#Occupy Meets Community Organizing: Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez

by Jaime Omar Yassin on September 6, 2012

Follow @BibliotecaPopul for updates

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks of the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, the action has so far brought together an unprecedented union of local activism with Occupy tactics and community organizing. Though bottomliners began with humble expectations—filling the library with books, dropping the banner, inspiring communities to oppose austerity by taking issues into their own hands and escaping arrest—within hours they found that the action itself caught the imagination of not only the neighborhood, but a greater public audience as well. Mainstream media, normally addicted to negative stories about occupations, covered the story both honestly and sympathetically. A city of Oakland library administrator and candidate for the district seat even visited, giving their kudos.

Despite this wide-spread mainstream support, the radical politics of the action have always been front and center. That’s because they are easy to understand for even the least politically sophisticated persons: people have the right to control their communities, no matter what city government says; taking property left to rot through willful incompetence and/or greed and repurposing it for communal good, is an unimpeachable act; cities are perhaps the worst austerity offenders, directing endless finances at “security” measures through police, while cutting off funding for neighborhood keystone services vital to social health.

Most importantly, all sanctioned attempts to end this reign of misuse have failed; it must be contested through direct action. Every response to Biblioteca from the community embodied these points.

Not surprisingly, then, the city’s exaggerated police reaction—which shut down the entire neighborhood from 16th st., to 23rd avenue, to International and 24th avenue–was widely condemned by all who witnessed it. Some community members that I spoke to expressed shock when they realized that the police action was not a demonstration of some unprecedented interest in a murder or robbery in the neglected neighborhood, but was instead aimed at shutting down the increasingly popular library.

And when police stationed cruisers running their engines 24 hours a day around the neighborhood to prevent re-occupation of the library, the sense of disgust from the community at the waste of resources and seeming contempt for residents was palpable.

No one knows for sure why police eventually stopped stationing vehicles at the intersection of Miller and 15th, but they did just shy of a week later, on the following Sunday afternoon. One hopes that the most salient reason was to avoid the embarrassment of explaining the outsized waste of resources.

Following the Biblioteca shut down, the action has gone through various permutations; all of them have been empowering to the community and have continued to keep open the discourse on the decades of austerity and neglect that have created an atmosphere of chaos and hopelessness in the “murder dubs”.

First the books and garden were transferred to the sidewalk elbow of decaying fencing around Miller and 15th streets. The enthusiasm from the community only grew and was perhaps even greater, because the entire collection was visible and accessible from the street.

After police cut short their 24/7 watch, activists and members of the community focused their attention on the nascent garden bed that had been started by kids from the neighborhood on Biblioteca’s first day, entering the grounds to fill it, despite admonitions from police that trespassing charges could result. The first bed was laid with donated soil, compost and starts, then another was built and filled, then another. Homemade compost bins were added, and some benches were made from discarded lumber found in the neighborhood; there is no shortage of police for stopping the positive use of forgotten property, but dumping of all kinds continued right in front of parked police cars throughout the last weeks.

For once, that waste goes towards enriching the neighborhood, not cluttering it.

This is where the rubber met the road for Biblioteca activists. The murder dubs didn’t get its name by accident; incidents of violence are high, the neighborhood faced police invasions in the days after the raid as a consequence of shootings and armed burglaries. Moreover, the area is ground zero for International Boulevard’s notorious sex trade, where a small army of young and very often teen women march day and night under a feudal patriarchal regime as toxic as any that mainstream capitalism can produce. Some of Biblioteca’s biggest supporters are ex-felons, and more than one is a former occupant of the halfway house across the street. One of them, in fact, berated police on the day after the raid, recounting all the times he had shot heroin and received blow jobs in the building under their nose. He meant this as a bit of sardonic and comic criticism. But that supporter has battled with heroin addiction for the majority of his adult life–some three decades according to his own math. Facing poverty and a lack of options, he’s tried to kick the habit with methadone over the last few years, with a marginal level of success.

Biblioteca’s most enthusiastic participants are often undocumented; one new bottomliner commented today that a relative had been recently deported due to a routine brush with the law that would generate no more than an expensive traffic ticket for a legal resident. The dangers are real, and the ambiguous relationship with the police can be a source of insecurity and stress, where it has been one of relief for the documented.

The kids who’ve adopted the building and grounds as their own, also face a sobering environment; they live with the constant threat of their parents disappearing into the legal system and facing deportation, sometimes unhealthy and violent home environments, and the call of attractive solutions to tough problems embodied by prostitution, violence, and drug use. More than one of the parents of the kids who are responsible for helping to create the community garden are “paleteros”–selling popsicles for lack of better options. They must hope for the best in the summer for their unsupervised children.

There are also logistical challenges. By the end of the second week, activists and community members are facing some predictable stumbling blocks. Books can endure only so long unprotected from the elements. And the elements are not the only enemies facing the milk crate sidewalk library–a 24/7 watch by activists was running on fumes by the end of the first week and exhausted activists faced the reality that the books would be vulnerable to vandalism and large-scale theft from local entrepreneurs or official efforts to eliminate this ongoing referendum on city government’s uselessness. Indeed, shortly after activists made the decision to conserve energy for other efforts and cease the night vigils, someone vandalized the library, destroying crates and books, flinging them into the street and over the fence and tearing the eponymous banner in half.

Hours of very careful and detailed sorting and categorizing were undone in moments.

Prompted by this sudden and cruel reality check, and the work of recreating the library that would be needed, the activists moved forward with an idea that had been floating around for some time–moving the library into the grounds behind the building along with the community garden. Biblioteca is now a self-contained and unique entity, existing on unused city property, ostensibly without permission, and under the control of members of the community. The space weds the healthy food and knowledge base absent from communities like the “Twomps”–the experience of Biblioteca demonstrates that these are the most intensely felt aspirations in the community as residents seek to end their cycle of poverty, violence and decaying infrastructure.

The greatest challenge will now come in the form of providing community members the space, sense of security, and resources to step up fully and take over what the activists began on the inaugural day of Biblioteca Popular. Regular meetings to discuss the disposition of the library and the building have begun, and while there are many issues to circumvent–including translation and varying levels of political sophistication and vulnerability before the law–community members seem very excited to create a new kind of political and social zone in the Biblioteca.

None of this is easy–the odds of a successful outcome are daunting. But there are heartening signs: police now avoid the 15th street side of the building where the garden and library are located almost completely–either by decree or their own choice, it’s still not clear. The city seems to have, for the time being, turned a blind eye to the use of the property. More and more community residents seem completely comfortable with enjoying the benefits of a modest library and open green space in their neighborhood, and even undocumented residents who voiced concerns about entering just a few days ago have started their first bold forays into the contested space. The community’s natural, if not always recognized, leaders have become increasingly involved, not just in “helping,” but in directing the future of the space, including a campaign directed at eventually opening the building.

No matter what happens, Biblioteca lights the way for a new form of activism, where Occupy tactics reshape community organizing and open up the potential for creating organically self-radicalizing communities.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

David Berger September 7, 2012 at 7:30 am

I have hesitated about writing this, but I have come to the conclusion that I would be politically irresponsible if I didn’t share my opinion on this.

Comrade Jaime Yassin writes: “Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks of the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, the action has so far brought together an unprecedented union of local activism with Occupy tactics and community organizing. Though bottomliners began with humble expectations—filling the library with books, dropping the banner, inspiring communities to oppose austerity by taking issues into their own hands and escaping arrest … .

I would submit that every pitfall and trap contained in the notion of community organizing, which the Left has engaged in since the early 1960s, is contained in this statement and the article as a whole.

With all due respect, this kind of activity is a political blind alley. Engaging in this kind of activity, no matter how attractive it seems, no matter how good it may make you feel, will always end up either in the comrades involved doing social work, nonrevolutionary activity, or burning out with few if any results from a Marxist point of view or both.

The essence of Marxism is the unique revolutionary role of the working class. That is where our efforts should be aimed. To organize people in the community as tenants, consumers, etc., in the absence of a larger, working class movement that gives you some kind of political power, is, in my opinion, futile. All the sloganizing, expressions of community interest, etc., notwithstanding, this stuff doesn’t work.

If you want two examples where such work failed to reap any revolutionary reward, consider the rent strikes in New York in the early 60s and the famous Black Panther free breakfast program. Propaganda aside, recruitment to the revolutionary cause did not happen in either case. If sheer effort and enthusiasm were enough, both these programs would have succeeded, but they didn’t.

If you want an example of community organizing that is succeeding, consider the Laundry Workers Center. This effort, which the Occupy Wall Street Labor Alliance has partnered with, is organizing workers in the community as workers. That’s the crucial difference. They are organizing, as their name shows, laundry workers, workers in bodegas and veggie stores in the communities, etc. And, most recently, they have organized workers at the Hot and Crusty chain, where they actually achieved union recognition. The employer fought back and closed the store in midtown Manhattan, but daily picketing is taking place. Here is a website where the actions can be observed and you can get in touch if you want to get in touch with community organizing from a working class point of view.


David Berger


Omar September 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

You’re missing a crucial point, David. The space is city owned, and we are a short sprint from winning it from the city. The idea that working class and poor people can act outside of the law to seek redress and justice in their own communities–i.e., civil disobedience and direct action–is now mainstreamed in that community. Moreover, a community that was disparate is now coming together over this issue, forming bonds of solidarity. I’m not sure the outcome will satisfy Marxists, that certainly wasn’t my goal after the initial action took off. My goal was to inspire the community to take matters into their own hand, to begin the process of politicization. My experience leads me to believe that it must be done in a way taht captures the imagination and emotion of the participants; it must speak to their lives, it must be borne of a love of the community and a joy in seeing it flourish–something like a library or community center wrung from the city in a blighted area forgotten by city hall is the perfect manifestation of these ideas. The radicalizing and politicization of communities, in a horizontal, not vertical fashion, has not happened very often to my knowledge. Its obviously important if we want to stop talking about communities, and workers as targets of our efforts, and not as partners and leaders. Most importantly, realize that not everyone subscribes to a Marxist organizing analysis–I don’t believe that people need to be organized in their workplace only, I don’t believe that unions as they are currently configured do much more than give a nod to the status quo.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp September 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm

What I don’t get is how is anyone is supposed to mobilize workers “at the point of production” when said point is a closed library and there are no employed librarians. Comments along those lines just make Marxists look idiotic and hopelessly dogmatic, unable to creatively adapt our wonderfully rigorous theories to real-world organizing in communities and workplaces crushed by unemployment, closures, and other forms of austerity. The people take matters into their own hands (which I think is what horizontalism means in practice) like they did with this library, the better.


Richard Estes September 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Clearly, the Laundry Workers Center effort is praiseworthy, but both the Biblioteca Popular and the earlier People’s [email protected] Elementary strike the nerve of what is currently happening in lower middle income and lower income communities: the dismantlement of the social welfare state that provided education, libraries and medical care. The liberal notion, so alluring in the mid-20th Century, that the profits of capitalism could be redistributed for the benefit of neighborhoods like Fruitvale has been exterminated by neoliberalism. So, in these instances, we see people in these communities tentatively beginning to seize abandoned public properties to fulfill these needs themselves.

Of course, this necessarily entails social work, but I am at a loss to understand how people can be encouraged to collectively assert themselves in the absence of it. In Oakland, they are motivated by an effort to address the concrete necessities of their daily lives. Along these lines, the fact that the library provides books to the children of the neighborhood is significant, because, while people may accept the difficult circumstances in which they live, they always hope for better for their children, so the library (and the People’s School) resonates with them. It is not accidental that attempts to take over the Traveler’s Aid Society Building and Kaiser Center Auditorium were political failures, while these have been successful in terms of engaging the broader community. Perhaps, this is one of the great failings of the US left, the inability to recognize the family as a potential center of revolutionary activity, something that seems to be better understood in South America.

Given that there is no reason to expect an improvement in these social conditions anytime soon (indeed, they are likely to continue to worsen), the withdrawal of social support in lower class, lower middle class and even middle class communities is the spark that has the greatest potential to ignite domestic radical movements in the future. We may remember the Biblioteca Popular and the People’s [email protected] Elementary as among the first instances of it. One of the most impressive aspects of the Biblioteca Popular has been the extent to which activists have worked with the people of the community instead of imposing an agenda upon them.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp September 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I can only imagine how the unemployed of the 1930s would have felt if the Communist Party of those days had organized them to wait for employed workers to strike on their behalf instead of creating unemployed councils to march and camp on city halls all over the country demanding relief.


Christian September 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm

This is a great thing. The millions of depressed, vicitimized, lumpenized, unemployed and outsourced and deindustrialized need to learn what it means to take control over their lives and their communities. Anything that helps that is a good thing. Anything that gets the wheels moving and the brain thinking and brings people together and teaches them confidence is a good thing. You organize where you are and you do what you can. Many of the most oppressed people don’t have much of a “point of production” to organize at. A social upsurge involves all parts of a society, with brains turning on and revolts large and small occurring from one end to the other. Like an earthquake it reverberates through all strata of society, not only those we think have the occupational foundations to most correctly utilize its energy. The revolution belongs to everyone, to interpret however they can and to use wherever it can make any headway.

In a country this beaten down and alienated and demoralized, the most revolutionary thing you can do is get people turned on to the idea that they have power and they can change things.


Morris Kennedy September 14, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Binh-“I can only imagine how the unemployed of the 1930s would have felt if the Communist Party of those days had organized them to wait for employed workers to strike on their behalf instead of creating unemployed councils to march and camp on city halls all over the country demanding relief.”- Unfortunately, there were Leftist during the 1930’s who held this wrongheaded position. How condescending to advise the poor, and unemployed that they can’t struggle until the unions take up their cause, if ever.


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