The City's Attack on Information

Nov 15, 2011Bryce Covert

Books dumped in the garbage. Press intimidated and shut out. These are not the signs of a functioning democracy.

In recent weeks, one of Occupy Wall Street's perhaps greatest victories became crystal clear: since the protests took off, the number of news stories talking about inequality has skyrocketed. This is perhaps one of the movement's greatest strengths: the spreading of information about issues that were previously ignored, if felt viscerally by most Americans. Growing income inequality has been no secret, but few were talking about it on a national scale until the movement put it on the radar.

The discussion and dissemination of information is a hallmark of the movement. On any given trip down to Zuccotti Park, by far the most common activities I observed were teach-ins on various issues surrounded by smaller, informal conversations ranging from crony capitalism to bank bailouts to student debt. The way most illustrious thinkers got involved with the movement was to visit the encampment and share their wisdom. This love of information was also embodied in Occupy's call for transparency. Protesters seek a government whose operations are open to the public and not just to lobbyists, one that is accountable and accessible to its citizens. Signs like this said it simply:


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But perhaps no greater embodiment of this love of information and knowledge was the People's Library. The first time I went to donate books it consisted of a dozen or so bins neatly arranged by category and title; the last time I was there it had grown to become one of the largest pieces of infrastructure in the park, insanely well organized and beautifully displayed:


It's perhaps most chilling to me, then, that when I awoke to news of the evacuation it quickly became clear that police simply threw all of those carefully donated and organized books in the trash. The symbolism of a militarized police force piling thousands of incarnations of our country's knowledge and history into dumpsters is hard to escape today.

To top it off, the press was barred from entry and the few who snuck their way in were treated terribly. Those who tried to reason with the police that they had media credentials and therefore should be allowed access to cover events in a public space were rebuffed. As Rosie Gray of the Village Voice tweeted, "Me: 'I'm press!' Lady cop: 'not tonight.'" Those who were able to find their way past the barricades were purportedly arrested and roughed up. Freedom of the press is ingrained in the DNA of our country. Why? Because without it, citizens remain in the dark. Opacity reigns. Corruption can fester and citizens become less engaged.

Mayor Bloomberg claims the raid was to protect people, including the protesters, from supposed dirtiness and violence. But who is protected when information is blocked or destroyed? Only those doing deeds that can't stand up to the scrutiny of transparency. Information is one of the most powerful tools of a functioning democracy. It suffered a blow last night.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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