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 bookstores, libraries and perhaps the printed word itself are getting shoved down the same path as vinyl records and record stores? Well, we would. Why? Because suddenly we find ourselves in a unique moment where we may have a chance to turn things around and the printed word—the broadside, the pamphlet, the book, the bookstore and the library—has a key role to play in preserving and advancing our intellectual, cultural, and political freedom.
I’ve always loved pamphlets. They have the immediacy and urgency of guerilla radio. They fit in your pocket. 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, demanding that we 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 25 editions and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. “It was the best of best sellers.”
At Zucotti Park
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 him there. I had been closely following developments and thought I knew what I’d encounter. I was wrong. Nothing prepared me for how I felt when I first crossed the line of police and protestors and entered the liberated space of Zuccotti Park. Among the things I saw 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 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 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
- been 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
Zuccotti Park—before the raids—was something entirely new, connected in spirit to past and parallel movements, but going forward in a different way. That was September 30. I decided to join 700 others who were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on the march from Zuccotti to Brooklyn. Along the way I snapped shots and video 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 compañeros, there’s just no way around the fact that the cops will have total control until you walk out, free again.
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.
My jail cell held 115 people—young and old, Latinos, blacks, whites, Asians, students, unemployed, working people—that had been rounded up on the bridge. As each new person was processed and admitted to a large holding cell, we’d receive 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. The applause worked: we did not feel afraid or alone.
There were lots of meetings and discussions in jail. I 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, “What does solidarity mean? That we are solid?” In any other situation, the question may have provoked a cynical or sarcastic response. Not so here. 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 definitions, 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 the Occupied Pamphlet Series was planted.
But that’s not what pulled the trigger. 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,” Leonard’s poem sings the song of awakening (I apologize Walt Whitman). The poem begins with:
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, “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: “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 me 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, 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.
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 our effort: create your own printed media.
Could there possibly be a better time to support the proliferation of the underground press? 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.
Our vision? To help this movement—and those to come—create a better future, one based in dignity, equality, justice, literacy, democracy and freedom for all. Like the Zapatistas, with each pamphlet we publish, we want to “plant the trees of tomorrow” and help the long-term project of creating “one world in which many worlds fit.”
Working with Noam Chomsky, our first nationally distributed pamphlet, due out May Day, is titled, “Occupy.” It’s a 128-page call to action, to resist, 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.”
When I was released from jail that night, it was a cold and rainy, no sign of dawn. I’d long missed my last train home, and it was still way 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 waiting in the rain. I thought they were waiting for someone else, but they were people from the movement, waiting all night, in the cold and rain, to greet each one of the 700 with a warm embrace and food. The next time I’m asked what solidarity is, that will be the story I tell first.
Spring is here. May ten million flowers bloom.
Greg Ruggiero worked as senior editor with Seven Stories Press from 1997 to 2005 during which time he published such titles as 9-11 by Noam Chomsky, Silencing Political Dissent by Nancy Chang, Israel/Palestine by Tanya Reinhart, and Are Prisons Obsolete? By Angela Y. Davis. Photos: from the Brooklyn Bridge protest and arrests; Photo by Alex Fradkin.