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Laurie Penny on why the NYPD are kidnapping books

The dismantling of Occupy Wall Street's library is a metaphor for how our culture is policed.

The dismantling of Occupy Wall Street's library is a metaphor for how our culture is policed.

It would appear that the New York Police Department has finally jumped the shark. One day after the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, the image that has shocked the world most profoundly -- and I mean image in a purely theoretical sense, since a solid wall of state heavies, now part-financed by JP Morgan Chase, stopped the press getting near enough to take photos -- was of police and sanitation workers tearing up the tent of the encampment's extensive library, and reportedly tossing the books into dumpster trucks. I mean, books.

Who destroys books? Is this a Ray Bradbury novel? Is their new tactic to ape the semiotics of fascism to such a point of cliché that comment is impossible?

I mean, books. Thousands of books. Books of politics, books of poetry, rare and precious books, books that the young, the strange and the curious had shared and treasured and pored through for guidance and diversion over the two months of the Liberty Plaza occupation . If police were looking to evict the Occupy Movement with pantomime bastardry, they could at least have done something a bit original. Like, say, pepper-spraying a pregnant woman.

Even in this digital age, where text is cheap and people's movements are orchestrated online, there is something about books. Books are important. Books make us better. Books are about learning, about sharing, about stories. There is something in the lizard-brain of human civilisation, something in the superego of the species that drove us down from the trees and into the agora that abhors the destruction of books. The gorge rises. You know it's deeply, horribly wrong ten seconds before you remember why.

When the news of the vandalism of the Occupy Wall Street library came through, Twitter was alight with outrage. Even the most dribblingly obnoxious right-wing troll finds it hard to argue when people tell him trashing books is bad karma. Such was the uproar that the Mayor's office tweeted a photo of what appeared to be part of the OWS library, stacked in a sanitation department garage, ready for protesters to pick up on Wednesday, if they were polite about it.

The image looks like nothing other than a hostage photo, which is exactly what it is: here is your library, more or less intact. We will give it back if you hand over your collective future without argument. Just leave it in the trashcan on the corner of Wall Street.

It occurs to me that the impounding of books is a subtler and more appropriate metaphor for how culture is policed in modern times than the burning or destruction of books. Across the developed world, as austerity programmes kick in to finance the cataclysmic self-indulgence of the super-rich, it is libraries, schools and universities that are being priced out of the reach of ordinary people.

Higher education fees are soaring, public funding of universities and schools is being gutted, and the private sector is being invited in to place more branded locks on the doors of our institutions of learning. In Britain, even the libraries are being closed down. They're not burning books; not precisely. They're just tossing them where no one without means can get to them. They are kidnapping books.

When the Occupy Wall Street librarians went to pick up their books, as promised, they found that several thousand appeared to be missing, and many reportedly had been destroyed, along with personal belongings and the library's reference section. Appeals went out online to re-stock the library. The NYPD, however, have been hovering with menace around the fledgling collection in Zucotti Park, where anything that looks even vaguely like an occupation is now forbidden by order of the city. They have already confiscated a second load of books, and a third is being accumulated

As it happens, however, I visited the Occupy Wall Street Library about six hours before it was dismantled, and I talked to the librarians, and I borrowed a book. In the process, I inadvertently saved the volume from Brookfield's dumpster trucks. The book is Martin Luther King's Where Do We Go From Here?. In it, the great civil rights leader writes that:

One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

I shall be returning the book to the Occupy Wall Street Library with the suspicion that the social imagery of this people's movement has very nearly jumped the shark.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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