And then they came for the People’s Library, our library, the library of the 99%, the Occupy Wall Street library in Zuccotti Park.
They came in the middle of the night on November 15, 2011 — militarized NYC police officers in blue helmets and sanitation department workers in heavy gloves. They carted away roughly 5,000 diligently catalogued books, laptops, reference materials, tables, and even the protective tent (“Fort Patti”) donated by rock poet Patti Smith.
Librarians were arrested that night. So were journalists and protesters. Police in riot gear obeying orders of the billionaire mayor, emptied the park.
On-lookers chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” and sang the national anthem at the top of their lungs.
When it was over, Zuccotti Park was cordoned off with bright yellow crime scene tape. It was, after all, the scene of a crime. (Sometimes the script writes itself.)
I WAS THERE
Just days earlier, I had put in a couple hours at the People’s Library. Supervised by a student of library arts from Columbia University, I rubber stamped dozens of title pages with “OWS LIBRARY.”
We worked quietly — accepting donations, sorting, cataloguing, stamping the books (my job), then passing them on to be properly shelved and lent out. Meanwhile, the occupation buzzed around us.
The day I volunteered at the library, “the Zu” ( as some affectionately dubbed Zuccotti Park, a.k.a. “Liberty Park,”) was a beehive of teach-ins on economic justice, vegetarianism, Gandhian nonviolence. Dreamy dreamers played guitars and sang peace songs. Weeping prophets lamented greed and warned that we’ve lost our way.
Stock traders stopped by to debate capitalism with university students. Parents wandered through the crowd with kids in tow, turning the visit into a history lesson on democracy.
A contingent of seminarians wearing clerical collars stood silently off to one side with signs: “CLERGY — WILLING TO LISTEN.”
The People’s Kitchen served protesters and the homeless. Supporters stopped by with bags of apples and jars of peanut butter. Sympathizers from around the world phoned in orders for pizza and Chinese food.
Hacktivists from Anonymous strolled the perimeter wearing Guy Fawkes masks. A Media Center live-streamed it all on Global Revolution.
Every now and then, a General Assembly was convened when the intentionally leaderless movement needed to make a decision. Voices rang out “Mic check! Mic check!” Because the city had banned bull horns and other amplification devices, OWS used the “people’s mic” or “human microphone”; those gathered repeated each phrase to the people behind them and used a system of hand signals to indicate response. Fingers wiggling, pointed skyward on raised hands, was an “uptwinkle” signifying agreement.
POETRY IN THE PARK
Earlier that day, as I had other days, I recited poems by Bertolt Brecht and read aloud from Fire In the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights, beside renowned poets Alicia Ostriker and Jan Clausen.
As she did every day, Jan carried a large placard with her answer to the question, “Why are you here?” “Because they’re trying to drive our planet off a cliff.”
That day, we read aloud “people’s mic” style. As it turns out, it’s a wonderful way to experience poetry. One young fellow in the crowd led us (with a little help) in reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”
LEADER: “‘Twas brillig.”
PEOPLE: “‘Twas brillig.”
LEADER: “and the slithy toves”
PEOPLE: “and the slithy toves”
LEADER: “Did gyre and gimble”
PEOPLE: “Did gyre and gimble”
LEADER: “in the wabe …”
PEOPLE: “in the wabe …”
BOOKS OUTLAWED IN FACT AND FICTION
After the police raid, there were massive demonstrations, but the occupation of Zuccotti Park was essentially over.
Turns out, people get really upset when they hear that books have been thrown into dumpsters and destroyed. Even those not sympathetic to OWS were alarmed.
Amy Goodman, journalist, author, and host of “Democracy Now,” raced to Zuccotti as soon as she heard about the police raid. The next day, in The Guardian, she wrote:
We saw a broken bookcase in one pile. Deeper in the park, I spotted a single book on the ground … The one I found, amidst the debris of democracy that was being hauled off to the dump, was Brave New World Revisited, by Aldous Huxley.
As the night progressed, the irony of finding Huxley’s book grew. He wrote it in 1958, almost 30 years after his famous dystopian novel, Brave New World. The original work described society in the future where people had been stratified into haves and have-nots. The Brave New World denizens were plied with pleasure, distraction, advertisement and intoxicating drugs to lull them into complacency, a world of perfect consumerism, with lower classes doing all the work for an elite.
Brave New World Revisited was Huxley’s nonfiction response to the speed with which he saw modern society careening to that bleak future.
I, too, was reminded of a futuristic, dystopian novel — Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, in which books are banned, incinerated by “firemen.” A few people, in exile, memorize whole books, hoping to retain each sentence until the day books can be legally published and read.
I turned again to a poem by Bertolt Brecht:
The Burning of the Books
When the Regime ordered that books with dangerous teachings
Should be publicly burnt and everywhere
Oxen were forced to draw carts full of books
To the funeral pyre, an exiled poet,
One of the best, discovered with fury, when he studied the list
Of the burned, that his books
Had been forgotten. He rushed to his writing table
On wings of anger and wrote a letter to those in power.
Burn me, he wrote with hurrying pen, burn me!
Do not treat me in this fashion. Don’t leave me out. Have I not
Always spoken the truth in my books? And now
You treat me like a liar! I order you:
Ultimately, New York City had to pay $232,000 to Occupy Wall Street for damages and legal fees. $47,000 of the settlement was for damages to the People’s Library. One of the lawyers, Normal Siegel, said, “This was not just about money, it was about constitutional rights and the destruction of books.”
TO GO DEEPER
“Michael Bloomberg’s Brave New World” by Amy Goodman, November 16, 2011, in The Guardian
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Fire In The Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights edited by Dinyar Godrej (2009, New Internationalist)
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley (1958)
“Destruction of the Library: Occupy Wall Street Video” (1:42 mins)
“OWS Librarians speak out after raid/ destruction of Library” (6 min. YouTube video)
“OWS People’s Library Press Conference Q & A + National Lawyers Guild” (21 min. YouTube video)
Police Dismantle Library, photo by Pearl Gabel
Library Workers, photo by Melissa Gira Grant
Readers at People’s Library, photo by Andrew Burton
Destroyed Books, Village Voice