Six months after the New York Police Department launched a secretive dead-of-night military-style operation to evict Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park, conducting mass arrests and destroying thousands of dollars worth of property, Mayor Bloomberg, Police Chief Ray Kelly, and others are being sued in federal court.
In a complaint filed today in US District Court, Occupy Wall Street is suing for compensatory and punitive damages and seeking a declaration that the city and its agents violated the constitutional rights of the movement’s members.
The lawsuit is specifically pegged to the destruction of the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library, at the time a collection of some 5,500 donated volumes that had served as a powerful symbol of the movement’s commitment to critical inquiry and self-sufficiency.
On November 15, the night of the raid, about 3,600 of those volumes were on site at Zuccotti Park. Around 1 a.m. that night, the NYPD swarmed the park, surrounding it and announcing that everyone had to leave and take any property with them. Librarians attempted to move the collection, but after removing their first load were barred reentry into the park. 45 minutes later, police and sanitation crews began throwing property still in the park — including library books — in trash-compactor trucks. The majority of the library was completely destroyed.
Eventually, librarians were able to recover 1,003 volumes from the city’s storage facility. But more than 200 of those were so damaged — smashed, accordioned, soaked and moldy, smeared with food and waste — that they were effectively destroyed.
Also wrecked were six library computers, a wireless internet device, and shelving attached to the library. All told, $47,000 worth of property was destroyed.
The sacking of the library has become a rallying point for Occupy Wall Street, which sees the destruction as a metaphor for what they see as the city’s efforts to stifle the exchange of critical ideas that took place in the occupied park.
Occupiers and their lawyers also recognize the public-relations opportunity presented by the city’s wanton destruction of books. Attorney Norman Siegel invoked Nazi Germany and the Florida Koran-burning, concluding “The bottom line is: You don’t nuke books.”
The lawsuit asks for $47,000 in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. But in recognition that sanitation employees, who the city doesn’t indemnify against punitive damages, might get stuck with the bill, Occupy Wall Street took the unusual step of limiting its request for punitive damages to $1,000.
Also significant is the insight into the planning process behind the November 15 raid that the case may produce. If it goes forward, the discovery process is likely to illuminate aspects of the city’s decision-making process that have so far remained opaque.
The main point, said Siegel, is to get some acknowledgment that the raid was unconstitutional, violating protesters’ First-Amendment rights to freedom of speech, their Fourth-Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and their Fourteenth-Amendment rights of due process.
“Anyone in the Bloomberg administration, including the mayor, who thought they could get away with this, well, it’s six months later and we’re now in Federal Court,” Siegel said.
Siegel noted that other cities that ultimately evicted Occupy encampments went to court first before moving in with police. In New York, there was no pre-hearing before the surprise night-raid.
City lawyers initially tried to amicably resolve the issue, Siegel said, but that after conferring with the administration they told the plaintiffs there could be no settlement.
“My sense was the Bloomberg administration was not prepared to say it did anything wrong,” Siegel said. “Look, if we can amicably resolve this without going to court, great. But we want a declaration for historical purposes, that the government can’t do what it did on November 15 and get away with it.”
One of the Occupy Wall Street librarians, Frances Mercanti-Anthony, echoed the sentiment: “Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD and the City of New York think they can shut down this conversation, and they can’t,” she said. “We’re just going to keep coming.”
Here’s the complaint filed today:
And here are some photographs of the mangled books that managed to escape the trash compactors:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 24, 2012