People’s library opens despite police repression

WW photo: Terri Kay

The Victor Martinez Community Library was opened by a group of Occupy activists in Oakland, Calif., on Aug. 13, giving new life to an abandoned public library in the heart of Oakland’s Latino/a community.

The old building had been shuttered by the city many years ago, after it had been a keystone in the community for decades. It had spent part of its tenure as a progressive high school, the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, founded by Chicano/a activists. Now, it has been renamed after Chicano poet and author Victor Martinez, who died last year of cancer, possibly brought on by his years of working in the fields as a child, inhaling pesticides.

The building had been shuttered, but was no longer locked. Mattresses, trash and drug paraphernalia were strewn in and outside of the building. The Occupy crew, as part of its campaign to turn public spaces known as “the Commons” back to the people, went to work cleaning up the building.

People brought books and food. Community members began stopping by. Soon, books were being checked out. Kids came and were supported in starting a community garden in the library’s large backyard.

After the successful opening day, 80 cops showed up late that night, cordoning off all the surrounding streets, as if they were going after major criminals. The dozen or so people still in the building were given 15 minutes to remove the books and leave, or face arrest. They moved the books to the sidewalks in front of the building, where, as of this writing on Aug. 19, the books have stayed, housed in milk crates and makeshift shelves.

The community continues to come out to support the library, adults and children alike. Nightly potluck dinners take place. Religious leaders, who had been trying to get the building for a community center through traditional legal channels for years, are now thinking about what they might do. There is much support for continuing the community garden started there. Community meetings are being held to discuss what to do.

Community members saw how the cops acted with their militarized shutdown of the peaceful occupation. They have seen the steady presence of squad cars to make sure the building isn’t reopened. This is in contrast to all the unanswered calls over the years, when people have called the cops for help, to no avail.

For updates on this struggle, join the Facebook page Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez.

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