Liberate Everything: The Story of Oakland’s People’s Library (So Far)

Sign inside the People's Library

Signs of the history of people’s struggles in East Oakland are all around for those who have eyes to see them…

Mural near the People's Library

Middle class white residents who once lived in these lowland neighborhoods have fled up to the Oakland hills, leaving this part of town to its multinational working class residents…

Mural in East Oakland

In the Chican@/Mexican@ neighborhood around International Blvd and 23rd Avenue, those signs of history can be seen in the building at 1449 Miller Ave.

Corner of 15th and Miller

Originally a Carnegie-funded library built in this working-class neighborhood in 1910s, the building represented the city’s commitment to provide amenities for all of its residents.  After the library closed in the 1970s, the building housed the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy.  This institution, which grew out of the revolutionary national movements which erupted in Oakland in the 1960s and 70s, was an alternative high school for Chicano students in the neighborhood.  The Academy left the building in the late 1980s and after brief use as a church and a social services center, the building was left vacant. A space gifted to the people of Oakland for their benefit became an urban blight, slowly filling with refuse from sporadic squatters.

That was until earlier this month, when Oakland activists, coming together from Occupy Oakland and other radical projects in the East Bay, opened the space ….

Inside the People's Library, before cleaning

And cleaned it up…

Inside the People's Library, during cleaning

And filled the shelves with books again…

Inside the People's Library, shelving
They named the space the Victor Martinez People’s Library (Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez), in honor of the Bay-area Chicano writer and poet who died last year.

A casual observer might think that the city of Oakland was paying no attention to this neighborhood given the violence, drug use, prostitution and other social ills which flourish in plain sight nearby.  But there are certain things that simply cannot be tolerated in Oakland, and — in the wake of Occupy Oakland’s challenge to the status quo — even grassroots libraries and unsanctioned community centers are among them.

Less than 24 hours after it was opened, the People’s Library was evicted by dozens of the mercenaries who call themselves Oakland police officers. City workers were hauled out of bed at midnight to nail plywood over the door and post “No Trespassing” signs on the building which the city had ignored for years.

That should have been the end of the People’s Library. Fences topped with barbed wire surrounded the library…

Outside the library after eviction

And re-entry was prevented by a dedicated force from OPD’s Library Prevention Unit…

OPD's Library Prevention Unit

But as Mao Zedong said: ““Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again . . . until their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic.” The library had failed, but the librarians and the people of the neighborhood were not ready to give up the fight.

So with the building off-limits, librarians set up again on the sidewalk outside…

People's Librarians shelving books out on the sidewalk

They turned the barren land around the library building into an opportunity to teach kids from the neighborhood about urban gardening…

Neighborhood kids building a new garden plot

And how even urban refuse can help serve the people…

Tires turned into planter boxes

Nearly every neighbor who passed by commented on the blight the building had been, and their hopes for it to be transformed into a space for the community. Many of them borrowed books…

Books at the People's Library

Young kids wrote signs asking for the city to let the People’s Library return to the building…

Sign saying save the library for us kids!

Some long-time neighbors created posters and signs at the site about the history of the Chican@ movement and the fight for self-determination in Oakland’s oppressed nationality communities…

Poster about the history of the Chicano Revolutionary Party in Oakland

While others just came out with their families to borrow a book…

Father and daughter at the People's Library

Or to sit down and read together…

Reading together at the People's Library

The future of the People’s Library is unwritten. History will show whether this act to reclaim public space and strike back against austerity will wither or flourish. Today it is like the seedlings in the city’s newest and least-authorized urban garden; countering challenges and uncertainty with defiance and potential.

Scene at the People's Library

The sign says: “They can cut down all the flowers but they can’t stop the coming of Spring.” (A quote from Pablo Neruda.)

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About the author

Tom Attaway lives in Oakland, California. He is currently a conscript in the reserve army of labor.

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