John Haag — called a “quiet leader” of the Venice Beatnik literary scene and later the politics of peace and freedom— died Saturday, April 1st, following years of failing health. He was 75.
A memorial service is being planned for a not-yet-specified date. Haag has been cremated.
Much of the foundation of Venice’s activist community can be linked to Haag’s efforts. He co-founded the Free Venice Beachhead, a local activist newspaper with an emphasis on poetry; and co-founded the Venice Peace and Freedom Party in 1967, under which he ran for the offices of lieutenant governor and state controller.
He organized against the Vietnam War, against racial segregation, was a devoted pacifist, and worked against ways he said corporate greed and development affected the local Venice community.
“He considered himself an anarchist, and his core beliefs were developing and supporting people’s right to freedom,” says Jim Smith, who met Haag in 1969 and continues to this day to be a main organizer of the Venice Peace and Freedom Party.
Haag ran the Venice West CafÈ (currently Sponto Gallery) for a time, which, along with The Gas House, was one of Venice’s two main Beatnik poet hangouts in the 1950s and early 1960s.
A popular Venice Beatnik poet himself, Haag increasingly fused politics with his poetry as the years passed and he believed that activism and self-expression went hand in hand.
He was known for his active fight against harassment and intimidation of Beatniks by the Los Angeles Police Department, after witnessing repeated instances of what he considered police misconduct at the Venice West CafÈ, according to Smith.
“Practically every night the cops were picking on somebody, outside or inside, whatever,” Haag was quoted as saying, protesting what he labeled as attempts to drive the bohemian community out of Venice. “And I got real tired of it.”
Displaying a tendency to become politically involved that was rare among early Beatniks, Haag fought against Los Angeles City Council attempts to curb free speech, including a 1965 ordinance that banned bongo playing.
“A number of other Beats were not politically active and would not get involved with politics even when there was an issue that affected them directly,” says Smith. “John was different.”
Allegedly due to his activism, Haag began being personally targeted for police harassment. After purchasing the Venice West CafÈ, Haag was arrested for holding poetry readings without an entertainment permit.
Following Haag’s activism, many local bohemians and artists began to develop a strong political consciousness in the mid-1960s that is still evident in the Venice community today.
“He was not a lone wolf,” Smith says. “He worked together with others seeking to free themselves from imposing social, political and economic forces.”
Locally, Haag was part of successful efforts to block the City of Los Angeles from building a freeway near West Washington Boulevard (now Abbot Kinney Boulevard), and from widening the Venice Canals to accommodate yachts.
Haag worked with numerous activist groups on different levels. He served as a founding president of the Venice Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and he co-founded the Free Venice movement with the late Rick Davidson.
Haag was the publicity chairman of the Venice/Santa Monica chapter of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality).
Haag came to Southern California after graduating from Harvard University. He was born on December 14th, 1930, in Albany, New York and is survived by a son, Thomas Paine Haag, and a daughter, Duanna Haag.