Raw Reflections: East Oakland People’s Library

books packed up once over 40 police officers descended on the people’s library at about 11:30 on 8/13/12

Comrade Mara & The Fish write:

Today’s library occupation, like the Lakeview Occupation of July, demonstrated a powerful tactical approach towards building radical connections outside of activist circles.  In both cases, radicals initiated bold actions without asking permission but from the beginning were organizing to involve the folks directly affected.  Even in the first day of the Victor Martinez library, parents were already dropping of their kids to garden, a family from two blocks away donated crates of books, and curious people from the neighborhood were dropping by to show support and borrow literature.

Here are some of the basic components of what went down: folks occupied the library, erected banners, and brought in palettes of  radical literature.  But this wasn’t all they did in the brief time of the library’s new existence; in addition to these basic logistical tactics, the organizers also put out a press release, went door-knocking in the neighborhood to inform and invite the community, and built a gardening program that invited youth to come and develop the blighted space.  Without the support of the folks around, there’d be little defense against the constant narrative onslaught from the bourgeois media that radicals in Oakland are isolated and dwindling.  Instead, the Lakeview Occupation and today’s Victor Martinez library show a strategy that defends against that attack, building strength in radical unity with people’s hostility to austerity measures.

banner in front of library – see pigs in background.

Taking over abandoned buildings – empty libraries, closed schools, abandoned health clinics – amount to seizing the means of social reproduction.  What does this mean?  Schools, libraries, public transportation and health clinics are all institutions that reproduce our ability to live in society.  Under capitalism, these institutions reproduce all types of racial and gender divisions, and are constantly destabilized by being underfunded and shutdown at the state’s whim.  Taking over the institutions and running them in the interests of working class communities, and especially communities of color, marks a direction that our movement should continue moving in.  At the end of the day, the occupations that have occurred in squares across the country, and most recently in the Bay Area with the Albany farm occupation, the Lakeview occupation, and now the occupation of the Victor Martinez library, are indications of what we must continue doing: taking over the buildings, machines, and infrastructure that we need to run society in a totally different way.

But we should act without illusions: none of these occupations will last for long, or become new alternative institutions.  Where we’re at right now, with the left small and little-connected with the working class, and mass resistance to austerity few and far between, we don’t have the forces to keep the cops out.  This isn’t Greece yet, as inspired as we are by the brave revolutionary people there.  These actions are not the beginnings of base areas from which revolution will be launched – they are attempts to make the electric connection between deep resentment towards the withdrawal of what people need, and the idea that we have the right to take what should be ours.

The library before organizers cleaned, decorated and stocked it with books. Photo credit: Indybay

Ultimately the state crushed us tonight.  We were forced to retreat and pack all the books up into milkcrates and take them to each other’s homes for the night, until we can bring them together over the next few days and determine next steps.  As we walked to our car with the crates full of books, some of the neighbors were peering out from behind their fences, cameras in hand, saying, “you’re just gonna leave like that?”  One comrade’s response was, “we don’t have forces to fight.  Sometimes these things pop off, and sometimes they don’t.  It depends on what people who live here want to do to defend the takeover.”  We need to continue these conversations with working folks in oppressed communities and chart a new course toward escalating these types of seizures and transformations of abandoned property.  Eventually we need to develop the type of proletarian cadres among communities of color who can advocate to their coworkers that they should come down and support these actions.  Beyond this, we look towards a time when working people are willing, able, and ready to take over their workplaces and begin running them entirely differently.

10 responses to “Raw Reflections: East Oakland People’s Library

  1. interesting article comrades.
    a few thoughts:

    What does the support of the community mean? In one sense yes, people coming by interested to take books and check out the space is support, but if the interest is limited simply to mainly observation and extraction, is it really support–or the support that might mean interest in building in any way with those activists in the future?

    For example, today, while bringing books back to the site after the raid, there were a few women present looking for books in spanish. They asked nothing about what was going on, but were very interested in being able to borrow/take books in spanish. Their interaction was limited to this. As soon as they located those books, they walked away.

    How would these activists have engaged in a deeper way when there did not seem to be a vested interest by those women in more deeply observing the space–and participating?

    What are ways that the activists who designed this action could have better or more deeply engaged the community? Is this action even trying to do that?

    Is taking a space which will exist only for a brief moment actually gain more than intrigue (checking it out and taking books) from the people in the fruitvale district? In what conditions might an action like this gain more than intrigue? And is intrigue enough alone to justify such an action?

  2. From a comrade on FB:

    ‘This is such an amazing action and I really liked this piece. It shows–even if it’s for a moment–what a people’s library can look like, a glimpse into the world we are trying to build. In that regard, it is a victory!

    Is the next step
    to keep conversations going like the piece suggests (excerpt is below)? We don’t have the forces to defend, true, but does the swift defeat not disccourage future trust of activists? Is education in the form of conversations going to be enough?

    “As we walked to our car with the crates full of books, some of the neighbors were peering out from behind their fences, cameras in hand, saying, “you’re just gonna leave like that?” One comrade’s response was, “we don’t have forces to fight. Sometimes these things pop off, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on what people who live here want to do to defend the takeover.”

  3. @Above: I’m not sure what’s happening right now, haven’t checked in the with the ‘rades who organized it. But IMO the next step is another attempt somewhere else, like this but with more advance outreach to the immediate neighborhood to see if folks are down to show up and defend with numbers. Just because I was there, it’s important that this did not lose because there was no sympathy….the neighborhood was paying attention and people were coming by a lot, bringing books, bringing their kids on the first day! There were about 50 cops, and like 7 of us when they came…..it was super unexpected. You can’t say what exactly would have happened of course, because social/political things are complex. BUT it seemed like the kind of thing that would have had within 1-2 days radicals building confrontational action against austerity with the people most affected by it. That’s a pretty powerful potential, and one that still exists.

  4. @Kulaiwi:

    I think this action was pretty successful at engaging the immediate neighborhood, from what I saw. If in the first day people are coming by, expressing verbal support, using your action for the purposes that you’ve offered it (e.g. taking books), that’s a lot of engagement. We gotta remember, we’re at a time in US history when the Left is close to nonexistent, and there’s major separation between confrontational protests/occupations and working-class people. In East Oakland, IMO this has a lot to do with a few specific nonprofits there who use documentation status to scare their base while violence-baiting radicals.

    On the more theoretical tip, yeah I think coming by and taking books with a positive vibe is support. As is walking by and holding the fist up, or even just smiling. It’s not MUCH support though, which is totally true and matters. But I didn’t get the sense that the organizers had illusions that 100s would come out on the first night….that would be pretty disconnected.

    In terms of how this action could have better engaged the community…..I’m gonna throw it back to you, because the best ideas I can think of are the ones that you told me! What do you think?

    • I guess my critique lies more in the deep questioning if actions like this actually do have the potential or have shifted the consciousness of working class people (in this case those in the fruitvale neighborhood). There is certainly interest in the action, but I tend to think that in many cases an action like this would not bridge the division between confrontational protests/occupations and working-class people, because it is not pulling on the already established organic ties within the working-class or more specifically within that neighborhood in the fruitvale. It is a spectacle which one looks at, rather than an action seen with the potential to enact actual change. I tend to think organizing mostly impacts people when they have a deeper connection to it, as in a relationship specific to people or the space. For example a few of the people who were inside when we were there seemed to be vested in the space because they remembered what it previously was. Think for example if those two had been asked to participate in the action before it started. Think of the networks they might have mobilized. I guess the question of the outside agitator comes up here, while I am not arguing against it I think that there is limited potential when you are not combining the already existing networks and the outside agitator (who might come with a confrontational protests etc), and combining it with the most relevant pressing issues for that specific group of people.

      On another note, can these activists engage post-event. Of course. Does that in some way justify the spectacle if it builds on long term organizing? Maybe. In what I have seen, often the long term building is only sustained by a small group of people, people drop off when its not exciting. In these moments of little visible political action, or when we are not fighting off attacks, it seems incredibly hard to keep people engaged and building.

      For example, last year the proposed closure of the 5 elementary schools in Oakland fueled parent organizing around school closure all year. Parents from each of the schools (to varying degrees) met and attempted to stop the closure of these schools in a variety of ways–Lazear fought for a charter, Lakeview for their public school to be maintained. In both cases, many parents were involved who had not been before. HOWEVER, many parents began to drop off towards the end of the year (and this was still during a fight). The lakeview occupation might have created a partial bridge–though I dont think its impact is totally known yet. In the coming year the question is, if we are not on an active defensive, will parents-teachers-students still be interested and engaged in long-term building (beyond of course select groups of already politically active parents/teacher/students) …?

  5. Excellent report.

    I have many questions, but, for now, I’ll just start with one: How and why was this action/strategy chosen? What work preceded the occupation and building of a people’s library that informed the organizers decision to take this next step?

    This sort of background information is crucial for understanding the tactical and strategic importance of this, and to advance the outreach to the surrounding neighborhood, as The Fish put it.

  6. To respond directly and briefly to a few questions brought up here –

    @ jubayr, this action was chosen based on conversations with neighbors and people in the area that expressed ideas about community needs and the use of abandoned spaces. One man literally said, “that building should be a library!” without ever evening having known that over three decades ago it indeed used to be a library. The strategy, intentionally loose and relatively unstructured as it was, was informed specifically by a set of strategic baselines that the organizers held in common, that have been tested and worked out over the last year of struggle in the similar types of actions it has featured.

    @ kulaiwi, the question of “support” is a tricky one, and the Fish sums up the complexities nicely. In answer to your questions, I would respond with my own question— if the community shows any support at any level at all, shouldn’t this be a sufficient indication that the action is responding to some sort of organic need or interest in the community, and so the real question is, how could that support, at whatever level it is expressed, be developed? Personally, I feel that, given this context, the question of what is “enough” to “justify” the action is irrelevant and derailing.
    You also asked about activists engaging more deeply with the community. Of course, this is necessary and important. It is something that is certainly going on; this action never was and certainly isn’t now motivated by any desire for spectacle. At the time of the posting of this article, the action had not even run longer than a single day. But in the aftermath of the pig raid, organizers and supporters reestablished the library on the sidewalk outside the boarded-up building, and are currently continuing to maintain a 24-hour vigil, lend out books, engage neighbors, provide materials and support to the neighborhood kids who are bottomlining the garden project, and they are building toward a large neighborhood BBQ and block party this Saturday to ultimately hand over the entire project to the community. They would invite any concrete suggestions as to how to most effectively engage the community, build support, and encourage community members to own the space and take the project into their own hands, making it whatever they want it to be.

    A few reflections of my own –

    I greatly appreciate this excerpt from the article: “These actions… are attempts to make the electric connection between deep resentment towards the withdrawal of what people need, and the idea that we have the right to take what should be ours.” This analysis, in my view, cuts to the very heart of this action and many of the similar ones that preceded it.
    Adressing another subject raised here, I have a deep distrust of the figure of “the activist,” and the organizers of this action generally share in this sentiment. While the support, perspective, and participation of activists can be profoundly helpful in solidifying and building any action, ultimately an action to resist and counteract austerity must necessarily be a response to a given community’s organic, shared material need, and also an avenue for this community’s self-organization to direct and sustain this response to the material need. Activists can help with pushing communities to think, imagine, and act outside of the oppressive normativity of juridical restrictions and alienating socio-economic relations, encouraging them to take what they need, and by providing supplemental resources (supplies, ideas, media contacts, labour, time, energy, etc.) Ultimately, however, the fundamental content of an action can only be sustained by people who are self-organizing to meet their own material needs.

    This action was precisely left open and unstructured, because the organizers have all in some way or another recognized this basic reality. The idea is to create a spark over the kindling of an easily observable, shared community need, by demonstrating what might be possible in order to meet that need, in the hope that the spark takes hold and becomes a local wildfire. But the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez necessarily has to be an effort of the same people that it is for. It helps that some of the organizers are some of these people. But the “activists,” that is, the participants lacking material motivation and investment in the action, are aware that their role can never be more than auxiliary, and that soon, it will be time to step back and see if the fire spreads, or dwindles and dies.

  7. Thanks for the response, Anne.

    I hope my comment wasn’t interpreted as questioning the integrity of the action based on whether the organizers had “community support”. I know A/S and others have been doing consistent outreach and propaganda work for some time in this neighborhood, so my question was more so meant to ask why the strategy has developed at this time to include occupations like this.

    Also, you say, “The strategy, intentionally loose and relatively unstructured as it was, was informed specifically by a set of strategic baselines that the organizers held in common, that have been tested and worked out over the last year of struggle in the similar types of actions it has featured.”

    What are these strategic baselines? I’m sure a whole blog post (or three) could be written on this, but I’m very eager and all ears.

    Lastly – and I’ll stop after this because I know I’m asking a lot – I would also like to hear more about the concrete uses of a library in a neighborhood and how that corresponds to the social composition of Fruitvale. This particular conversation might help us think more about how to advance the outreach, agitation, and propaganda work.

  8. Hi folks. First off, appreciate the discussion on here.

    The willingness on the part of folks organizing this occupation to light the spark that could possibly start a prairie fire is very admirable. I think that this type of direct action, and Anne’s reflections, begin to strike at the type of dialectical approach toward in engaging in struggle in such a way that both attempts to create a rupture in the stasis of everyday life in the avenues of Oakland by meeting specific material needs that the ruling classes of Oakland have failed to meet, while also orienting toward a specific base (in this case, broadly speaking, working class communities of East Oakland and the San Antonio district in particular) in order to bring this action to full life.

    Ultimately, the action shows that there’s interest on the part of working class communities of color in radical direct actions that both challenge established capitalist property relations as well as simultaneously providing much needed services to the community. While in this case (so far, at least) the community has not risen up to defend such an occupation, more actions in this vein should be attempted. The Lakeview occupation showed similar results – people showed much interest and support for the takeover, but were overall not ACTIVELY participating in the action – the support of the community remained relatively passive, with folks coming by to check out the People’s School on a daily basis but not always volunteering for security shifts, educational work, or other types of reproductive activity which would sustain the occupation.

    Both the Lakeview action and the People’s Library (and the Occupy the Farm action in Albany for that matter) show that people are interested in these types of actions. How can we help folks get more directly involved in taking over the day to day functioning of these operations? (As a side note, comrades in RAC – revolutionary autonomous communities – have pointed out that their food program started off with 10 radicals, mostly anarchists; almost all of them eventually left the food program to fulfill other political work, but their positions in the food program were filled by central american and korean immigrants. Comrades such as John Imani have called this “self-negating leadership” where working class people replace radicals as leaders in programs such as the RAC food operation, and also occupations such as Lakeview, the Farm, and most recently the People’s Library. Check out a video about the food program here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJxkQerLcgg )

    Perhaps it’d be good to do a simple campaign of neighborhood inquiry and ask people what type of material needs they’d like to see met immediately in their neighborhood. Who knows if it’d be around education, health care, transportation, etc. Maybe all three and something totally different. Either way, connecting with folks in this way would be useful in terms of developing a network of people who are interested in taking concrete steps toward meeting these material needs, and doing so by attacking the established institutions of capital which are either refusing to meet them or meeting them in sub-standard ways.

    Looking forward to helping engage in this process. As the summer winds down I’ll be encouraging comrades to think about how our work in the Fruitvale district can help aid in actions such as this and beyond.

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