By Max Liboiron.
Nearly a year ago, I posted about a lawsuit brought against the City of New York by the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street for trashing thousands of books during the eviction of Zuccoti Park. The story resonated with a lot of people because the destruction of books is seen as a special type of waste in our society. In terms borrowed from Mary Douglas, trashing books is taboo, and intolerable social transgression. In another post, I wrote about how systematic trashing of protest groups’ bodies and materials has been one of the New York Police Department’s tactics to maintain power and control over protesters and “public” space.
“Our clients are pleased,” said Normal Siegel, who represented Occupy Wall Street in the suit. “We had asked for damages of $47,0000 for the books and the computers, and we got $47,000. More important–we would not have settled without this–is the language in the settlement. This was not just about money, it was about constitutional rights and the destruction of books.”
The settlement document is available here, and includes how the money is divided by not only the people’s library, but also two other groups whose items were landfilled or went missing during the police raid. However, the books and the People’s Library take the headlines.
It is interesting to see how different media outlets are discussing the action towards the books during the eviction of Zucotti Park. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times refer to the “seizure” of books, a phrase absent in the settlement. The Huffington Post calls the city’s relationship to the books one of “destruction.” NBC News adds the qualifier “so called” to this destruction.The Los Angeles Times also headlines the “destruction” of the books, and additionally runs the headline above a photo of a sanitation worker with a white face mask putting items into a garbage truck during the eviction. The story contained a quote from Siegel, the OWS attorney: “They actually threw the books in the back of these sanitation trucks that I call ‘grinders,’ and they grinded out the books and incinerated them.” The New York Times adds that:
Lawyers for the city said Brookfield [the owners of Zucotti Park] had hired a private carting company to help remove items from the park and take them to a landfill.
Lawyers for Brookfield replied that the police had directed the company to hire workers to clear “refuse” from the park and that Brookfield employees had helped city workers load material.
In response to the settlement, New York City released a statement reiterating earlier arguments about sanitation and cleanliness that rationalized the original eviction: “It was absolutely necessary for the city to address the rapidly growing safety and health threats posed by the Occupy Wall street encampment.” Apparently proper sanitation requires riot gear and batons.
What is particularly interesting about the settlement is that it does not focus on how people were treated, but how books were treated. In my publication on “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement” I argue that people and objects associated with social movements such as Occupy Wall Street are both treated like waste by those in power as a way to demonstrate tolerable and intolerable challenges and and what constitutes ‘out of placeness’ in relation to the status quo, as well as ideas of ideal citizenship and the Other.
Occupy Wall Street, known for its critique of the financilization and corpretization of everyday life and governance, has leveraged the status of private property as a constitutional right and the high cultural status of the book in their struggle with state tactics to lay waste to dissent. There are some contradictions here, particularly the use of private property as a entry point into addressing the violation of the right to protest in semi-public spaces. But the trashed books work as an interesting boundary object that allow a conversation between Occupiers and the City government about rights and power. The meaning of the books and their treatment are plastic, interpreted differently by each group, but with enough immutable content–the taboo of certain types of trashing, whether that be of books, private property, or constitutional rights in general–to maintain integrity in the legal system.
Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.