Even now, six months after the brutal raid on Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, we have yet to fully learn the extent of the destruction and violence – or the chain of command responsible for its execution. Thursday, members of Occupy Wall Street took a step toward forcing the city of New York to reveal the facts of that night to the public, as they filed a federal lawsuit against the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, seeking to hold them accountable for violations of their constitutional rights in the course of the raid, as well as subsequent smaller raids that targeted the People’s Library – the movement’s most visible demonstration, through the collection and sharing of books in public spaces, of the rights to free speech and free assembly. In the course of the suit, the city may have to admit who called the shots during the eviction on November 15, 2011.
“Mayor Bloomberg thought he could get away with this, late at night, without the media present,” said Norman Siegel, an attorney on the suit who has worked with Occupy and the People’s Library since the fall. “This suit will hold him accountable.”
Siegel, along with a half dozen of Occupy Wall Street’s librarians, announced the suit at a press conference near Foley Square Thursday. Some of us had been out here on another gray day like this: the morning after the raid six months ago. Reporters and supporters of Occupy Wall Street kept watch outside the federal courthouse, where lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild argued that those who carried out the raid just hours before, as they tore into the occupation at Zuccotti Park, destroying their camp, had violated the constitutional rights of the occupiers.
From that day to this, the city has offered no explanation as to why the tools of the occupation itself were targeted in the raid. Along with occupiers’ personal belongings, custom-built Wi-Fi transmitters and the thousands of books in the People’s Library were seized and, in some cases, deliberately destroyed, fed into “crusher” trucks that rolled up to the park while, inside, police pepper-sprayed and arrested those who remained. Throughout, police held the media off blocks away, preventing them from entering the scene.
“Some of us are professional librarians; we’re very organized and we have records of each book in the collection,” said Michele Hardesty, an Occupy librarian and assistant professor of US literatures at Hampshire College. When Hardesty and others attempted to recover the raided books from the city’ sanitation building, where Bloomberg himself had boasted on Twitter that they would find their books held safely, they were not surprised to find only a few hundred books had survived, with many so damaged from the crushers – pages warped, spines split and covers smeared with mildew and releasing noxious fumes that split the difference between shrimp and gasoline – that they were beyond salvage. “We couldn’t even be in the same room with some of these books,” said Hardesty and in some cases, these were books that had been donated just days before the raid.
Still, when the Occupy librarians filed a complaint in the weeks following the raid, the city refused to admit responsibility for the seizure of books. Said Hardesty, due to that refusal, “The librarians have been forced to sue the city to reveal their actions the night of the raid.”
Though the library has been among the most visible icons of Occupy Wall Street, no one knows exactly who founded the People’s Library. Occupiers began organizing donated books into a library as early as two days into the occupation of Zuccotti Park and, ever since, the library served as a symbol of the movement’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas, as well as a physically welcoming area for those encountering the occupation for the first time. By the time of the raid, the collection included more than 5,500 books, among them numerous signed editions – a whole collection of Allen Ginsberg’s works – and irreplaceable artifacts and archives of the Occupy movement itself.
The seizure of their books immediately called to mind, as Siegel described them yesterday morning in the cold and rain, “the conduct of some of the worst regimes imaginable.” As such, though the suit seeks damages in the amount of $47,000 – accounting for $43,000 for the books and $4,000 for other destroyed library equipment – Siegel explained that “it is more important for us to get into the historic record that the city cannot destroy books.”
Next steps in the suit, said attorney Herbert Teitelbaum, include a discovery process that could turn up records of the raid plan. Depositions of Mayor Bloomberg or Commissioner Kelly could also reveal the extent to which the destruction of the occupation was planned or ordered. Discovery may also surface the names of officers and sanitation workers who carried it out. It’s very likely that the individuals who were ordered to destroy the books are city workers, themselves underpaid and with little ability to disobey orders. The librarians, who wrestled with this issue, ultimately decided to ask for a nominal amount of money in punitive damages only from any single person held culpable for destroying books.
Months after the raid, the People’s Library still represents one of the more chilling chapters in the movement’s short history: the political repression of books and of those who curate them. Two librarians were arrested in the raid and others have been targeted for harassment and arrest simply for displaying books in the public parks when Occupy holds actions and other events in them. “This is why I was sleeping out in these parks all those nights in the first place,” said librarian Frances Mercanti-Anthony. “This kind of injustice.”