DALLAS, TEXAS — A patron at the Dallas Public Library sits at a computer, talking to himself loudly. A few people complain, but he refuses requests from a library worker and a security guard to lower his voice. He also refuses to leave, then grows belligerent. So the security guard calls the police.
Police stun him with a Taser, then take him away.
“It was terrifying and traumatic,” says Pat Arreguin, a Dallas library worker at the time. “This did not need to go this far.”
Public libraries have, in many places, become a last refuge for people without other access to basic resources — a place to use a computer, read and write, rest. Addressing the needs of these patrons — who may be experiencing homelessness, for example, or navigating drug abuse problems — requires training for the library staff (including how to handle sexual harassment and mental health-related out- bursts), not the heavy hand of the law, according to Arreguin.
Denver offers one example of how this concept might work. In 2015, Denver began using social workers as auxiliaries to librarians to help patrons find housing, healthcare and other services, and to administer Narcan to prevent opioid overdoses.
“To see how [social workers at the libraries] de-escalate a situation has been incredible,” says Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, a former social worker who became the council’s first democratic socialist in 2019. “I’ve witnessed it firsthand. And they do exactly in the libraries what we would like to see on the streets.”
There is a growing national movement of abolitionist library workers who want law enforcement out of libraries, and it has seen some success in St. Louis County, Mo. For years, county librarians worked alongside armed, uniformed, off-duty officers from St. Louis County and other municipal police departments, hired by a private company to guard six of the library’s 20 branches, five in majority-Black neighborhoods.
After protests erupted over the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, a group of St. Louis County Library (SLCL) workers circulated an internal petition urging the library to live up to “our mission to increase library access for all,” demanding the library cancel its private security contract and reallocate the money for social workers in the library along with de-escalation and restorative justice training for staff.
Fifty of SLCL’s 600 employees endorsed the demand. A number of workers also formed an anonymous abolitionist group called Libraries for All St. Louis.
In September 2020, SLCL canceled the off-duty police contract with Hudson Security Services at a Board of Trustees meeting. After a series of town halls in October 2020, SLCL also committed to hiring social workers and training staff in de-escalation tactics, as well as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. At five of the six branches that once employed off-duty police, however, the library will now hire “internal security,” a compromise Libraries for All continues to challenge.
Internal records obtained by In These Times reveal that SLCL has issued more than 260 temporary bans (usually for 30 days) to patrons since January 2015. Although some of the bans were for fighting, vandalism and theft, more were for “disruptions” such as “hygiene” or “bathing” in the restrooms. Libraries for All contends that many of these bans amount to harassment and racial profiling, and that the solution to these disturbances does not include police.
Until recently, abolitionist librarians scattered around the country had no real forum to connect with others pursuing the same goals. That changed when Alison Macrina, the founder and executive director of the Library Freedom Project, a nonprofit group that trains library workers to organize against surveillance, founded the Abolitionist Library Association (AbLA) in July 2020.
“I saw how many of my fellow library workers were motivated to do the real work of abolishing police and the various carceral logics at work in our libraries,” Macrina writes in an email. “We were all dissatisfied with the status quo approach to these issues in libraries: issuing weakly worded diversity statements without naming the problems, and with no real commitment to change.”
Abolitionist groups sprang up from Los Angeles to New York in summer 2020. “We see our cause as united with the Cops Out of Schools movement and Defund the Police movement,” says Hal S., a member of Cop Free Library, a group of abolitionist library workers in New York City. Cop Free Library is also lobbying the city council for the reopening of public bathrooms at libraries to better serve New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and reduce their contact with police.
For many in this movement, the work has only just begun. As one Black member of Libraries for All (who requested anonymity for fear of employer retaliation) puts it: “This isn’t a fight I can step out of. These kids who are being banned, they look like my kids. These police officers who are harassing people, they harass me.”
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Jason Christian is a writer based in New Orleans. He has written for the Bitter Southerner, The New Republic and Scalawag