Printers Ink Is the Greater Explosive: Pamphlet Publishing as Insurgent Art

By Greg Ruggiero

Howard Zinn once wrote that “perhaps the most important publication in the history of the United States was neither a book nor a periodical, but a pamphlet.” For Zinn, “the pamphlets of history are a perfect expression of the marriage of art and politics—their language is the language of the people, their cheapness makes them accessible to all, their content is revolutionary, demanding fundamental changes in society. Like all socially conscious art, they transcend the world of commerce, they transcend the orthodox, and so they are profoundly democratic.”

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City Lights pamphlets. Left to right: “Second April” by Bob Kaufman (1959), “Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen” by Alan W. Watts (1959), “To Protect and Serve Who?” by Mumia Abu-Jamal (2015), “Poem from Jail” by Ed Sanders (1963)

Over the past 60 years City Lights has sporadically contributed to the great tradition and insurgent art of pamphlet publishing by producing limited-edition staple-bound pamphlets brimming with politics, poetry and the search for enlightenment. While each release is indelibly marked with the literary and countercultural fingerprints of its moment, it is precisely their idiosyncrasies that make many of these texts shine. For example, in Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen (1959) Alan Watts writes:

If you really want to spend some years in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn’t. Or if you want to spend your time hopping freight cars and digging Charlie Parker, it’s a free country.
In the landscape of Spring there is neither better nor worse;
The flowering branches grow naturally, some long, some short.

For some, simply marking a moment is of tantamount importance as the poem on the page. Consider Flowers and Bullets (1970) written by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko shortly after the U.S. National Guard shot and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970; Eagle Brief (1970) by Timothy Leary, a freedom poem left behind in his empty cell on the occasion of his successful escape from jail with the help of the Weather Underground; and Jean Genet’s May Day Speech, written in defense of the Black Panthers and Bobby Seale who were demonized by cops. All of these texts were published as pamphlets by City Lights Books.

In Norman Mailer’s enduringly influential essay “The White Negro,” published as a magazine article in Dissent in 1957 and as a pamphlet by City Lights in 1960, Mailer writes “A man knew that when he dissented, he gave a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people.” Still fresh, those words could have been written this morning in response to the climate of fear around police violence in communities of color, the courageous pockets of resistance spreading out from isolated parts of the country, and Mumia Abu-Jamal’s new pamphlet, To Protect and Serve Who?: Organizing a Movement to Abolish Police Violence which calls on young people to remember the racist origins of policing in the United States and the urgent need to organize. “The People can and must build solutions to this crisis,” writes Mumia, “ if they but dare.”

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“Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings” (left) and its companion pamphlet “To Protect and Serve Who?” (right) by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Like a pirate radio broadcast transmitted directly from the maximum unfreedom of a U.S. prison cell, the pamphlet was typeset in columns by Mumia on a prison typewriter and published without alteration of any kind. His words have literally escaped from prison. There aren’t a lot of copies, and the few that exist are only available at City Lights and a few other places. Come to the bookstore and check it out, or order it online here. Arm yourself with information. The insurgent art of pamphlet publishing lives on at City Lights. Printers ink is the greater explosive.

You can listen to a recording of Mumia Abu-Jamal himself read an excerpt from the pamphlet on Prison Radio here.

To Protect and Serve Who? is available direct from City Lights and at these fine bookstores:  Bluestockings, McNally Jackson, and St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City, Red Emma’s in Baltimore, the Prison Radio project, with more locations on the way.

The pamphlet is published as a companion to a recent City Lights release in the Open Media Series, Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal edited by Johanna Fernández with a foreword by Cornel West.

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