The New York City tabloids wouldn’t know what to make of the Anarchist Bookfair, which happened this past spring. If the Post attended, its reporters would probably have been disappointed that there was no sign of bicycle bombers. The Daily News would have been shocked that nobody plotted mass destruction for the next political convention. These anarchists were mostly interested in reading books, attending lectures, and sometimes networking with activists involved in nonviolent dissent. Unfortunately, everybody knows that harmony and civic involvement make bland newspaper copy.
But there was still hope for hell-raising because a group called The Bad Egg Collective planned to stage a protest. They argued that the event betrayed the ideals of anarchism because the vendors sold their books for profit; the lectures created a hierarchy between the speaker and the spectator; and the format encouraged consumption over creativity. In short, the Anarchist Bookfair was insufficiently anarchic. To express his dissent, the leader of this group planned to bring a photocopier and pass out flyers. This was something that I could scoop the tabloids on: anarchist in-fighting.
As I approached the book fair at Judson Memorial Church, friendly Trotskyites passed out pamphlets from the Partisan Defense Committee and Workers Vanguard about the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row. One woman invited me to participate in the upcoming protest in Philadelphia. While I sympathized with the cause of a man who was framed for shooting a cop, the demonstration was planned for the first night of Passover, and I already had plans to attend my family’s Seder. Between my religious and familial loyalties, I found out early on that I would make a poor radical activist. I picked up some newsletters and made a modest donation instead.
I entered the main hall where over forty vendors were proudly hawking subversive literature, but the protest was nowhere in sight. Eventually, I found it on a corner, where there was a strange handmade wooden structure with a red cardboard sign that had “COPY BOOKS HERE!” badly stenciled in black magic marker. It looked like a lemonade stand from a left-wing Peanuts comic strip, but the contraption was more sophisticated than it appeared. The wood was hand-cut with a rotary saw, and it held a digital camera pointed at a pane of glass that enclosed a book. The copier worked by photographing the pages one by one and sending the images to a laptop computer.
Its inventor Andrew Cady estimated that he only paid about $15 for the materials. He bought the wood, glass, and hinges at Home Depot, and he already owned the electronic equipment. His friend Steve, who was standing next to him, managed to program the software that made it function while stoned the morning of the event. It took about a week to conceptualize and build the machine, and it stood before the room as a work of shabby ingenuity.
(Andrew later told me that an inventor from Japan made one out of LEGO bricks. You have to admire Japanese craftsmanship.)
In any event, one man was so impressed with Andrew’s invention that he handed them his business card to shoot ideas off each other about spreading the technology. I never expected the protest to have such a warm reception. For hours, the two of them had taken books they wanted to read from vendors and digitized them onto CD-ROMs, and not once did anyone try to stop them. Instead, they got free books and a potential business opportunity.
Something had to be done. I thought that maybe the vendors never noticed the books being taken, and I offered to ask each vendor to photocopy one of their books to see how they responded. My first stop was the stand of the publishing house Seven Stories Press, where I picked up the collection of repressed journalism Censored 2008.
“Excuse me. Do you mind if I photocopy this book at that table at the corner?” I asked an attractive twenty-something who was manning the booth.
“Sure,” she replied, as if I just asked her to borrow a pen. “We don’t mind if it’s you guys doing it.”
I later found out that Seven Stories Press has four separate offices across three countries. Its New York branch is located in Tribeca, one of New York’s most expensive neighborhoods. I was beginning to see Andy’s point about anarchist-industrial-complex. Keeping up radical bona-fides can be a matter of sound business policy. In any event, I loved this particular journalism anthology, and I owned it on disc after about five minutes of photographing the pages. I thanked her when I gave it back, and she thanked me for returning it. She might have thought I would pull an Abbie Hoffman.
The next table was run by an anarchist collective called “A New World in Our Hearts” that runs direct action campaigns like urban gardening and food aid throughout Brooklyn. It had a book about Mumia called Dead Blossoms that got me intrigued, and they also had no problem with my asking to copy it. Still, it was one thing not to pay an international publishing house for a book and another to do the same thing with a charitable activist collective. I offered them a donation when I returned it.
At Autonomedia’s table, I picked up the book The Art of Free Cooperation, which appealed to my sense of irony. Again, the vendor had no problem when I asked to digitize the book, and she added, “We’re anti-copyright. It would be ridiculous of us to refuse you.” Everyone so far smiled as I calmly explained that I wanted to take the goods they were selling.
Of the vendors, only the saleswoman at AK Press looked even mildly annoyed by my request, but she grudgingly let me take the book Introduction to Anarchism. It was a small soft-cover that was difficult not to bend while photocopying, and I tried my best not to damage it under the glass. “Don’t worry,” urged Steve from behind the machine. “It’s already dead.” I figured that I was probably too polite to be a proper anarchist, and I brought the book back in more or less the same condition in which I found it.
Concerned that this anarchist melee was not turning out according to plan, I decided to take matters into my own hands. “Photocopy your books here!” I belted out like a sideshow barker across the room, hoping that would cause more of a stir. Nobody took offense or even responded, except for one girl who was interested in the offer.
“Was that obnoxious?” I asked Andrew.
“Yes, it was.”
“I guess that’s part of the role of the journalist – to be obnoxious,” I rationalized.
“That’s an unhappy way of looking at your profession,” Andrew philosophized.
Maybe he was right. I decided to take it easy for the rest of the demonstration. I looked for more free books at Red Emma’s Bookstore, which was visiting from Baltimore, but by then, the line for the machine had gotten too long. I decided to quit while I was ahead, and I helped Andrew pass out fliers agitating against profit-making from radical literature.
“Isn’t this crossing the line of my journalistic objectivity?” I worried.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s gonzo.”
To celebrate their work, his friend planned to buy falafels, and they got an extra one for me. I came into the event hoping to cover revolution, but I was happy settling for CD-ROM books, new story ideas, and dinner.
As I was about to leave, one young woman looked appalled about the stand. “Won’t that machine bend the covers?” she complained, and the organizers of the protest shrugged. She explained that it bothered her because she worked at the radical Lower East Side bookstore Bluestockings.
“That’s where we’re going next,” Andrew said defiantly.
She looked upset and angry before she quietly walked away. That was about as heated as the protest got.