Anarchism, Self-publishing, and the Anti-Sleep League at Philadelphia: A memoir by Robert P. Helms from "Going Postal!" #1
When I remember my early years of involvement in anarchism, a wide range of images and feelings wander through my mind and across my skin. Starting in the summer of 1989, I started to explore the idea in places other than library stacks, mostly in Philadelphia. Between 1991 and around 2000, the circle to which I belonged maintained a capacity to publish literature at virtually no cost, and this made it possible to not only get out a vast amount of information for the cause, but it brought on a sort of “golden age” of zines. I was heavily involved on both sides of the picture, and other cities had various levels of this activity.
There is one corporation that overwhelmingly dominates the photocopying industry of the United States, and it can be a rotten place to earn a living, and also a rotten way to invest in a franchise. However, it would be difficult to estimate how much smaller the anarchist movement in this country would be now, had it not been for the widespread piracy that flourished in its all-night retail stores.
There were two critical parts of the operation, in terms of production. Firstly, we had a smart and dedicated comrade actually working at a store, on the graveyard shift whenever possible. One guy in particular was a genius. At around 11:30 pm, when the store managers left, several other anarchists and a few creative others would already be busy at the self-service machines, using cards that our insider had loaded down with credit, using technology that kept no record of the crediting. On top of that, one manager was so trusting and so inattentive that the office and its cabinets were never locked. Our man would start out by swiping a few hundred of the cards and load them up with $20-100.00 each, then he’d make neat stacks and hand them out to trusted parties. Then he’d impress upon these operatives that they were to bring back all the blanks they got their hands on, so that the drain on fresh cards would not be continuous. Besides the cards with store-given credit, there were other methods used over the years. One way existed to bypass the card reader with a paper clip, and a few times, we’d just steal a card reader, and by a certain process of unplugging the machine while a loaded card was inside it, we produced thousands of cards in complete privacy. Only at the decade’s end was the technology tightened up, bringing much of the operation to a halt.
The other way our insider became one of the local legends of benign piracy was to plan our work around the store’s normal use of supplies. If the customers had piled up orders for about 200,000 letter-sized copies, we could be safe if we stayed below a 40% waste margin. If an order for laminating was waiting, we knew the safe margin of laminating we could do without management noticing. This applied to any of the store’s materials. When we needed something the store rarely used, we’d just place an order with the store’s supplier. In 1994 we published 3,000 copies of a 153-page book, and we had the young anarchist elves do the final collating at another location. Then we had the covers printed by a professional; perfect-bound and trimmed at a bindery. That book became one of the very basic texts of a sub-movement called Anarchist People of Color. As we were shipping the book all over the place, we were extended credit (as a new business) by a large private parcel shipping group that wanted to extend its market to Europe. They approached us, and this saved us several hundred on the shipping before we closed down “Monkeywrench Press.”
We produced scores of pamphlets on many subjects, often a thousand in a run, and there had to be millions of publicity flyers along with posters, placemats, calendars –you name it. I can safely say that some of the most famous support movements for US political prisoners, certainly including Mumia Abu-Jamal, would have never occurred and the prisoners long dead or forgotten, had it not been for the fact that the price of printed dissident literature was reduced to almost nothing.
The work itself was planned with similar precision. The skilled tasks to be done for anyone during the night would be done by the employee, while the easier tasks (like collating) would be given to our own midnight shift. Sometimes there were ten or twelve of us, and so we did an enormous amount of work, and after we’d leave, often with my rear bumper scraping on the curb as we left the parking lot, the store manager would arrive and shower heavy praise on our inside boy for getting so much done. Once our guy complained that it was getting boring because his boss was such an easy opponent. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.
There were ways by which one could get carried away. Once an anarchist I knew in another city copied postage stamps onto sticker paper with a color copier. After a brief period of using the phonies in the mail, the person was brought in by postal inspectors, and fortunately it was written off as a lark. It would have been a disaster had the stamps been used for a large mailing. The inspectors knew exactly which copiers had been used, by whom, and exactly when, because identifying information gets into the paper when a copy is made, and they investigate the machine’s location. I burned the supply of phonies that I’d been sent to me in solidarity.
Once, when we had an office in a squat, we had a phone line hooked up, and over a midnight shift we faxed union organizing flyers to hundreds of the company’s outlets in the US. Though this did not result in an extended campaign, it got noticeable attention from management. During that effort, we had pangs of conscience, because by arousing the workers against the company, we were biting the hand that was feeding us free copies by the truckload. We tried anyway, but it was an odd dilemma.
I started publishing my zine Guinea Pig Zero in 1996, at the height of our period of productivity. Most of the issues were entirely pirated, some with even the covers produced on a color copier. It seems funny these days, when some library orders back issues, that I have to give over money at the counter. I knew other anarchist zinesters in the same clandestine mode of production. One guy absolutely never paid a cent for the copying bills, even if he had to delay an issue for several months. It was a matter of principle. Sometimes he’d be pals with someone in middle management, and he’d be given a uniform and a nametag, so he could make his own free booklets without tying up the staff. He’d also get his zines delivered by a real employee and remember to give a generous tip. I’d envy him for that because he didn’t need to stay up all through the nights and look like a ghost in the morning. We in Philadelphia called ourselves the anti-sleep league at first, since we did so much production work, and at such odd hours.
The corporation enjoyed all our business. Sometimes little mom & pop operations would offer to beat the prices we paid, but it’s mighty hard to beat zero. We also noticed that no one was ever caught and prosecuted, in the entire country as far as we ever knew. The worst it ever got was for an employee to walk over and confiscate a card with over twenty dollars on it. Once a very militant person we knew had just been released from prison after many years. Glad to be back in the good fight, there she was, making flyers with one of my magic cards, and it gets taken away by some lifer at the copy shop. I got a call, “Bob what the hell’s up with these cards?” I apologized, saying, “I thought you wouldn’t want to know the details. We have a friend in the business.”
I’m not visually radical, and I’d always put a book or a hat on top of the card reader, so this sort of embarrassment never happened to me. We figured that the corporation would lose more if it was known to the general public how easy it was to scam them. Also, some managers were scamming too, so they had reason to be uninterested in the scamming of the rank-and-file. At any rate, the corporation wiped out almost all of its competition years ago, and so our wonderful banditry could not have been creating serious headaches for its executives.
Speaking from my own experience, the publishing activities I have described here were a moral victory for myself and the others involved. We had clear ethical guidelines, such as never selling the self-serve copy cards. One guy who did so (not in our circle but an underground film wonk) was roundly despised by the rest of us. We were activists, overcoming a major obstacle for radical causes in the night --as the Moon bathed the Earth in her silvery light and owls hooted over grassy fields --rather than common thieves or small-time capitalists. We freely gave out the cards all the time, and our support of other activist groups was well appreciated. Those of us who published zines were also freeing ourselves from the restrictions of outside editors and the encumbrances that always come when production is expensive. We wrote whatever we pleased and risked wasting only our time and energy. We never dreamed of filling our pages with paid advertising; never had a dispute with a boss or a supplier; never faced a hard deadline. We took partial ownership, at least for a while, of the means of production.
Philadelphia, March 2007
(check out more of Robert´s writing at www.deadanarchists.org)