History professor Mark LeVine writes for Aljazeera.net.
Midnight is not a time I expect my mobile phone to ring, and certainly not with a call from the programme director of KPFK, the progressive public radio station of Los Angeles. But so flummoxed was Alan Minsky, an old friend and producer of the Axis of Justice radio show, that he dialled me by mistake.
“My bad. But they’ve just raided Zuccotti Park … Cops have already dismantled the encampment at OWS,” he explained, before moving on to contact anyone he could reach who might have first-hand information about what was going on there.
My first thought was immediately the 5,000 book library that has come to define the OWS site at Zuccotti Park. Tents can be replaced, even most personal effects. But destroying books is like destroying the soul of the movement; for more than any protest movement in at least two generations, the OWS movement is the product of well-planned, thoughtful action guided by a constant engagement with theory.
As Minsky explained to me when we spoke early the next morning, compared with the anti-corporate globalisation and then anti-war movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the libraries reflect the “maturity of a movement” that had “been shell-shocked by the whole Bush era”.
The power of a ‘people’s library’
The “People’s Library” was at the heart of the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park, and has played a similar role in other large occupations, such as Los Angeles. It is the necessary complement to the actual physical occupation of urban space represented by the OWS movement. Many people might wonder why it’s so important for protesters permanently to camp when the reality, especially as the weather turns bad, is that few people are actually doing anything at night besides sleeping.
But the point of the occupation is precisely to reconquer space that has been taken over, either by the state or by private interests – a kind of “eminent domain” of, by and for the people – and create a permanent presence that can engender and nourish the kind of community and solidarity that have so disappeared in the United States in the last forty years. By permanently occupying Zuccottii and other parks, the OWS movement created a space where people could gather, create libraries, share books and ideas, and even meals. Where they could plan for another world that isn’t merely possible anymore, but the only hope for the survival of humanity as a civilisation.
The library, which took weeks to establish, reflected the uniqueness and power of the still young 99 per cent movement. “From the very beginning, the OWS encampments were not just gestures of protest thinly focused on making statements about the ills of society, but were efforts to build community where people were knowledgeable and participated in informed dialogue. The libraries, at least in Zuccotti and in Los Angeles, have been central. Here in LA a graduate student made her entire personal library available to occupiers. These libraries have contemporary theory, classical literature, incisive analyses, and all sorts of books that have been marginalised from the mainstream media and culture. But when the history of this period will be written, these are the books that will be remembered.”
So much did the “people’s library“ idea resonate that the OWS library couldn’t keep up with all the donations they’ve received and encouraging people to take books out. The website lists some of the newest arrivals in the days before the raid: Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, by Savo Heleta, Nuclear Nebraska, by Susan Cragin, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, From the Heat of the Day, by Roy A.K. Heath, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and innumerable other books that were opening the minds of all who passed through OWS and the many peoples’ libraries it has fostered across the country.
Minsky continued, “This open philosophy stands in stark opposition to the world of corporate culture. Trashing the library was symbolic of what the combined forces of Bloomberg and the NYPD feel about learning and the society in which we live.” (Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg, who claimed full responsibility for the raid’s execution, had to know about the library. Yet his “minutely planned raid” - as the New York Times described it – shovelled thousands of books into garbage trucks to be carted away to the nearest sanitation facility).
It also stands in stark contrast to the earlier iterations of the anti-corporate globalisation and anti-war movements, especially when it came to recognising the role of the Middle East in the larger processes of globalisation that were at the heart of the struggles of both movements.
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