5 Writing 5 Writing

Writing and organizing

Newsletters and pamphlets

Visitors found it hard to believe that an enterprise of such proportions was being planned amid such humble appointments in an office furnished with nothing more than a water cooler, a few scabrous and creaky old desks and chairs, and a small bank of temporary telephones. Assisted by a handful of Black and white volunteers, Rustin [a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington] prepared thousands of letters, instruction manuals and newsletters.

Jervis Anderson, in Gary Younge, The Speech, 2013

The pamphlet is ephemeral, occasional, cheaply produced, often a one-off. It’s reactive and responsive: it may form part of a series but its production doesn’t require the continuous flow of related material that a journal might. It’s passed among friends and associates, sold or distributed in one-to-one encounters in the street and in the margins of political gatherings, in bookstores on racks of similar things. It prompts and supports interactions between people, between ideas, and between people and ideas. Its political function is inherent in the social, economic and material relations in which it is embedded (all media are social media).

It’s not bulky, ideally you can put it in your pocket easily. It’s not going to take you too long to read, but it’s long enough to get somewhere. And you can make it in all these different ways.

Fabian Tompsett, in Nicholas Thoburn, Anti-Book, 2016

Similar kinds of small publication such as newsletters and reports hold constituencies of supporters together around organizations both large and small. They are a form of distributed cognition, a way in which members of a group or community come to know and debate what it is they have in common. They are an essential way of doing so in the absence of meeting, and they have been replicated and elaborated in form and function by digital media.

Sakhi started a letter-writing network in 1991, advertising its existence in newsletters and magazines across the country. Almost immediately, letters were pouring in from every part of India, small towns and big cities, their letters all eagerly embracing the invitation to be ‘lesbian’.

Naisargi Dave, ‘Queer politics in contemporary India’, 2011

People joined for all kinds of reasons, but the Panthers have a 10-point platform, a programme that really was like the fundamental organising tool, and orientation tool.

The paper was the lifeblood of the party, that’s why we survived. We sold the papers, 25 cents back then, it cost maybe twelve cents to print it, the other 12 and a half cents went to the various chapters and branches, that’s how we basically survived.

The party paper went places party members would never get to go to, reaching people we would never see – but the paper got there, some kind of way or other, so it was very important to get the paper out.

In the paper, everything came together. You had the platform, the 10-point platform was in there, you know, was the first thing you see when you open up the paper. It explained who we were, what we were about, what our goals were.

Landon Williams, Omar Barbour, William Calhoun and Ora Williams, Black Panther Party, in The Black Panthers, dir Stanley Nelson, US 2015

Emails and tweets

I am also sending a copy to Martin in London (who does the ‘Commoner’ netmagazine and will certainly be interested and useful) and to Sarai Sagi and Medha Pinkar in India… And a copy to Raul Gonzalez in Madrid who may help with Spain… I am sending also a copy to Flores, but I guess you must be in contact since you seem to be connected with Andy.

e-mail, July 2002, in Hermann Maiba ‘Grassroots transnational social movement activism’, 2005

In their study of the People’s Assembly formed in response to austerity budgets in the UK, Mercea and Yilmaz found that retweeting was a way of sharing information about protest actions: where to meet, for example, or how to respond to police manoeuvres. But it also made for a kind of sympathetic bonding between different parts of the movement:

The TUC retweeted messages about the student protests; student unions retweeted posts about the Green Party; Occupy London retweeted the junior doctors’ strike; Occupy Manchester retweeted content addressed to the TUC celebrating the long history of the trade union movement in the UK. Retweeting thereby aided in the reinforcement of a loose anti-austerity in-group.

Dan Mercea and Kutlu Emre Yilmaz, ‘Movement social learning on Twitter’, 2018

We’ve taken a quote, turned it into a tweet, put it on a billboard, tweeted a photo of that billboard, the tweet’s gone viral, the local newspaper’s written about the viral tweet of a billboard of a tweet, that article itself has gone viral, then our tweet about the article has exploded… It’s a kind of meta-virality that we struggle to get our heads round.

Led by Donkeys, 2019

Jervis Anderson, A Philip Randolph. A biographical portrait, Berkeley: U California Press, 1972, cit Gary Younge, The Speech, op cit, p 69

Fabian Tompsett, publisher and printer of Unpopular Books, in Nicholas Thoburn, Anti-Book. On the art and politics of radical publishing, Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 2016, p 102

The idea that documents form communities is from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (1996) ‘The social life of documents’, introduction by Esther Dyson, First Monday, 1 (1); it’s also at the core of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London: Verso, 1983

Naisargi Dave (2011) ‘Activism as ethical practice: Queer politics in contemporary India’, Cultural Dynamics 23 (1) 3-20

Hermann Maiba, (2005) ‘Grassroots transnational social movement activism: the case of People’s Global Action’, Sociological Focus 38 (1) 41-63; ‘I am also sending…’ is p 57

Dan Mercea and Kutlu Emre Yilmaz (2018) ‘Movement social learning on Twitter: the case of the People’s Assembly’, Sociological Review 66 (1) 20-40; The TUC retweeted…’ is p 34

Led by Donkeys were interviewed by Tim Lewis for the Guardian, 19 October 2019