The Meaning of Ferguson

heavily armed officers in Ferguson.

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

August 31, 2014

Before recent days, who among us had ever heard of Ferguson, Missouri?

Because of what happened there, the brief but intense experience of state repression, its name will be transmitted by millions of Black mouths to millions of Black ears, and it will become a watchword for resistance, like Watts, like Newark, Harlem and Los Angeles.

But Ferguson wasn’t 60 years ago—it’s today.

And for young Blacks from Ferguson and beyond, it was a stark, vivid history lesson—and also a reality lesson.

When they dared protest the state’s street murder of one of their own, the government responded with the tools and weapons of war. They assaulted them with gas. They attacked them as if Ferguson were Fallujah, in Iraq.

The police attacked them as if they were an occupying army from another country, for that, in fact, is what they were.

And these young folks learned viscerally, face to face, what the White Nation thought of them, their claimed constitutional rights, their so-called freedoms, and their lives. They learned the wages of Black protest. Repression, repression and more repression.

They also learned the limits of their so-called “leaders” who called for “peace” and “calm” while armed troops trained submachine guns and sniper rifles on unarmed men, women and children.

Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin once said, “There are decades when nothing happens; there are weeks when decades happen.”

For the youth excluded from the American economy by inferior, substandard education; targeted by the malevolence of the fake drug war and mass incarceration; stopped and frisked for walking while Black were given front-row seats to the national security state at Ferguson after a friend was murdered by police in their streets.

Ferguson is a wake-up call. A call to build social, radical, revolutionary movements for change.


(This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, coming in Spring 2015 from City Lights.)

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Friday Staff Pick: The Feel Trio

Fred Moten is the real deal of contemporary poetry. And this book, The Feel Trio, is one of his best numbers to date. Reprinting at least one of his hard-to-find chapbooks, this book is made up of three sections of poems that flail the margins of the pedestrian and the philosophically sublime. A finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in poetry, The Feel Trio is also the only book by a small press represented on their short list. Taking influence from one Cecil Taylor’s great jazz trios, the poems jam thick as a bass line or sprinkle like keys more than they lay captured within the book’s pages.—Recommended by Jackson, City Lights Books

National Book Award Finalist, 2014

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5 Questions with Ed Piskor

hip family tree 1Today’s edition of 5 Questions features cartoonist Ed Piskor, who will be celebrating the release of Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 1-2: 1975-1983 Gift Box Set (Fantagraphics), a collected edition of his exciting and ongoing graphic history of Hip Hop.

Event: Thursday, November 20 @ 7PM at City Lights. Ed Piskor celebrates the release of the gift edition of Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 1-2.

To celebrate the resounding critical and commercial success of the first two volumes of Ed Piskor’s unprecedented history of Hip Hop, the fabulous folks at Fantagraphics are offering the two books in a mind-blowingly colorful slipcase, drawn and designed by the artist, featuring exclusive all-new cover art on each volume. As if that’s not enough, in addition to the two books and the slipcase itself, Piskor has drawn a 24-page comic book—Hip Hop Family Tree #300—specifically for this boxed set that elegantly reflects the confluence of hip hop and comics, which was never more apparent in the early 1990s than with the famous Spike Lee-directed Levi Jeans commercial starring Rob Liefeld, who went on to create Youngblood and co-found Image Comics, not to mention ending up on the radar of gangster rapper Eazy E. Piskor tells this story as a perfect parody/pastiche/homage to ’90s Image comics.

About the Book: Originally serialized on the hugely popular website Boing Boing, Hip Hop Family Tree is now collected in a single volume cleverly presented and packaged in a style mimicking the Marvel comics of the same era. Piskor’s exuberant yet controlled cartooning takes you from the parks and rec rooms of the South Bronx to the night clubs, recording studios, and radio stations where the scene started to boom, capturing the flavor of late-1970s New York City in panels bursting with obsessively authentic detail. With a painstaking, vigorous and engaging Ken Burns-meets-Stan Lee approach, the battles and rivalries, the technical innovations, the triumphs and failures are all thoroughly researched and lovingly depicted.

hip hop family tree 2Piskor captures the vivid personalities and magnetic performances of old-school pioneers and early stars like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Funky 4 + 1, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, and three kids who would later become RUN-DMC, plus the charismatic players behind the scenes like Russell Simmons, Sylvia Robinson and then-punker Rick Rubin. Piskor also traces graffiti master Fab 5 Freddy’s rise in the art world, and Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, The Clash, and other luminaries make cameos as the music and culture begin to penetrate downtown Manhattan and the mainstream at large.

Like the acclaimed hip hop documentaries Style Wars and Scratch, Hip Hop Family Tree is an exciting and essential cultural chronicle and a must for hip hop fans, pop-culture addicts, and anyone who wants to know how it went down back in the day.

About the Author: Ed Piskor is an alternative cartoonist living and drawing out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a former student of The Kubert School and is best known for his artistic collaboration with underground comics pioneers Harvey Pekar, his graphic novel Wizzywig, and his blockbuster series Hip Hop Family Tree. Piskor is revered for his combination of golden age drawing style and smart storytelling. The Washington Post once said that “Piskor is able to render a world that resonates as truth.” Currently, he is knee deep in drawing the next book in the Hip Hop Family Tree five-volume series.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

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A Van Morrison Literary Playlist

vanmorrison smaller

by Alisha Casey

One of our newest books features a collection of lyrics, both new and old, classic and rare, by one of the most influential lyricists and musicians of all time, Van Morrison. Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics by Van Morrison is the first book published by the legendary singer/songwriter and includes lyrics from some of his most well-known albums and the lesser known. There is something here for the casual Van fan like “Brown Eyed Girl” as well as several lesser known songs exclusively for the diehards.

Handpicked by Morrison himself, these lyrics represent what he has deemed his creative contribution. In Lit Up Inside, we get the full career of an artist from his point of view. Forwards by both fellow musician and poet David Meltzer and popular writer Ian Rankin set the scene for Morrison’s incredible life and work, and the lyrics tell the rest of the story.

In celebration of the new book, we’ve concocted a 5-song “playlist” below of several of Morrison’s songs paired with the lyrics from Lit Up Inside

1. “Songwriter”

I’m a songwriter and I know just where I stand
I’m a songwriter, pen and paper in my hand
Get the words on the page
Please don’t call me a sage
I’m a songwriter

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Interview with Poet Diane Di Prima

by Alisha Casey

Diane di Prima reading from The Poetry Deal at the SF Public Library earlier this Fall.

Diane di Prima, legendary feminist Beat writer, has just released her latest book of poetry, The Poetry Deal, the fifth volume in City Light’s San Francisco Poet Laureate Series. Her last collection with City Lights, Revolutionary Letters, was published back in 1971; now, at eighty-years old, this new collection is her first book of new poetry in decades. Recently, di Prima sat down with reporter Jonah Raskin at SF Gate to discuss her latest work.

Considered by Raskin as the “Queen of the Beat Generation” (should Kerouac be “the king”), di Prima was named San Francisco Poet Laureate in 2009. When asked about this title, Prima explained, “Poetry is my life, my commitment. I accept it unconditionally. I’ve never wanted fame and I’ve never willingly compromised my poetry.”

A self-proclaimed “artist, painter, anarchist,” Prima still writes nearly ever day, so often, in fact, that it’s known to wake her up in the morning and carry her through to the night. “The poems were calling to me,” she said. “I couldn’t silence them.”

A portion of the interview appears below. Go here for the full interview.

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Benefit for David Meltzer, Sunday, November 9, 2014

by Garrett Caples


As we recently posted, David Meltzer has just undergone an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from his liver. The operation was a success and his recovery so far has been excellent. Nonetheless, his medical expenses have been predictably greater than his health insurance coverage, so his friends have been doing some online fundraising on his behalf. If you haven’t already donated, I encourage you to do so, as David is one of American poetry’s living legends.

Not content to remain online, David’s Bay Area friends have banded together to raise money the old-fashioned way with a star-studded event on Sunday, November 9, from 7:30-10 p.m. at San Francisco’s beloved bookstore Bird & Beckett, located at 653 Chenery St. in SF’s Glen Park neighborhood. “Onward! David Meltzer: A Benefit” will feature poets Clark Coolidge, Andrew Joron, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Les Gottesman, and Julie Rogers, music groups Cloud Shepherd and The Rabbles, and (health permitting) a brief appearance by the man himself, David Meltzer. There’ll be wine and beer available as well. As Bird & Beckett owner Eric Whittington writes: “A $20 donation at the door is requested, though we’ll not turn anyone away as long as space allows—and much larger donations are definitely encouraged and appreciated. We’ll also sell a signed letterpress broadside that will be hot off the press.”

There will also be a second fundraising event in Berkeley on Saturday, November 22 at 4 p.m. at Mythos Fine Art and Artifacts and Firehouse North Gallery, 1790 Shattuck Avenue, featuring readings by Jack Hirschman, Joyce Jenkins, Owen Hill, and Julie Rogers, along with Zan Stewart on saxophone. This event too is $20 or whatever you can afford.

Please come to either Bird & Beckett or Mythos/Firehouse to catch some great performances and show your support for the man Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “one of the greats of post-World-War-Two San Francisco poets and musicians.”

If you’ve already donated to the online fundraiser, I’d like to pass along the following message from David: “I’m truly overwhelmed by the generosity of all the people, known & unknown, who have given so kindly to me. Am still in a post-op bog of sorts, but wanted to say for now a collective deep thanks to all. As it clears away, I’ll try & contact individually everyone. Onward!”

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Radio Benjamin: An Interview with Lecia Rosenthal

radiobenjaminAs part of Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco, City Lights is featuring Lecia Rosenthal, the editor of Radio Benjamin published by Verso Books. Radio Benjamin gathers for the first time radio broadcasts produced by Walter Benjamin from 1927-1933. Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the impact of new technology on culture, an interest that extended beyond his renowned critical essays. This eclectic collection demonstrates the range of Benjamin’s thinking and his enthusiasm for popular sensibilities. His celebrated “Enlightenment for Children” youth programs, his plays, readings, book reviews, and fiction reveal Benjamin in a creative, rather than critical, mode. They flesh out ideas elucidated in his essays, some of which are also represented here, where they cover topics as varied as getting a raise and the history of natural disasters, subjects chosen for broad appeal and examined with passion and acuity.

Radio Benjamin is the inspiration for a multimedia installation at the San Francisco Art Institute. The reception for the installation and book-signing party for Radio Benjamin with Lecia Rosenthal attending, will be held on Saturday, November 8, 2014, 12:00 P.M.-12:50 P.M. at the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut Street,  in the courtyard below the Walter & McBean Gallery, west side of the campus, San Francisco, CA 93133, The installation runs from Wednesday, November 5 through Sunday, November 9. It will be open everyday from 11 A.M. until 6 P.M.

Lecia Rosenthal spoke to City Lights’ Peter Maravelis about Walter Benjamin’s Radio Show.

City Lights:  Congratulations on editing this amazing collection. It seems so natural that Walter Benjamin would have a radio show! I was immediately struck by how much his broadcasts resembled a kind of Radiolab of it’s day. And in many ways far more radical. Could you talk to us a little about the genesis of these broadcasts and why he directed some of them at children (“Enlightenment for Children” youth programs)? What did he have in mind ?

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Throwback Thursday: Ry Cooder’s Los Angeles Stories

los angeles storiesRy Cooder might be most known for his work as a musician, and a rather prolific one at that. He was a session guitarist on two legendary Rolling Stones albums Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers. The slide guitar on “Sister Morphine”? – that was Cooder. He has also played with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, produced Buena Vista Social Club–the band (and record) that popularized Cuban music in the 90’sscored numerous film soundtracks (including the critically acclaimed Paris, Texas), and has been praised for his innovative exploration and deep love of American roots music. His ground-breaking solo albums recorded in the 1970’s are partly responsible for introducing traditional American music styles to rock and pop audiences. He recently appeared at the Americana Music Festival and Conference held in Nashville, Tennessee where he gave a fantastic hour-long interview, especially interesting to those who follow the genre.

Refreshingly clad in socks and sandals on the Country Music Hall of Fame stage, Cooder is a fountain of knowledge talking shop with music journalist and author Barry Mazor. After hearing just a few moments of Cooder’s interview (though perhaps more of a lecture, as Cooder has no problem eloquently spinning his answers into excellent stories) it’s easy to see why Cooder chose to publish a collection of short stories with City Lights in 2011. Los Angeles Stories surveys a post WWII LA – a very different LA than the one we know currently. In a phone conversation with Mother Jones‘s Tim McDonnell, Cooder notes,

“What LA is now is appalling and  unspeakable[…] I like to contemplate Los Angeles as it used to be when I was a kid. I remember it pretty well, and things that are all gone now, or different now, see?”

Cooder’s collection aims to focus on the lives of Angelenos before big money was involved in shaping it into an entirely different beast. Published as part of the City Lights Noir series, a genre that seems to perfectly frame the image of seedy 1950’s-style Downtown LA, Cooder breathes life into an array of characters – bartenders, musicians, cops, etc. and wastes no time doing so. And he would know them well – the life of a musician was quite different in the last century. The first story, “All in a Day’s Work,” immediately introduces us to a sort of “fact collector” who earns twenty-five cents an entry recording residents’ names, addresses, and jobs into the Los Angles City Directory. Cooder writes,

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New from City Lights Publishers: Deep Code by John Coletti

DeepCodeBy Alisha Casey

John Coletti’s book of poems, Deep Codemarks the twelfth volume in City Light’s Spotlight Series, a collection dedicated to innovative contemporary American poets, both veteran and upcoming. Since the creation of the Pocket Poets Series by Lawrence Ferlinghetti with his own collection, Pictures of the Gone World, City Lights has upheld a tradition of publishing innovative poetry from established and new writers, a legacy that Ferlinghetti founded  nearly sixty years ago. With the Spotlight Series, edited by Garrett Caples, City Lights hopes not only to shine a light on these writers but also onto the small presses that publish this kind of contemporary poetry that pushes (or disregards) boundaries.

Deep Code is John Coletti’s second full-length book. His last was Mum Halo (Rust Buckle, 2010). In Deep Code, Coletti explores a “side language” as a subset of other languages–whether slang or metaphor to communicate and to obfuscate.

In many ways, Coletti’s poems reflect an attempt to portray a restless, urban life, a poetics “distressed and fine like all the chances we forget we’re free to make, ” as stated by poet Dana Ward. Or, as fellow City Lights Spotlight alumni Alli Warren puts it, Deep Code is akin to “[walking] hand-in-hand with a tenderhearted city boy who [wants] ‘ALLLLLLL the experience’ … John Coletti expertly props our ears to what’s striking and dare I say beautiful in the terrifying realities of this world.” Coletti writes through an altogether strange and ungainly but ultimately universal collection of poems. Deep Code moves quickly, at times on a line-by-line basis, between personal reflections and ornamental lyric perceptions creating a kind of fragmentation not unlike cubism.

Find below two poems from Deep Code.

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Walter Benjamin’s Lipstick Traces

by Peter Maravelis

WBBeginning on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 City Lights, in conjunction with numerous partner organizations, will be presenting a week-long symposium and tribute to the life and work of the late German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. For a full listing of all the events and biographies of the participants visit For a reading list on the many great publications of Benjamin’s writings, go here or visit City Lights Bookstore.

Lindsay Waters is the Executive Editor for the Humanities at the Harvard University Press and one of the people responsible for bringing many of Walter Benjamin’s works to the English-speaking public. He spoke to City Lights on the eve of the Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco symposium.

City Lights: Thanks for joining us. You have been instrumental in bringing Walter Benjamin’s work to US audiences over the course of the last few years. Could you speak to us about the project? How did it come about? How did you come to discover Benjamin?

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