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Activist Memories Fuel Former Red Tide Staff : Radical High School Paper Celebrated in 15-Year Reunion

August 24, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

. . . It razed classrooms, flinging textbooks to the winds, screaming out of turn. . . . Tardy slips, suspension notices, bad-conduct notices, report cards -- all were swept away in its churning mist. It was . . . The RED TIDE.

--Manifesto of University High School underground

newspaper, 1971.

A bunch of friends from University High School in West Los Angeles were smoking a joint on Venice Beach one night in 1971 when they were smitten by one of those collective delusions of power that sometimes overcome kids who really don't have much power.

Dissatisfied with the official school line on history and current events, the students resolved to start a newspaper that would publish alternative views on issues like the anti-war movement, women's rights and civil rights.

The waves that evening had a greenish hue that comes from a condition called a red tide. Inspired by the ocean and by their own boldness, the youths decided they'd call the paper the Red Tide.

Precocious and Determined

Plenty of other teen-agers have concocted similarly grandiose plans, and often the fantasy fades as quickly as the effects of the marijuana. But University High School--or Uni High as they called it--contained an unusual concentration of precocious and determined activists that year.

Karen Pomer, for instance, wrote anti-war poetry in elementary school, and quit her all-white Brentwood Bluebird troop when her request to network with a sister Bluebird troop in Watts was refused.

Michael Letwin's grandparents and parents were union organizers, anti-war workers and champions of civil rights. Growing up in such an environment, Letwin believed it was possible for people--even 15-year-olds--to change the world.

It was Letwin's parents who harbored the infant newspaper in the garage of their home on Manning Avenue near the West Los Angeles high school. Alita and Leon Letwin waited patiently for the youths' initial outpourings of rebellion and anger to exhaust themselves in the first few issues of the Red Tide. They were proud to see the paper evolve into a forum for a wide range of radical causes. Soon the paper was being sold for 10 cents a copy at several schools in the Los Angeles area; in later years the paper would be distributed in cities around the country.

"We felt the paper was a positive outlet for teen-age energy and concerns," Alita Letwin said. "For a lot of young people who didn't have such an outlet, it became a time of great alienation."

When school administrators insisted that the principal have the right to prior censorship of any article appearing in the Red Tide because it was distributed on campus, Leon Letwin, a professor of law at UCLA, represented the students in a case that eventually went to the state Supreme Court. The court ruled in the students' favor, saying that state law "does not authorize prior restraint by school officials."

About 50 former Red Tide staffers who spanned the nine-year history of the newspaper gathered at the Letwin home last Sunday for a 15-year reunion. The organizers were apprehensive that their gathering might turn out like the fictional reunion of '60s activists in the film "The Big Chill." Now that they were in their late 20s and early 30s, had the former Red Tide staffers' youthful idealism given way to self-interest and disillusion?

"It's not like 'The Big Chill,' " said Pomer, now a documentary film maker who won several awards for her film on the MOVE organization in Philadelphia. "We're still involved. There are not too many yuppies among us. Our activism just comes out in different ways now."

After graduation, Pomer went to work for the United Parcel Service, where she organized clerks to join the Teamsters Union. At ABC, where she later worked as a page, she organized employees to combat sexual harassment. Pomer, 31, said that her current work as an independent film maker is simply an extension of ideals that first found expression in the Red Tide.

"It never occurred to me to become part of the system," Pomer said.

Pomer has attempted to locate the former administrators at the high school--several of whom are retired--to interview them for a documentary about the Red Tide. John Welch, who took over as principal of University High School during the Red Tide years, still works for the Los Angeles Unified School District as coordinator of priority housing.

"There was a lot of churning, a lot of yeasty things going on at that time," Welch said of the early '70s. "This (the Red Tide controversy) was just one more issue that needed to be resolved." Welch said he didn't remember much about individual members of the Red Tide or the group's activities, except that they were always testing the rules.

During the peak years of Red Tide activity at the Letwin home, Alita Letwin said she sometimes longed for the days when she had just three kids mobbing the refrigerator instead of 16.

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