Reclaiming the library: occupation, protest, and the neoliberal public space

As all activists will know, the journey through a political campaign is a difficult one: failures, frustrations and the delight of unexpected successes – if not always in equal measure. This article follows a six month campaign of sit ins and occupations at the Library of Birmingham from the shortening of the opening hours in April of 2015 through to the most recent occupation, at the time of writing, in mid-October. A student led, unaffiliated, and ostensibly single issue campaign; the Library of Birmingham became a beacon of intersecting interests that brought together a rich diversity of people, many of whom were new to protest of any kind, and in so doing shone a light on the impact of left organisation and solidarity in the face of generational cuts and privatisations. It has laid out the humanity and potential of collective action, but also the difficulties of organising the shared identity, wider ideology, and sense of urgency that might bring such potential to revolutionary realisation.

The occupation movement grew most directly from chance conversations on the 20th April 2015, the day of a 200 strong protest rally marking the shortening of the opening hours of the Library of Birmingham, from 73 to 40 per week. These cuts were part of the city wide budget consultation for 2015/16 which also saw the cutting of the new book budget and 90 full time equivalent redundancies [1]. This was the initial implementation of budget cuts in which savings at the Library of Birmingham of £1.3m were identified (rising to savings of £3.1m per year from 2016/17). Subsequently, contact with staff inside the library indicated that as many as 123 redundancies would be made, and in addition to the necessary loss of librarians, specific services such as advice for small business start-ups and children’s story times were to be removed. Clearly these specific cuts to services had the potential to affect individuals in a very visible way; workers losing their jobs, and general library users gathering in long queues because of new opening times. The rally on the 20th April ended with large numbers of protesters entering the library with banners and megaphones and a brief protest in the lobby area, which was well captured by local and regional media reports on the event [2] [3]. Enthused students and activists, who had met just a few weeks previously at the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts national demo in Birmingham, quickly arranged a discussion meeting later that week and a sit-in protest at closing time the Friday immediately after.

From these relatively spontaneous beginnings a new network around the Library of Birmingham grew through regular meetings, the establishment of a private Facebook group, and the printing of a leaflet with basic demands and information about the cuts. There was a view to grow the occupations by leafleting library users before closing time each Friday and thus regularly drawing new members into the campaign. Legal advice was also drawn up and it was quickly noted that this was an unusually low risk target for occupations: firstly, because it was a public space, and one that was being occupied by library users reading books, working on student assignments, sharing ideas, and holding community meetings. In short doing what library users will do in a library – so that aggravated trespass was not likely to be a reasonable charge. Secondly, there is a legal mandate for local authorities to provide sufficient library services to meet the needs of their local populations, and with the Library of Birmingham being the largest library in Europe[1], one of the most visited attractions in the UK with 2.4 million visitors in 2014/15 [4], and serving one of the most deprived wards in Birmingham [5] as the area’s only library, it would be extremely embarrassing for the council to attempt to challenge these occupations through the courts. There was quick success and a growth of the campaign with regular occupations of 20-30 people and over 100 signing up to the occupations group within the first two months.

A further success, and perhaps the most profound success of the summer, was the drawing in of new people and the making-visible that these occupations quickly facilitated. Single parents, people looking to start small businesses, migrants holding community meetings, workers coming to the library after work, students revising for their A-levels and university exams, homeless people using the facilities or reading the papers; it quickly became apparent that the Library of Birmingham was a point of intersection for a diversity of people relying on an inherently invaluable service, and that this service was being taken from them chunk by chunk. Furthermore, during the occupations we saw the double advantage to library management of closing the doors early; they could send the majority of library workers home while also renting out the space to private corporations holding ‘champagne receptions’. None could miss the irony of private paying customers being able to use the library space while the community for whom the library was built as a free public space were denied the same.

An interesting dynamic of this movement was the lack of any clear or consistent identity, the very loose nature of the network and the lack of explicit hierarchy. Indeed, one occupier asked this very question, ‘who are we? What is our identity?’. It was noticeable the turnover in those attending and the variety of external groups to whom they were affiliated; often occupations were attended by various party socialists, student activists with links to anarchist movements, ‘Friends of the library of Birmingham’ activists, migrant rights groups, local college or other university students and the general public, but nonetheless a collegiate sense that this was separate issue and campaign in its own right. My own partiality in this context as a socialist and a student activist cannot be removed; with my own perspective, links, and traditions (particularly as someone who sees cuts to library services as identified in the council’s city wide budget consultations as the visible 1%, reflective of wider and more pernicious cuts across families and communities). The variability in members coming from these various groups created a fluidity in what is normally a fixed indicator of identity; namely, the way in which the group conducted its meetings. Sometimes these were quite informal, with an opening discussion led by someone from the campaign highlighting the nature of the cuts and redundancies, the importance of the occupation as a point of protest and a reclaiming of the library, then a breaking down into small group discussion or informal chat. Other times, the meetings would be more or less carefully chaired, or more or less carefully minuted, sometimes we would go round the group introducing names and pronouns, other times elements of consensus decision making were introduced. So that, while there was a concerted effort on one level for this campaign to remain true to its reason for being, there was also the usual retinue of group makers, group talkers, group identity builders, active in a constant construction in an active relationship with various discourses and circumstantially produced material inscriptions and devices (such as leaflets, minutes, articles shared on the facebook group etc.).

The initial leaflet was drafted to lay out the nature of the cuts to services and our initial demands. The full demands were sent out via email and social media to the library management, the council, and the public. These included:

“We are a collective of library users, local students, and citizens working with various groups and campaigns to raise awareness about the recent cuts to the Library of Birmingham and to other libraries across the city. Our central demand is for the opening hours of the Library of Birmingham to be returned to 73 hours per week, as they were prior to the 20th April 2015, and that all threats of redundancy made against library staff be removed”

These statements acted loosely as an inscription device or point of reference. The extent to which these would be mobilised in bringing people together and orientating ourselves within a wider political consciousness was constantly played out, although for the most part without much overt confrontation or disagreement. It was indeed my own contention that these cuts to library services at the Library of Birmingham, and to community libraries around the city, were an important but also symbolic target through which we should also be building a sense of solidarity with a wider community of people also experiencing cuts across the city. The library remains only the very visible tip of cuts to mental health, social care, education, community and charity services, and vulnerable people’s services that go largely undefended and relatively unreported. Additionally, Katherine Quinn writes an excellent piece on the insufficiency of access itself as a demand when the content of the library is also representative of our neoliberal society. If demanded in isolation, access can even be seen as a neoliberal consumerist demand when we should also be questioning the very nature of the public library, both as a space and as an educational resource [7].

There was a certain inclusiveness and purity about the campaign not having an overt political agenda beyond the Library of Birmingham in its immediate demands, or in being a front for any more well defined identity project (perhaps reflected in the numbers of ‘non-political’ people who joined our occupations and the success and ease with which we gave out our leaflets), but, perhaps inevitably, the disadvantages of not affiliating ourselves to any wider group identity gradually began to tell. There were 10 after-hours occupations between the 24th April and the 31st July, and by July it was clear that the campaign was losing momentum. We had not made much progress engaging staff or their trade union. The library management and the police had accepted the occupations and essentially allowed us access to the spaces after hours unopposed, and many of those in the campaign had plans to be out of the city through August. In an attempt to keep the campaign going, to realise gains beyond the space itself, to realise wider media coverage and symbolic action, and to set firm plans to include more cultural events in our reclamations, we began to plan a mass occupation for a fixed date in October.

It was here that issues of critical mass, organisation, contacts, and above all identity came to the forefront as particular challenges. Perhaps one of the reasons we construct such strong group mentalities on the left is to give ourselves a sense of purpose, a sense of doing something more than simply action for action’s sake, a sense that everything we do is contributing to the growth of an idea or shared principles. It was Trotsky who said that “You cannot live through [life] without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery and weakness”, and the ambiguity of our movement was now our own weakness. Both the huge numbers of new students arriving in Birmingham and the wider networks of workers, activists and trade unionists were there for us to mobilise, but without the infrastructure of a well-established organisation, or at least without the keen priority of any one significant collective, prioritising people’s time was a challenge. Activism is often something that people do around the edges of their busy lives in which we a still, for the most part, constituted as neoliberal subjects; busy consuming, busy working, busy earning a living or studying.

We had, on the 13th June, supported the ‘Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham’ campaign’s rally outside of the council house at another 200 strong protest, and by September we had gained their support for a rally to precede a planned occupation on the 10th October. And indeed, separating the two groups in this way is already misleading as several regular activists of the ‘Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham’ campaign had been joining occupations, and several people who had joined the movement through the occupations had been going to the separate meetings to share information and organise. We had also continued to build our links with unison by drawing small numbers of current and former library workers into our own online network. Following ideas generated in the many meetings held between July and September about how we might conduct a mass rally and occupation (or whether or not we should), we determined that we should push as much as possible for a cultural festival of protest within the library involving local artists, musicians, speakers, and poets, which would coincide with the city’s literature festival. Despite the non-hierarchal nature of the meetings, a hierarchy of knowledge, time investment, contacts, and access was in reality leaving a small number of activists negotiating many of the details with a wider layer of interested parties, each with different traditions and expectations regarding political action. The occupation was determined to be ‘reclaiming’ a space otherwise reserved for chargeable events under the literature festival’s program; but again, it must be recognised that this was a specific cut that was highly determined by chance, coincidence, and meetings between a relatively small number of actors within a much wider network. It could certainly have been otherwise.

A particular focus was made on the ‘Google’ area as this was an area of the library from which those permanent staff offering business advice had been made redundant having been replaced by a collaboration with Google as a private provider, whilst creating an in house advertising opportunity to the corporation at the expense of staff. This is in contrast to the message pushed by council members, and accepted in parts of the media [8][2], that Google were somehow ‘saving’ the library, which again can be seen as a deeply discursive practice in which public services are undergoing active redefinition under a logic of financial sustainability and commercial relevance.

Ultimately the day of the rally and the occupation came and around 100 protesters gathered outside of the library for speeches and poems, while giving out leaflets to passers-by, after which elements of the crowd, mostly the students, entered the library to conduct their ‘festival of protest’. A lively evening of poetry, music, and food occupied the first floor of the building late into the night, new people were engaged, more leaflets were given out, and, no doubt, library management and the council heard of the protest. In other senses we did not significantly break through or step up our action, however, and the campaign of occupations has now, for the time being at least, ceased.

The city had experienced some exposure, particularly at the rally outside of the library to the arguments against the cuts to public services, though not enough. Firstly, despite 123 redundancies (which included vulnerable and disabled staff members) the local Unison finally stepped back from the action despite having promised speakers and support to the ‘Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham’ campaign. It is not untypical for the large bureaucratic trade unions in this country to neglect small scale struggle, but in this case the apparent withdrawal of support behind the scenes may have been local opposition to ‘occupation’ as a legitimate form of protest. Through our contacts it was clear that this position, together with the union’s inaction on balloting their members to strike, left the workers we spoke to at the library utterly disempowered, fearing for their jobs, fearing to be seen at protests, and legally unable to take any kind of industrial action. There was also the inevitable conflict with the beautiful range and scale leftist activity on a local and national level – from national demos in support of migrants and refugees, marches and public meetings supporting the campaign of the new labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, NUS marches, to local public meetings and marches through September and October protecting the right to strike (ironically with a speaker from Unison), to a mass protest at the Tory party conference in October, to training camps, festivals, lectures, to the intensity of activity coinciding with the new academic year at local universities and the returning of the student population. At such times specific actions are either over stretched and marginalised or become a focal point of the buzz of activity, and the Library of Birmingham protest in October probably fell somewhere between the two.

Activists involved in this campaign can take great credit for the continued sensitivity around the Library of Birmingham at the city council, who had decided to extend the opening hours from 2016 to 9pm on weekdays, albeit with a restricted service. As discussed above this move coincided with the closure of services elsewhere, namely the Brasshouse Language Centre, but appears to reflect nervousness at the potential for the Library to become a nexus of discontent in the city. The Labour Party councillors have certainly not made this move as part of any anti-austerity protest or to re-establish the library as an immeasurable public good.

So while the movement pauses, the Library of Birmingham remains a deeply propitious target for direct and symbolic action against these progressive neoliberal reforms and austerity: A wide intersecting community of the affected in a busy and deprived city ward, a legally difficult space for the council and the police to challenge protests or occupations, a space in which the very nature of public service is being redefined to incorporate private interest and private profit, all in a ‘flagship’ building whose cuts are already attracting national media coverage. No doubt these occupations will at some point continue, and in future we may trust to find the shared interest of library users and workers united in the face of those that would see them divided; that we might, before long, realise the strength in our dormant limbs for action. No doubt there is the will and the force for a city to reclaim its library if we can be startled out of our hypnotized gaze, but then, equally, is this not the challenge for us always, in activism and in life in general? The Library of Birmingham waits for us to reclaim it, as does the entirety of our class struggle.

By James Moran [Writing for Birmingham Socialist Students and Defend Education Birmingham]

References

[1] Budget 2015-16. http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/budget (downloaded: 25 October 2015)

[2] http://www.itv.com/news/central/2015-04-20/protesters-condemn-library-of-birminghams-reduced-hours/ (downloaded: 25 October 2015)

[3] http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/look-hundreds-locked-out-library-9090339 (downloaded: 26 October 2015)

[4] http://www.alva.org.uk/details.cfm?p=423 (downloaded: 26 October 2015)

[5] http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/areaprofiles (downloaded: 26 October 2015)

[6] http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/article/tours/takeatour (downloaded: 26 October 2015)

[7] http://www.slaneystreet.com/2015/08/20/access-enclosure-and-authority-ambition-beyond-libraries-being-open/ (downloaded: 26 October 2015)

[8] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/google-scheme-saves-birmingham-library-from-restricting-opening-hours-over-budget-cuts-10417082.html (downloaded: 26 October 2015)

Other local media coverage:

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/police-called-students-stage-sit-10238884

http://iambirmingham.co.uk/2015/04/20/anti-cuts-protesters-occupy-library-of-birmingham/

http://iambirmingham.co.uk/2015/04/24/anti-cuts-protesters-banned-from-library-of-birmingham/

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/protesters-plan-occupy-library-birmingham-9265036

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-32146016

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/library-birmingham-cuts-hundreds-march-9448471

http://www.itv.com/news/central/update/2015-06-13/hundreds-march-through-birmingham-against-library-cuts/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-33121998

http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/business-news/record-number-visitors-birmingham-brings-10308225

http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/commercial-property/library-birmingham-undergo-2m-conversion-10298041

Notes:

[1] As a physical space [6]

[2] This article in the Independent was in fact a particularly lazy and badly research piece, and shows how readily the media will reproduce narratives created by those with a vested interest in such neoliberal reforms. The facts of the matter were that the Google area was a temporary installation with a very small number of staff, this was to be replaced by language services once the Brasshouse centre was closed down. The opening hours would then be partially extended once Brasshouse was closed and once the Google installation had been removed. None of the redundancies were to be reversed; indeed, the councillor in the article is already on the record saying this. The pooled budget from the language centre was what would allow a partial extension of the hours, but at the expense of all of the staff offering advice to small businesses, most of the language centre staff, and all of the first floor of the library.

Library occupation 2 Library protest 3 Library protest 4 library protest  libraryprotest3

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