An Interview with John Haag

(This is a re-print from the November 2002 issue)

By Suzy Williams

John Haag – whose long career of fighting for the rights of Venetians has earned him the title of People’s Doge of Venice.

He was the proprietor of the Venice West coffeehouse and led the fight for the right of poets to read their poetry at a time when it was illegal in Los Angeles without an entertainment license.

Haag was a founder, and a long-time leader, of the Venice Peace and Freedom Party and co-founder, along with Rick Davidson, of the Free Venice movement.

In addition, Haag “…served as founding president of the Venice Chapter of the ACLU, chairman of the Venice Forum, publicity chairman of the Venice/Santa Monica chapter of CORE, ‘action chairman’ of the Westside United Civil Rights Committee, rally chairman of the Congress of Unrepresented People (COUP), chairman of the International Days of Protest Committee, arrangements committee chairman of the Southern California Committee to End Police Malpractice…” (Venice West – The Beat Generation in Southern California, John Arthur Maynard, Rutgers University Press, 1991).

John Haag has been in the thick of every struggle to defend Venice for the past 40 years. He was instrumental in the successful opposition to a freeway through Venice, turning the canals into a yacht harbor, fighting police brutality in Oakwood and throughout Venice, upholding the rights of artists and poets to perform and sell their creations, and against commercial overdevelopment in Venice. He was interviewed by Beachhead Collectivist Suzy Williams in October.

Suzy Williams: Welcome Mr. John Haag! Say, how would you describe yourself?

John Haag: Boy, I don’t know whether I would try. I’ve been in retirement, in seclusion for so many years, but prior to that I would have described myself as a self-taught organizer. I started out not having the vaguest idea of where I was going. But, I found myself organizing a picket line down on the boardwalk protesting police harassment of the Venice West Coffeehouse.

SW: Right, I was just reading in Venice West, the book, and it said that you posted a sign on the door that said “NO MORE POETRY! The anti-intellectual yahoos at the LAPD want it to stop. Poets ARISE!”

JH: Well, I’m not very graceful…

SW: Au contraire! So that was your first organizing?

JH: Well, yes, except when I was working for CBS in New York City, I organized my work group to call for strike. I got a unanimous strike vote from that group of television news film technicians. The strike didn’t have to take place-

SW: You mean you got the raise before you had to…

JH: Yes, right.

SW: But that was heartening for you and encouraging.

JH: It was startling, because when I started out working, I was relatively anti-union.

SW: You were! Why?

JH: I think it was the background I came from. My father was a machinist, which is really a craft, I don’t know if that had anything to do with his bias, but he was virulently anti-union and I just picked it up.

SW: Was he a Republican?

JH: Oh, yes he was.

SW: Like James Brown is a Republican. Certain specialists are just conservative.

JH: Yes. So I had to join the union when I got this job, and I became friends with the shop steward.

SW: Do you think the roots of your political journey began with that friend?

JH: I don’t know about that, because it wasn’t out of an ideology, there was an unfairness on the part of the company. I think it happened just before I came to California. I spent a year in Italy and I spent quite a bit of time with a Communist official. It just so happened that he liked to take midnight walks. And I’m pretty much of a night person. So somehow, he lived in the same neighborhood where I was living with an Italian family. I think these midnight conversations with Marco gave me some theory, you know, economics and politics.

SW: I see; now, according to this book, Venice West, you became a Communist.

JH: That book is full of expletive deleted!

SW: So it’s not true!

JH: Not only was I never a Communist, but I had many battles with the Communists. I worked with them in the anti-war movement, because my attitude was to work with anybody who agrees with me! I don’t know why that guy printed that or where he got that. I worked as long as I could with them but then I broke, and I suffered the usual consequences, of being called a turncoat, and a Trotskyite. It was over the opposition to the war. For a time I was the Los Angeles Chairman of the W.E.B. Dubois Club, oh yes and The Evening Outlook did call that organization “Communist inspired”.

SW: Who was W.E.B. Dubois? I forgot.

JH: He was a founder of the NAACP, born in the 1860’s, from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a scholar, Black historian, a great orator who called for change, and a Socialist most of his life and towards the end finally he became a Communist and moved to Africa.

SW: He was a leader and a gatherer of people.

JH: Yes, definitely.

SW: You were involved in civil rights, I see you were involved with C.O.R.E. What did that stand for?

JH: Congress of Racial Equality.

SW: Ah, but let’s get back to Venice West, the coffeehouse. (At 7 Dudley, where Sponto’s is now) When did you take ownership of it?

JH: Well, it was 1962 to 1966. I have to say that the coffeehouse was an enormous education to me, I learned so much from so many, you know 20 different varieties of Socialist!

SW: Even more than at Harvard!

JH: At Harvard I did get an education I wouldn’t normally have had. I majored in English, and took several languages, and courses in Art: sculpture, drawing…

SW: And Poetry? Because you are such a sublime poet.

JH: No! I never took a literature course, because I didn’t want to be told how to write.

SW: You rebel!

JH: One of my instructors made this assertion that you could never write a political sonnet in the English language. Two of the poems I sent to The Beachhead recently were political sonnets.

SW: So tell me, were you hassled a lot at Venice West?

JH: The LAPD tried a couple times to employ an ordinance having to do with entertainment, but the judge ruled that what was happening there was not entertainment in terms of the ordinance. Nobody was getting paid! The kind of harassment that happened was not usually violent, but certain people were asked day after day for their I.D; trying to wear you down. Sometimes the cops took you to the county line and told you “ Don’t come back ”. Of course, this wasn’t a legal procedure. I learned the law very quickly.

SW: It’s so funny, we romanticize the sixties, especially in Venice, thinking of it as a freer time, but in fact life was harder to live then.

JH: I haven’t been hassled about my long hair in twenty years!

SW: So what all went on in Venice West, besides poetry?

JH: I think that the coffeehouse was one of the only places on earth where you were encouraged to talk about anything, and talk turned political in 1964, especially. I’m pretty sure someone brought in a leaflet about a protest of the Vietnam War, so there we were at the Veteran’s Cemetery on Sawtelle, about thirty of us. I don’t think there was any hostility, I don’t think anybody knew what we were talking about, no one knew about the war. I was living—I should say working at the coffeehouse where people were talking politics right and left – pardon the expression – and eventually there was a lot of talk that we ought to have a radical political party. I had a little stint where I ran for Assembly and I got a taste of the Democratic Party and not the worst part of it, either. I mean, the Santa Monica club was fairly liberal, you would think, until you get to talking to them! I mean the idea that you had a candidate that ran a coffeehouse! Scandal!

So then there came a time to get real about starting a party. I checked into the election code and found a way that seemed possible by registering sixty-seven thousand people, that would qualify you for the ballot – as opposed to the impossible petition that required six HUNDRED seventy thousand signatures! Then, what should we call the party? There were meetings of radicals of north and south California, and after much noisy discussion, we came up with the name, “Peace and Freedom Party.”And so, with a dozen colleagues, we started registering people on June 23, 1967.

SW: John, can you tell me – how did the Beachhead begin?

JH: There you have one of my favorite stories. The first election that the Peace and Freedom Party was involved in was 1968. We had these three candidates running in Venice. And I had the fixation that we were not going to have this campaign disappear in November. We knew we were not going to get our candidates elected. So what were we doing with all this time and effort? There wasn’t enough time to discuss it before the election, but when it was over, the campaign committee got together and started discussing it: “How about a community radio?” “How about this or that?” The decision was finally made to have a community newspaper. We went from campaign committee to Beachhead collective. And we had the first issue out in December of 1968.

SW: Was it well received right off the bat?

JH: Yes.

SW: Isn’t that funny? It is today, too. Some things are just so consistent, ya know?

JH: And month by month people looked for it. Over a period of time, we got a whole lot of people distributing it on their own block or maybe two or three blocks. And they did it happily. At its peak we had 5,000 papers delivered door to door. The other thing was the structure of the Beachhead. I don’t need to tell you, there’s no editor, there’s no publisher, there’s no boss. It’s truly a collective, each person having equal voice and vote and nobody getting paid for anything. And that went on for twenty-plus years. And I think that’s some kind of a miracle.

SW: I know, it is astounding.

JH: I will say this: I feel I’m mostly responsible for that structure. Because by then, I had really thought about how to set things up and how to keep them going.

SW: Say, what does “Beachhead” mean, anyway?

JH: It’s a military term describing the initial phase of an invasion. But of course, I had in mind that we were all beach heads. I mean, this paper is a poem and you get all sorts of ambiguity.

SW: Tell us about some of the characters who used to write for the Beachhead.

JH: There were people who got on the Beachhead who became writers. Jane Gordon comes to mind. She was part of the original collective and bit by bit she started writing about things and later she helped organize the feminist caucus in the Peace & Freedom Party. But I think the dynamic was that people joined the Beachhead and developed this talent, not that they necessarily had the talent and came to the Beachhead! Some did, like Arnie Springer, who’s no amateur. He was a professor at Long Beach, but he was a mainstay of the Beachhead for years. Now, I didn’t stay with the Beachhead very long.

SW: You didn’t?

JH: No, and it wasn’t that I didn’t like the Beachhead, I love the Beachhead, but I had to go on to other things. I had the State Peace and Freedom Party to worry about, I had elections to worry about, I had getting on the ballot in other states to worry about. I had to do tours.

SW: But didn’t you send back articles? Didn’t you write that great article on John Muir? Oh, that might have been Rick Davidson.

JH: Oh, most likely.

SW: Was he like your brother?

JH: (Chuckles) Rick was as close to being a brother as anybody. We had a long history, we started out together in the coffeehouse, doing subversive things. We didn’t always agree, but then brothers don’t. We were always on the same side, but we had different ideas of strategies and tactics.

SW: You were a non-violent guy from the get-go, no?

JH: One of the things I am most proud and grateful for is that all the demonstrations I was responsible for, there was not a single arrest or injury. I don’t know how many I’m talking about…I’m talking 1966 to 1970. On the beach, at the Federal Building, on the boardwalk, on Main St. (when the U.S. invaded Cambodia). They all related to my commitment to non-violence. It involved a dedication to avoiding arrest. And communicating with police. Many of whom I worked with were dead-set against dealing directly with the police, but I didn’t look at it that way. The way to avoid trouble was to tell them what we were going to do and stick to it.

SW: You treated the cops like human beings.

JH: To the extent that I could bear it, yes. I remember we had a demonstration at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, and I saw a Police Lieutenant striding towards me. I felt worried. But it turned out that he was just reminding me to take some flyers I had forgotten with me!

SW: So how do you feel about Venice Cityhood?

JH: No question that I’m in favor of that. On principal, if nothing else. Venice was basically blackmailed into joining Los Angeles.

SW: Blackmailed! What do you mean?

JH: Well, they said they would cut our water off.

SW: That’s mean!

JH: But you see, they gobbled up most of the county that way. No wonder the valley wants to secede!

SW: Well, John this has been a great start, a wonderful insight into you, and a pleasure talking with a man that so many of my friends speak of with hushed, respectful tones.

JH: Thank you.


Venice as Mecca

or Jerusalem

By John Haag

I sit here on the sand,

a holy place on sacred land,

remembering the tribes and clans

that gathered here, took counsel

and dispersed; foreseeing all

the ones that will arrive,

drink our blessed water and survive,

only to disperse in turn

to spread the word

amongst a disbelieving world.

Take heart, my heart,

for here is never lost

anything forever (but the soul

at times sent wandering

along some other plane).

It too returns home safely

found like a cache of nuts

the squirrel lays by against

a cold day in hell, forgets,

then comes upon in time

of need.


The promised land is here;

The time is near at hand.

John Haag