“Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse-these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.“ [Benjamin 2002:460]
When our library at Occupy Wall Street was destroyed, we used our beloved books tactically, as evidence, and then used the trauma of destruction to make a case for the illegitimacy of the violence committed when the library was destroyed. But how do we tell stories of violence that remains? How do we voice and give and hear testimony when confronting aggression and attack towards things we care for that are discarded, in the violence of ruination, the trashing of what we love?
In The Empire of Trauma, Diddier Fassin and Richard Rechtman examine how the idea of “trauma” gives us language to name “a new relationship to time and memory, to mourning and obligations, to misfortune, and the misfortunate” (2009:276). Fassin and Rechtman also look at trauma as a resource, exploring its “tactical dimension” in claiming legitimate status as a victim. When our library was destroyed, we embraced victimhood through our books, but what became of the books?
What does this pile of books, sitting in the hall of Jaime’s apartment in Brooklyn mean? These books have a life history, of love, destruction, a federal lawsuit, burden, and discard.
On November 15th 2011, under orders from then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York Police Department (NYPD) dismantled and destroyed the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street under the pretence of “cleaning” the park. Along with the kitchen, medical tent, residences of occupiers and more in Zucotti Park, all of the library’s books, zines, newspapers, media, computers, and other materials were thrown into trucks by sanitation workers and brought to a City of New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) garage on 57th Street. Of the approximately 3,600 books seized that night, only 1,003 were recovered. Of that number, 201 were so damaged while in the possession of the City of New York that they were made unreadable. Thus, at least approximately 2,798 books were never returned or were damaged beyond repair.
The life of these books began as donations. New Yorkers brought us their books to add to the library. We loaned out these books to anyone who wanted them. We began cataloguing the books soon after the occupation began using barcode scanning and manual recording of ISBNs to enter every book that we received into our electronic catalogue on the website LibraryThing. Over 9,500 books passed through the library.
The books were received, as gifts, through an intake process. We wrote OWSL (for Occupy Wall Street Library) on the edges of the books, and later stamped them with a beautiful OWSLibrary stamp someone made for use (another gift). We recorded the ISBN number, we entered those numbers or details of the book, pamphlet, newsletter, or other media into the digital catalogue, and then library working group members and volunteers sorted them into categories, into boxes, into piles, into people’s hands.
When it rained, we bought tarps and covered the books. The NYPD said that the tarps were illegal, because they couldn’t see what was under them. Hidden books.
Working group members lived in the park, and slept with the books to protect them at night.
When the books were stolen, seized, and many destroyed this was a violence against not only our library but against the people from across the world and around the corner who donated books, who had given these gifts to anyone whose hands were open. Authors had brought us their books and inscribed them for the library.
Average, everyday New Yorkers whose names we didn’t know, had brought us books from their own collections to share with the movement. The People’s Library was an open, public library for anyone to use. No library card required, no check-out process, no due dates, no fines. We only asked that patrons use the books and make sure that if they didn’t return them that they found continued use elsewhere.
The “eviction” of the occupation was an attack on Occupy, but also a violence on so many other scales. As I watched in disbelief, riot police tore apart the library that we’d spent months building – I watched them throw thousands of books into dumpsters, destroy our kitchen, our medical tents, throw people’s homes into the trash. I had spent so much time there over the past few months, organizing books and supplies, giving and receiving gifts, building a new family – cataloging new arrivals, welcoming new people, building the library. To nurture a place and have it torn apart so violently and so suddenly was jarring, shocking. Even harder was seeing those from our library family who lived in the park become homeless that night – to watch them as they saw their everything thrown away like trash. For people who have almost nothing, a tarp to keep out the rain is a precious thing, let alone the comforts of familiar clothing and intimate items like journals. All of this was trashed, but not discarded.
Reverend Billy’s email from that night:
———- Forwarded message ———
From: Reverend Billy
Date: Tue, 15 Nov 2011 at 11:29
Subject: Occupy OWS Library?
Yes Savitri and I will go down with Walt Whitman and The Tempest and
Sojourner Truth and “Why Freedom Matters” by Daniel Katz – the history
of 1st Amendment struggles…
Mostly just to go down and be there.
After the destruction of the library, members of the working group went to the DSNY garage to claim library property. The images of this warehouse with the remnants of the occupation laid out for identification reminds me of the evidence sorting practices after an airplane crash. Like Benjamin’s description of Paul Kee’s painting “Angelus Novus” – the angel of history would:
“…like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed….But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress” [Benjamin 2007: 257-58]
The pile of debris at the DSNY garage meant something to us, it was made of the remnants of our attempt at Occupy to awaken the dead to inequality, to the destructive storm of “progress.” The books became evidence of this destruction right away. But they were contested evidence.
The night of the destruction, I tweeted “Right now, the NYPD are throwing over 5,000 books from our library into a dumpster. Will they burn them?” After this report was picked up by media and reported widely, the Mayor’s office responded by posing books in orderly piles on a table at the DSNY garage, photographing them, and tweeting “Property from #Zuccotti, incl #OWS library, safely stored @ 57th St Sanit Garage; can be picked up Weds.” This was the first moment our books became evidence in a public relations and legal battle between Occupy, the library, and the City of New York.
The true state of the material at the DSNY garage was a different story.
On November 23rd 2011, we held a press conference in the offices of Civil Rights lawyer Norman Siegel. Siegel opened the conference at a table of our damaged books, by articulating the legal demands of the OWS Librarians:
“The Bloomberg Administration needs to replace every book missing or damaged. Together about 3,161 books. We have the titles and authors. The Bloomberg Administration needs to acknowledge that a wrong was committed and that this can never happen again. We need a space to recreate the people’s library.”
Hawa Allan, a Fellow of Columbia Law School, added, “the People’s Library represents the town hall spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” Referring to the piles of destroyed books on the table, she also noted “This display is a chilling image of the attempt to destroy free expression.” To set the scene, we brought in boxes of the damaged books retrieved from the DSNY garage.
We covered the table in front of us with these books, arranging them as evidence – evidence of the horrible irony that Mayor Bloomberg’s orders had resulted in seizing and damaging a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
The books served as evidence in announcing the federal lawsuit, and later as evidence in court. The library won the lawsuit, receiving $47,000 from the city for the destruction of the library and the books, which we decided as a working group to donate to a list of organizations that could continue the work we had started.
After the press conferences, the trial, after the narrative of the destruction and the lawsuit were over, the books we had cherished became a burden. Jaime wrote to everyone in November 2013 (two years after the destruction of the library) with an update:
“Hi, librarians. Soooo, finally, FINALLY all those books — the ones we got back from the sanitation garage after the raid & held onto for possible legal purposes, and which have been in my apartment for the last year & a half — are getting out of my apartment. They are going to The Base ( http://thebasebk.org ), a new-ish space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, this evening. I’m REALLY HAPPY to be getting my hallway back.
Since the city settled with us, parts of the collection (let’s be honest, the better parts) have gone to various other places. A few of the books are staying with me; pretty sure some went home with Hristo; some went to Chicago to their former librarian, Rachel, who now spends a lot of time sending books to prisoners; and several local comrades have take handfuls, including Chepe, Luca (for MA’s House), Kyle (who writes w/ Zachary & me at the Shipwreck), my pal Justine from the RMO, etc.
For the time being, I’m going to continue to hold on to the two boxes containing books that are ruined beyond use. I’m not exactly sure to what end, but The Base won’t be able to put them to any use, and they may still have historical, evidential value to us. If anyone has thoughts about these, or wants some, let me know.”
And again a year after that, in 2014:
“The dregs of the original library are still in my apartment. There’s 5 boxes, including unusable stuff from the sanitation garage.”
And a month later, Jaime had managed to find homes for some of them:
“I’m down to three boxes. One if relevant stuff, fiction & non-fiction, that I’m hoping the Base or some similar org will take. The others are one each of mediocre but usable fiction & non-fiction. Don’t really know what to do with that; perhaps someone knows of a less explicitly political org that might want it — a DV shelter or something?
I mailed out several books to those who expressed interest in artifacts of the library.
Concerning the rest — usable books that were not marked (or very minimally marked, or where marks could be removed) with or stickers, stamps, “OWSL,” etc. I brought to the Brooklyn Public Library for their books sale fundraising the other weekend. Books that were unusable — too dirty, bent or crushed, whatever — I put in my building’s recycling.”
What can one do with such things? I think of my own mother telling me about the boxes of papers, insignificant things, that her mother and father had left after they were gone. She said she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away, so instead she used the old brick grill in the back yard to burn them. Burning is better, perhaps, than feeling like a thing once cherished and fought for is now a burden.
When I started writing this reflection, I asked Jaime for an update on the boxes of books that had become her burden, sitting there in her Brooklyn apartment, taking up space.
“The “ruined beyond use” books have since been recycled. Of what we got back from Sanitation in usable condition, I’ve got 3 boxes of still in my apartment; one box of things worth reading, and two of books that aren’t really very good at all. In theory they are all destined for The Base, but I gotta get them there. Supposedly a friend with a car is going to help me get them there some time soon.
I had to finally triage, sort & deal with the problem, because… I am storing 500+ books for a friend who is out of the country for some number of months. In order to have space for his books in my hall, which I am happy to have, as they are very good and I am reading by leaps and bounds, I had to do something with the OWSL books which had been taking up that space in my hall since late April 2012. At this point the unusable ones were recycled.
If you recall, after the lawsuit was settled, I started dispersing the books. Hristo and I had a big sorting day, which was the first I’d even opened the boxes they’d come here in. And then I was quite cross, because they’d been packed very inefficiently, and hadn’t actually needed as much space as they’d been taking up. I kept the ones I wanted; a couple were set aside for Archives; mailed a few here & there; a small car-load went to The Base to seed their library; and whenever I had company I’d make sure they went home with a few.”
These ruins, these debris of the library, dwindling, then almost gone, have been on my mind for years now. How do we tell their story?
“[T]o articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin 2007:255).
I’ve saved one of the books from the library in my own collection of ever dwindling physical books. It is the first book entered in the LibraryThing catalog, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey aka Peter Lambourne Wilson (2003). When I set up the online catalog I decided the first book I entered should be significant for what we were doing at Occupy Wall Street, so I chose this one.
Our books lived, were killed, and reborn, and released. They were donated, organized, catalogued, seized, destroyed, saved, and became testimony, evidence, burden, and discard.
These books of ours will always be objects in this story of Occupy, embodying our hope, planning, dedication – our rage, sadness, revenge, justice – our memory, our mourning, and moving on. But still, we let them go, we give them away, we recycle them, we throw them away, and we do it all with love.
Michael Oman-Reagan is an artist, activist, and PhD student in Anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His doctoral research on the anthropology of space includes work on space science, interstellar travel, SETI, astrobiology, plants in space, and speculative fiction. He completed his M.A. in Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York. His M.A. thesis Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivism and Occupy Wall Street was the first ethnography of the Indonesian Occupy movement.
2002 The Arcades Project. Rolf Tiedemann, ed. Howard Eiland, tran. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
2007 Illuminations. Hannah Arendt, ed. Harry Zohn, tran. New York: Schocken Books.
2003 T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia.
Fassin, Didier, and Richard Rechtman
2009 The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
New York City settles with Occupy Wall Street for unconstitutional trashing 4/10/13
OWS vs. City of New York: Leveraging Discard Politics 5/24/12
Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement: A Photo Essay 9/24/12
Discard by Power: Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library Dumped 11/16/11