The Boston Phoenix
December 9 - 16, 1999


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

CHILDREN OF 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.

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.

"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 miserable."

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.

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.

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.

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 keep.

"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 otherwise have."

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 exposure.

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 since graduated.

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 it out.

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 journalism."

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 leather coat.

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," D'Olimpia says.

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."

STAFF AFFECTION: Chris McCallum (left) saw the "Underground" as an ideal fusion of two interests. "I was like-- ok, journalism and radical politics? I'm in."
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."

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 eyebrows.

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 investing.

"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 weekend?"

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.

CLASS CONFLICT: like other "Underground" staffers Dan Feder finds himself giving the paper time he should be dedicating to his coursework.

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.

"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' union-organizing drive.

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 home.

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 press run.

"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 margins.

"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, just-off-the-farm freshmen.

Planted in the middle of the sidewalk, Gonyer proudly holds the paper out as they pass by.

"Student Underground?"

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

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