Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The OWS People's Library/West Park Branch is Now Open/Closed

OWS People's 
Library/West Park
One week ago I awoke to my weekly chore of helping to do the house laundry. We hauled the bags of others along with our own down to the local laundromat and did the OWS wash. Since moving to the new West Park Presbyterian church just a few days before, it had seemed that a new paradigm was taking over. New people were contributing and a marked sense of enthusiasm on fresh spaces and wider horizons was emerging. Could this be the new encampment we had been hoping for? Could this old creaky building with it's leaky pipes and leakier windows be the place of new beginnings? Work had been underway for weeks on installing a new boiler in the place but it still had no showers and the chances for even hot water were unsure at move-in time. Add to that the absolute shambles with which said housing working group principles had handled our exit from SPSA (St. Paul & St. Anthony's) a week before, complete with a mock sexual predator trial including the accused and the announcement that no one would be able to take their bedding to the new space but must leave it for the housing group (stated as the owner) to pick it up and haul it away, things were unsure at best. Uncomfortable at most.

But once moved, things seemed to settle in nicely. People found their sleeping spots and the reverend had no issues with people setting up warmer confines in the balcony. My spot even made a news story. And so I set about floating the idea of building a library area where we could take all the books the library people had been carrying around in bags. To those who heard, it seemed a good idea - in fact, a lovely idea.

Welcome home
And so returning from the laundry detail, I looked forward to a full day in a big old building, doing something I have always loved to do - making something out of nothing for absolutely no money - rummaging through a trash heap of history and repurposing old items into new lives. Lamps came from a men's toilet and an under-stage junk pile and chairs from all around the largely abandoned premises. The church, despite its charm had been the victim of water damage for years and accumulated a collection of rooms with broken-down stuff that no one seemed sure what to do with - exactly what we were looking for. 2 matching naugahyde dining room chairs, a big round sectional table, another leather chair saved by 1/2 a roll of duct tape, a busted unused bookcase (we found two of those actually) and an assortment of vases, planters and even a live bamboo plant that had forgotten to die.

And then there was the wiring. As my father had been an electrical engineer I had, by default, learned at least how to wire a house and so in this incarnation was skillful enough to work with an electrical system that was at least as old as my dad - maybe older. Hit the switch kids.

Still life
It fell together beautifully, if not at all quickly, as the work commenced throughout the day with the easiest part being the putting up of books, including a huge bag of books Ernie and I had found discarded by a second-hand bookstore which more than doubled the collection. Wires were run to make allowance for extra plug-ins for the charging of cellphones and even around one balcony-mate who held a particular aversion to wiring in general, unless of course, it was for plugging in her own computer.  Around 8:30 that evening the occupants began to come home. To announce the opening I had made paper signs by hand that directed residents from the front door to the balcony above the sanctuary. Oddly, one of the first reactions was someone screaming about putting paper signs up in the hallway. There are all sorts of paper signs up in the hallway. If fact, the place is made a whole lot more attractive by the signs. They help cover up holes left by all the plaster which has fallen down over years of neglect. But someone else's sign had fallen down and they thought we had taken it down instead. Of course we hadn't. But little could we see the complaints to follow.

As people came upstairs the "Oohs and aahs" just grew and grew ("Where did you get this?", "How did you do it?, "Why didn't we do this sooner?"), until all the chairs were full of people reading, and conversing and becoming, yet again, a community. A community drawn together by warmth and art and anarchy and self expression and an extreme dislike for authority - mainly the authority that had taken away basic human rights from many of us: the educated, the homeless, the two together, the bi-polars, the recovering addicts, the practicing addicts, the aspiring managers, the underachievers, the brilliant and the lost. Find a way to bring that variety together and you might not guess that a library could do it. But the People's Library of OWS had been a primary visual and intellectual force in indeed the beginnings of the movement - that is, until the assholes tore it down - until the spread of knowledge and art became the enemy of process and conformity. Until the world's 8th largest army tore it down at Zuccotti park? No. Until OWS itself lost it's way and found a library, built with initiative and hope, creativity, ingenuity and forbearance, to be a threat. A threat to the status quo.

"Why do you think they tore it down?", I asked one of my co-occupiers. "Because it was good and they didn't make it", answered my friend.  And so, almost as quickly as it had been assembled, it started to be dismantled, first conceptually, and then finally physically.

"Did you ask the pastor if you could do it?", I was asked by a minion. "Of course not", I answered. "We're Occupiers! We occupied a whole city park illegally for two months and nobody thought that calling Bloomberg and asking his permission was particularly necessary", I answered. So why in the "F" would I ask permission to basically rearrange a bunch of furniture in a building that otherwise had been a dumping ground for stuff nobody wanted? Did I need to ask permission to do something that was essentially good for the community? Did I need to ask permission for something that cost absolutely no money? Of course not. OWS is, at its heart an anarchist organization. Do we get permits to protest and march on the streets? Of course not. So who would need permission to repurpose a bunch of old junk into a library? People don't need permission to steal stuff and break real rules at OWS, and that happens all the time.

And that's what happened last weekend. While way too much attention was diverted to the building of a small corner of solace and knowledge, someone stole a church relic. A 100 year old cover to a baptismal fountain. And word had it that some wild party happened in another room on the weekend - far, far away from the library. So while the ersatz managers and minions were busying themselves with the building of a reading area, real movement threatening crimes were happening - things that would shake what little left of a community there was, apart.

OWS was not built in a day, and it was not built by permission. How to allow initiative and creativity to co-exist peacefully with consensus decision making and proper process will be a challenge to the movement's survival. If OWS needed a GA or a Spokes Council to have been born, it never would have happened.

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