New Cross library occupation: the final hours

This post follows part one from last night.

New Cross Library Occupation by Odd_dog, on Flickr

I didn’t get much sleep last night, but that was because I was up late blogging and tweeting about the New Cross library occupation, and awake early (for a Sunday) to return for more coverage this morning. I did at least still sleep in an actual bed. The occupiers, seen above in a photo by Odd_dog on Flickr, made do with the floor beneath the computer desks in New Cross library, shielding their eyes somewhat from the lights, which remained on all night.

I caught up on the overnight media coverage, and tuned into BBC London 94.9 to hear a short item on the 9am news bulletin including phoned-in comments from James Holland – previously known as “the man standing up” in last night’s second photo.

We arrived back at the library at about 10am, to find it had acquired both a media and a police presence. One or two photographers, at least two interviewers and a TV camera were now in the building. A number of the protesters were being interviewed on camera by a man sporting a BBC pass.

A BBC TV interview with one of the occupiers being recorded

As 10.30am approached, with 90 minutes remaining of the intended occupation period, thoughts turned to ensuring the library was left in at least as clean and tidy a state as it had been found in. My librarian wife put her skills to good use by beginning to round up and reshelve as accurately as possible the books the occupiers had been entertaining themselves with throughout the night!

Things took a strange turn at 10.45, when a policeman approached the protesters to convey a new position on behalf of the council. (He seemed somewhat aggrieved throughout that he was being asked to implement this arrangement, incidentally.)

I paraphrase as best I can from memory:

The library is closed on Sundays. This building is closed. You’re all in here and you’re not causing trouble; we won’t be attempting any kind of forced eviction. However, the council has asked that we do not allow anyone into the building, because it is closed. If you leave the building, you will not be allowed to return into it.

Occupiers clarified that he did indeed mean this on an individual basis rather than just a collective one: it wasn’t merely that once all occupiers had vacated the premises, there would be no prospect of starting another occupation; rather, if any individual went outside for any reason, the police now stationed at the entrance would not allow them back in.

The scene at the New Cross library doorway at 11.25 on 6 Feb

This news was met with some surprise and confusion by the protesters. From the outset the occupation had consistently been spoken about as lasting until midday on Sunday (including on BBC London 94.9, and at the original discussion at the read-in in front of the head of libraries), so the occupiers asked – but were never told – why the situation had suddenly changed when they were in any case barely an hour away from calling their occupation to an end. It subsequently transpired that the policeman had never actually been informed that everyone was intending to leave at midday.

Relations deteriorated further at 11am, when the security guard was suddenly instructed to lock the door to the toilet. This news was met with howls of outrage as the protesters cried that they needed the washing facilities in there in order to ensure they could clean up properly after their coffee and breakfast and not leave the library in a mess.

“Don’t worry about it, just leave the mess,” said the security man, but the occupiers were horrified by this, partly as library-lovers not wanting to soil the place, and partly out of fear of subsequent misportrayal: occupiers mess up library they claim to love, that kind of thing.

The protesters’ indignation quickly turned to amusement, however, as the security guard reached the last of the available keys on his keyring and realised he didn’t actually have one which could lock the toilet. As he returned to the front desk, a protester formed a human doorstop against the toilet’s open door and the clean-up continued.

Occupiers begin making their way towards the exit as midday approaches, 6 Feb

As midday approached, the occupiers gathered their belongings and began assembling near the exit of the library. Someone thought the kettle they had brought had gone missing, and began shouting “Kettle? Kettle?”, prompting a response about being careful not to give the police any ideas – and the revelation that someone had already packed it.

No trace of the occupiers' breakfast, games, reading material etc. remained by the time they left the library: this photo was taken at 11.59 on 6 Feb

And so, just after midday, nineteen hours after the occupation began, the gathered protesters…

New Cross library occupation ends 006

…filed out of the library, past the now-cheerful security guard…

New Cross library occupation ends 021

…and onto the street, chanting anti-cuts slogans while footage of their exit was filmed which was to form the backbone of ITV London Tonight’s top news story this evening.

Non-TV footage was also filmed by a few people and can be seen on YouTube, for instance here by ‘kernel’:

The protesters stayed outside the library for a few minutes, as it was secured and the last shutter brought most of the way down while security staff finished checking the building.

The shutter is lowered in front of occupiers' OPEN NOW sign as the New Cross library occupation ends, 12.05, 6 Feb

Then they took their banners down…

Protesters remove their occupation banner from New Cross library, 12.05, 6 Feb

…and they went their separate ways, leaving the library closed until Tuesday, but with thousands more regular openings to come – they hope.

New Cross library just after the protesters had all departed, 12.10, 6 Feb

Latest list of coverage elsewhere (last updated 23.20, 9 Feb)

Photos and text © me, again. Please comment if you wish to use them anywhere else and we can discuss this! Links to these posts are always very welcome of course.

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New Cross library occupation: inside story

On Saturday afternoon, my (non-public) librarian wife and I decided to call in, on what was to have been our way to #MEATEASY, to New Cross Library, which was one of hundreds of libraries up and down the country today to hold ‘read-ins’ – peaceful, bookish demonstrations of affection for public libraries, by way of protest about mooted cuts to and closures of their services.

I arrived as those present had been lured outside for a photocall by a local journalist or two:

Protesters outside New Cross library, 5 Feb 2011, 16.21

After this, everyone returned inside the library to continue the read-in.

New Cross library read-in, 5 Feb 2011, 16.30

The man standing up in this photo chaired a bit of a chat about libraries, and from nowhere a man stood behind us suddenly said, “What does anyone think of the idea of occupying the library? When it shuts, we just don’t leave, and stay in here, say until midday tomorrow? Would anyone be up for that?”

Various points of view about this proposal were aired, but as the library’s closing time of five o’clock neared, arrived and indeed passed, it soon became clear that 20-30 of those present were quite happy to stick around and see what happened. So, in the interest of local citizen journalism – and indeed affection for libraries – we did too, to see how things unfolded.

A man we understand was Lewisham Council’s Head of Libraries had been present throughout the read-in, and I’m told the four other staff present were two managers and two regular New Cross library staff. For an hour, the Head kept the staff there; there was some confusion about whether the staff themselves thought the protesters were ‘blockading’ the staff room, where their belongings were that they needed to collect in order to go home, but even once it was clearly established that they weren’t, the staff still did not leave the desk area to retrieve them.

At 6pm the Head finally permitted the two regular staff to leave. The managers stayed with him at the front desk, however. At no point were the protesters asked to leave.

At 6.45pm, this was one corner of the library:

New Cross library occupation, 5 Feb 2011, 18.45

At that moment, a policeman entered. He came over to address the occupiers.

He said that under the law, if the occupiers had been asked to leave by a member of council staff, they were now trespassing and he could arrange for six policemen to come and shift everyone if we wouldn’t leave of our own accord. He added that last night, he had been dealing with “two dead bodies”, and all the time he was dealing with the occupation there could be dead bodies going undealt-with, or words to that effect.

It was pointed out to the policeman that, in fact, no-one from the council had actually asked anyone to leave the library at all, so no trespassing was occurring. Furthermore, no harm was intended (“we want to save libraries – we’re not going to damage them!”) so some occupiers suggested that perhaps a compromise would be for one or two council security guards to come and sit in the library overnight, so the managers and Head could go home, and there was no need for the police to get involved at all.

The policeman at this stage suggested that the group of occupiers, sitting in a library, reading books, could potentially be arrested for a breach of the peace: it subsequently transpired that this piece of law merely requires someone to fear that harm may be coming, rather than any actual shh-worthy activity to occur, and certainly the Head had looked nervous throughout the evening.

The Head was not willing to ask the occupiers to leave, for reasons that were not entirely clear, and the policeman retreated with him while the occupiers discussed what they would do.

Since no-one had been asked to leave, no-one was in favour of leaving yet; many protesters said they would do so if asked, though, while some suggested they would prefer to resist eviction. Ultimately, the Head returned to ask what had been decided, and having heard no-one was leaving disappeared to the desk again for further discussions with staff and/or the police.

At 7pm, one protester overheard a police conversation in which it was suggested that council security staff, not police, should be dealing with this matter instead. By 7.25pm the policeman had driven away from the library.

By now a wide range of snack food that protesters had been out for was being broken out and a cheerful atmosphere was prevailing, except among the managers and Head of course. Protesters offered them some of the food, but it was declined; they left it with them anyway. My librarian wife took care to ensure no-one got the food too near any of the books!

The News Shopper, which had had a reporter and photographer on the scene during the read-in and the early part of the occupation, filed a story about the occupation at 7.15pm – the first media coverage beyond the tweets I and others were sending from within the library itself.

All was quiet on the security/police/management front for about an hour and a half, then at 8.40pm it was revealed that the occupiers’ suggestion was being followed up: no further police involvement was expected, and some security would be joining the protesters for the rest of their occupation.

By 8.55pm two amicable security guards were in place and the managers and Head had finally left to go home, to shouted messages of thanks and wishes for a good evening from the occupiers!

The friendly security guards chatted to the protesters. “If you see anyone come in who’s not part of the protest and who you don’t want there, just let us know and we’ll get rid of them for you,” they offered.

And so the occupation was in full swing by 9pm, with people reading, tweeting, chatting, snacking, following news coverage, playing board games people had dropped in, and so on.

New Cross library occupation, 5 Feb 2011, 21.38

It was at around this time that my phone finally ran out of battery, meaning no more of the on-the-spot reporting I’d stayed to do would be possible, and ultimately we decided to call it a night and nip home to get both our phones and ourselves recharged before returning in the morning to see how it’s going.

This was the scene shortly before we finally left at about 10pm:

New Cross library occupation, 5 Feb 2011, 21.40

What I hadn’t appreciated, having not been outside since 4.30pm, was that someone had managed to get together two huge banners to hang outside the library – very fast work!

Banners outside New Cross library occupation, 5 Feb 2011, 22.00

Since leaving I understand via Twitter that the police have returned briefly to discuss overnight access to the site, and determined that the doors will be locked but “sober” protesters will still be allowed to enter the building. Apart from that the evening has continued to pass off uneventfully and, as is of course entirely appropriate for a library occupation, peacefully.

Other coverage of the occupation (updated 10.53 6 Feb):

The story of the following morning can now be read here, where a more up-to-date list of other coverage can also be found.

Photos and text © me, by the way. Please comment if you wish to use them anywhere else and we can discuss this! 🙂 Links to these posts are always very welcome of course.