OWS: A Pamphleteer’s Occupation…


From GREG RUGGIERO
HuffPost

Who in their right mind would start a new small press at a time when the economy is so bad, e-books are rising, and book stores, libraries and perhaps the printed word itself are getting shoved down the same path as vinyl records and record stores?

Why bother to sink resources and turtle-pace time into producing, mailing, and shelving printed matter when we can now reach one another with speed and buzz, hummingbird-style?

Some people, like Rory O’Connor, use terms like “legacy media” to refer to old-school operations like newspapers. We have, indeed, entered an era where “friends and followers” are displacing corporations as producers of the news people give their attention to. But that does not displace printed matter as a whole. In fact, the Occupy movements are giving birth to a beautiful revival of print-based underground press activity. Tidal, a journal of Occupy theory, is one of a host of new Occupy-related print-based initiatives that is channeling the energy, ideas, art and aspirations that is making waves. The editors have two beautiful issues out to date, and give them away, thanks to donations of all types, including labor. I’ve seen people reading Tidal in the streets and in the courtroom. Just seeing it in people’s hands is uplifting to me. Print projects like Tidal, and there are many others, offer solidarity and intellectual self defense against corporate efforts to achieve cultural control.

Despite all the immediacy and connectivity offered by online communication, print still matters. Print is intimate. We can hold it in our hands, touch it, pass it to one another. We see people reading in public spaces, in the subway, on planes, in jail cells. And as we find ourselves in a unique moment where we may have a chance to turn things around, the printed word, the broadside, the pamphlet, the book, the bookstore and the library have key roles to play in preserving and advancing our intellectual, cultural and political freedom. “To abandon them, to let them be captured” writes Andre Vltchek, “would mean that everything is lost.”

I’ve always loved pamphlets. They have the immediacy and urgency of guerrilla radio. They fit in your pocket like a bandana or a sling shot. People share them with one another. The best are not just analysis, but an irresistible call to action that resonates with our conscience and with the times, prompting us to act.

“Perhaps the most important publication in the history of the United States,” wrote Howard Zinn, “was neither a book nor a periodical, but a pamphlet.” In his essay “Pamphleteering in America,” Zinn describes how Common Sense went through twenty-five editions and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. “It was the best of best sellers. Considering that the population of the country then was about 3 million, if just 100,000 were sold, that would be the equivalent of 8 million copies of a pamphlet sold today in the United States.”

Given the new political spaces being opened by the Occupy movement and mass indignation with the system, creating pamphlets today seems like common sense.

There are lots of broad reasons why, all publicly known, all published in prominent places like the New York Times. Here’s just a few that have motivated me. In 2010, “93 percent of the additional income created in the country that year, compared to 2009 — $288 billion — went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.” So when it’s said the nation is experiencing a recovery, what’s really true is that the rich are getting richer. At the same time, there is no real safety net if you fall on hard times. If you just fall $700 behind on your heating bill you could be left to freeze to death, as happens in Maine. Finally, “The upper class are more likely than others to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat.” I did not learn about those things reading the Occupied Wall Street Journal, I learned about them in The New York Times.

I first made it to Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, at the end of September. My friend, author Joe Nevins, insisted I meet with him there. I had been closely following developments, and thought I knew what it was and what I’d encounter. I was way wrong.

Nothing quite prepared me for what I encountered and what I felt when I first crossed the line of police and protestors and entered the liberated space of Zuccotti Park.

One can list the saxophone, the bass, the piano and the drum kit, but can one ever describe the experience of sharing space with jazz musicians as they improvise and push into ecstatic and uncharted states of collective synthesis and being?

Among the instruments playing in Zuccotti that day were: a free lending library, a free kitchen, a free medical area, a comfort committee (to welcome new arrivals), a drumming circle, a free newspaper — The Occupied Wall Street Journal, discussion groups, information tables, facilitators, translators, de-escalators (to talk down fights), free silk screeners creating art on the spot, and a perimeter of non-stop protest against the 1%, the banks, the corporations and the political system that everyone seems to agree is owned by them. The park was a civic dream come true, a living Declaration of Independence, a shared place for people to exercise their human and constitutional rights to the fullest in search for ways to hold power accountable and turn things around ourselves.

Streams of people snaked through the park, visiting tables, sharing, meeting, engaging. In all my years of participation in social movements, and at 47-years-old, I’ve been involved in a few, I’d never seen anything like this. I’d stood on corners as a student at Rutgers to protest CIA recruiting on campus, attended student sit-ins to protest apartheid in South Africa, been in the streets to prevent Gulf War I, gassed by riot police in downtown Seattle in 1999, marched with striking teachers in Oaxaca weeks before Brad Will fell there, slogged through mud to reach indigenous villages in Zapatista Chiapas, met in secret locations on the Lower East Side to broadcast pirate radio as “DJ Thomas Paine,” lobbied the government in every possible manner to end their ban on LPFM; but Zuccotti Park before the raids was like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else. This was something entirely new, connected in spirit to past and parallel movements, but going forward in a new way. Something inside me opened big and green like a jungle leaf to take in all the energy and light. A sign read, “The Beginning is Near.”

That was September 30. I woke up the next day feeling like Richard Dreyfus after his face got scorched red in a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. I had to go back. I thought I’d be home for dinner. But that’s not what happened. At dinner time, I was in handcuffs, singing songs with a police bus packed full of compañeros from the movement.

Seven hundred of us were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge that day as we marched from Zuccotti to Brooklyn. Along the way I snapped shots and quick video clips with my phone. When I watch the clips now, I still get goose bumps.

Being in handcuffs for hours is just the beginning. All your thoughts and reflections seem to have triple the weight. Even though you are surrounded by fellow protestors, there’s just no way around the fact that the cops will have total control until you walk back out, free again.

During my hours restrained, hands cuffed behind my back, I discovered that today’s young insurgents have developed what I think should be listed as a new yoga posture. Some how, these limber young people managed to not only withdraw their phone, but to punch out and send a text or tweet while their hands were cuffed painfully behind their backs.

Between the police bus and the jail cell was cold rain. We had to stand outside in the drizzle and wait our turn to be uncuffed, have our possessions confiscated and our identification recorded.

Between entering the building and the detention space was a maze of lines. But since there were so many protestors all together, the sharp feeling of being trapped and stuck was blunted.

My cell held 115 people — young and old, Latinos, blacks, whites, Asians, students, unemployed, working people, all of whom had been rounded up on the bridge. Men and women were separated, but when we did see some of the compañeras being led passed us, we applauded to help them feel strong. They’d smile, shout, applaud back, or raise their fist in silent solidarity.

As each new person was processed and admitted to a large holding cell, we’d received a roaring ovation from those already in there. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being in handcuffs for hours, being led to a cell by a police officer, the cell door opening, and dozens of people rising to their feet and applauding as you make your way in. They applauded for me, and I applauded for the others who were forced in after me. The applause worked: we did not feel afraid or alone. Estuvimos juntos.

There were lots of meetings and discussions in jail. I went over and sat next to a young man wearing an EZLN t-shirt and chatted with him. One copy of the latest edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal passed from one hungry set of hands to the next. Throughout it all, the word “solidarity” was uttered often. One young protestor asked out loud, “What does solidarity mean? That we are solid?” In any other situation, the question may have provoked a cynical or sarcastic response. Not so there.

A small circle immediately formed, myself included, around him. To answer his question, each person shared a story conveying what solidarity meant to them. No one definition, just stories and examples. The question, and the way it was answered, has stuck with me, awakening the pamphleteer in me to ask and address basic questions like his in larger and larger circles far beyond the windowless jail cell. There and then, the seed for starting up a new print project was planted.

But that’s not what made it sprout.

A few days later, an old poet friend, Stuart Leonard, emailed me. He was on the Brooklyn Bridge too, and he and his wife had narrowly escaped arrest. The experience on the Bridge was to him what Zuccotti Park and jail have been to me — an awakening — but in his case, he was inspired to write a poem, “Taking Brooklyn Bridge.”

When I read the poem, I got goose bumps. Written to Walt Whitman and evoking the cadence and style of his magnificent poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Taking Brooklyn Bridge” sings the song of awakening. The poem begins with these lines:
I apologize Walt Whitman,
when I was young you spoke to me,
I would sit in the old church cemetery
surrounded by the tombstones of patriots
reading you out loud to the stray cats
and you came to me, you sang to me,
showed me myself in everyone and everything,
taught me a democracy of the soul, to live
in the rough and tumble world with dignity,
to grant that same dignity to the people around me.

I apologize Walt Whitman,
I let the song fade into the din
of everyday life, there are excuses
I could make, I will not make them,
I did not carry your song through the streets,
I worried about the strange looks and awkward postures
I might see in those who needed to hear it.
I got complacent, I was informed,
yes, informed, I read the papers, watched the news,
debated over dinners, knew full well since the days of Reagan
what was happening to the common people like me
that you taught me to love, watched as we were turned
from citizens to consumers to the dispossessed,
and I did not rise up, I did not take to the streets,
did not risk or struggle, did not sing your song
that you so generously gave me.

I sent “Taking Brooklyn Bridge” by email to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, saying something like, “Lawrence, this unpublished poet just sent this to me, he is not asking me to send it to you, I just want to know what you think of it. Should I encourage him?” Ferlinghetti, 92-years-old, responded right away saying, “It’s an impassioned poem and should be published broadside! Why don’t you revive your Open Pamphlet Series and publish it?”

That pulled the trigger.

Twenty years earlier I had stood on street corners near Astor Place distributing Noam Chomsky pamphlets I had produced in an effort to stop Gulf War I. We exchanged pamphlets for subway tokens and donations. The thing took off fast, and led to my and my future brother-in-law, Stuart Sahulka, producing dozens more under the name “Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.” For the following several years we published some of the most outspoken advocates for peace and social justice around, including Howard Zinn, Juliet Schor, Edward Said, Elaine Bernard, Manning Marable, bell hooks, Helen Caldicott, Kristin Dawkins, Amiri Baraka, Loretta Ross, Seymour Melman, ACT UP, Allen Ginsberg, Subcomandante Marcos and The Dalai Lama.

If there ever was one, this is a moment for pamphlet publishing. This is a moment to create journals like Tidal. When I submitted an article to the Occupied Wall Street Journal, part of its automated response said, “We would like to encourage you to create your own printed media.” That’s the spirit of Zuccotti Park, and that’s the spirit of the movement: create your own printed media. May ten million flowers bloom.

And while it’s true that most of Occupy’s tent camps have been raided, for many, that’s like saying the butterfly’s chrysalis has been abandoned. The movement has taken flight. And as I write, it grows. Spring has finally come.
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Could there possibly be a better time to support the proliferation of the underground press? Could it ever be more needed? Inspired by the liberated spaces created before the raids, Zuccotti Park Press and the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series are being published by the non-profit, Brooklyn-based, immigrant advocacy group, Adelante Alliance, whose core mission is to increase literacy among Spanish-speaking immigrants. Most of the labor on the publishing project, mine included, is donated. People I met in Zuccotti Park and in jail have helped bring the new effort to life.

Working with Noam Chomsky, our first nationally distributed pamphlet, due out May Day, is titled, Occupy. It’s a 128-page call to action, a call to resist, a call to continue reaching out and struggling for a better world. “The Occupy movements have been a remarkable success,” says Chomsky. “They’ve changed the national discourse. They have introduced into public view crucial concerns that had been hidden. They’ve created communities of mutual support and solidarity…. In fact, one sign of their success is the nature of the repression against them.” “Occupy” features photos throughout by Alex Fradkin and Stanley Rogouski (who I was locked up with on Oct 1) and a “what to do if you get arrested” guide for protestors written by the National Lawyers Guild.

Occupy is being distributed to the trade by Consortium; foreign rights are being represented by the Roam Agency. Foreign editions are already in the works with publishers in England, France, Italy, Korea, Japan.

Other titles are in the works with Mumia Abu-Jamal, Laura Gottesdiener, Angela Davis, Dario Azellini and Marina Sitrin, and Ralph Nader.

“The pamphlets of history are a perfect expression of the marriage of art and politics,” wrote Zinn, “their language is the language of the people, their cheapness makes them accessible to all, their content is revolutionary, demanding fundamental changes in society.”

When I was released from jail that night, it was cold and rainy, no sign of dawn. I’d long missed my last train home, and it was still much too soon for the first. My mind reeled with everything that had happened. At the perimeter of the downtown police compound a small group of people were standing, waiting in the rain. I thought they were waiting for some one else, but they were people from the movement, waiting all night, in the cold and rain, to greet each one of us 700 with a warm embrace and food. Their energy, their commitment, and their resistance, has inspired me to extend the spirit and participate in the movement through print.

The next time I’m asked what solidarity is, that will be the story I tell first.

Spring is here. Long live printed word! May ten million flowers bloom.
~
Greg Ruggiero, an editor at City Lights Publishers, founder of Open Media Books and the driving force behind Zuccotti Park Press.
~~

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