Still Slingshotting After 15 Years
This issue marks Slingshot’s 15th birthday. Lots of radical zines start up, but not so many of them keep going for 15 years. Fifteen years is a long time — for me, its almost half of my life. So, perhaps you’ll indulge me in a few reflections about what it all means.
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Slingshot published its first edition on March 9, 1988. I didn’t work on that issue, but I read it within a day or two and I met some of the people who were publishing it while riding on BART over to San Francisco for a protest. The first issue was just one sheet of 11 X 17 white copier paper, folded in half. It was raw and militant, with handwritten headlines and hilarious seditious graphics. Slingshot looked like it was put together in the backseat of a getaway car after some really cool revolutionary act. I immediately loved it and got involved a couple of weeks later.
Before Slingshot, I was a left-liberal from a smallish town who had been a peace and justice activist since I was 16. I had worked on a number of political publications before — I was also editor of my high school paper.
Slingshot marked the conclusion of my radicalization — my move away from a belief that this country’s institutions could be reformed to an understanding that they had to be overthrown and replaced with something different. When Slingshot came along, I had started seriously studying marxist economic theory, and new political worlds were opening for me everywhere. Slingshot provided a way to turn this changing consciousness into a tangible form of action. I distinctly remember as I started working on my first issue walking down the street in the dark with two of the founders talking about stuff way more radical than I had ever dared to think or discuss before.
During the first few months, Slingshot published weekly zines, all photocopied on white paper. Publishing weekly was an amazing rush that I wish I could still experience. We would get together in the afternoon, figure out who should write what, write it, and be done with layout that same night. The next morning at 7 a.m., the paper would go to the copy shop when it opened, and be printed by noon. At noon, we would sit around Sproul Plaza at the university in Berkeley and fold the 1,000 copies by hand. As soon as they were folded, people would eagerly come along to take them and read them. Usually, all 1,000 copies were gone by 5 p.m.
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We were able to do it like that because there was such a wonderful and active movement on campus in those days. We published weekly because every week, there were protests, building occupations, arrests, riots, squatted houses, trials — stuff was going on. At 19 years old, there were moments when I really believed that the private property system was on the verge of crumbling — that the youthful crowds in the streets would just get larger and larger and we would build a whole new way of living.
We were able to do it because we were young and relatively privileged. I was a student — most people who worked on Slingshot weren’t students but gravitated to the action, freedom and excitement of the university scene. I worked maybe 15 hours a week in those days, and many people worked less, or didn’t work at all.
For me, a crucial aspect of the Slingshot story is how people — both personally and politically — can continue radical ideas and action beyond youth, and sustain them into adulthood Or a different and less ageist and personal way to put it is how radicals can build structures that benefit from longevity without suffering from the tendency to become moderate, boring — gradually less than radical over time. I’m still far from sure that I understand the answer to these questions, but I still think they’re good questions.
Personally, I think I’m still working on Slingshot out of pure stubbornness. I don’t think its necessarily a good idea for anyone to be this stubborn or work on one project for this long, but everyone has personality faults they wish they could change. This is mine.
For me working on Slingshot is a personal psychological necessity — I need to feel like I’m trying to do something about the horrendous state of the world — about things I wish were different. To be honest, sometimes, even for years at a time, it doesn’t feel like working on Slingshot does any good at all. My key to maintaining my activism over all these years is to simply ignore that feeling when it surfaces. There are other times when it seems like it might possibly make a little difference — that people and society are capable of change, and that distributing visions and inspiration for change can help. The process of writing a newspaper and then distributing it all over the place — the idea that it may be read by other people you will never meet — this feels like a way to go beyond just hoping the world will change.
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Slingshot completely severed its ties with the university scene in the early 1990s. For a while after everyone had graduated, we kept our office and mailing address on campus and used the university mailing permit, but eventually the whole process of finding “front students” to sign everything got to be more trouble than it was worth. The university, reacting to the campus anti-apartheid movement in the mid-80s, kept making new rules to prevent students and off-campus radicals from cooperating. The university finally banned people without student IDs from coming into many campus buildings. This tactic worked — since then, there hasn’t been much contact between the shrinking student radical scene and radicals living in town.
Just at that moment, in the spring of 1993, the Long Haul, a movement space for meetings that started in 1979, was facing eviction. We rented an office at Long Haul and joined the struggle to stop the eviction.
Up to this point, it wasn’t clear if Slingshot would keep going or not. After publishing weekly for a while, it started publishing monthly. Then in 1990 publication got less and less frequent. Renting an office was a declaration of sorts that Slingshot would keep going and transition to a new phase. Most people in the collective were a little older and were working more hours by then, so the project had to adjust.
We decided to publish quarterly, doing most work on the evenings and on weekends. There would be a deadline for articles and then everyone in the collective would read the articles — a process we call collective editing. Then, on the Friday night before doing page layout, we would have an “all night meeting” during which we would decide what articles to print and which ones to cut, and which pages to put articles on. Then people in the collective would volunteer to layout one or more pages. All this would get written on chalk boards. The all night meeting is a long meeting fueled by bags of chocolate chips with tons of political debate and struggle, sometimes bitter arguments, often howls of laughter and eventually total exhaustion and frustration. After staying up way too late Friday night, we would get up on Saturday and proceed to spend every waking moment of the weekend putting the whole paper together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. On Monday, mentally and physically spent, we would take the paper to the printer.
Most of the traditions developed at that time persist to this day.
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One frustrating thing about working on a radical project for a long time is that you often can’t really tell if its doing any good. I’ve often suspected that a major source of “burnout” for activists is related to this uncertainty. At first, people get involved because they’re inspired to make change — they’re distressed at how things are. Over time,
they put in a huge amount of work and time and energy. Weekends and evenings get spent in meetings and stuff like vacations and fun can sometimes get delayed or sacrificed. For most people, this would be okay if they could see how their work was making change. But after a certain amount of time, they realize that they can’t tell if anything is changing. Or maybe they realize that this whole social change thing could take a l o n g time. Not just a few years — maybe not even a few generations.
At this point, some people figure they have a choice — sacrifice their personal life in endless frustrating meetings for something that is uncertain and illusive, or flush activism completely down the toilet and enjoy life. I’ve noticed that the people most likely to burn out are precisely the people who throw themselves into activism the most deeply. The people who take on amazing numbers of projects and seem the most fully dedicated.
An important key to sustaining activism over a long period of time is figuring out a good balance between a happy personal life and activist work. That way, when you start to realize that maybe change could take a long time, you aren’t left with the stark choice of total self-sacrifice or burnout — leaving activism completely behind. Instead, you have better choices: you spend enough time enjoying life while also doing a reasonable amount of activism. While you might not be able to throw all your energy into the cause, at least then you’re doing something — and you can keep doing it even if you’re far from certain that the something you do is the best thing, the right thing or the most effective thing — or that it will even do any good at all. If it doesn’t do any good at all, at least you tried.
Another key to maintaining activism over a long period is to try to make the process as stimulating and humane as possible. We all know there are horrendous meetings and projects that just take energy out of the participants. One of the best parts about working on Slingshot is that while there is a lot of work, I think most of us get something positive out of it, too. Its exciting, at times. It encourages us to think and discuss stuff. We spend social time hanging out and being silly. (That’s why we often do the page layout naked late at night.) The Slingshot crew makes a point of sharing food — we often eat over our meetings. The process of writing and editing a newspaper requires you to think and grow. The collective process of working with others is especially thought provoking. Our ideas grow, expand and improve as we discuss and work with others.
I don’t think the importance of these humanizing aspects can be overstated. Over the last 15 years, the changing Slingshot collective has been my family, my community, my tribe. Where yuppies have a yuppie lifestyle, I have had a Slingshot lifestyle. The extent to which people can find community and support in the activist work they do will help determine how long people can maintain their activism, and how long different activist projects survive.
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Another amazing thing about Slingshot which I think has permitted it to persist all these years is our defense of a participatory do-it-yourself culture. Somewhere early on, we collectively concluded that efficiency wasn’t the most important goal of the project. Mainstream western society always holds efficiency as its highest value, even where the pursuit of efficiency creates human misery or environmental destruction.
Slingshot has always tried to promote participation over a division of labor in which a small number of experts do all the mental work, with the physical work left to peons (or, increasingly, machines). Instead, everyone who works in the collective generally does every job there is to do. To this day, we almost always have new collective members who’ve never designed and laid out a page before do pages right next to people who’ve been doing layout for 20 years.
This is one reason we still insist of using what some consider primitivist publishing and distribution practices. We still do all our layout by hand with scissors and wax instead of with computers because everyone knows how to use a pair of scissors. Using fancy computer programs quickly creates a class of experts, and a disempowered class of people slower or less capable. The process of doing layout by hand is more joyful as well as being more participatory. We don’t spend our whole weekend in front of a computer — we spend it pasting tiny slips of paper together like an insane collage.
Vision for the future
Things for Slingshot are a lot different now than they were when we started. We have a pretty amazing distribution network set up. About 5,000 copies of each issue get mailed to over 200 bookstores and distributors all over the United States, plus we have 1,500 subscribers. We’ve been far more than just a Bay Area paper for the past few years, with the majority of our circulation outside the Bay Area. We have our funding figured out, we have a decent office, an amazing collective, and we have established lots of structures for making things work non-hierarchically and smoothly. Because of the Organizer, people actually know what you’re talking about when you say Slingshot.
The task for the next 15 years is to take what we’ve built in terms of the mechanics of getting a publication out, and use it as well as possible. Our biggest weakness is our content — our writing (and also art and photography . . .) We still function a lot like the zine we were 15 years ago, with most articles originating within the collective. Ideally, we would like to publish articles by outside authors — people who are good writers, or people involved in movements and organizations outside our immediate scene. This issue we’ve worked to reach out a little more than usual. Hopefully we’ll keep reaching out more and more — and talented writers will answer the call.
Another thing I hope will evolve over the next 15 years is a diversification of tone within Slingshot. More personal articles — articles in touch with their emotional life. This isn’t to say we should have less political articles or dilute them — just that politics can take more forms that the typical “this is the problem – here’s the analysis – here is what you can do” mold.
The revolution we need to build is beyond just what’s in our heads — it needs to be about changing our hearts. Another way to put it is that we need to go beyond pure materialism and describe how people’s values, goals and psychological lives can change (without, of course, totally forgetting about structures and institutions.) Our revolution needs to be about people LIVING and loving, not just about being activist robots.
Happy birthday Slingshot.