Passing the Torch

In October 1795 while riding to Parliament in a glass-enclosed royal carriage King George III became the target of a crowd protesting war and demanding bread. Like Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the U.K. throne, and his consort, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, riding to the theatre in the glass-enclosed Rolls Royce, royalty embodies the sovereignty which led to war and hardship. Poor Kyd Wake, a bookbinder, hissed and grimaced at the King shouting, “No George, No War,” while the carriage windows became subject to a barrage of pebbles and sticks from a hungry and protesting crowd. Wake was sentenced to five years hard labor and expired a few months later under the rigors of the Gloucester penitentiary. In England now as college tuition is tripled and in America as a howl goes up against Julian Assange of Wikileaks, the price of knowledge is becoming out of reach to all but the aristocrats of wealth or the keepers of the secrets, and fewer than ever will remember Kyd Wake, because to deny the popular movement is to deny the people’s history as our rulers are quite aware.

There are other conceptions of sovereignty than royal personifications and this was the theme, already present in the title, of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is why we remember Kyd Wake who was part of an international movement of human liberation from war, slavery, and starvation, and it is why the slogan “Power to the People” is abiding. As Kyd Wake froze behind bars in his granite cell, in Paris on April 1796 posters and placards went up one night onto the walls, or the famous lamp-posts, of the city and in day time the sans-culotte of Paris could pause in their restless wandering of the streets for food or pay to read and discuss fifteen propositions. Education and knowledge was prominent among them.

“No one may, by the accumulation of all the resources, deprive another of the education necessary for his happiness: education must be common.”

Gracchus Babeuf wrote the Manifesto of the Plebeians a year later which expounds on the ideas of such propositions. “Since acquired knowledge is the property of all, it must be shared equally among all,” he explained. Universities, schools, and knowledge are part of our commons. And to say otherwise, according to this line of reasoning, is to engage in conspiracy, privatization, and as we say now, the deliberate dumbing down of people. Babeuf again, “That the superiority of talents and industry is only an illusion and a specious deception, which has always unduly assisted the plots of conspirators against equality.”

The posters included related propositions. It began saying, “Nature has given every man an equal right to enjoy all goods.” Another proposition explained, “the aim of society is to defend this equality, often attacked by the strong and wicked in the state of nature, and to increase common enjoyments by the cooperation of all.” “In a true society there must be neither rich nor poor.” “Work and enjoyment must be shared.” “No one can, without committing a crime, appropriate to his exclusive possession the fruits of the earth or of industry.” “The rich who refuse to renounce their superfluity in favor of the poor are the enemies of the people.”

Enemies of the people? Yes, this was class war ? la 1796. “All that is possessed by those who have more than their individual share in the goods of society is theft and usurpation. That it is therefore just to take it back from them.”

The poster is informative, it makes announcements, it looks both to the past and the future; it is argumentative and hence turns information to knowledge and knowledge to action. The main thing about it is that it is public. The public is best seen as the street, the location of movement, traffic, people, and goods.

Just published are two books which are a direct continuation of these themes, how the poster can turn the walls and streets and pavements of the city into a provocative space of debate and discussion through which popular sovereignty may form and find expression. One book is: Josh MacPhee, the editor, with a fine introduction by Rebecca Solnit, Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution (New York: Feminist Press, 2010). The other book is: edited by Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee in association with Exit Art and it is called Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2010).

Signs of Change is explosive in its educational impact because of the full, eager, colorful, passionate page designs. These come from the exhibit in which hundreds of posters are displayed (the book catalogues the show). Every teacher, grandparent, parent, friend, comrade, will want it to give away. It is a massive and beautiful work. It both illustrates struggles for freedom and argues for them. Seven colors mark the page edges of the seven sections: the Struggle for the Land is red, Agitate! Educate! Organize! is blue, Forward to People’s Power is mauve, gold is Freedom and Independence Now, and so on through the other main sections, Let It All Hang Out, Reclaim the Commons, and Globalization from Below.

Each of these sections contains a variety of examples of the theme by reproducing the posters which were part of that struggle. Thus Globalization from Below contains spreads on the Zapatistas, Argentina, and the movement for No Borders. You open the page on the Zapatistas, for instance, and you are greeted by fifteen images of posters, murals, and pavement art. Each is carefully described and translated. Or, in the dark purple edges of Reclaim the Commons pages, you’ll find these themes: anti-gentrification (there’s a hydra head here!), People’s Park in Berkeley, Narita Airport in Japan, the Dutch Kabouters or gnomes or, the Women’s Peace Camps, the Forest Defenders, the bicycle activists, the anti-nuke movements, or the environmentalists of Larzac in south-central France where the Rocquefort cheese comes from, each of these sings forth in fortissimo its signs of change. Each of these sections commences with a short, intelligent, clear introduction providing context while the posters themselves provide the knowledge. The effect of it all is the epic of our radical times

There are four hundred images! They are legible. Some are familiar and some rare. They are international ? Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, and north America. The story of our times can be viewed here. The curators, editors, and publishers have done a smashing job of work. The old will remember when, the young will be incited to deeds of their own. There is nary a trace of nostalgia in these exciting pages. They are all forward motion. Onwards!

Though there is no poster to celebrate Kyd Wake in Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution, we might celebrate him indirectly by taking a bookbinder’s approach to it. Celebrate People’s History measures seven inches by nine and a half inches approximating the proportion of the Zippo lighter, the WWII Jeep, or the Lucky Strike cigarette pack. Perhaps this is consonant with that divine proportion or golden ratio whose discovery is often attributed to Pythagoras. More to the point it is easy to photocopy, and the over-worked people’s history teacher will find among the one hundred ten posters one hundred ten lesson plans.

So much for the size. The look is that of light whole wheat bread and the paper has the fine feel, not of gloss, but of a poster ready to be wheat-pasted on a wall. The touch is great. The pages have an organic feel to them. It is wholesome and the ingestion of it will contribute to a systemic feeling of general well-being. The binding too is such that the pages when closed are compressed and curved in such a way that they can be easily flipped or fanned much as the card-player does with the deck, letting the leaves fall at whatever speed the thumb dictates. There is not so much tension in the pages, however, that the drape of the pages when the book is opened prevents them falling flat. Two people could easily share it on the couch or at table. It has the size, look, and feel of Graham crackers, wholesome, devoid of adulterants, and welcoming. The colors are subtle and mild. These are gifts for students in middle school and high school, and students on up. These books are social in themselves.

There is a close, logical, and political relation between the public and the doctrine of popular sovereignty. This is the thought that Rebecca Solnit emphasizes in her sprightly introduction. It is why Thomas Spence in Kyd Wake’s time became a pavement artist, chalking up the demands of the era on the sidewalks themselves. The city, the pedestrian, and the blank wall compose ‘the public.’ The struggle for the poster must overcome the police surveillance, it must attract the hurried and harried worker oblivious to her surroundings, and then somehow overcome the automobilism which effectively is a continuation of the living room and kitchen except on wheels taking us individualistically from home to work or mall, and which requires eyes exclusively on the road, the dull asphalt, the endless lane dividers. The poster presupposes an eye willing to roam, feet that are willing to stop, and mind hungry for knowledge.

Josh MacPhee began in 1998 pasting the Celebrate People’s History posters in Chicago and realized when a crowd gathered that they caused dialogue to return to the streets. The first was Malcolm X, “Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can charter a course for our future.” He and nearly a hundred artists have hand crafted, these posters beginning as do-it-yourself projects. There are ninety-three different artists in this volume postering from a variety of traditions, anarchist, communist, liberal, autonomist, liberationist, left nationalist, but all certainly in the tradition of those posters filling the Paris streets in 1796.

They retain a tactile and hand crafted feel. While there are many posters of single individuals (Malcolm, John Brown, Aunt Molly Jackson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Fred Hampton) his emphasis has been on “successful moments” in the struggle for social justice rather than the promotion of hero worship. Thus Haymarket, May Day, the Battle of Homestead, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the 1912 Lawrence Strike, the Flint Sit-Down, the 1988 Battle of Tompkins Square Park are each subject of clear, handsome posters.

It is an elegant book classic in simplicity rather than romantic in extravagance.

The title invites us to compare it to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980) with which it shares an optimistic spirit, skepticism to conventional ideas, a dogged search for the forgotten men and women, and a denunciation at once classic and fresh of that class of people, the possessioners, who control the money, the land, the arms, the images, the knowledge, and the capital of the USA. There are differences too. The people’s history among these posters is more international, the composition of “the people” differs somewhat too. Yet the two books make handy companions to one another, Howard Zinn and Josh MacPhee. We grieve the death of the historian, we welcome the work of these artists. The torch has passed.

Actually, the book begins with a poster of the Diggers of England and the taking away the land. It moves forward a century and introduces a new theme in slavery (the Jamaican maroon wars, the Carolina Stono rebellion), then another century with John Brown. The Haitian Revolution is here. Frederick Douglass (“Education makes a man unfit to be a slave”), and Sequoyah and the Cherokee writing system of 1821 introduce the theme of progress and education. (Flip ahead to the women of the Spanish Civil War, “enslavement to ignorance, enslavement as a producer, and enslavement as a woman”). You can see why many teachers ask for these posters for their classroom walls. For education Chicago’s Dill Pickle Club is celebrated and so is Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School depicting the patience and watchfulness of students of all ages helping one another to coffee before the ‘desegregation workshop’ begins.

Indigenous struggles are well covered. The conquest of north America is a never-ending project thanks to the resistance beginning with the indigenous peoples, so here is a poster celebrating the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), Gabriel Dumont and the M?tis resistance to the expropriation of land in the upper Great Lakes and the western prairie of Canada, and here is a poster of the occupation of Alcatraz island in San Francisco Bay between 1969 and 1971 by an alliance of native Americans.

Hispanic struggle is well covered. The second poster, Dylan Miner’s “The Pueblo Revolt,” signals the book’s decisive separation from Anglo-centric stories of north America. In 1680 Popyn (“ripe squash”) defied the Spanish colonial presence in the Rio Grande Valley and communicating by knotted deer skins led indigenous warriors in a ten day offensive forcing the settler community to relocate. Celebrating Primo Tapia de la Cruz to the Nueva Canci?n of Argentina, the Brown Berets of Los Angeles, the Young Lords, Augusto C?sar Sandino of Nicaragua to Chico Mendes of the Amazon, the Cochabamba Water Struggle, the civil disobedience of Vieques Libre in Puerto Rico, the Tierra y Libertad struggle of the EZLN, the 2006 struggle by the flower sellers against Wal-Mart and the airport at Atenco, Mexcio, (“el pueblo se levanta”) the women’s resistance to police repression during the Oaxaca commune of 2006, and finally the 2008 youth led resistance to the ICE raids and deportations in the USA. I was especially interested in the White Caps, the fence cutters, of New Mexico called La Gorras Blancas, who fought to preserve common waters and pasture against privatization in the 1890s. From the Spanish Civil War inspires two posters, Las Mujeres Libres of the CNT, or the anarchist trade union and a second to the Durruti Column in which the soldiers elected their own officers.

Asian struggles are well covered too. Asian struggles are here in the fight against eviction at San Francisco’s International Hotel where Filipine and Chinese seniors lived, for Aung SanSuu Kyi of Burma, for the people’s theater, or Jana Sanskriti, of India, for the indigenous (adivasi) struggle against the World Bank’s Narmada dam in India, and the Korean Peasant’s League one of whose leaders, Lee Kyung Hae, sacrificed his life atop the barricade in 2003 at the WTO meeting in Cancun. Who knew that the Wobblies took their preamble from the New Zealand Federation of Labor? “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.” In April 1921 in Japan the anti-imperialist women formed that Seki Ran Kai or Red Waves Society working among soldiers as anti-militarists.

Harriet Tubman is celebrated for leading the guerrilla action at the Combahee River, South Carolina, in 1863, the first and only military action conceived and led by a woman in US history, leading more than seven hundred fifty slaves to freedom. The conscientious teacher may then lead his students to the Combahee River Collective (1974) and its remarkable Statement (1978) which recalls “the feelings of craziness before becoming conscious” suggesting that knowledge is the therapy to the endemic, debilitating ailment PHD (people’s history disorder) with its accompanying opportunistic delusion of Bossiphilia and its lethal side-effect of “clio-amnesia”. The Combahee River Statement takes Malcolm X’s statement a step further by associating mental health with historical consciousness. This same statement drew on civil engineering for the metaphor of social integration: where the Marxist wrote of base and superstructure (society as a building), the Black feminists wrote of the interlocking (society as a privatized, secured bank) of racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression. Their statement even had echoes of the Levellers and Diggers, “We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”

Important gay and lesbian history/herstorys are celebrated in posters of Henry Hay who composed first gay manifesto in 1948, Sylvia Ray Rivera who is said to have tossed the first bottle at Stonewall in 1969, the Lesbian Herstory Archives of 1974 with a slogan for the whole volume, “We’ve got your past. Who’s got your future?”, and from Philadelphia’s Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a poster fighting for justice and fighting for a cure.

Some unusual notions included such as a poster to “The Silent Majority” meaning those who don’t snitch, those who stand firm against torture, those who resist the grand juries, those who keep their mouths shut against federal invigilation. Another poster celebrates the social outcasts who actually are informal recyclers against the privatization of waste management.

Anti-war is represented by a poster of the March 2003 attempt to blockade and stop San Francisco, and by another poster of the Shannon Airport Plowshares, the only poster of Irish struggle and a direct action against weapons of mass destruction in 2003. These Catholic peaceniks were acquitted by a Dublin jury.

The issue of prison reform or prison abolition is well-represented with posters celebrating the Canadian prison justice day (August 10), the 1979 escape from prison of Assata Shakur, the activities of the European autonomous group Os Cangaceiros of 1985, and the Red Army Faction Attack onWeiterstadt Prison in Germany. I am glad to see that the NPRA or National Prisoners Reform Association represented by a poster stressing the multi-ethnic, collective, determined, and thoughtful nature of the take-over (“everything but the guns and the keys” as they used to say) of the maximum security prison in Walpole, Massachusetts. The prisoners governed themselves, education was the means, rehabilitation was the goal.

Interesting strikes are here, like the Mississippi Delta 1991 catfish workers, the 1933 peanut pickers of Missouri, the Disney animators in 1941, the Kalamazoo corset workers in 1912, and splendid unions are celebrated such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (and Maids) or Local 8 (Philadelphia again) of the Industrial Workers of the World. There is a fine poster of DRUM, the 1968 Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which brought the freedom struggle onto the dangerous, greasy shop-floors of the auto plants.

Everyone will have their favorites and everyone will have their list of omissions. I’d like to celebrate Frank Little, Mary Inman, Helen and Scott Nearing, Thomas Devyr, and Thomas Spence. My favorites include Sam Kerson’s “Underground Railroad.” It is a masterpiece of double meaning, pine branches drawn in a thick woods suggesting railway ties as a barefoot runaway stands in the snow gazing through snow flakes for the north star that will take her to freedom. Another favorite is Meredith Stern’s poster, “Jane,” for the feminist underground abortion service active in Chicago between 1969 and 1973 because it so well expresses the loneliness and dignity in a service which transformed a sordid experience into one that was, in the words of Laura Kaplan, “life-affirming and powerful.” I also love Janet Attard’s poster for Major Taylor, the fastest bicyclist in the world, who overcame in the 1890s the exclusion of blacks from the sport. The pink and navy design expresses aspiration, determination, and power in that uphill struggle.

As for Prince Charles, yes, he espouses organic farming. But remember George the Third also liked to putter around the farm-yard and barns.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com

 

 

 

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com

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