Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks of the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, the action has so far brought together an unprecedented union of local activism with Occupy tactics and community organizing. Though bottomliners began with humble expectations—filling the library with books, dropping the banner, inspiring communities to oppose austerity by taking issues into their own hands and escaping arrest—within hours they found that the action itself caught the imagination of not only the neighborhood, but a greater public audience as well. Mainstream media, normally addicted to negative stories about occupations, covered the story both honestly and sympathetically. A City of Oakland library administrator and candidate for the district seat even visited, giving their kudos.
Despite this wide-spread mainstream support, the radical politics of the action have always been front and center. That’s because they are easy to understand for even the least politically sophisticated persons: people have the right to control their communities, no matter what city government says; taking property left to rot through willful incompetence and/or greed and repurposing it for communal good, is an unimpeachable act; cities are perhaps the worst austerity offenders, directing endless finances at “security” measures through police, while cutting off funding for neighborhood keystone services vital to social health. Most importantly, all sanctioned attempts to end this reign of misuse have failed; it must be contested through direct action. Every response to Biblioteca from the community embodied these points.
Not surprisingly, then, the city’s exaggerated police reaction—which shut down the entire neighborhood from 16th st., to 23 avenue, to international and 24th avenue–was widely condemned by all who witnessed it. Some community members that I spoke to expressed shock when they realized that the police action was not a demonstration of some unprecedented interest in a murder or robbery in the neglected neighborhood, but was instead aimed at shutting down the increasingly popular library. And when police stationed cruisers running their engines twenty-four hours a day around the neighborhood to prevent re-occupation of the library, the sense of disgust from the community at the waste of resources and seeming contempt for residents was palpable.
No one knows for sure why police eventually stopped stationing vehicles at the intersection of Miller and 15th, but they did just shy of a week later, on the following Sunday afternoon. One hopes that the most salient reason was to avoid the embarrassment of explaining the outsized waste of resources.
Following the Biblioteca shut down, the action has gone through various permutations; all of them have been empowering to the community and have continued to keep open the discourse on the decades of austerity and neglect that have created an atmosphere of chaos and hopelessness in the “murder dubs”. First the books and garden were transferred to the sidewalk elbow of decaying fencing around Miller and 15th streets. The enthusiasm from the community only grew and was perhaps even greater, because the entire collection was visible and accessible from the street. After police cut short their 24/7 watch, activists and members of the community focused their attention on the nascent garden bed that had been started by kids from the neighborhood on Biblioteca’s first day, entering the grounds to fill it, despite admonitions from police that trespassing charges could result. The first bed was laid with donated soil, compost and starts, then another was built and filled, then another. Homemade compost bins were added, and some benches were made from discarded lumber found in the neighborhood; there is no shortage of police for stopping the positive use of forgotten property, but dumping of all kinds continued right in front of parked police cars throughout the last weeks. For once, that waste goes towards enriching the neighborhood, not cluttering it.
This is where the rubber met the road for Biblioteca activists. The murder dubs didn’t get its name by accident; incidents of violence are high, the neighborhood faced police invasions in the days after the raid as a consequence of shootings and armed burglaries. Moreover, the area is ground zero for International Boulevard’s notorious sex trade, where a small army of young and very often teen women march day and night under a feudal patriarchal regime as toxic as any that mainstream capitalism can produce. Some of Biblioteca’s biggest supporters are ex-felons, and more than one is a former occupant of the halfway house across the street. One of them, in fact, berated police on the day after the raid, recounting all the times he had shot heroin and received blow jobs in the building under their nose. He meant this as a bit of sardonic and comic criticism. But that supporter has battled with heroin addiction for the majority of his adult life–some three decades according to his own math. Facing poverty and a lack of options, he’s tried to kick the habit with Methadone over the last few years, with a marginal level of success. Biblioteca’s most enthusiastic participants are often undocumented; one new bottomliner commented today that a relative had been recently deported due to a routine brush with the law that would generate no more than an expensive traffic ticket for a legal resident. The dangers are real, and the ambiguous relationship with the police, can be a source of insecurity and stress, where it has been one of relief for the documented.
The kids who’ve adopted the building and grounds as their own, also face a sobering environment; they live with the constant threat of their parents disappearing into the legal system and facing deportation, sometimes unhealthy and violent home environments, and the call of attractive solutions to tough problems embodied by prostitution, violence and drug use. More than one of the parents of the kids who are responsible for helping to create the community garden are “paleteros”–selling popsicles for lack of better options. They must hope for the best in the summer for their unsupervised children.
There are also logistical challenges. By the end of the second week, activists and community members are facing some predictable stumbling blocks. Books can endure only so long unprotected from the elements. And the elements are not the only enemies facing the milk crate sidewalk library–a 24/7 watch by activists was running on fumes by the end of the first week and exhausted activists faced the reality that the books would be vulnerable to vandalism and large-scale theft from local entrepreneurs or official efforts to eliminate this on-going referendum on city government’s uselessness. Indeed, shortly after activists made the decision to conserve energy for other efforts and cease the night vigils, someone vandalized the library, destroying crates and books, flinging them into the street and over the fence and tearing the eponymous banner in half. Hours of very careful and detailed sorting and categorizing were undone in moments.
Prompted by this sudden and cruel reality check, and the work of recreating the library that would be needed, the activists moved forward with an idea that had been floating around for some time–moving the library into the grounds behind the building along with the community garden. Biblioteca is now a self-contained and unique entity, existing on unused city property, ostensibly without permission, and under the control of members of the community. The space weds the healthy food and knowledge base absent from communities like the “Twomps”–the experience of Biblioteca demonstrates that these are the most intensely felt aspirations in the community as residents seek to end their cycle of poverty, violence and decaying infrastructure.
The greatest challenge will now come in the form of providing community members the space, sense of security and resources to step up fully and take over what the activists began on the inaugural day of Biblioteca Popular. Regular meetings to discuss the disposition of the library and the building have begun, and while there are many issues to circumvent–including translation and varying levels of political sophistication and vulnerability before the law–community members seem very excited to create a new kind of political and social zone in the Biblioteca.
None of this is easy–the odds of a successful outcome are daunting. But there are heartening signs: police now avoid the 15th street side of the building where the garden and library are located almost completely–either by decree or their own choice, it’s still not clear. The city seems to have, for the time being, turned a blind eye to the use of the property. More and more community residents seem completely comfortable with enjoying the benefits of a modest library and open green space in their neighborhood, and even undocumented residents who voiced concerns about entering just a few days ago have started their first bold forays into the contested space. The community’s natural, if not always recognized leaders, have become increasingly involved, not just in “helping”, but in directing the future of the space, including a campaign directed at eventually opening the building. No matter what happens, Biblioteca lights the way for a new form of activism, where Occupy tactics reshape community organizing and open up the potential for creating organically self-radicalizing communities.
Just when the library was on a steady course to become a self-sufficient community aggregator in the empty lot at 1449 Miller Ave., police arrived on Tuesday accompanied by several Public Works vans. I was told by the three police at the scene that they had been instructed by their lieutenant to patch the holes in the fence. They had no further orders, however, and the library on the other side of the fence remained intact. What followed was the kind of wasteful and useless repurposing of public funds and resources that most Oakland citizens have become accustomed to: police stood by and did nothing as three cars careened around the corner of Miller and East 15th at an alarming speed in an area where children had been playing just minutes earlier; the city called out four public works vans, one of them was there simply because the radio had malfunctioned in one of the vans and he was there to receive transmissions and then relay them to his co worker in another van; the hole was “patched” with a sheet of chain link attached by easily removed hooks; workers added a metal lattice in the area where the fence meets a brick and mortar wall on the other side, which will serve as a perfect ladder for those not wishing to jump the barely five foot tall fence in one of the many areas where, over the decades, the barbed wire has disintegrated away; and etc.
The action had a different effect than the one intended by Ignacio de la Fuente, who most likely ordered the police response long after the OPD had seemed to limp away in an acknowledgement of their buffoonery. Several neighborhood residents who came to use the library and found its entrance closed were incensed. They went out to organize the community to come to the meeting at 5:30pm that day that had already been scheduled. In one of the most organic congregations of community that I’ve witnessed, about a dozen or so parents came out with their children to talk about the next steps; not only in re-securing the space they were coming to depend on, but to re-open the building as a library and/or community center. Most of the participants were low-income working people of varying levels of documentation in this country, they brought their children, some of whom participated. The meeting was bilingual and faciitation and structure also developed organically, which for me, after a seeming lifetime of frustrating inflexible meeting structures was especially gratifying. The next steps will include direct actions aimed at council members and a petition drive of neighborhood people which will demonstrate the overwhelming support for community control of the space.
The power of a united community to change city policy through direct action was nonetheless evidenced, despite the temporary setback. Police officials did a slow drive-by and observed the level of community support; the next day Ignacio de La Fuente, the district’s council person, sounded much more conciliatory in his statements to Oakland North about the space, saying that use of the space could possibly be worked out with community members.
For the time being, participants agreed to keep the library going on the sidewalk on the 15th street side again, during after school hours, until the grounds are secured again for community use.