Justice for the People’s Library

April 17, 2013

Sean Larson reports on the settlement of court case involving Occupy Wall Street.

OCCUPY WALL Street has won a legal victory against the city of New York. Under a settlement reached last week, the city will pay a total of $366,700 for the extensive property damage during the eviction of the OWS encampment in November 2011--in particular, damages to the "People's Library."

Norman Siegel, attorney for Occupy, emphasized the symbolic victory this represented: "More important--we would not have settled without this--is the language in the settlement. This was not just about money, it was about constitutional rights and the destruction of books."

The raid on the Occupy encampment came shortly after 1 a.m. on November 15, 2011, when police, acting on the orders of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, surrounded Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan and began the assault. The NYPD threw tents, books, media equipment and anything else they could get their hands on into the back of dump trucks to be hauled away. Protesters at the scene witnessed 3,600 books being thrown away, with many being destroyed on the spot. Activists were prevented from entering the park and rescuing the Library.

An occupier browses titles at the Occupy Wall Street library
An occupier browses titles at the Occupy Wall Street library

The People's Library was a landmark in the encampment and a remarkable feat of activist dedication. Zachary Loeb, a member of the People's Library working group and a reference librarian by profession, explained the library's importance for the movement:

From quite early on in OWS, many who were not particularly fond of OWS accorded at least a grudging respect to the library--with its carefully maintained catalog, and its broad selection of books--as the library was one of the many aspects of the actual occupation that challenged people's preconceived notions of what the occupation would be. The library functioned by being an active part of the occupation, by encouraging people to get informed, and by connecting people with informational resources (and entertaining resources).

Immediately after the raid, Bloomberg claimed via Twitter that the library was still intact. This was a lie. According to Norman Siegel, only 1,000 books could be recovered--and more than 2,000 were never returned. During the raid, police also destroyed tens of thousands of dollars worth of media equipment and 16 of the human-powered bicycle generators used to generate electricity.

Brookfield Properties, the owners of Zuccotti Park, were ordered to reimburse the city for one third of the money for the library.

In its lawsuit, Occupy claimed that the police raid of the encampment violated First Amendment rights to free speech, Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process.

The city's flimsy justification for the raid--unfounded claims of "safety and health threats"--was repeated in its statement on the settlement: There are many reasons to settle a case, and sometimes that includes avoiding the potential for drawn-out litigation that bolsters plaintiff attorney fees."

The city's statement made no mention of another obvious reason to settle: the indefensibility of seizing and destroying thousands of books.

The People's Library working group remains active today. According to Loeb, "This settlement will allow us to support the work of many groups who are doing important things in the OWS ethos and around issues of libraries, education and literacy."

But this doesn't absolve the city of responsibility, says Loeb. "It is a good thing that the city had to acknowledge what it had done," he said, "but that does not undo what was done on that night in November."

THE DESTRUCTION of the Occupy library isn't the first time Bloomberg has attacked libraries. As mayor, he has consistently proposed deep cuts in funding for public libraries in New York City. This has resulted in an 18 percent cut in funding since 2008, resulting in fewer operating hours, slashed book budgets and the layoff of over 900 library staff, according to the joint testimony of New York library presidents in March.

Public libraries in New York City provide essential public services like access to computers and the Internet, after-school programs, help with resumes and job applications, English language classes, and free citizenship and naturalization classes to communities of immigrants.

The mayor's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year 2014 contains the biggest cuts yet for New York City libraries--a 35 percent reduction below current funding, for a total cut of 51 percent below 2008 levels.

This comes at a time during when circulation and overall attendance at libraries has steadily risen, especially since 2008. According to the President of Queens Library Tom Galante, "We cannot sustain another funding reduction. There is nowhere else to cut. In short, the effect on library hours and workforce will be drastic."

Playing their part in the annual library "budget dance," the city council recommended that the proposed $106 million in funding cuts be restored, but this would merely bring library funds back to the already gutted levels of the previous year and provide no basis for continued baseline funding for the future.

It's high time that the austerity agenda be reversed and libraries of all types be afforded the vital funding and support they need as crucial public services.

The fact that the city was pressured to settle with Occupy Wall Street reflects the lasting influence of the movement and its accomplishments. But the struggle is not consigned to the past. The discontent that gave rise to Occupy remains--and grows with each new attack by the 1 Percent.

The activism of the OWS Library working group and other activists has resulted in a victory in this case. It also shows that Bloomberg and the rest of the 1 Percent will not give up anything without the pressure of a movement like Occupy that challenges the status quo. Only with such a mass movement can we achieve real justice--with the People's Library rebuilt, expanded and multiplied.

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