Voices from the underground
Twenty years ago, John Silber killed off the alternative
press at BU. A new group of students is bringing it back to life.
by Tinker Ready
Dan Feder walks up Comm Ave to the steps of BU's College of Arts
and Sciences, carrying a heavy bundle of newspapers. He puts the stack down,
grabs a few papers off the top, and steps into the middle of the sidewalk.
THE REVOLUTION, '90s style: at it's weekly meeting in the front room of a college brownstone,
the "Underground" staff plots its assault of John Silber's BU.
"Student Underground?" Feder asks politely, offering copies of the paper
to the students spilling out of the building. Some take a paper. Some don't.
Feder, a soft-spoken sophomore from New Hampshire, calls this an improvement
over last year's response.
"People used to laugh," he says. "Now they know what you're talking about. It's
gotten to the point where more people know about us than not."
US" IS the Student Underground collective, a group of about 15 BU
students who last year turned a photocopied handout into a kicky little
newspaper devoted to left-wing activism and pop culture. Like the rest of the
staff, Feder is smart and passionate. He's also tired. The Underground
is put out between classes, jobs, term papers, meetings, parties, and protest
rallies. Reporting on issues from Kenmore Square to Kosovo, the staff pull
all-nighters in a windowless church basement across the river. They never know
how they're going to pay for their next issue.
Most universities offer their student publications office space and a bit of
financial support. Not BU. The press is probably the one institution that BU
chancellor John Silber hates as much as he hates the radical left. The last
time an alternative student newspaper sprang up here, his administration
stopped the presses by yanking the paper's funding -- and, for good measure,
yanking funding for all student "journals of opinion," in perpetuity.
That was 20 years ago. Today, the only campus papers here are the BU
Bridge, the university's public-relations weekly, and the Daily Free
Press. Otherwise known as the "Freep," the Free Press technically
operates independently of BU, but it's full of advertising from the university.
Like BU's student body, the Freep has become tame over the years.
The Underground, by contrast, evokes a long-ago era of feisty student
journalism at BU. The staffers range from pierced anarcho-punk rockers to
fresh-faced liberals; they come together in their commitment to diversity, true
democracy, a living wage, and a society that fosters creativity and meets basic
human needs. They admit to drawing some inspiration from the student movements
of the '60s and '70s, but that era, they say, belongs to their parents.
Unlike their ink-stained forebears, who plodded away on manual typewriters and
ramshackle typesetting machines, the Underground reporters lay out their
paper on PCs and swap pages by e-mail.
(There's also a Web site under construction:
But some things haven't changed. Publishing a newspaper is still a huge amount
of work. The Student Underground is supposed to come out every two
weeks, but by early November the group is already in debt and has just
published only its second issue of the school year.
So when Dan Feder arrives at the steps of CAS, he's just getting over a serious
case of burnout. Midterms and a campus anti-sweatshop rally left much of the
staff scrambling to write stories and lay out pages at the last minute. The
paper was supposed to have come out on Tuesday, November 2, but at midweek
Feder was still writing one of his stories. "By Wednesday," he sighs, "I was so
The paper finally came out on Thursday, and now, Friday, after a good night's
sleep and a thorough read of the paper, Feder's feeling much better about it.
The issue he is handing out includes stories about Charles River pollution and
a student strike in Mexico. There's a photo spread on the anti-sweatshop rally,
and a preview of a panel discussion about the state of hip-hop music.
Fellow sophomore Avishay Artsy pulls up on his red bicycle, grabs a pile of
papers, and joins Feder. When they take a break, Artsy explains how they
whipped up a cover at 4 a.m. the day before. They lay out the paper at the
cluttered offices of Mobilization for Survival, a peace group located in the
basement of the First Church Congregational in Harvard Square. Desperate for
art, they took an old anti-war poster off the wall, stuck it in the scanner,
and superimposed a Vietnamese villager over an anti-sweatshop petition.
"It's just some random lady," Artsy explains, "but she looked kind of sad."
Not exactly precision journalism, but they had their cover.
As other members of the staff hand out the paper upstairs, Underground
staffer Simon Laing holds "office hours" below ground, in the
student-government office in the basement of BU's George Sherman Union. While
tending to his duties as vice-president of the student union, he watches over
stored stacks of the Underground and uses his cell phone to coordinate
distribution. A stocky, cheerful guy sporting sweatpants, short hair, and a
grin, Laing looks more jock than rabble-rouser. But his unbuttoned oxford shirt
reveals a T-shirt with a raised fist and the words TAKE A STAND.
THE NEW NEW LEFT:
Simon Laing (above) writes under a pseudonym so his professor father won't konw; Dominique Gonyer,
who transferred from a Catholic college, was surprised how much less liberal BU is than
her former school.
Like many members of the Underground staff, Laing is way overcommitted
-- besides working on the paper and sitting on the student-union board, he
takes advanced computer-science courses and plays on BU's ultimate-frisbee
team. Right now his grades are falling and he's facing academic probation. He's
promised his parents he'll lay off the journalism, but that promise is hard to
"It's so much more fulfilling than my other activities," he says. "It has so
much of an effect. I feel like I'm giving people a perspective they wouldn't
In the issue that's being handed out, he's written a piece about the sculpture
honoring BU's most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King Jr., which has been
sloppily reassembled outside BU's Marsh Chapel. He's used a pseudonym -- Nestor
James -- so that his father, a BU professor, won't take note.
"This insensible action on the part of BU is a good analogy for the way the US
treats the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.," he's written. "Everything seems
shiny but is crooked and twisted into something inaccurate . . . For
example, today, have the SAT's $1000 prep courses taken the place of "Wealthy
White Only" signs?"
Laing has been with the paper for nearly two years, which makes him a long-time
staffer. Taunton native Dominique Gonyer joined just this year after
transferring to BU from Georgetown. Like many on the staff, she sought out the
paper when she realized that BU was not exactly friendly to activism. She had
expected it to be at least as liberal as the Catholic school she left, but she
found otherwise: for example, far more students showed up at anti-sweatshop
rallies at Georgetown, even though BU has three times as many students.
As a journalism major, she finds the Underground to be a perfect outlet.
"I have been brought up to believe that anyone can effect change, and that it's
important to make your voice heard," Gonyer says. She's a realist, but an
upbeat realist. Gonyer has long legs, a long face, and long, straight, blondish
hair. If the Underground had a pep band, she would be in it. Instead,
she plays her tuba at the basketball games.
She's quickly getting the message that BU would much prefer that she stick to
that kind of nonthreatening extracurricular activity. Her liberal family,
however, cheers her activism.
"When my cohorts and I occupied the Georgetown University president's office
last February, my parents were beaming," Gonyer says. If she did the same thing
at BU, they might have to post bail. BU students say they've been threatened
with arrest and expulsion if they engage in civil disobedience on campus.
That's exactly the atmosphere that spawned the Student Underground in
the first place. The paper's founder, Roni Krouzman, says he arrived at BU in
1995 and found plenty to complain about but no one complaining. He couldn't
understand why students were silent when university staff "checked" dorm rooms
during vacations, or when BU inaugurated a new president -- Jon Westling, who
was Silber's lieutenant -- without bothering to undertake a national search.
So Krouzman, who graduated last year, started agitating. "I didn't think that
if we changed dorm policy at BU we would change the world," he says. "But I was
disturbed by what students were willing to accept. If you won't protest your
dorm policies, you won't protest the policies of your government."
Krouzman hit a boiling point after he staged a protest outside Westling's
inauguration. He says the armed BU police stationed there far outnumbered the
small band of protesters. They barred him from entering the actual ceremony, he
says, even though he had a ticket.
When the Daily Free Press failed to cover the protest, Krouzman vowed to
do it himself. Using a desktop-publishing program and a photocopy machine, he
produced a four-page flier he called the Student Underground. The first
headline read: KING WESTLING CORONATED; STUDENT DEMONSTRATORS REPRESSED.
Back in the 1970s, one of the first things John Silber did when he arrived on
campus was to make sure he didn't have to read headlines like that. A
hyperintelligent but mean-mouthed philosopher imported from the University of
Texas, Silber has distinguished himself over the years by alienating
professors, fighting campus unions, and showing little tolerance for anything
beyond polite dissent. (He declined a request for an interview for this story.)
One of his first targets was a student newspaper called the bu
The exposure had emerged in 1975 just in time to replace the failing
BU News, which had once been the voice of the active campus anti-war
movement. Taking direct aim at Silber, the exposure published stories
about BU's investments in South Africa and its unfettered acquisition of
Kenmore Square real estate. The administration fired back. BU told the paper
that its adviser -- activist and leftist historian Howard Zinn -- was
unacceptable because he refused to censor what the students wrote. Therefore,
the university said, the paper no longer qualified as a student organization,
and was no longer allowed to use BU buildings or funds.
The exposure sued BU, but the case languished. Soon after the suit was
filed, BU adopted its official "publications policy," which states: "All
student journals of opinion must operate independently of the University and
without University support." Years after the exposure sued, a financial
settlement was finally reached, but the paper had folded and the staff had long
So when Roni Krouzman started banging out a newspaper in his Warren Tower dorm
room, the school didn't offer any help. But it couldn't stop him from passing
For the first two years, the Underground was basically a one-man
operation. Then, in the fall of 1998, much to Krouzman's delight, about 25
freshman showed up at an organizing meeting. The new staff members brought new
life to the paper, decided to go to newsprint from copy paper, and toned the
rhetoric down a bit.
Today, the Student Underground is slowly becoming a presence on campus.
And even some students who don't like the paper's politics appreciate the
Underground's willingness to take on campus issues such as BU's contract
with Barnes & Noble and the high price of textbooks there.
The Underground, of course, doesn't count the administration among its
fans. BU spokesman Colin Riley describes the paper as "a bad parody of
late-'60s publications that doesn't meet the minimum standards of good
Some students share that sentiment -- including Amanda Thomas and Mathew
D'Olimpia, the president of a BU dorm, who is sitting outside the student-union
building with Thomas while she has a smoke. The two are clean-cut but slightly
hip -- she with long red hair, wearing jeans, he with slick black hair and a
Thomas, a religion major, thinks the activists who run the Underground
made fools of themselves last year when they marched to the administration
building in a snowstorm to protest sweatshops. "No one gave a fuck," she says.
"A lot of students think it's a privilege to be here. They're spending a lot of
money and they like it the way it is."
D'Olimpia agrees. At the same time, though, he bemoans the apathy he's noticed
on campus. He says he's been unable to get any of the students in his dorm
interested in anything. Most BU students just want to play video games, smoke
pot, and go to nightclubs, he and Thomas say.
"I think anything that has to do with involvement is out of step at BU,"
Jim Kleckner, an English major walking down Comm Ave with a copy of the
Underground under his arm, thinks the paper is a bit dense for students
who are used to getting their campus news in small doses from the Daily Free
Press. But, he says, he loves the Underground.
"These are serious issues that people don't know about," he says. "They don't
want to know about them, but they should."
A hand-lettered sign on the door to Undergrounder Chris McCallum's
Buswell Street dorm room reads: DEMOCRACY NOT HYPOCRISY. Inside, he works at
his computer, with an upside-down American flag as a backdrop and '60s protest
singer Phil Ochs as a soundtrack. Above his bed are posters of the Clash,
Maurice Sendack's Wild Things, and his favorite quote from anarchist Emma
Goldman: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."
Chris McCallum (left) saw the "Underground" as an ideal fusion of two interests. "I was like--
ok, journalism and radical politics? I'm in."
McCallum, who's active in both the BU anti-sweatshop group and the
Underground, wears a knit cap with a NO SWEAT button on it. When he
pulls off his hat, bleached-blond bangs spill wildly out over his thick
McCallum is generally excitable, but he's particularly worked up on this Monday
afternoon. Not only did the Underground's second issue just come out,
but he's also just returned from a weekend at Yale, where about 300 students
had organized a group to push their schools toward socially responsible
"It was so amazing," McCallum says with a grin as he balances on the edge of
his desk chair. He talks about how students from "everywhere" brought stories
about raising fair-wage and human-rights issues on their campuses.
That's not so easy at BU. Two weeks earlier, McCallum ran himself ragged
organizing an anti-sweatshop rally on Marsh Plaza. Only about 100 people showed
up. He realizes that many of his classmates are not interested in these issues,
but McCallum is an optimist: this is not because they don't care, he says, but
because they don't have enough information.
"We're trying to take their attention away from that video game for a little
bit to think about where that sweatshirt came from," he says. "But, oh my God,
it's so tough."
His father -- a Sports Illustrated writer -- got him interested in
journalism. The message and do-it-yourself ethic of punk music got him
interested in radical politics. So, when he saw Roni Krouzman passing out his
photocopied newspaper in the halls of Warren Towers last year, McCallum didn't
hesitate for a moment.
"I was like -- okay, journalism and radical politics? I'm in."
While Mccallum was at Yale, the rest of the Underground staff used the
weekend to catch up on sleep and schoolwork, and to decompress a bit before
starting over. Putting out a newspaper is a little bit like childbirth. Editors
and reporters, like mothers, seem to repress all memory of how painful the
process is, thus allowing them to do it again.
By November 10, when 10 or so staff members gather in the posh living room of a
brownstone dorm for their weekly Wednesday meeting, they're starting to feel
normal again. Then they realize how little time they have if they want to put
another issue out by Thanksgiving break.
A debate ensues.
"How many days does that give us?"
"Oh, that's next Tuesday . . . "
"No, no, no, it's two weeks . . . "
"We're not coming out the day before everyone leaves."
"Thanksgiving is not next Tuesday."
"Hold on, hold on."
"The Tuesday after that . . . "
"Two weeks from yesterday."
"Two weeks from yesterday is the last day of classes."
"And we cannot come out on the last day of classes."
"So," asks Gonyer, "how in the world can we get it out? Do the whole thing this
By the end of the meeting, the Underground staff decides to try to get
the paper out by November 19. The next day, 400 people attend a campus "Take
Back the Night" march. The weekend happens, but stories don't. Gonyer goes away
to see friends in DC; Laing plays frisbee. Feder catches up on classwork. As of
the next Monday night, just four days before the paper is slated to come out,
no layout sessions have been scheduled.
Wednesday comes around again, and the Underground staff gathers once
more at the brownstone. One of the most energetic members of the staff is not
here: she has had to drop out for the rest of the semester to catch up on
schoolwork. They discuss the content of the upcoming issue. Laing gives a
depressing financial report.
"Moneywise, we're going to go into debt this issue," he tells the group. Each
issue costs about $650 to print and so far this year none has had more than a
few hundred dollars in ads, most of those from sympathetic BU student groups.
The staff spends so much energy on the editorial side of the operation that ad
sales end up neglected, at the bottom of the priority list.
The students opt once again to borrow the money from Mobilization for Survival,
the peace group that has taken on the Underground as a side project.
And, after some debate, they decide to stick to their Friday deadline.
"We can pull it all together," Artsy says. Not everyone seems so sure.
At 7:30 Thursday night, Chris McCallum is sitting in front of the computer at
Mobilization for Survival's basement office, page two of the paper up on the
screen. He has been here since 3:30 and has eaten half a brownie for dinner.
like other "Underground" staffers Dan Feder finds himself giving the paper time he
should be dedicating to his coursework.
"Is it dark out?" he asks.
McCallum is optimistic about getting the paper done that night. Laing's profile
of a writing coach is done, as are stories about campaign finance, the "Take
Back the Night" march, and student support for the BU kitchen workers'
Then he gets a call from Dan Feder. When Feder went to pick up the roll of film
with pictures of the march and the writing coach on it, there were two narrow
strips of film in the bag instead of one wide one. Somehow, the film has been
sliced through the middle and ruined.
Then the person who has back-up rally photos fails to show up. Then Gonyer,
whom McCallum is depending on to help finish up, calls to say she hasn't
finished her sociology paper. Early Friday morning, they admit defeat and go
At 9 a.m., Gonyer sends an e-mail
out to the rest of the staff: "Top o' the morning to ya, undergroundlings.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS DEFEAT. Dan M, Avishay, and I called it quits
early this morning, but I'm heading back tomorrow . . . all day, I
expect. If anyone wants to help me make this paper rock, come with me -- !bring
in da funk! -- we'll be very productive."
The extended deadline gives the Underground staff something it rarely
experiences: the opportunity to complete the paper without sleep deprivation.
The students reshoot some photos and find someone with pictures of the rally.
Working in his pantry-size room in a six-man Allston group house, Feder puts
the final touches on the "Arts and Culture" section. Gonyer spends much of the
weekend in the church basement finishing the news section. On Monday morning,
they glue together the final tabloid-size pages -- they don't have a printer
big enough to spew them out -- and drop them off at the printer.
When Feder gets out of his Hebrew class on Monday morning, he has a moment of
realization: he needs to devote a little more time to his studies. "I've been
in denial about it," he says. "I'm starting to do badly."
But instead of hitting the books, he climbs into his roommate's car and heads
out to Belmont to pick up the paper. When he gets to the print shop, the
Underground with its cover photo of the "Take Back the Night" march is
still rolling off the presses.
"When do you usually cash this check?" he asks the printer as he pays for the
"Is it tight?" the printer asks.
"It won't be by Friday," Feder says.
When he walks through the door of the Student Union office carrying a bundle of
papers in each hand, Laing and Gonyer cheer. Then the postmortem begins.
"Holy cow, that looks bad," says Gonyer, gazing at the oversize bottom
"Its not that bad," Feder says.
"It's really bad," she says. "It's embarrassing."
Laing flips through the paper looking for his name, which sometimes slips in.
He is happy to find only his pseudonym.
"Good," he says. "Really good. I'm not in the paper."
"Hey, Nestor," Gonyer says, teasing him with his pen name, "do you want to hand
out with me?" But Laing has to go to class, so she grabs a pile and heads out
the door to Comm Ave by herself. Classes have just ended, and the sidewalk is
filled with students: women in flared slacks and clunky shoes; men in the
requisite baggy pants and backward baseball caps; an assortment of
flannel-shirted slackers, cell-phone-toting Eurohipsters, and wide-eyed,
Planted in the middle of the sidewalk, Gonyer proudly holds the paper out as
they pass by.
Tinker Ready is a Cambridge-based freelance writer. She was on the staff of
bu exposure in 1977 and 1978 and was a plaintiff in the paper's suit
against BU. She can be reached at email@example.com.