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.

20 Responses

  1. […] here News Shopper article here Press release from Community Action Lewisham here SE13 blog post here Follow #ncoccupation and #savelibraries on Twitter for updates This entry was posted in […]

  2. can I post a link to this on my web and facebook?

    • You certainly can – sorry if the copyright disclaimer made you think you couldn’t – it’s more an issue where certain news organisations have been known to lift text and images wholesale from blogs without asking (or indeed paying)! Links are always fine – thanks for asking though!

  3. […] For more see the BBC and The Independent‘s coverage, or for a blogger’s first-hand account see here. […]

  4. Excellent work! Congratulations to you all for standing up for your rights and what you believe in and for showing dignity and respect in the face of rather poor judgement from the individual PC involved.

    I’m sorry that I have too much going on right now to be with you in person but you have my wholehearted support in this and in any other actions you take to save our libraries. Let me know if I can offer any help and I will do what I can to provide it.

  5. […] wasn’t there, but Paul was. I wasn’t at Blackheath Village Library either, but the Bugle […]

  6. We had a great turnout at Blackheath Library on Saturday for our read-in too. Blake Morrison, Lucy Mangan & Fr Nicholas (local vicar) all read whilst children coloured and made Chinese laterns. An amazing and disparate group of all ages. Music, chat, readings and a real verve and enthusiasm to keep our local library open. Sir Steve Bullock was nowhere to be seen but a Councillor was present. Librarians wonderfully welcoming. Let us hope that local politicians decide to listen to what local people want and decide to keep our local libraries open.

  7. Hi SE13URE could we use an image from this post (with a link back to the post) for an article on Counterfire?
    Ady Cousins
    Editor Counterfire

  8. Excellent write-up!

    I’m so pleased to have been able to pop along, just seeing people sitting in peaceful occupation, happy to defend a local library cheered me no end. Even more so once I started overhearing people’s political discussions – I’ve been feeling incredibly despondant at the government’s actions, and although it’s going to be hard, it’s been good to see that people really do still care about public services.

  9. […] links up this video on the New Cross library overnight sit in, which also hit BBC news. Local blog SE13ure gives the inside story from the perspective of one who popped by to show support and ended up staying the night. Thanks to […]

  10. […] media coverage. The official write-up from Lewisham Anti-Cuts Alliance is here, and there’s a personal account here, which makes the whole thing sound encouragingly spontaneous. Although, having said that, either at […]

  11. The whole day I was involved with other people in publicising the Carnival Against Cuts which will be on 19th February (you can see the placards in the first photo above) and we gave about 3000 leaflets out at all the library read-ins in Lewisham and many other places. When we finished at New Cross library it seemed logical to call for an occupation to make sure that Lewisham was not just another one in the list of 341 library read-ins, but made it to the top of the list.
    If you want to be where the action is on 19th February, come to Lewisham, join a local protest at one of the threatened faciltities and then join the march from Catford Town Hall to Lewisham Centre. See for full details.
    P.S. Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir will be singing and we have a good selection of appropriate songs.

  12. […] New Cross library occupation: inside story « SE13URE Part one (tags: society politics protest libraries) […]

  13. […] occupations in Radical Philosophy (#159, January/February 2010). See also news on the recent occupation of the New Cross Library by family and community […]

  14. […] decided to stay and occupy the building peacefully to protest the proposed closure. Blogger SE13URE has a report on the day’s […]

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