Oakland and Anaheim: A Tale of Two Libraries

A writer with the Orange County Register recently attended a dance festival with Anaheim mayor Tom Tait and, rather than discuss recent police shootings in the city, told him a heart-warming story about a community center in nearby Santa Ana “that appeared overnight when a psychology professor and a pastor simply rented an apartment. They also opened a small library in the former living room.” The originator of the initiative was a woman who lives in Anaheim. “What’s her email address?” asked Tom. Clearly, for both journalist and mayor, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a library is a public good.

There is a contradiction between those in local administration like Tom Tait encouraging civic engagement and federal and state authorities seeking to impose order. Libraries are historically connected to the ideal of American democracy that legitimizes state power, so they are held to be important for communities where there is an ideological acceptance of police monopoly of force. But in marginalized populations police authority is increasingly asserted through violence and the threat of violence, as demonstrated by the Anaheim police gang enforcement unit (and as the New York Times discovered from an analysis of stop-and-frisk operations in NYC neighborhoods). When the same kind of arbitrary force was used against the Occupy movement, the police made sure when they could to destroy the libraries that symbolized stability in the occupations.

In the very same week that the reported conversation took place, community activists in Oakland occupied a derelict former library, cleaned the building, removed piles of garbage, filled it with donated books, and renamed it the “Victor Martinez Community Library.” Sociologist Darwin Bond-Graham writes: “Upon leaving the library last night I approached three young men standing on the corner across from the scene who were passing a blunt around and surveying the scene. ‘How long do you think this will last?’ I asked them. ‘I hope it last forever,’ said one of them with an earnestness that surprised me. ‘We need a library in this neighborhood. The closest one is way out in Fruitvale, the Cesar Chavez branch, or else you have to go all the way downtown.’ Another one of the youngsters said with equal seriousness, ‘a book can save a life’.”

The city administration took less than 24 hours to send police to evict the activists and board up the building. This didn’t stop the library from being reopened on the sidewalk the next morning, with a renewed supply of books. But it underscores the fact that in Oakland, programs that benefit the community – such as libraries, affordable housing, mental health clinics etc. – have been defunded while 40 percent of the city’s tax revenues have been absorbed by the police. One of the library organizers observed: “Larry Reid, chair of the council, said he’d have cut libraries and other services two years ago, rather than lay off police officers.”

That’s why Latino citizens in Anaheim have been fighting to get council representation – so they can get more resources like libraries for their neighborhoods. They are symbolic of the cultural heart of the community, an escape from incessant corporatization, and open to everyone – inherently democratic. Those without literacy and computer skills can get help from those who have learned them.

There are many more libraries relative to the population in affluent Anaheim Hills than in the much poorer flatland areas that have little political sway. Poverty is high there because the only available jobs are in the service sector where wages are too low for people with families to make ends meet. Corporate Disney has been able to coopt local government to support zoning and subsidies for tourism (in effect to boost its bottom line), but has not supported (and has in fact opposed) the construction of affordable housing for its minimum-waged workers to live in.

Bobbi Murray comments: “Anaheim’s economy is based almost exclusively on tourism, and that particular workforce is largely Latino. In Orange County, where Disney is the largest employer, the median hourly wage for a housekeeper is $9.82 ($19,640 gross annual earnings based on a 50-week year); food preparation pays a median wage of $9.33 an hour ($18,660 gross) according to the California Employment Development Department. The average rate for a Disneyland Resort cashier is $21K, according to Careerbliss.com. …

“ ‘If a city is oriented around one industry, one corporation, it squeezes out the needs of other neighborhoods in the city, certainly neighborhoods where Latino and working-class residents live,’ Eric Altman, Executive Director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, said in a phone interview.”

Poverty has spread as a result of the city’s political subservience to corporate Disney’s goal, which is “to create an environment that is pleasing for a temporary visit of a few days, but not an environment designed to be a permanent destination, or a permanent home, for the city’s residents,” according to urban planner Andrew Reovan. “In the end the community of Anaheim falls by the wayside because city officials, buying into Disney’s emphasis on its own economic importance instead of focusing on other needs of the local community, tend to place Disney’s concerns over those of any other party in their decision-making process.”

West Anaheim’s largely immigrant community is taking up the kind of struggle that took place in Oakland in 2009 when unarmed Oscar Grant was shot  by police while restrained and face-down on a station platform. His killer received two years in jail. Journalist Davey D. described the ensuing protests: “… folks from various ethnic backgrounds, and political persuasions and stripes found ways to work together and at the very least co-exist, as everyone pushed hard to get justice for Oscar Grant. It was unprecedented. You had everyone involved from suit and tie church-goers to blue-collar labor folks to longtime grassroots youth activists to traditional civil rights leaders to white t-shirt wearing cats off the block to longtime police reform advocates to students both in college and high school. You had revolutionary and anarchist types working alongside folks from the Nation of Islam working alongside immigration reform folks working alongside teachers and professors.”

Alliances across ethnic and class divides are the future of political struggle in America. Increased Latino representation in Anaheim will not make poverty go away, but the protests over police killings have challenged the hegemony of the white suburbs – and the strong political influence of Disney over the city legislature.


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Filed under anaheim protests, immigration, Peoples Library, police presence, political analysis, poverty

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