Finally, a Tide of Victory
By DOUG SMITH, TIMES EDUCATION WRITER
September 17, 1997
The collective buzz on L.A.’s talk-radio waves has been a resounding boo for the Board of Education, branding its members a bunch of “politically correct” wimps for their decision last week to scrap hallowed school Indian nicknames.
But to one group of University High School graduates, the demise of their alma mater’s “Warrior” tradition was a stroke of delicious justice, even if it came 25 years too late.
They were the publishers of the Red Tide, a radical left-wing student newspaper that emerged on the Westside campus in the wake of the tumultuous 1960s. Among its crusades was a campaign to abolish nicknames that offended Native Americans.
The Red Tide’s staffers attacked authority, injustice and racism.
Like all good journalists, they searched their own hearts and admitted their mistakes, if in the indecorous language of the time.
Once, for example, they had to retract their characterization of the principal of nearby Hamilton High as a “token Chicana.”
“This is not true,” the editors said. “She is a token Cuban refugee. We apologize for this bit of racism on our part.”
They fought censorship vigorously and defeated it. When Uni’s principal nixed a speaking engagement by the virulent antiwar activist Jane Fonda, the journalists pressed their point with the district’s legal counsel. The pregnant Fonda addressed hundreds of students on the “Warrior” field. (Decades later, after marrying Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, she would be a visible practitioner of the “tomahawk chop” at Braves games.)
Some of the young radicals’ victories took longer.
After four years in court, they won a California Supreme Court decision allowing them to distribute the Red Tide on campus without the principal’s prior approval.
But who would have guessed a campaign started by the Red Tide in 1972 would bear fruit a quarter of a century later, when its members were scattered across the country in lives of coexistence with the system they abhorred?
“I was really thrilled,” said Karen Pomer, former Red Tide editor who lives in Santa Monica today and read about the school board’s decision to ban the use of Indian nicknames. “I’m just sorry that it took so long.”
Pomer, 42, has not forsaken her youthful principles. She is producing a feature film on the infamous demolition of a block of apartments by Philadelphia police in a standoff with the radical black group MOVE.
Like other old Red Tiders, her biggest disappointment was that this time it seemed to be the establishment–not the masses–who had rallied to their concept of justice.
“Part of my reaction was disappointment that the students and alumni seemed to be so unsympathetic toward the Native Americans,” said Michael Letwin, a lawyer who is the group’s unofficial historian.
The arguments at last week’s school board meeting had changed little from 25 years ago, but the one-sided reaction was a striking change, Letwin said. “Then it was a debate.”
The Red Tide, naturally, took the unpopular side.
Echoing the title of a then-popular book on the government’s campaign of extermination against the Sioux Nation, the April 1972 issue bore the headline, “Bury My Heart at Uni Hi: Indians Abused by School Policies.”
“The Red Tide,” it said, “believes that the Student Senate should take immediate action in changing the mascots of Uni to names other than Indian ones, and that since Uni has helped distort the truth about the Indians, that the Senate take action to initiate programs that will tell the truth about the Indians.”
Other than the prolixity of the prose, there is no explanation in subsequent issues of the Red Tide of why the paper’s advice was spurned.
Less than a year later, though, that youthful bluster graduated to concrete action, leading the young radicals to a destiny far removed from the political turmoil at Uni.
Pomer, Letwin and a third underage Red Tide staffer boarded a caravan headed to the real Wounded Knee in South Dakota with food and supplies for an occupying force of Indian militants.
FBI agents and state troopers intercepted them at the Nevada border.
“I just remember being very terrified,” said Pomer, then 18, who was roused from sleep by a young, frightened-looking trooper who held a shotgun to her head.
“I was worried the gun was going to go off,” she said.
Arrested under the federal anti-riot statute, the three were later released without being charged. They immediately began a protest of what they called the racism inherent in indictments against their 13 companions, all members of the American Indian Movement.
As time passed, many Red Tide alumni held as tightly to their high school principles as their less radical classmates did to their mascots.
“I wouldn’t express it in the same way I did then, but I still have the ideas I had then,” said Letwin. “I think most people who were in the Red Tide do.”
Many have found careers that allow them to translate their youthful ideas into their work.
Best known among them is Susie Bright–a.k.a. Susie Sexpert, the author, advisor, educator and pornography aficionado who riles anti-pornography feminists with her credo that prudery kills.
Letwin, 41, is a public defender in New York, and president of his local Assn. of Legal Aid Attorneys.
He says he is proud and grateful that his job allows him to fight racism, police abuse and injustice.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said.