Discard by Power: Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library Dumped

By Max Liboiron

One topic we rarely post about on Discard Studies is the connection between power and forced acts of waste. Robert Moses’s aggressive eviction-based freeways in the 1960s, landlord sponsored arson in Harlem and the Bronx in the 1970s, and, as of Monday, the forcible eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zucotti Park after a judge deemed it unconstitutional, are some of the ways the power to discard has played out in New York City.

The raid on Occupy Wall Street was an act of forcible waste.

While Occupy Wall Street offers many opportunities to think about the role of waste in the day-to-day aspects of protest, I would like to focus on this issue of forcible waste for a moment instead. The most blatant example is the fate of the People’s Library, a collection of more than 5,000 books, reference materials (many signed by authors), archival materials, original ephemera made by and for OWS, laptops, and a wi-fi device, all housed in a tent donated by author and rock legend Patti Smith. Most of this was thrown into dumpsters by police during the raid, along with the majority of tents and objects in the park.

The People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street was destroyed in the early morning hours of November 15. Without warning or provocation hundreds of militarized New York police officers cleared the park starting at 1 a.m. The library was torn down in the dark of night and its books, laptops, archives, and support materials were thrown into dumpsters by armed police and city sanitation workers. Numerous library staff were arrested, and, in one case, a librarian strapped the notebooks of original poetry from the library’s poetry readings to her body before lending aid to comrades who had been pepper-sprayed.

Tweet from author Salman Rushdie.

The Working Group that maintains the Library were told they could pick up the books at Sanitation, but found most of the collection had been destroyed, and the parts that were saved are damaged beyond salvage.

Photo taken by OWS librarian of a library book “saved” from the dumpsters.

The good news is that within minutes of re-occupying the square, the library was restarted. You can contribute in person or by mail. However, the police retain the right to waste the collection:

Tents and tarps are strictly forbidden in Zuccotti Park now. During the reoccupation on the evening of November 15, it started to rain so library staff put a clear plastic trash bag over the collection. Within minutes a detail of about 10 police descended and demanded that the covering be removed because they deemed the garbage bag to be a tarp. There were a few tense minutes as staff tried to convince them otherwise, but ultimately it was removed—leaving the collection open to the elements. As the police withdrew, scores of people chanted “BOOKS … BOOKS … BOOKS … BOOKS.”

A new mini-movement within Occupy, called Occupy Educated, has arisen “as an emergency response to the destruction of the library at Occupy Wall Street.” It cites histories of book burnings and other forced censorship as its precursors, and provides a primer reading list through “a multitude of resources to educate occupiers and the rest of the 99% about what is going on, why it’s happening, and what we can do about it.”

What strikes me about both responses to the forced destruction of the People’s Library is how it now works despite, in the face of, and around physical logistics of discard-through-force. The People’s librarians store the books in many locations at night and protect books by hand (or by many bodies) when it rains. The library list exists in virtual space. And most importantly, when the books are discarded, new ones, though not necessarily the same ones, take their place, like a crowd-sourced ecosystem of learning materials. This strategy is characteristic of Occupy Wall Street as a whole, and I am happy to see that it holds up against this particular act of forced waste, though no less saddened, angered, and resolved by the strategy of coercion through discard.

The People’s Library in Patti Smith’s tent before it was raided.

From DemocracyNow’s twitpic feed, November 15, 2011.

Update: here is an eloquent, first-hand account of the events covered here, and the aftermath, as of November 23rd, 2011.

4 thoughts on “Discard by Power: Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library Dumped

  1. You put into words thoughts that had been going through my mind when I saw the trash piles on Democracy Now. I was unfamiliar with the idea of forced waste, but reading your post is helping me clarify some of my own thoughts. I was affected in a very visceral way by what I saw, and it has been difficult to articulate all of the reasons why. Certainly issues such as cleanliness and danger come up as many tried to justify what happened by appealing to health and sanitation. But this was also a brutal act of domination on many levels. A colleague also pointed out to me that these spaces must be erased by the state. It is not enough that they evict people, but that they wipe out of existence the materialization of dissent. That is one of the reasons why these occupied spaces are so dangerous to them. And police across the country have shown time and time again that they will respond with force. They will, however, be unable to completely erase this histories from the material record. Thank you again for your post.

    • Thank you for your message, Margaret. The role of the state to reclassify various categories of material culture as waste is one of its more subtle but devastating powers. In this instance, the police can trash the books, but it was only a small piece of a vastly larger collection and vastly larger momentum. The Occupy Library is already being reassembled, probably with greater variety and energy than before. However hard it may try, the state cannot, as you correctly point out, erase this history.

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