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Between the Lines

| December 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

by Alice Lowe

 

Why Burn the Books?

In Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the people called firemen aren’t putting out fires, they’re starting them. They’re the book burners, intent upon ridding the totalitarian society of the threats inherent in having an informed and educated populace.

An image from the film is posted on the Occupy Wall Street website, with the caption, “Hide your books! Bloomberg is coming!” Unfortunately, the actions of New York’s mayor and police in destroying the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street beg for this comparison.

Along with food and shelter, the early participants of Occupy Wall Street recognized the need for people to be able to exercise and engage their minds while committing their time and energy to the movement. They established the People’s Library and put out a call for books. The donations started pouring in right away, and by mid-November there was a neatly shelved and catalogued collection of 5,000 books, available free not only to demonstrators but to the general public as well.

Several people volunteered time and expertise to organize and staff the library. An English professor from the University of Pittsburgh has been spending his sabbatical at Occupy Wall Street, helping to build and maintain the library.

But in the wee hours of November 15th, police in riot gear burst through the encampment and ransacked the library, seizing books and throwing them into dumpsters and garbage trucks, along with shelves and supplies and the tent that housed them. Occupiers were forced out of the way with shields, fists, billy clubs and tear gas.

Organizers were told they could retrieve the books, but they were able to recover only about a fourth of the collection, and most of those were damaged beyond use. That evening supporters joined occupiers to start rebuilding the library, and donations once again streamed in. And the next day, once again, it was raided and the books trashed. One of the librarians asked why they were doing this, and a police officer responded, “I don’t know.” Had she asked that of someone higher up the hierarchy, the answer might well have been, “Because we can.”

The People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street lives on, now operating out of mobile units, but the destruction of that peaceful corner of Zuccotti Park will also live on in the memories of observers, both onsite or online, as a shameful and chilling exhibit of mindless brute force. The Pittsburgh professor called it “one of the most disturbing experiences of my life.”

This isn’t what democracy looks like.

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