The People’s Library and the future of OWS

The massive library carted away by authorities at Zuccotti Park is a formidable weapon in Occupy Wall Street’s arsenal.

Wall Street Protest Continues In New York
The free flow of information that the so-called People’s Library provided was a particularly potent weapon in the Occupy movement’s arsenal – until it was removed by police when they evicted protesters at Zuccotti Park [EPA]

Midnight is not a time I expect my mobile phone to ring, and certainly not with a call from the programme director of KPFK, the progressive public radio station of Los Angeles. But so flummoxed was Alan Minsky, an old friend and producer of the Axis of Justice radio show, that he dialled me by mistake.

“My bad. But they’ve just raided Zuccotti Park … Cops have already dismantled the encampment at OWS,” he explained, before moving on to contact anyone he could reach who might have first-hand information about what was going on there.

My first thought was immediately the 5,000 book library that has come to define the OWS site at Zuccotti Park. Tents can be replaced, even most personal effects. But destroying books is like destroying the soul of the movement; for more than any protest movement in at least two generations, the OWS movement is the product of well-planned, thoughtful action guided by a constant engagement with theory.

As Minsky explained to me when we spoke early the next morning, compared with the anti-corporate globalisation and then anti-war movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the libraries reflect the “maturity of a movement” that had “been shell-shocked by the whole Bush era”.

The power of a ‘people’s library’

The “People’s Library” was at the heart of the OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park, and has played a similar role in other large occupations, such as Los Angeles. It is the necessary complement to the actual physical occupation of urban space represented by the OWS movement. Many people might wonder why it’s so important for protesters permanently to camp when the reality, especially as the weather turns bad, is that few people are actually doing anything at night besides sleeping.

But the point of the occupation is precisely to reconquer space that has been taken over, either by the state or by private interests – a kind of “eminent domain” of, by and for the people – and create a permanent presence that can engender and nourish the kind of community and solidarity that have so disappeared in the United States in the last forty years. By permanently occupying Zuccottii and other parks, the OWS movement created a space where people could gather, create libraries, share books and ideas, and even meals. Where they could plan for another world that isn’t merely possible anymore, but the only hope for the survival of humanity as a civilisation.

The library, which took weeks to establish, reflected the uniqueness and power of the still young 99 per cent movement. “From the very beginning, the OWS encampments were not just gestures of protest thinly focused on making statements about the ills of society, but were efforts to build community where people were knowledgeable and participated in informed dialogue. The libraries, at least in Zuccotti and in Los Angeles, have been central. Here in LA a graduate student made her entire personal library available to occupiers. These libraries have contemporary theory, classical literature, incisive analyses, and all sorts of books that have been marginalised from the mainstream media and culture. But when the history of this period will be written, these are the books that will be remembered.”

So much did the “people’s library” idea resonate that the OWS library couldn’t keep up with all the donations they’ve received and encouraging people to take books out. The website lists some of the newest arrivals in the days before the raid: Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, by Savo Heleta, Nuclear Nebraska, by Susan Cragin, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, From the Heat of the Day, by Roy A.K. Heath, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and innumerable other books that were opening the minds of all who passed through OWS and the many peoples’ libraries it has fostered across the country.

Minsky continued, “This open philosophy stands in stark opposition to the world of corporate culture. Trashing the library was symbolic of what the combined forces of Bloomberg and the NYPD feel about learning and the society in which we live.” (Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg, who claimed full responsibility for the raid’s execution, had to know about the library. Yet his “minutely planned raid” – as the New York Times described it – shovelled thousands of books into garbage trucks to be carted away to the nearest sanitation facility).

It also stands in stark contrast to the earlier iterations of the anti-corporate globalisation and anti-war movements, especially when it came to recognising the role of the Middle East in the larger processes of globalisation that were at the heart of the struggles of both movements.

New forms of culture jamming

In fact, I wrote the book I donated to the People’s Library, Why They Don’t Hate Us, specifically in response the abject failure of the emerging anti-corporate globalisation movement of the late 1990s, and then the anti-war movement that coalesced after September 11, to engage with the Middle East and larger Muslim world’s role in the development of globalisation, or with the many scholars of the region who had the expertise and experience to help develop a more effective counter-discourse to both Clintonian neoliberalism and Bush’s full metal jacket neoconservatism.

Ironically, Adbusters magazine and the culture jamming movement it helped spawn were at the centre of both the pre-9/11 alter-globalisation movement and the OWS movement today. The problem with the first iteration of culture jamming imagined by the movement was that it was mostly negative, focusing on critiquing or subverting political or advertising messages by “jamming” symbols into them that expose the usually ugly realities beneath the sexy, cool or comfortable veneers (painting a skull and cross bones over the face of a Marlboro Man billboard is a seminal example of this practice).

As I travelled around the Middle East and Muslim world in the years following September 11, it became clear that young people across the region – the very ones that would play a leading role in the revolutionary protests of the last year – were engaged in a much more open, positive, and therefore far more powerful kind of culture jamming than the mostly critical style of culture jamming associated with the movement. Musicians, artists, activists, scholars; all were coming together to create new forms of cultural production that transcended rather than merely criticise the status quo.

The fruits of this process, which gestated in cafes in the midst of war-torn Baghdad, the rubble of southern Beirut and Nablus, conference rooms in Doha and Washington, DC, and face-to-face meetings of Facebook friends in Cairo and Casablanca, were reflected in the amazing hybridity of Arab hiphop and Pakistani rock. They could be seen in the powerful forms of civil resistance deployed – the bit of Gene Sharp here, a dash of Gandhi there, a tablespoon of Leninist labour organising mixed with a dollop of cyberactivism and a hint of soccer hooliganism that came together in places like Sidi Bouzid and Meidan Tahrir – leaving once vaunted mukhabarat and the long-ruling dictators they served, not to mention their Western patrons, utterly flummoxed.

First the books, then the people

Israeli filmmaker, theorist and activist Udi Aloni, whom I interviewed in a recent column, moves regularly between Tel Aviv and Brooklyn, and spent countless hours both at the protest encampment on Rothschild Boulevard and in Zuccotti Park. It was Aloni who brought my book to the People’s Library, along with his own new book, What Does a Jew Want?, which captures the spirit of culture jamming as not merely transgressive, but as transformative theory and practice.

As soon as he heard about the library, his thoughts turned to Heinrich Heine, the great 19th century German poet and critic, who exclaimed in his Almansor the famous words: “Where they burn books, they’ll ultimately burn people too”.

Of course, New York City isn’t burning books, but for Aloni, carting them away in garbage trucks is not that far removed. “When they disrespect books, they disrespect humankind, and when they destroy books, they destroy the spirit of humanity. The library was great because people gave more than they took. OWS was not just a place for activism, but also a place for education and rethinking; not for just blathering on when you don’t know, but being humble and willing to learn. By taking out the library, they’ve tried to stop that crucial process.”

Even at Occupy-OC – my own city’s much smaller occupation encampment – the sharing of knowledge is crucial. One of the most powerful spots in our 20 by 20 metre camp is the “the think-tank”, where small groups of people gather and attempt to think through the myriad problems the movement, and the country, face. According to one of our main facilitators, the dismantling and carting away of the library signifies them “going after all the symbols that allow us to have a conversation”.

And this is precisely why, despite arguments by some that it’s time for OWS to “declare victory and go inside” for the winter, it is crucial that the movement has identifiable permanent locations where people can publicly meet, read, discuss and debate the crucial issues raised by activists.

Seizing and holding territory is key

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt only became possible once activist groups got moved from Facebook to the streets, adapting with incredible speed and alacrity to the various attempts by the governments to slow them down. So it’s not surprising that Egyptian revolutionaries like Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher feel so at home when visiting OWS

Even if the thousands of books carted away by sanitation workers are ultimately recovered by their owners or the People’s Librarians or replaced, without a highly visible public space where they can be accessed any time, members of the movement and the less powerful public they will lose much if not most of the animating power they gave to the OWS movement.

It turns out that in the 21st century, seizing and holding territory – both the public square and the public sphere – are inextricably bound together. As Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street continue their battle for the soul of American society into the winter and then an election year, the flood of knowledge represented by the OWS People’s Library is one of the best weapons protesters have to hold their ground against their much better financed, and armed, adversaries. If municipalities and their corporate sponsors are able to push OWS out of public sight, it will be a lot harder to ensure it doesn’t fall out of mind for the millions of Americans who have just begun to feel safe imagining that through direct action, they too can change a system that has never seemed more stacked against them.


As of Thursday, November 17, the vast majority of books have not been returned. The majority that were found at the sanitation facility were damaged or destroyed, as was all the computer equipment, shelving, tarps and other material. The next evening when librarians set up a new library the police again came, surrounded it, and threw the 100 books into the garbage to be carted away. When asked why they did this, one policeman replied, “I don’t know.” He may not know consciously, but it’s clear that at a deep level from the billionaire mayor to the police who protect him and his Wall Street comrades, the NYC/Wall Street power structure understands full well that bringing people together and giving them easy access to the kind of knowledge that can challenge and even transform the system, is a very dangerous thing. Updates on the situation of the library are available at Peoples Library.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.