OWS vs. City of New York: Leveraging Discard Politics
By Max Liboiron
Occupy Wall Street, and specifically representatives of the People’s Library, are suing New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, its police commissioner Ray Kelly, the Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, and other City officials in the seizure and discard of 2,798 books during the raid on Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011.
If you are not familiar with the trashy tale of the People’s Library, which Discard Studies posted about in November, here is the refresher: In the middle of night on November 15, 2011, the NYPD violently evicted Occupy Wall Street’s encampment at Zucotti Park by order of Mayor Bloomberg. Property that was not carried away in the arms of Occupiers was loaded into City Sanitation garbage trucks, compressed, and taken to the 57th St. Sanitation Garage. Many of the 3,600 books were missing or damaged, along with laptops and other library equipment.
There are several notable aspects to this complaint filed today in US District Court. First, the suit is not about the money, and barely about the books. As reported by the Village Voice,
The lawsuit asks for $47,000 in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. But in recognition that sanitation employees, who the city doesn’t indemnify against punitive damages, might get stuck with the bill, Occupy Wall Street took the unusual step of limiting its request for punitive damages to $1,000.
Bloomberg and the police have been using City services, including Sanitation and the MTA (public transit system), in their efforts to quash protesters. In the past, Occupiers have cheered Sanitation Workers in the streets around lower Manhattan, but in a statement put out by the People’s Library, this enthusiasm stops short of the Commissioner:
We cannot allow the Mayor and his commissioners to get away with these violations of law and constitutional rights. We have now filed a Federal lawsuit to demand accountability from the city and its officials, demanding both compensatory and punitive damages.
It will be interesting– and telling– to see how the split between Sanitation workers and the Sanitation Commissioner play out in this complaint. Will it be analogous to descriptions of the relationship between Ray Kelly, NYC Police Commissioner and individual police brutality? Were Sanitation workers just following orders? Where there some “bad apples” in uniform the night of November 15th? Are they “out of control”? Since the Sanitation Department will probably never be afforded the power of the Police Department, some of these criticisms seem absurd. But the uneven power relationships between workers and their employers, including the ability for those in power to use workers to further their own ideological goals, is one of the many interrelated grievances of Occupy Wall Street.
The tricky politics of OWS vs the Sanitation Department via the People’s Library is only one of the unique aspects of the lawsuit. The second, at least for Discard Studies readers, is how the act of discarding a library by force is being leveraged to accomplish a great range of political work. The Librarians state that the goal of the suit is to obtain public acknowledgment that the raid as a whole was fundamentally unconstitutional: “We believe that the raid and its aftermath violated our First-Amendment rights to free expression, Fourth-Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure, and Fourteenth-Amendment rights to due process, as well as the laws of the City of New York regarding the vouchsafing of seized property.” The books, as owned, seized, destroyed, and missing media objects, are being used to address the entire set of issues brokered by the raid. Moreover, the lawsuit may bring documents and other evidence to light about the decision-making and planning process behind November 15th, which has remained out of the public sphere.
If the Discard Studies post in November was about the ability of the state to willfully discard citizen’s belongings as a show of power, this post is (happily) looking forward to how a citizen group’s ability to call out the power to discard has larger political ramifications for the use and abuse of power by the state. Bloomberg: you’d better watch what you discard.
The full complaint filed by OWS and the People’s Library is here.
A list of other media coverage of the lawsuit is at the bottom of the page here.
Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.
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