It’s not enough to say Black Lives Matter — libraries must divest from the police

The current global uprisings for Black Lives have made it clear that police power is enormous, deadly, and unaccountable. It is not enough for libraries to say “Black Lives Matter.” Now is the time for libraries to divest from police. Police and their surveillance technologies do not belong in libraries, and they inhibit our ability to promote our values of intellectual freedom, privacy, and access.

Library Freedom Project is calling on our profession to begin taking away police power in our spaces in order to support our communities and defend the values of librarianship.

Black, Indigenous, and POC librarians have repeatedly expressed how police presence in libraries threaten their safety and that of their communities. Police escalation and brutality has happened repeatedly within our buildings. When we call police to deal with patron issues, rather than investing in our own deescalation strategies and alternatives, we are risking police violence, especially against our most vulnerable patrons. Furthermore, the library profession is overwhelmingly white women, who have a unique historic complicity in violence against Black people.

The uprisings in the streets show that a more just world is not only possible, but popular — we are witnessing the largest civil rights demonstration in history. In Minneapolis, we’ve seen extraordinary leadership about how to meet the demands of this movement by disbanding the police and reinvesting in community-led alternatives. As the COVID-19 crisis becomes more manageable and we begin to reopen our buildings, libraries must also show leadership and stand firmly on the side of justice. While we recognize the urgency of this request, we also are aware of the immensity of the task. Divestment is a form of abolition, and as Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition is about presence, not absence. It requires work to build. Divestment from police means investment in our staff, our patrons, and our buildings in new ways.

Below is a list of divestment ideas built from the demands of Black leaders in the abolitionist movement — like 8ToAbolition, Critical Resistance, and the work of Mariame Kaba — and from existing divestment strategies at work in libraries across the country.

Choosing divestment

  • Assess how police have power in your library. Are they stationed in the building? Do they make rounds? Do you share surveillance camera feeds or footage with police? Do you share other info with them without warrants? Do you have private security? Is private security contracted through the police? Do private security guards carry weapons? Do police or security guards communicate or collaborate with library staff, or do they make decisions and enact policy without input?
  • Assess why there are police or private security officers in your library. Are you mandated to have police by city or county, or was it a choice made by the board? What specific issues or challenges is your library trying to address or get assistance with?
  • Divestment should achieve abolitionist reforms, which reduce police power, rather than reformist reforms, which continue or expand the reach of policing.
  • The ideal is no police in the library. Compromises should only take power from the police, rather than giving them new powers. For example, one compromise is disallowing their weapons in the library. Consider that this approach to policing is already the norm in many majority-white library communities.
  • Divestment means reallocating resources to better serve the community. For instance, funds spent on police presence in libraries could be better used to hire social workers or invest directly in community partnerships.

Staff training and alternatives to police

  • Police intervention in libraries often stems from a patron in need. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors of these people, the library should help connect them to resources.
  • Libraries with inadequate staffing are more likely to struggle with patron problems; divesting from police should reinvest in staff.
  • Libraries should form partnerships with community organizations that specialize in restorative justice, public health, and support for marginalized communities. These organizations can assist with staff training and policy-making, and may be able to help provide the resources and services our patrons need. Many libraries have already invested in their own in-house social workers, however, it is important to note that social workers have often reproduced systemic injustices, so hiring social workers with a racial justice lens is key.
  • Libraries should consider hiring peer navigator staff. Peers have lived experience with some of the challenges faced by many library patrons. They are available to connect with patrons to provide support and resources.
  • Staff training on deescalation strategies is key to safely handling emergency situations. Other necessary trainings include restorative/transformative justice, anti-racist/implicit bias, mental health first aid, and using the overdose prevention remedy Narcan/Naloxone.
  • Staff should also be trained on the impacts of policing so they may recognize how calling the police causes harm. Staff may view police as their only option for connecting a patron to resources or keeping staff safe; however, typically involving police simply connects that individual to punishment.
  • These trainings should be delivered by organizations that are led by members of the most impacted communities. These trainings should never be delivered by law enforcement.
  • These trainings must result in library directors and boards creating new policies and procedures.

Policies and technology

  • Libraries must have a clear policy for how and when police are called, with deescalation strategies being the preferred first steps. If police are called, library staff must be trained on how to communicate with them in order to protect patron rights.
  • Libraries should dismantle appropriate use and conduct policies that specifically target teen library users for scrutiny and racial profiling. Teens accessing library spaces are often subject to additional scrutiny that reflects larger social pressures which work to criminalize youth culture and behaviors, specifically that of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) teens. Invest staff and resources in developing non-punitive support systems in the library and outreach to marginalized and vulnerable teens.
  • Do not allow police technology in library buildings or properties. This includes CCTV, Shotspotter devices, and other surveillance technologies.
  • Libraries should not use their own surveillance technologies, like CCTV. If this is not possible, then libraries must have clear policy on who has access to the data, how it is secured, when it is deleted, and that law enforcement can only access it with a legal warrant.

Programs

  • Host community conversations highlighting the demands of local Black Lives Matter groups or of similar Black-led community organizations.
  • A lack of police presence reinforces a welcoming environment for programming targeted at immigrants, such as language services, consulate visits, and immigration attorney Q&As.
  • Do not host programs like “Coffee with a Cop”, police officer storytime, or any programming that has the effect of minimizing the violence inherent in policing.

Abolitionist Mariame Kaba says that hope is a discipline, and we believe that imagination is too. If we can imagine a world that prioritizes human beings over property and care over punishment, we can build it. Library Freedom Project calls on our library community to endorse this divestment strategy by committing to taking some of the steps above in their own libraries. Please join the Abolitionist Library Association mailing list to get organized with other library workers who want to divest from police.

We are excited to build a better world together.

Signed,

Library Freedom Project

Trainings and resources

Further reading

Organizations and people to follow & support:

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