energy and they needed something to siphon away that energy. Dick Dannelfelser, a chaplain at the time kind of initiated that, so we got some seed money.”

The money evaporated within weeks. Arn dropped out of college, and the other two Brown students disappeared. Before he knew it, Arn was in the basement of Mouthpiece Coffeeshop on Thayer Street running the newest feature of America’s underground press network, getting stoned, and talking politics with some of the closest friends he would ever make in his life. 

“I certainly remember those all-nighters that we pulled every week, trying to design the paper and lay it out and get it to the printer about six in the morning,” said Marian Fish, Arn’s girlfriend, who flew out to Providence from Michigan to join him, quickly became a fixture of the group. “It was those all-nighters who are fueled by [Coca-Cola] and the most wretched food that you could imagine, donuts and all that stuff.…I think that we worked well together as a group, just being there, music blaring wherever we were.”

Extra! staff told the Independent that much of the joy of working for the underground press was joining a masthead dominated by activists dedicated to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Extra!’s radical activism, though always non-violent, often required members to risk arrest or imprisonment in order to fight some of the most pressing political battles of the time. In 1969, Extra! staffers were among eight activists arrested by Providence police at a Kennedy Plaza rally in support of the Black Panther Party. (One staff member’s charges: “publicly defiling and casting contempt upon the American flag.”) The stakes in these fights were mirrored in Extra!’s articles; coverage of demonstrations they instigated or supported comprised much of their published content.

Just as Extra! advocated politics of liberation, the paper provided some newfound freedom for Marian and self-proclaimed radical feminist MaryJane Simpson, who had both grown up in small, conservative towns in Michigan. “The only thing I was primed for was to be a wife and a mother,” MaryJane recalled. “In trying to keep me from taking off, my father would make me read Reader’s Digest stories out loud of girls going to San Francisco, and living on the streets and becoming prostitutes and eating cat food. And I was just like, well, I’m gonna do it a different way.”

Both women still chafed against the confining gender roles they had traveled so far to escape. Within the first year of publication, it became apparent that the leftist activist paper was not quite so radical when it came to gender relations.

“There was a lot of focus on being a cute hippie chick, and that made me a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to just be a pretty girl,” insisted MaryJane. “But the women’s movement was just getting started. So I both wanted to be independent, with this chip on my shoulder. And then I would also go cook dinner because it felt like somebody should, and I knew that I could do that.” 

As a male-dominated environment in the chauvinistic 1960s, Extra! rarely concerned itself with women’s liberation, and despite the paper’s radical politics, there tended to be a clear divide between men and women. According to Arn, “We tried to have a communal sense of things,” admitting that “the women were strong, but… it was still more male-oriented.” 

Marian agreed: “The women were the people that typed a lot and the men were the ones that [wrote] the headlines and wrote most of the important articles....As time went on, I became less shy, and I started doing bolder and braver things on my own, writing a little more and doing some of my own research. Arn was, in particular, very supportive of my efforts. But I still did all the cooking and cleaning, and I did a shitload of typing.”

Despite the hierarchical gender roles on staff, MaryJane nevertheless felt she could practice feminist ideals while working at the paper. “We moved to this office, and the guys were building desks, just simple 2x4 frame desks. And I asked to help, and they let me,” she remembered. “I saw I could do and learn things that I had been told I couldn’t. I spent my twenties and part of my thirties doing all these things they said girls couldn't do.”

As the women’s liberation movement took off in the 1970s, the Extra! men rallied behind that cause as zealously as they had embraced the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. “To their credit, as soon as feminist issues started arising, then they jumped in, they were behind these things,” Marian conceded. “They talked a better line than they expressed in their work.”

As for the men, they remember the women of Extra! acting boldly during the feminist revolution, suddenly unafraid to call them out for even the slightest hint of sexist behavior. “When you went up to them and you said, ‘Oh, sweetie,’ They’d say, ‘Don’t give me any of this ‘sweetie’ shit, go talk to your men friends!’” Arn recalled. “I mean, they were tough. And some of it was maybe a little extreme, but really they were saying, ‘Hey, look, you men, you have to get your own thing together. You can’t always be crying on our shoulder.’”

Ultimately, Extra! was a space where the women involved felt empowered among their male peers, even if the men often left them to take care of making dinner or mopping the floor. “There was a real sense of community, and I wasn’t used to that, and that was wonderful,” said MaryJane. “I come into this strange town, and I connect with this group of people who are good people, trying to do something good. Such a gift.”

 

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Extra!’s radical political aspirations were clear to Marc Sarkady, a young writer from West Warwick who was part of the newspaper’s core. “We weren’t just a reporting instrument,” he told the Independent. “We were an instrument of change.”

As with many young radicals in the late ’60s, the central pillar of Extra!’s impassioned activism was their opposition to the Vietnam War. The newspaper sent several reporters to cover the anti-war protests at both the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the Moratorium in Washington D.C. in 1969. The Extra! issue published prior to the historic Moratorium action—at which over a quarter of a million demonstrators protested the war—exhorted readers to “think about coming down to Washington.” Extra! wanted to bring Providence to the center of the movement to end the war: “Try to get down for part of the time, at least. Confrontations political or physical, foster unity and show the rest of America that despite our myriad differences, we all share the same basic concerns.”

Extra! members also regularly participated in Civil Rights demonstrations and protests. “There were a lot of discussions about racism in the Providence Police Department, and so we actually formed an organization called COBRA (Community on Basic Rights Action),” Marc, who now works as a political consultant, recalled to the Independent. This organization was designed for its members to go out into Providence and serve as witnesses, ensuring fairness when the police were called to attend to supposedly suspicious activity.

Those working for the paper also marched, protested, and rallied for local causes. Marc recounted Extra!’s response to a ban on rock music that was instituted in Providence, where the staff joined other demonstrators “playing music in the face of the police at City Hall”: “There were probably a good three or four hundred of us who pranced around City Hall, and they banned us. That led to us deciding that we were going to hold a rock concert, even though they told us we couldn’t,” he said. “We went to Roger Williams Park, told everyone we were going to have music there, and attracted thousands of people. We brought a generator to have music, but the police confiscated it. We held this gigantic circle of probably a thousand people reading this poem, an analysis of our society, and the chorus at the end of each verse was ‘Count me out.’” 

At another local protest, MaryJane and her peers snuck into a Providence beauty pageant and unveiled banners that said ‘Liberate Women.’ “I was charged with disrupting a public assembly. When we went to court, there was a woman judge who gave us both six months probation, because she believed that there were better ways for a woman to prove that she is competent, which is true,” MaryJane admitted. “The thing that seemed to be so important back then was to get our ideas out to the public, get on the media as much as possible. We didn’t plan on getting arrested, but we wanted to present the idea to people, to present an option.”

 

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Useful Folly, a 1970s documentary by fellow Extra! journalist Robert Rose, featured several staff members from the paper, including Marc as an optimistic twenty-something. “It was almost like we were pushing ahead to try to get some reaction. To try to stop the war, to show people that we meant something, that it mattered, through emotionalism,” he said in the film. “We were still youthful and adolescents and rebelling against our parents, and many of the acts that we committed were like the government was our parents, and we were rebelling against them.”

Thoroughly anti-establishment, Extra!’s writing and production united local high school students, college dropouts, and various community members behind a common goal of political revolution. The radical motivations of the underground press reverberated throughout these various groups, and disrupted “mainstream” Providence, a largely conservative city in the 60s and 70s. Speaking to the Independent, Patricia Bergantini, who became involved with Extra! as a junior in high school, fondly remembered the community that welcomed her so enthusiastically, and the attraction of a project that stirred up so much controversy.

“My uncle said he would spit on the RISD students, and that would give them a bath,” recalled Pat, now a middle school teacher in the Providence Public School District. “A lot of my working-class relatives, which is basically all of them, hated stuff like that.” For Pat, however, Extra! offered a few nights of reprieve from the stuffy atmosphere of her Mount Pleasant High School classroom. “[Extra!] was a place where you felt accepted, and you could go and talk about things,” she said.

Pat’s involvement with the paper also influenced her increased political activity in school, culminating in a day of in-school suspension after she and three female classmates wore pants to class. Looking back on this act of rebellion, Pat is shocked that her shy teenage self had ever dared to be so bold. Even so, she doesn’t consider Extra! to have transformed her life too drastically. “Arn, Marian, a lot of the kids involved were much more daring than I was,” she recalled. “They had left home, quit school, lived in apartments. I never did that; I would sleep over on the weekends but I always went home to my parents.”

Although Extra!’s nonconformist pedagogy upended the myth of the university as the only platform where intellectual, credible, and productive work could be created, it was still rooted in a local and national student movement. “There was the University of Rhode Island, there was Brown and RISD and Pembroke. We found people in those institutions to help us put out the paper, to write, to sell, to keep us going,” Marian remarked to the Independent. “We would sell the paper down in the mall and in other places around town, and I think a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life picked it up as a curiosity. We developed a readership, Providence knew about us. We were definitely out there. For two years, we hawked this paper on the corner, and I think that it was probably widely known then.”

 

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Extra! staffers followed in the tradition of dozens of other underground newspaper communities of the era, convening in café basements with an old record player, a couple of joints, and a stack of publications from across the country. “There were maybe 40, or something like that. We would take all these papers and we’d digest things that were interesting from those papers. We’d be down there with a Selectric typewriter and typing out the article, pasting it with wax on pages. We’d work all night.” 

Once they completed the week’s issue, Extra! staffers returned to what Arn called “the basics of [the paper’s] politics”—a communal, countercultural lifestyle that consisted of packing a dozen people into a two story house on Federal Hill and subsisting on “a combination of drugs and rock and roll.” Equal parts archive, debate forum and hippie co-op, Extra!’s multiform workshop was ideal for collaboration. Austere living and a lack of boundaries dividing work from play, however, complicated internal power dynamics at times. 

“We all contributed everything we had,” remembered Roger Friedman, one of the few students who worked closely with the paper while pursuing his education at Brown. “We all shared, but that was kind of tough sometimes. I remember needing a new pair of shoes once and having to justify that at a meeting.” Arn echoed this sentiment with his own recollection of the Extra! people wearing nothing but raggedy clothes, hardly ever going shopping, and essentially living off of brown rice for months. 

Extra! was part of “a cultural phenomenon,” in staffer and documentarian Robert Rose’s words. “It guided the community, gave them something to rally around.” The paper functioned as the primary platform through which information about anti-war organizing was disseminated around Providence. Extra! faced serious resistance from the Providence police, who in 1970 attempted to arrest Robert and other staff members under an antiquated law requiring anyone selling newspapers obtain a license from the police. According to the law, “the police could withhold that license based on the moral character of the individual at hand.” 

After the arrest, the case was taken up by the ACLU under Strasser vs. Doorley in 1970. Following a ruling in Extra!’s favor, “even the Providence Journal ran a couple of articles about how we had confronted the city and won,” said Robert. Still, the ‘Establishment Press’ held reservations about the overall mission of the underground paper. A 1969 profile of Extra! By C. Fraser Smith in the Journal’s Sunday magazine began: “The trouble with most of the Underground Press may be the same malaise that affects the rest of the press: It is terribly self-righteous, takes itself seriously to the point of tears, has little fine writing, and, of course, has no sense of humor whatsoever.”

Extra! was staffed almost exclusively by “young, white hippies,” Arn told the Independent. He said that diversity on staff didn’t cross his mind, because “we were just too involved, you know, to be that conscious.” However, like most white radicals of their generation, the era’s Black liberation movements profoundly shaped Extra!’s political consciousness. The paper’s anti-racist politics drove its coverage of Black political movements in Providence and its publication of local Black activist writers. Unlike the Journal, which covered Black political movements in the 1960s and 70s from a skeptical, moderate remove, Extra! took the social and political concerns of Black communities seriously. But as the staff struggled to find the proper role for a white radical paper supporting Black radical activists, it made choices—like striving for revolutionary white heroism—that some members now see as naïve.

“If you would’ve asked, you know, are you committed to the Panthers? We’d say, yeah, because that was the thing,” Arn explained. “They were the Black Panthers and we were going to be the White Panthers, you know? It was very romantic.” Extra! did publish pieces by both the Black Panther Party and the White Panther Party, the antiracist Panther-support organization founded by John Sinclair, manager of the legendary radical Detroit garage rock band the MC5. Extra! also wrote crucial beat-by-beat coverage of the 1968 Black student walkout at Pembroke College and Brown University and gave voice to radical Black critics of the city’s War on Poverty agency Progress for Providence—or as the writer called it, “Progress for Poverty.”

But if supporting the Panthers was the thing, actually having Black people on staff was not. Little trust existed between white and Black radicals in Providence in the late ’60s, and though Extra!’s coverage of Black politics was better than the Journal’s, many Black communities in the city published their own papers. In the South Providence Today and Projection Black, the newsletter of the Afro Arts Center, among others, Black Providence residents could read and publish stories that reflected the breadth of radical Black politics in the city more thoroughly than Extra! ever did.

Amidst these difficult social and political circumstances, zealous activism and a romantic but sincere desire to change the world unified the masthead. In later years, however, it also led to tension. As bail payments for jailed staffers became frequent and expensive, members divided over whether they should arm themselves for protection from the police. 

“Our battles with the police kind of ended the paper for us because, at that point, some people on the paper were wondering whether or not they had to start arming themselves in self-defense,” Marian said. “Some people said, no, no, that is just way too dangerous, as soon as you start arming yourself for whatever reason, you’re dead. They have a reason to come in, blasting their guns. Nobody armed themselves, in the end, but there were heated discussions about that because we were all afraid of what was coming down on us. It just looked worse and worse. And that created a rift between the people working on the paper.”

The dissolution of Extra! in early 1971 was shocking to some, natural to others, but disappointing for all. “I was devastated,” said Pat, a sentiment echoed in one way or another by every Extra! staff member that the Independent contacted. “It was really, really sad.”

Decades later, some members question the long-term efficacy of their three and half years of grassroots work. “It is hard to talk about all this as serious activism, because mostly we were having fun,” admitted MaryJane, a sentiment echoed by several of the other Extra! staff. Marc said that, on the one hand, it’s possible their protesting “did a disservice to the issues they were trying to speak to and change.” Yet in some ways, he contended, their activism “most rapidly represented those same issues.” 

The newspaper left behind an unconventional archive of Providence’s anti-war history, a noble exploration into social justice reporting, and a proud tradition as a member of the underground press network. The Extra! staff wrote themselves into the history books not only through the rallies and demonstrations intended to make (their own) headlines, but also through the infusion of their writing with strong personal conviction, and the revolutionary verve of the 60s youth counterculture. 

Fifty-one years ago, even the ‘Establishment Press’ marveled at the organization that could be achieved by a motley crew of passionate and driven college dropouts and their closest friends. 

“One is struck by the tension that newspapering brings to young men and women who are not widely-regarded as well-disciplined or industrious,” wrote the Providence Journal. “Extra!’s  quest is a combination of community, truth, and revolution, but it also craves a certain professionalism: it wants to be read as a serious publication, and it wants to promote change.” 

Although the Indy won’t be converting the vacant backroom of Shiru Café into an underground political commune anytime soon, we share with Extra! a commitment to journalism that furthers local political struggles, human rights, and social justice. At its core, Extra! was a group of people wholly devoted to disrupting political standards and redefining cultural norms. Far from self-indulgent, they were part of a community much bigger than themselves, and they eagerly surrendered their time, money, and energy to that community. 

As we cap off the celebration of 30 years of publication under the most unexpected circumstances, the Indy People are taking this opportunity not just to reflect on three decades of journalism, or recall our finest or darkest hours, but to recommit ourselves to chasing after the stories we believe are worth telling.

We will continue to ground our work in humility and community, knowing that we won’t always get it right. Thirty years from now, we can only hope to speak about our own writing with the same refreshing criticism as the Extra! staff; the same self-aware nostalgia, and the same unwavering devotion to slaying giants and saving the world.

 

The Independent would like to express its gratitude to Arn Strasser, Marian Fish, MaryJane Simpson, Pat Bergatini, Marc Sarkady, John Peck, Gloria Derderian, Robert Rose, and Roger Friedman for providing extensive interviews for this piece. Our deepest thanks also go to the librarians at Special Collections at the John Hay Library, who rapidly digitized hundreds of pages of Extra! while Brown University services shut down in March.

 

THE INDY PEOPLE B/RISD ‘20 think that the Independent should go underground.