Your Soul is your library card: Liberated library enlivens community

In the first recent action of its kind, anti-austerity Occupy activists and radical librarians converged on a newly opened derelict building in Oakland, California’s Fruitvale district on Monday, August 13, and began to stock it with books. The building at 15th and Miller Avenue had been a library for over six decades, then an alternative continuation school founded by radical Chicano activists, and an adjunct to a halfway house across the street; but it had been abandoned for over a decade since. The library was part of a national set of Carnegie grant donations, still known for their architectural beauty; the building remains in the National Registry of Historic Places. But long years of absolute neglect have meant a decaying facade. A crumbling barbed wire fence kept families and children from using the green space on the building’s grounds, and for years has created a dark corner where drug-addicted people and street sex workers escaping police harassment have sought refuge; not surprisingly, and with other things on their minds, they left a pretty foul mess inside and out, that the city had little interest in addressing.

That all changed on Monday morning. Having gained access to the building and grounds, with the main gate mysteriously moved aside and the door wide open, activists and community members spent hours cleaning the built-up and stagnant refuse of the forgotten interior’s accumulated detritus. Others brought milk-crates full of books and stocked the shelves, still in place over forty years after the building had ceased being a library. The call out to resurrect the library brought more books; one activist estimated that there were well over a thousand books on the shelves, sorted by author and subject–non fiction, fiction, young adult, children’s, poetry and Spanish language. Activists suffered under no delusions about the permanency of their act–they realized that at any moment the police could arrive and evict them. They were only a handful for the first hour or two, but the community immediately appreciated the significance of a sudden library in the middle of the neighborhood. The first patron was a sex worker who picked up a romance novel; then a Spanish-speaking resident on his way to work, beaming with joy and surprise.

By noon, kids and families from all over the community were stopping by the new library and picking up books. Books were checked out on the honor system and no card was necessary; as one activist put it, “your soul is your library card”. The response from the community was overwhelming: “thank you for doing this, please stay”. With such an incredible amount of public support for reversing the neglect caused by the city’s austerity logic, it was not surprising to face an exaggerated repressive police response. What did surprise activists was its quickness; less than an hour after a rousing inaugural potluck and poetry reading and the ground-breaking of a community garden bottom-lined by the neighborhood’s children, police cordoned off four square blocks around the library. Dozens of squad cars descended on the neighborhood; police threatened those inside with arrest and gave them scant time to rescue the books and leave the area.

Activists took the books to safety, and, disheartened, agreed to meet at the library again the next morning and decide how to proceed. No one involved had high hopes. The dejected group sat in front of the newly secured space–the front door blocked with plywood, the gate awkwardly fastened with hard plastic zipties–but couldn’t decide what to do. The kids who had set up the first garden-beds showed up, asking if they would be able to finish their work. Somewhat bolstered, the group decided to bring the books back and arrange them in front of the fence. By afternoon, a sidewalk iteration of the library was open, and the banner had been transferred to the fence. The new stacks looked oddly triumphant and unbowed in their ad-hoc milk crate bookshelves. Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez was back, after only a brief pause in its newborn life.

The community seemed more engaged at this point, not less. There was a great deal of anger against the police reaction, not surprisingly–residents roundly denounced the response, given the awful impact of the decrepitude of the building and its new, empowering incarnation as an aggregator of community. More books were brought out by members of the community. Another potluck was held; one member of the community, a master chef, undocumented immigrant and resident of the community for decades, brought home-made fettucine al pesto and flan. It was a bribe, he said, to convince the activists to stay. The community had never had anything like this and needed it. Dozens of similar interactions have followed. Neighbors nightly brought out gallons of coffee and cookies; another neighbor brought a bag full of the tamales he makes and sells for a living to help the activists who guarded the books from being taken by police. The answer from the community was overwhelming; don’t leave. And the activists and the community responded; as one passerby put it, “Alright, you’ve got the books on the sidewalk. They ain’t stopped nothin’.”

Mainstream media, normally addicted to negative stories about occupations, covered the story both honestly and sympathetically. A City of Oakland library administrator and candidate for the district seat even visited, giving their kudos. Despite this wide-spread mainstream support, the radical politics of the action have always been front and center. That’s because they are easy to understand for even the least politically sophisticated persons: people have the right to control their communities, no matter what city government says; taking property left to rot through willful incompetence and/or greed and repurposing it for communal good is an unimpeachable act; cities are perhaps the worst austerity offenders, directing endless finances at “security” measures through police, while cutting off funding for neighborhood keystone services vital to social health. Most importantly, all sanctioned attempts to end this reign of misuse have failed; it must be contested through direct action. Every response to Biblioteca from the community embodied these points.

After the books and garden were transferred to the sidewalk, activists and members of the community focused their attention on the nascent garden bed that had been started by kids from the neighborhood on Biblioteca’s first day, entering the grounds to fill it, despite admonitions from police that trespassing charges could result. The first bed was laid with donated soil, compost and starts, then another was built and filled, then another. Homemade compost bins were added, and some benches were made from discarded lumber found in the neighborhood. There is no shortage of police for stopping the positive use of forgotten property, but dumping of all kinds continued right in front of parked police cars throughout the last weeks. For once, that waste goes towards enriching the neighborhood, not cluttering it.

This is where the rubber met the road for Biblioteca activists. The neighborhood called “murder dubs” didn’t get its name by accident; incidents of violence are high, the neighborhood faced police invasions in the days after the raid as a consequence of shootings and armed burglaries. Moreover, the area is ground zero for International Boulevard’s notorious sex trade, where a small army of young and very often teen women march day and night under a feudal patriarchal regime as toxic as any that mainstream capitalism can produce. Some of Biblioteca’s biggest supporters are ex-felons, and more than one is a former occupant of the halfway house across the street. One of them, in fact, berated police on the day after the raid, recounting all the times he had shot heroin and received blow jobs in the building under their nose. He meant this as a bit of sardonic and comic criticism. But that supporter has battled with heroin addiction for the majority of his adult life – some three decades according to his own math. Facing poverty and a lack of options, he’s tried to kick the habit with Methadone over the last few years, with a marginal level of success. Biblioteca’s most enthusiastic participants are often undocumented; one new bottomliner commented that a relative had been recently deported due to a routine brush with the law that would generate no more than an expensive traffic ticket for a legal resident. The dangers are real, and the ambiguous relationship with the police can be a source of insecurity and stress.

The kids who’ve adopted the building and grounds as their own also face a sobering environment; they live with the constant threat of their parents disappearing into the legal system and facing deportation, sometimes unhealthy and violent home environments, and the call of attractive solutions to tough problems embodied by prostitution, violence and drug use. More than one of the parents of the kids who are responsible for helping to create the community garden are “paleteros” – selling popsicles for lack of better options. They must hope for the best in the summer for their unsupervised children.

There are also logistical challenges. By the end of the second week, activists and community members were facing some predictable stumbling blocks. Books can endure only so long unprotected from the elements. And the elements are not the only enemies facing the milk crate sidewalk library – a 24/7 watch by activists was running on fumes by the end of the first week and exhausted activists faced the reality that the books would be vulnerable to vandalism and large-scale theft from local entrepreneurs or official efforts to eliminate this on-going referendum on city government’s uselessness. Indeed, shortly after activists made the decision to conserve energy for other efforts and cease the night vigils, someone vandalized the library, destroying crates and books, flinging them into the street and over the fence and tearing the eponymous banner in half. Hours of very careful and detailed sorting and categorizing were undone in moments.

Prompted by this sudden and cruel reality check, and the work of recreating the library that would be needed, the activists moved forward with an idea that had been floating around for some time – moving the library into the grounds behind the building along with the community garden. Biblioteca became a self-contained and unique entity, existing on unused city property, ostensibly without permission, and under the control of members of the community. The space weds the healthy food and knowledge base absent from communities like the “Twomps” – the experience of Biblioteca demonstrates that these are the most intensely felt aspirations in the community as residents seek to end their cycle of poverty, violence and decaying infrastructure.

A great challenge has been figuring out how to provide community members the space, sense of security and resources to step up fully and take over what the activists began on the inaugural day of Biblioteca Popular. Regular meetings to discuss the disposition of the library and the building have begun, and while there are many issues to circumvent – including translation and varying levels of political sophistication and vulnerability before the law – community members seem very excited to create a new kind of political and social zone in the Biblioteca.

None of this is easy – the odds of a successful outcome are daunting. But there are heartening signs: police began avoiding the 15th street side of the building where the garden and library were located almost completely. More and more community residents became completely comfortable with enjoying the benefits of a modest library and open green space in their neighborhood, and even undocumented residents who voiced concerns about entering just a few days ago started their first bold forays into the contested space. The community’s natural, if not always recognized leaders, have become increasingly involved, not just in “helping”, but in directing the future of the space, including a campaign directed at eventually opening the building.

Just when the library was on a steady course to become a self-sufficient community aggregator, police arrived again on August 28 to patch the holes in the fence. They had no further orders, however, and the library on the other side of the fence remained intact. The action had a different effect than the one intended by the district’s city council member Ignacio de la Fuente, who most likely ordered the police response. Several neighborhood residents who came to use the library and found its entrance closed were incensed. They went out to organize the community to come to the meeting at 5:30pm that day that had already been scheduled. In one of the most organic congregations of community that I’ve witnessed, about a dozen or so parents came out with their children to talk about the next steps; not only in re-securing the space they were coming to depend on, but to re-open the building as a library and/or community center. Most of the participants were low-income working people of varying levels of documentation in this country, they brought their children, some of whom participated. The meeting was bilingual and facilitation and structure also developed organically, which for me, after a seeming lifetime of frustrating inflexible meeting structures, was especially gratifying. The next steps will include direct actions aimed at council members and a petition drive of neighborhood people which will demonstrate the overwhelming support for community control of the space.

As this article goes to press, participants have agreed to keep the library going on the sidewalk on the 15th street side again, during after school hours, until the grounds are secured again for community use. No matter what happens, Biblioteca lights the way for a new form of activism, where Occupy tactics reshape community organizing and open up the potential for creating organically self-radicalizing communities.
This article adapted from the author’s blog: