In Support of the Carnegie Library Occupation – why pitting local services against each other doesn’t work
Friday, April 8, 2016
Closing libraries has been one of the most unpopular cuts to public services. In 2012, the closure of Kensal Rise Library was so contentious that the council hired a private company to strip the building of books in the dead of night, an act of shocking bad faith to defeat the huge campaign (backed by local residents and the literati alike) to keep it open. In Lambeth, the fight for libraries has seen a similarly spirited and powerful community campaign. Last Thursday, over 100 local residents occupied Carnegie Library in Herne Hill in protest of it being handed over for free to Greenwich Leisure Limited to be turned into a profit-making gym.
The opposition should come as no surprise. Libraries provide books, warmth, somewhere to work, take courses, run coffee mornings, do your homework, email your family, apply for a job, and so much more. It’s hard to argue against a library. Unable to win the argument, Lambeth Council are taking a different approach: divide-and-rule. Lambeth Council Cabinet member, Jane Edbrooke, in defence of the closures, claims that ’There are other councils out there who don’t have any domestic violence services and no one made a mention because, funnily enough, those women were far too vulnerable to kick up a noise about it.’
Edbrooke’s comments suggest that defending public libraries is a privilege rather than a necessity. By this insidious logic, fighting austerity becomes the preserve of the powerful, rather than one of the vital ways in which many different people work together to keep public services that benefit the majority. Even more worrying, Edbrooke’s comments assume that women who have experienced domestic violence have no agency, that vulnerability equals silence. Actually, we know that it is often those most vulnerable to austerity that lead the fight against the cuts. Not to mention the fact that groups such as Sisters Uncut have been making plenty of noise about the cuts to Domestic Violence services, and also fully support other groups fighting austerity. The Councils have defunded domestic violence services not because the women who use them are not protesting their closure but because councils (Tory and Labour alike) fail to prioritise survivors of domestic violence.
By pitting libraries against refuges, Lambeth Council is trying to undermine the campaign, suggesting that to defend libraries is somehow to support the closure of other services. This is particularly dangerous logic as libraries are often crucial spaces of support for people experiencing domestic violence, as well as many other vulnerable and marginalised people. Libraries offer a neutral space, where those experiencing violence at home can seek refuge and resources, sometimes acting as the first step in someone leaving an abusive situation.
These comments from council members are disturbing but should not come as a surprise. Lambeth Council is notorious for its use of these divisive tactics. Counsellor Matthew Bennett, Cabinet member for Housing took to social media to push this ‘divide and rule’ approach even further. In response to a photograph of the residents occupying the Carnegie sitting down to a group dinner on Saturday night, Bennett tweeted: ‘While they knock back wine in the library, almost 5000 homeless Lambeth children go to bed in temp accommodation…’ The Labour Council are determined to portray libraries as spaces of privilege, when in fact the same homeless children that Bennett cynically refers to are some of the most in need of free, warm, safe public spaces.
If Edbrooke and Bennett’s comments weren’t enough, Labour Councillor for Stockwell, Alex Bigham, decided that rather than engage with the protesters at Carnegie Library, he would mock them instead. In response to comments on twitter explaining that a gym with a bookshelf is not the same as a library, Bigham posted pictures of cats on treadmills. Apparently, Lambeth Counsellors think so little of their constituents that they are happy to resort to childish piss-taking.
If this wasn’t a PR disaster enough, a few weeks ago, Lambeth Council released a video called ‘Tough Choices’ explaining the massive cuts (56%!) to central government funding of local councils and the huge shortfall this has created. Though the video assures us that their priority is looking after the most vulnerable people in the borough, there is no mention of domestic violence services specifically, and no attempt to push back against austerity more generally. Rather than questioning central government, the Council are making austerity seem inevitable. And the new sources of income the council are finding to plug the gap come from developers: they claim that selling off land and property has raised over £25million since 2010, but at what cost to the residents of Lambeth? Many campaigns (Cressingham Gardens, Save Brixton Arches, for example) across the borough are trying to stop the council selling off land to developers, as it is this process that is displacing longterm communities. Rumour has it that video itself cost over £2000 to make and has so far been seen by fewer than 2500 people. Perhaps this money could have been better spent on the vital services, such as the libraries, in defence of which the residents of Lambeth are ‘kicking up a noise’.
South East London Sisters Uncut stands in full solidarity with the occupiers of Carnegie Library, where local people are entering their SECOND WEEK of occupation. Sisters Uncut want to emphasise our support with communities demanding basic services are available regardless of income. Closing down libraries is an attack on working class communities and the right to a free education. We will join protesters at 11.30am on Saturday 9th April, and we hope you join us.