Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Crusade to Destroy a Conversation

The Occupy Wall Street People's Library prior to
the November 15th midnight raid.
Last week Mayor Bloomberg sent hundreds of police officers in the dead of night to Zuccotti Park to evict the Occupy Wall Street protesters as they slept peaceful in their tents. The sleepy protesters were ordered to leave immediately or face arrest. Many were, of course, arrested. Others gathered whatever possessions they could and left with what they could carry. Protesters who returned to gather more of their belongings were barred from re-entering the park.

All of this happened under the cloak of darkness, both literal and figurative. Press were barred from covering the police action. Public transportation to the site was halted as subway service to the nearby stations was suspended. People in neighboring buildings were also barred from leaving their lobbies as the raid unfolded. One cannot help but assume that the Mayor did not want any lingering images of this stealth attack, whether those images were captured by the press or by concerned citizens.

The morning after Mayor Bloomberg evicted the protesters, he held a press conference to defend his administration's actions. He concluded those remarks by saying that the protesters had already had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. "Now," he said, "they will have to occupy the park with the power of their arguments."

Mayor Bloomberg's position seems to suggest that ideas and arguments can somehow be crafted without the minds and bodies that generate them. Somehow, in the world that the mayor occupies, ideas spring fully-formed from the foreheads of men who never want for any corporeal need. Their bodies, so well-fed, and exercised, and groomed, and scented, so well-rested, and warm, and safe, fall into the background, allowing them the fantasy that their minds are somehow independent of their bodies and the vast labor that supports and sustains them. Nestled in the comfortable cocoon that is economic privilege, their bodies become the sites of various pleasures and perhaps the occasional discomforts of the diseases that medical science has yet to ameliorate. But seldom are their bodies the sites of desperation, hunger, pain, and need. Were it not for the utter insensibility that such privilege fosters, the mayor's remarks might seem not just disingenuous, but utterly cynical.

The notion that citizenship should only be the legal right of the propertied has its roots in this sort of fantasy about ideas: reason, it is argued, is only possible when one is free from the drudgery of laboring for a living. (See Hannah Arendt's analysis of these ideas.) The frustration, anger, and rage that emerge from economic inequality, and that animate mass movements, are deemed irrational. Protesters are characterized as crazy or criminal. Their status as citizens is impugned. They are cast as a mob, as unruly and unreasonable. Often they are described as malodorous, ill-kempt, and unclean.

That is one reason that the Occupy Wall Street People's Library was such a threat. The library, along with the non-violent civil disobedience of the movement, suggests that the occupation is guided by ideas and ideals. The image of a movement that had assembled a 4,500+ volume library in just two months was starkly at odds with the media fantasies of irrational, marauding hooligans or filthy, unkempt hippies. A 4,500+ volume library that was organized, cataloged and circulating, suggests that reason, reflection, and dialog are at the heart of the occupation. A collection that included volumes inscribed by renowned authors supporting the movement suggests an alarming level of cultural resonance. Beyond that, such a distinguished and significant collection might some day be archived for historians to consider as the story of the occupation is written. But instead of continuing to circulate amongst library users, instead of being preserved for the archives of the future, much of the occupation library was crushed in the trash compactors of twenty-eight Department of Sanitation trucks that carted away the property of the occupying protesters.

OWS librarian Stephen Boyer displays a damaged copy of
Philip Levine's What Work Is that the poet had inscribed for the library.

Yesterday I attended the press conference where the librarians of the People's Library displayed the books that they had recovered from the midnight raid. Of the 4,500+ books confiscated by the NYPD and the Department of Sanitation, only about 1,300 have been returned to the librarians. And of those, a third are damaged beyond repair.  Books destroyed ranged from copies of the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita to popular potboilers and children's books. Milton Friedman and Karl Marx shared shelf space (and the protection of waterproof plastic bins) under the trees at Zuccotti Park. No book was rejected because its ideology might be at odds with that of the occupation: Andrew Carnegie's The Empire of Business was not far from Mayor Bloomberg's own memoir Bloomberg on Bloomberg.

The mayor and his administration may have been aware that the destruction of a library represented a potential PR problem.  Perhaps that's why they released a photograph via Twitter the day of the raid, suggesting that the library had been well-cared for by its temporary custodians at the Department of Sanitation.

Images from yesterday's press conference suggest otherwise. 

At a time when budget cuts have shortened public library hours and bookstores are filing for bankruptcy protection, the image of a press conference table covered with crushed and moldy volumes was more than simply disturbing. The remnants of the sacked library were a sobering reminder that, as OWS librarian Danny Norton observed, "this is a crusade to destroy a conversation." 

On this Thanksgiving Day, at tables across the country — and in newspapers, and blogs, and twitterfeeds — I'm grateful that the conversations (and occupations) will surely continue unabated.

1 comment:

Robert Goldwitz Photography said...