25 years of Slingshot

Slingshot collective turned 25 years old this spring — the first issue was published March 9, 1988. Twenty-five years is a long time especially for a loosely organized, all-volunteer radical project. Why did the collective form in the first place, what has held it together as it has evolved, and what have we learned over the years?

The first issue was a single sheet of 11 X 17 white paper, folded in half. It was raw and militant, with handwritten headlines and hilarious seditious graphics. From the beginning, the idea was for radicals to write about the actions we are organizing in our own voices — avoiding any translation by media middlemen. In 1988, the internet hadn’t been invented so grassroots radical information was spread through in-person discussions, over the phone, or in print. We wanted to inspire rebellion and get more people involved in the struggle. The paper had a hyper-local focus: radical activities around the UC Berkeley campus, Telegraph Avenue and the Southside Berkeley neighborhood.

The rough punk layout style offered a sharp contrast with the slick propaganda magazines published by the various Marxist party organizations that hung around Berkeley in the late 1980s, to say nothing of the mainstream media. But the look wasn’t just a style — it was also a direct result of our lack of funds, resources and professional training, plus the haste and immediacy with which we made each issue.

The first few months, we published one tiny photocopied issue a week, with each one coming together in less than a day. We didn’t have a set publishing schedule but when we wanted to publicize a planned action or have a discussion in the aftermath of a protest, we would decide to make an issue. A small group would get together in the afternoon to figure out who should write what, we would write articles for an hour or two, and then we would sit around gluing the layout together and drawing headlines and graphics. The paper would be finished around midnight and the next day at 7 am, someone would take it to Krishna Copy when they opened and they would finish printing it for us by noon. 1,000 copies cost $70, which we would collect from the people making the issue and a few friends. At noon, a bunch of us would sit in Sproul Plaza — the central walkway at the university — to fold the papers and hand them out to the lunch-time rush of students. Usually all 1,000 copies would be handed out by 5 pm.

By the end of the spring semester, 1988, the core group was pretty exhausted and had published 11 issues in 2 months. In August, 1988 we published a fall dis-orientation issue for new students, which was our first issue on newsprint. After that, we published every month or so through the spring of 1990, getting to issue #35 in about 2 years. Some issues were tiny and photocopied while others were on newsprint. Money was always extremely tight and a combination of punk shows, t-shirt sales, and donations from the staff paid the printer bills.

In May, 1990 all three core collective members from the first 2 years — me, Nick and Detti — left Berkeley and it looked like that would be the end of Slingshot. However that winter, the first George Bush fought the first Gulf War against Iraq, and other Berkeley radicals came out with an issue of Slingshot in early 1991. From that point on, while Slingshot came out more infrequently, new issues kept popping up as necessary

Through this period, the development of the collective was organic. No one ever sat down to plan for the future or figure out how to grow the paper. Instead, each issue responded to what was going on and the desire to get the word out. The collective was an extremely loose open collective, which meant that whoever showed up to the meeting was the collective, and a slightly different group of people would work on each issue. It was easy for new people to plug in and for other folks who got tired of the project to step away. While being an open collective could sometimes be complex when dysfunctional or disruptive people would start coming to meetings and piss everyone off, overall being an open collective has been a huge strength for Slingshot because it has allowed so many brilliant people that no one in the group had ever met before to get involved over the years.

In February, 1993 Slingshot began renting an office at Long Haul, a radical community center run by SDS founder Alan Haber, which marked a significant commitment by the group to keep publishing indefinitely. Prior to that, Slingshot had been a registered student organization at UC Berkeley, which enabled us to have an office in Eshleman Hall, a building that hosted student groups. We never liked the name “Eshleman” and used to call it “Eshleperson”, then “Eshelcreature” and finally “Eshlebeing” Hall. As the University restricted access to Eshlebeing Hall to students with a picture ID and our group ceased to involve many students, we decided it wasn’t worth staying on campus anymore.

After moving to Long Haul, we developed the publication process, format and schedule we still use today. We make a newsprint paper roughly quarterly doing most of the work on evenings and weekends so people who have to work can participate. With less frequent publication, the paper has focused more on analysis and proposing alternative frameworks for understanding reality instead of just news. However, when big events have come up like the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, the attacks on September 11, and the Occupy movement in 2011, Slingshot quickly pulled together issues to respond.

A key moment in Slingshot’s evolution was 1994 when we made the first Slingshot Organizer (the 1995 edition). The organizer started out with 400 copies photocopied, folded and collated by hand and bound with a rubber band. As it gained popularity, the organizer erased Slingshot’s early poverty, but more importantly brought Slingshot into new hands and new communities. The organizer is created using the same decentralized, by-hand process that makes the paper, with 30 or more artists contributing to each edition.
How the Slingshot process works

Slingshot’s process is designed to give everyone in the group as much of an equal say over how the paper gets put together as possible and balance individual initiative with collective decision making. To decrease the power concentration of experts, the process attempts to involve everyone in every part of the work, rather than having a division of labor in which a small number of experts do particular kinds of work.

Each issue, we agree on and publish next issue’s article deadline. When the deadline comes along, all the articles get put in a binder and the collective — composed of whoever shows up for the meeting — reads all the articles. People make copy-editing marks on the articles and write a sentence or two at the bottom to say if they think it should get published or not, and what editing or re-organization might improve the article. No one is an editor or in charge — everyone is. By the end of the weekend, with multiple people reading each article, the comments often indicate a general consensus about whether an article should run or not.

The next Friday night, the collective eats a meal together and then has an “all night meeting” to make a final decision about which articles to publish and what page every article should go on. We deal the articles out to everyone in the meeting like cards, so everyone has a pile in their lap. Then the meeting goes around and around the circle and each person puts the articles in their pile up for discussion. The goal is to give each person a chance to speak and to avoid the need for a facilitator.

The all-night meeting often involves lengthy political discussions, dramatic readings of sentences from various articles, and sometimes bitter disagreements. Often some articles get published over objections from some members, and the collective is fond of publishing two articles which take the opposite positions on a particular topic. I think this refusal to adhere to a rigid party line or always print articles with predictable politics — and an openness to print articles that need work and that are written by inexperienced authors — is a key to making the project interesting. It is good to be modest about our own understanding of the world and suspicious of people who claim they know the one true answer. Instead, it can be enough to have a lot of good questions and discussions. I think Slingshot is at its best when it offers a big tent to a lot of different conflicting ideas.

After the all-night meeting on Friday night, the collective spends all day Saturday and Sunday making the layout, writing headlines, and creating art. We make the paper by hand, meaning that each page is physically pasted together by cutting up the text, graphics and hand-drawn headlines and gluing them together with sticky wax. This gives the paper the Slingshot look but also makes the process more collective and accessible, since you don’t have to know particular computer programs or have other special skills to make a page. In a world choking on standardization and computerization, making art by hand is personally liberating and embodies the world we are trying to create.

During layout weekend, people take one or more pages to design, which they do individually, but everyone is hanging around together at the Long Haul while it is happening. We eat together, take turns being DJ, gossip and joke, and people come and go throughout the weekend. Meetings to decide what colors to use and other topics happen around mealtimes. Layout is kind of like a party with pens, rulers and razor blades.

Usually the group who read the articles and went to the all-night meeting isn’t large enough to do all the art ourselves, but luckily lots of artists and friends drop by during layout weekend to take a page or pitch in by drawing. We’ve taken to calling this the Slingshot miracle — the way our layout party attracts enough energy to get the project done in style. Having our office in an open community center helps because whoever is traveling through can come upstairs and help make the paper.

At the end of the weekend, the collective gets back together to look at all the pages and potentially fix a few things as well as decide on cover art. The paper goes to the printer and gets back by the following weekend for a big mailing party. Distribution happens organically — locally by bike and nationally by people in towns everywhere contacting us to volunteer to be on our mailing list to distro papers.
Spiritual glue

Looking back on 25 years of the project, I think Slingshot has kept going because it acts as a spiritual glue that holds a community together while always expanding and renewing the community by welcoming new people. People aren’t working on the paper out of a sense of obligation. Rather, it’s for fun and excitement. Working on Slingshot one can potentially be an artist, an author, an editor, a bicycle delivery person, a music DJ, a sales person or a cook. Reading each new round of articles, you get to stay engaged with radical campaigns and ideas. Most of my best friends, housemates, lovers and heroes I’ve met while working on Slingshot. Being in the collective makes my life more meaningful.

To the extent possible, we’ve organized Slingshot the way we want a new world to operate — based on cooperation, worker control, freedom, beauty and pleasure. At the best moments, working on Slingshot can mean living a little piece of the revolution now. Hopefully readers can sense this in the materials we create. I think a successful project — or a successful life — means focusing not just on an objective, but on the process and the experience you have doing it. Slingshot continues because it tangibly makes our lives better than if it didn’t exist. And as long as that continues, so will Slingshot.