Innisfree
pp. 4-7, December, 1967

Avatar and Fort Hill

A Community of Free Men

By Steve Kovaka

In the past few weeks, a small and generally unknown newspaper, the Avatar, has become widely known both in Cambridge and Boston as the target of an attack by the governments of both cities for its alleged obscenity. It will be clear to anyone one who has visited one of the many magazine stands and bookstores in this area which specialize in pornographic literature that obscenity alone is not the real issue here. So in order to determine the real cause of the attack it is necessary to examine the Avatar itself, it origins in a unique community at Fort Hill in Roxbury, and the pattern of harassment pursued by both Boston and Cambridge.
The Avatar was conceived almost simultaneously in the minds of several people in the Fort Hill Community to fill a need that they saw in Boston and Cambridge for an underground newspaper to communicate their unique views and ideas. Before the Avatar, this area had no effective and independent medium for expressing the dissenting and often radical views of what may be called, perhaps inaccurately, the hippies or the New Left. In short, the Establishment had very little effective and provocative radical criticism.
The first issue of the Avatar appeared early in June of 1967. Wayne Hansen, one of the editors, told me that when they began to work on the first issue their total capital was only about $200 and none of them had had any significant experience in putting out a newspaper. Nevertheless, the first issue turned out well, and they continued to publish a more or less self-supporting paper every two weeks until the tenth issue appeared about the middle of October.
The first sign of trouble with city officials came soon after the tenth issue was released to Cambridge newsstands. Members of the Cambridge City Council appeared at various newsstands which sold the Avatar and asked the owners not to sell the paper any longer, implying that if they continued the city would take action against them for the girlie and homosexual magazines which they also sold.
Wayne McGuire of the Paperback Booksmith was arrested on a charge of "selling obscene literature" for selling a copy of the eleventh issue of Avatar to a detective from the vice squad. The part of the eleventh issue in question was a short section called "Diary of a Young Artist" which contained obscene words but was well within the guidelines set by the Supreme Court for determining obscenity and was certainly much less offensive than much of the pornography which is easily obtainable in this area. His case was tried before Judge Adlow, who ignored the Federal Courts' guidelines for obscenity, declared the Avatar obscene, and convicted McGuire. The case is under appeal and the editors of the Avatar feel that there is little doubt that they will win the case eventually.
In the following weeks Cambridge continued to harass and arrest street vendors and shop owners who continued to sell the Avatar. Dan Oates, a member of the Avatar staff, was arrested for selling the twelfth issue on a charge of "selling newspapers without a permit." When the Avatar managers subsequently applied for permits to sell the newspaper on the streets, they were refused. In an attempt to discover the reason for this refusal, members of the Avatar editorial staff visited Cambridge City Manager DeGugliemo and were told that the Avatar was not a newspaper but a commodity and that the city did not need to give a reason for refusing to license its sale.
Despite the lack of permits, street sales continued, resulting in several more arrests on charges of selling obscene material and selling newspapers without a permit. Apparently the city had forgotten that the Avatar was not a newspaper but a commodity. On Thanksgiving Day Avatar staff members and members of the Boston Draft Resistance group gave away two thousand copies of the thirteenth issue on Cambridge Common to protest the arrests and harassment and to collect money for legal defense. At the same time, the Boston Police Force Vice Squad raided the Avatar Offices in Boston and seized all of the available copies of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth issues, arrested the advertising manager Ed Beardsley for "possession of obscene material for sale, distribution or loan." They also took samples of the other back issues which were later returned. Arrests continued when the fourteenth issue came out last weekend, and the total now stands at eleven.
It was discovered at the trial of Dan Oates, John Rogers and George Tower on Dec. 12 that in June Avatar had applied for and received seven permits to sell newspapers but that the city had intended to revoke them, although it had never notified Avatar of its intention. In any case, it is clear that the permit law has never been enforced with nearly this much zeal in the past. The fact that the Avatar was denied additional selling permits without cause and then classed as a commodity rather than as a newspaper is an obvious case of harassment, especially in view of the fact that it is not even close to being obscene according to the most recent court decisions. The Avatar people feel that this harassment is a result of their anti-establishment views on such subjects as the Vietnam war and Mayor Hayes's war on hippies and long hair. They view it as an attempt to drive them out of business. According to Joseph Oteri, the lawyer whose firm is handling the Avatar arrests, the Cambridge police have almost no legal grounds for the arrests that they have made and eventual acquittal of the defendants is a near certainty.
In spite of the trouble and expense. to the Avatar caused by this harassment, they feel that the overall effect will be beneficial to them. Wayne Hansen says that this has given the Fort Hill community and many others in the Boston-Cambridge area a cause and a rallying point. Far from destroying them, it has helped to draw them together and give them purpose.
The Avatar people have determined to defend in the courts their right to publish and distribute their newspaper, but the Avatar's continued existence in Boston is only one of the goals of the Fort Hill community. They plan to start a New York edition of the Avatar next year and in the future hope to make films and perhaps even a television show. Members of the community are published writers, and there is a general interest in all art forms among them. The community at Fort Hill is an experiment in the lives of its people, an attempt to develop a workable, productive, and satisfying way of life and give it to the world. And the Avatar is presently their major means of presenting this gift.
I first visited Fort Hill one afternoon after having talked briefly with Wayne Hansen at the Avatar office. Physically, it consists of about five rather run-down old houses located on a short side road at the top of Fort Hill. Opposite the houses a tall, slender tower which was once a Revolutionary War monument crowns the hill. I asked for Eben Given, one of the original members of the community, and found him about to leave to help collect firewood. When I explained the purpose of my visit, he invited me to go with them to collect the wood before we discussed Fort Hill. We drove down the hill to a nearby furniture factory, and there I discovered that they had arranged with the factory to remove the useless wood scraps each day to use as firewood. Eben told me that most of the rooms at Fort Hill were heated by burning this free wood in old pot-bellied stoves. I also learned that much of their food is old or slightly damaged food received free from stores which would otherwise have thrown it out.
Almost no one at Fort Hill works at a regular paying job, so it is very necessary to obtain this free food and fuel. An explanation of why Fort Hill needs to exist this way was given by Wayne Hansen in the third issue of the Avatar.
"A need is a thing which keeps you from moving and growing until you get it.... A want on the other hand is the habit of dead people. And you seldom get what you want. A number of people are presently trying to find a way to get food without money. Providing this is a need, they will do it; if it's merely a want, if they have no greater reason than dislike for work, I doubt they will be able to keep it going.
"A community which exists to free its members from having to work for money, will only continue to do so if it frees them to do work at a higher level. In other words, you'll get free food if you deserve it; not because you want to sit around and smoke reefers and say wow, groovy, but because you've grown to where you cannot continue to expand without free food.
"So if you've set your goal higher than mere existence, existence will be provided. Just getting by is no greater virtue than conspicuous consumption (material status-seeking) if it's an end, not a means. America's material wealth is here for us to use toward higher ends, it's not here to wallow in."
Here are the beginnings of a statement of what Fort Hill means to its members. It is a way of freeing themselves to create and produce something more than the means to exist, but it is also the product of this freedom. It is an environment which liberates them to improve the world, but it also reflects the results of all of their experiments in improvement. And above all, it is a nucleus, a means of attracting and concentrating the real efforts of a large number of people to produce meaningful and practical social change. The following two quotations are from the first issue of the Avatar.
"Throughout history men have organized change, to alter the confines of the existing order, and to bring light into the dark places by sweeping away blindness, confusion and fear. . . We must understand, however, that the greatest advances in human consciousness are made by people who demand too much, and thus create a situation in which their overstrained followers inevitably end up either compromisers or dogmatists. And so it is necessary to constantly redirect those advances in human consciousness and to ask how it happens, again and again, that the best become the worst enemies of the good... Avatar is the symbol of community revival. Our goals are high, yet we are certain they will come to pass. For a long time we have remained convinced of the rightness of our task - now it is time to bring our message to the world.
"Nothing is impossible, and nothing is easy. You must take, as a guide-line, a goal. A lifelong goal. Don't be easy on yourself; when you achieve your goal you will die. You will also die if you sacrifice your singleness of purpose. For your goal must inspire you with a singleness of mind that is called fanaticism. You can't have this and that. Choose one thing and work for it. Learn to see it clearly and to understand how you can best achieve it. Then work. Any secondary benefits must come of their own accord.....
"If you want to create a bigger world out of the little mess we are now stuck with, you can do it. That's what you're here for, but don't think that you can lie in the sun and smile at everyone; you will have to work. You will have to work much harder than you would have to earn the million dollars, and you will get nothing. You will have to starve and work long hours. You may have to go straight and yet never experience the joys of straight people. You will have to sacrifice the freedom of wanting nothing in order to want for other. Your ego must die. And when you have gotten to the point where you are no one, you must remember that you have done all that sacrificing selfishly. For it was your decision to change the world."
This fervor is perhaps the most impressive thing about Fort Hill. The houses are rundown. Even the clothes of the people who live there are old and worn. Their great belief, which is felt in conversation with them rather than stated, is that mere existence, on whatever plane of luxury and comfort, is not a fit pursuit for man, who has the ability and the duty to create and change his world. They realize that they will never see their goal accomplished, but it is only in striving for it that they can be fulfilled.
And it is just this singleness of purpose, this belief in what they are doing, that makes them so strong They have no government at all, but their common goal is a much more effective directing force than any formal government could be. When problems or conflicts arise, they are able to honestly discuss them and arrive at solutions. While I was at the Avatar office the morning after they had finished making up the paper, someone suggested adding several pages to the already completed issue. Wayne was tired, and he said that he didn't trust the man's judgment because he tended to get overly excited about spur-of-the-moment changes which were not well formulated. He added, though, that if there was any real feeling for the extra pages they would probably be added since he didn't have the strength to argue the point. This kind of honesty seems to be very effective in solving the problems that arise at Fort Hill.
I have spoken about the goals and principles of Fort Hill, but in a way these are secondary, for Fort Hill's real strength and beauty lie not so much in its abstract ideas as in its capacity for concrete, constructive action. There are many men with admirable beliefs, but there are few who have the strength and creativity to support their beliefs with action. Many men with sound ideas have come and gone because they could not or would not take what they knew intellectually or felt emotionally and relate it to the real world. The hippies gained prominence on the strength of a rejection of everything that our society holds to be important, and they are now slowly fading because they lack the ability to make that rejection stick by coming up with new and workable solutions when faced with real problems. They found that dropping out or dropping acid did not solve or erase the problems inherent in life, that rejection of one solution does not make another appear, and that most of them did not have the strength to cope with that realization.
In a way, Fort Hill represents an empirical approach to a problem as opposed to the theoretical scientific approach that is so common now. To them it is more important to actually build a satisfying and workable community now that to show how the world can be painlessly converted to their model in ten years. They do not feel any need to have a unified goal before they can begin work; rather they feel that only in involvement can the goal be clearly seen, only in real contact with a problem can it be solved practically,
But this runs quite contrary to the prevalent mode of thought in this country where safety, surety, and forbearance are in some ways the key words. There is a great reluctance to leave the old before we have a guarantee that the new will be completely satisfying. We will support the existing system regardless of its obvious shortcomings until it is proved to us that the new system cannot fail. The roots of this state of mind are in a need for security and in a distrust of what is seen as blind speculation and a tendency toward anarchy, ideas which in themselves are not wrong. But in our fear of anarchy and upheaval, we have excluded any possibility of all but the most minor changes and come to the point of stagnation. We are not satisfied with things as they exist, but have excluded the possibility of changing them in any meaningful way because we are afraid of the pain and insecurity of change. And this general aversion to change, this distrust of what we are not sure of, this great fear of leaving our system and trusting ourselves to do better is the antithesis of the spirit of Fort Hill and the root of the present harassment of the Avatar.
Let us be humble, open our eyes, and look and see. All right, the world is screwed up and we know it. Everyone wants to end war, everyone wants to be happy, to do something that he can put himself into body and soul; everyone is secretly an artist frustrated to one degree or another. No one is satisfied: our overabundance has created for us a more subtle kind of suffering, a hidden longing for a worthwhile enemy, a desire for some cause to demand all that we can give and more. We are jaded and want to learn again how it feels to go hungry and cold. We have looked up from our possessions and asked why, and they could not speak to answer us. We have looked at other men no worse than ourselves suffering and dying of wounds and hunger; we have seen men suffer indignities and death for their race or creed. And on the other side we see men who never realize what we have seen, men who have seen it but have lost the ability to feel, and men full of hate and intolerance who feel all too strongly. Here is a world dedicated to production and material wealth, a world whose most honored men have transcended these values to help humanity or create an art which expresses their soul. The hippies come and we accept their art and music while denying the validity of the beliefs which produced them.

And seeing the contradiction in what is said and what is done, the bitter paradox of men building and defending a life which does not satisfy them, we can do nothing but leave it all - the friends and the enemies, the comfort and the stagnation, the security and the death. We leave it not so much in frustration with what is wrong as in hope for what is right. Our only principle is to make no peace with injustice, ignorance, and blindness, but to sacrifice everything in defense of the truth.


Mel Lyman