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“I Wanted Something Productive to Do": Creating Space for Books and Learning at Occupy Wall Street

Education is at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the student loan bubble to the library and teach-ins at the center of the park.

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When asked why he himself was here, he simply said, “I wanted something productive to do.”

In an economy where “production” is gone with the wind, that makes the deepest sense to me.  Who doesn’t want to be productive in life?  Why should a generation that Wall Street and Washington seem perfectly happy to sideline not want to produce something of their own, as they now have?

I was no less touched, while listening in on a long meeting of the Library Working Group one Saturday afternoon amid the chaos of Zuccotti Park -- crowd noise all around us, a band playing nearby -- when the woman standing next to me interrupted your meeting.  She identified herself as an elected legislator from an upstate New York county who had driven down to see Occupy Wall Street for herself.  She just wanted you, the librarians, to know that she supported what you were doing and that, while her county was still funding its libraries, it was getting ever harder to do so, given strapped state and local budgets.

In other words, as education is priced out of the reach of so many Americans and in many communities library hours are cut back or local libraries shut down, you’ve opened for business.

Here are just a few things that you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, said to me:

Bill Scott: “Part of the reason we’re down here is because we live in a society which promotes the idea that education should be bought and sold on the open market.  We want to establish it as a human right.  What the People’s Library proves is that books belong to the people, as does education.  People with student-loan debt find their freedom and options limited.  It severely limited my options.  I’m still crawling out from under a ton of debt.”

Zachary Loeb, who in what passes for real life is an actual librarian: “I’m working part time, so I wake up every morning and spend two hours sending out resumes, but the work isn’t out there.  My training’s in archiving, but nobody’s hiring.  I got a degree in library science, not philosophy, which I wanted to go into, to be on a job track.  Obviously, I’m not.  Lots of people are here because the work situation is abysmal.

“I’ve been an activist for a long time.  I read [the magazine] Adbusters and saw the call to occupy Wall Street.  I was down here on the first day.  I think we’ve changed the conversation in this country.  We’ve given people permission to stand up, to talk to each other, test their ideas out against each other, and consider decisions that shouldn’t simply be made by the powerful in Washington.”

Frances Mercanti-Anthony, out-of-work actress (“my last play closed in August”) and comic writer: “Knowledge is the greatest weapon we have.  What we’re doing is offering knowledge to people who have been disenfranchised.  Our online database of books [in the People’s Library] stands as a great symbol of the movement, of democracy, of knowledge, and sharing.”

Lighting Up the Landscape

Here’s what you’ve done: your anger and your thoughtfulness -- what you don’t know and don’t mind not knowing, as well as what you do know -- has lit up a previously dismal landscape.  And every move made by those who want to get rid of you has only spurred your growth.

I’m a pretty levelheaded guy, but call me a little starry-eyed right now and I don’t mind at all.  It’s something to feel this way for the first time in I don’t know how long, and whatever happens from now on, I can thank you for that -- and for the sudden sense of possibility that goes with it.

 
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