Occupy the Library

Aaron Bady reports on yesterday’s UC Berkeley Anthropology library actions.


I spent the early evening yesterday at the Berkeley anthropology library, which was officially to close at 5 p.m. It did not, because Occupy Cal occupied it — after a resolution taken three days ago — and because a healthy squad of Anthropology professors organized themselves to be present in shifts, all night, and negotiated with the Administration to obviate the “necessity” of sending police to kick the students out. At 4:45, a work-study student announced that the library would be closing in fifteen minutes — to general approval — and then, at 5, he declared the “The Library is Now Closed!” A hearty round of applause and finger-snapping greeted this bit of cognitive dissonance from the 80 or so students still in the (small) library, and he smiled broadly.

The library did not close, and the students are still there this morning. Occupy Cal held a general assembly on one side of the space to discuss what to do next — which eventually reached the decision to vote on whether to take a decision now or later, and produced a perfect tie — and that eventually evolved into an interesting discussion between students and Anthropology faculty on what the role of faculty should be. I assume they’re still there. At some point last night a working group produced this statement on their occupation, which I reproduce in its entirety:

We love our libraries and are here to protect them. Libraries are critically important for excellent education for all. We students, faculty, and community members collectively have decided to occupy the Anthropology Library at UC Berkeley to protest the dismantling of the library system on campus and public education as a whole.

We chose to occupy this space because the Anthropology library is a recent victim of extreme service cuts. The hours of operation are being cut from the previous, already slim, 9am-6pm to the current 12pm-5pm, because the university has not taken the necessary steps to sufficiently staff the library. The multiple attacks on campus libraries are a reflection of privatization and the devaluation of the public education system.

We are here to reverse this process. We call on the administration to take immediate action to hire another full-time librarian to ensure full access to this valuable resource.

The administration may claim that there are insufficient funds, but in reality these resources exist, but their allocation by UC administrators and the state does not adequately reflect the values of excellent public education. Why have the UC Regents continued to approve 21% increases in administration salaries, while students are being denied access to their libraries? Why are the taxes of the 1% so low while essential social services are being cut across the state and country?

We stand in solidarity with the Occupy movement as a whole and the protestors at UC Riverside who were met with violence in their attempt to protest the austerity policies of the UC Regents, Sacramento, and Washington D.C.

Defend our libraries and schools. Occupy together.

— The Anthropology Library Occupation
January 19, 2012

Was this a symbolic protest? Was this a “real” occupation? What was accomplished? Was it a success? Perhaps the real measure of this particular occupation’s potency is that none of these questions are answerable. There  was a tent, and by the looks of it, someone was going to sleep inside of it. It is unclear whether this will be an ongoing occupation, or whether this was the first shot in a drawn out library campaign; much discussion last night centered on whether to make the anthropology library a focused encampment, ongoing, or to regularize a kind of roving library occupation in a different library each week. The problem is university-wide; as administrative salaries continue to bloat, library staff have been cut to the bone, to such an extent that when a single staff person took another job in December — as was explained last night — the Anthropology library had to cut its hours from 9-6 to 12 -5. But the severity of the Anthropology library’s situation is mirrored across campus, by design, where the administration is using natural attrition to cut personel, waiting for staff to leave and then declining to replace them. It’s the same story as everywhere else on campus, but as worthy a place as any other to fight encroaching neoliberalization of the campus. And there’s precedent; two years ago, Cal student protesters liberated this very library, in protest against the same kinds of cutbacks, and eventuallygot the funding replaced. And in many respects (as the organizers of that action have pointed out to me), that’s where the language of “Occupy [place]” first came from, albeit building on a long tradition of occupations elsewhere. However modest a victory it may have been — and may be — big things come from small places, and this semester is till young.

At the general assembly three days ago, a student spoke out in favor of the library occupation (one of the students who brought the initial proposal, I believe), by comparing it with Occupy Oakland’s upcoming occupation of a large building space — scheduled for the 28th of January — and argued that Occupy Cal would be part of setting a new trend in turning towards occupying buildings. We’ll see about that; Occupy Oakland’s plan “to occupy a large, vacant building and convert it into a social center,” will almost certainly be met with massive police violence, since occupying buildings has been a clear red line for local municipalities so far, and OPD has already established how they will respond to such things. Lots of occupiers have talked about turning away from occupying public spaces towards reclaiming buildings and houses (foreclosed and otherwise), but it’s still unclear to me how that will work, if it does; we’ll see what happens on the 28th. Occupy Oakland has a schedule of events posted for the 29th, but that feels a bit like a “the boys will be home by Christmas!” kind of optimism to me; I hope they will, but I’m not holding my breath either.

Occupy Cal’s library action is much more modest, of course, and by general consensus is meant to keep the library open for those who would normally use it, effectively by substituting Anthropology faculty volunteers for library staff. During the new “normal” operating hours, the library will operate as usual; only during the “liberated hours” will you see scenes like this (from BAMN’s post on the event):

I’d say about a dozen students were really studying the whole time I was there, but that’s also a not-inconsiderable number; it was a symbolic protest in one way — since most of the occupiers were not using the library as a library is normally used — but an impressive number actually were; the library is divided into two natural sections, and while one was filled with political discussion, general assemblying, and s forth, the other was filled with quiet students quietly working.

The library action was peaceful, though, at least in part because of its modest size and faculty intervention. In UC Riverside yesterday, student protesters were presented with the usual UC police violence, and we’ll see that again at Berkeley, I predict; the administration doesn’t like pictures of its police beating students, but it likes student protesters even less. Last night, though, there was none of that. The administration sent the chair of the Anthropology department a statement to read to the students, trying to make clear that the only reason they weren’t being subject to the usual police violence was the “supervisory” presence of the Anthro faculty, who are, in all likelihood, not going to be there forever (nor, some students argued, should they, except as protesters themselves). And so it will be interesting to see what the faculty do next, if they quietly recede into a non-presence as they have before.

Maybe they won’t, but we’ll see. These faculty were roundly thanked for their presences — and their mobilization was both quick and impressive — but their presences as “supervisory adults” was also not exactly in perfect harmony with the spirit of the action, and won’t be sustainable in the long term anyway. No actual administrators would come to read the administration statement themselves, after all — though they did send several completely conspicuous spies to observe and report on what was happening (conspicuous by their cloud of contempt and refusal to communicate with people round hem) — so Anthro faculty had to speak for the administration, an arrangement the administration no doubt enjoys. Act Two of this will be telling. As of now, though, nothing is happening… nothing except students occupying a library, reading, and being students.

Discussion19 Comments Category Occupy Cal

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