NEW YORK — What started in September as a few piles of books on a tarp in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, the de facto headquarters of the Occupy Wall Street movement, had grown into a full-fledged outdoor library with 5,000 volumes and an online catalogue by November.
On Wednesday, a group of library workers and supporters of The People's Library, as it's known among Occupy protesters, gathered in midtown Manhattan to discuss what had become of the library during the Nov. 15 eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park ordered by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The event was held around a conference table covered in library books from the park in varying states of damage — torn, wrinkled, coverless and even mangled. Among the books visible on the table were a leather-bound copy of the Bible, a collection of Chinese mythology and a volume of selected poems by Allen Ginsberg. The speakers present shared their collective disgust with the raid that had destroyed the donation-supported library in Zuccotti Park.
"Today we are here questioning the appropriateness and the legality of the confiscation of approximately 4,000 books," said former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel, who hosted and moderated the event. Siegel said that 1,275 books of the 4,000 books seized had been recovered; of those, one-third were damaged to the point of being unusable. He estimated that 2,725 books had been destroyed.
The self-appointed Occupy librarians said that many of the books were not easily replaced, including signed copies, handmade publications and a special edition.
"Our nation's poet laureate, Philip Levine, came in the morning before the raid and donated and signed a copy of his book, 'What Work Is,'" said Stephen Boyer, 27, an Occupy librarian who had been living and working in the library until Nov. 15. Boyer held up the book, displaying its damage. "The NYPD and Bloomberg trashed it," he said.
Mayor Bloomberg's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Boyer said that he'd been at the library on Nov. 15 when the New York Police Department ordered occupiers out about 1 a.m. Besides his personal belongings and an armful of poetry anthologies, Boyer said he was unable to rescue much else from the library.
"I just got what I could in one load and that was all I could save," Boyer said, adding that once he had left, the police wouldn't let him back into the park to take more books.
In a photo posted to Twitter on Nov. 15, Mayor Bloomberg's office showed piles of books, neatly stacked on a table and arranged in plastic bins below. The accompanying message said that property from the park, including the Occupy Wall Street library, was being "safely stored" in a sanitation facility and would be available for pickup the next day.
When protesters went to retrieve the books from the sanitation facility the next day, they said that the only books they found in good condition were those shown in the Twitter photo. The other books retrieved from a back room by sanitation workers were in much worse shape, said Michele Hardesty, 33, one of the protesters who had gone to retrieve the books.
"It was clear from what we saw at sanitation that our books were treated like trash," Hardesty said.
Speakers at the event called on Bloomberg to acknowledge that a wrong had been committed and to guarantee that similar actions would never occur again.
They also asked that Bloomberg replace the books and provide a space for the People's Library to be recreated.
Mandy Henk, 32, a librarian at DePaul University, said she saw the library's destruction as an attempt to silence and destroy the Occupy movement.
"What kind of a people are we if we can't create a public space in which people can come and share books with each other? In which people can come and share ideas with each other?" she said. "Who are we as a country if we don't have room for that?"
Palmer is a McClatchy special correspondent in New York.