Philadelphia Library Closings Spark Protests

Philadelphia Library Closings Spark Protests by John Leslie / December 2008
This is not exactly “breaking news” but FYI. Thanks also to a couple of folks (JW and SM) for comments/suggestions on this. The December 6 demo mentioned at the end of this article was about 400 folks who participated in a spirited march from Central Branch to City hall. For more info on the fight to save the libraries go to the Friends of the Free Library site.
PHILADELPHIA—Facing a financial crisis, the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter is proposing major cutbacks in municipal services—including 200 layoffs, the closing of pools and recreation centers, the loss of essential fire services, and the shutting down of 11 library branches. The city is not only closing library branches, but will also cut the budget for new books and shorten the hours of remaining libraries. Most of the libraries to be shuttered are in poor, working-class neighborhoods and are vital educational tools for children and adults.

Only 50 percent of city homes have a computer. Some 25 percent of Philadelphians live under the poverty line. For many youth and working people the library is an essential resource—a place to study, a place to access the internet, a quiet place to read. The authorities tell the city’s kids that to succeed in life they must study hard and stay in school. How are they supposed to do this without access to libraries?

The reaction of the community has been swift. On the weekend of Nov. 22-23, hundreds of residents protested in spirited rallies at all of the branches slated for closing. Led by the Friends of the Free Library, community groups, rank-and-file unionists, parents, and churches helped to organize the events.

Multiracial crowds gathered to express their outrage at the closings. Chants of; “Save our library! and “Yes we can!” rang out. Speeches were accompanied by kids performing skits and singing.

In one such speech, the director of the Friends of the Free Library, Amy Dougherty, proposed an alternative to closing the branches. She called for keeping the 11 branches open and having all city libraries open just three days a week with the extensive use of volunteers instead of paid staff. While some protesters cheered this idea, there were also shouts from the crowd opposing layoffs and calling for six-day service at all branches.

Why is there no money for libraries and city services? Philadelphia, like other U.S. big cities, has lost tax revenue due to the current economic crisis. City worker pension plans have also lost a lot of their funds. At the same time, however, the city is making regular payments to the banks to service municipal bond debt.

For years, the city has given tax breaks to big developers and corporations. The city’s budget is balanced on the backs of working-class neighborhoods. All of this is in the context of the recession and the massive Wall Street bailout. The federal government didn’t hesitate to give our tax dollars to rich bankers and corporations, why not bail out the cities?

Philadelphia’s move to cut services and shut libraries appears to be the opening salvo in an attack on city workers and services. The daily newspapers have printed articles calling for a 20 percent reduction size of the city government. The Inquirer says that “doesn’t mean every city department should shrink by 20 percent.” Police and social services departments should be spared, according to the Inquirer, “as the city has become more violent and poorer.”

There is an alternative to cutting jobs and essential services. The city should place a moratorium on bond payments to the banks, while the budget process is opened up to review by a committee made up of elected representatives from the unions and community organizations.

The federal government should step in to guarantee the city’s debt to small investors, using a portion of the billions saved by immediately withdrawing the troops from Iraq and eliminating the military budget. Taxes should be levied on the rich and powerful—not on working people and the poor.

Alternatives to incarceration should be found for nonviolent offenders, with less costly treatment programs replacing prison sentences. The money saved could be put back into vital city services. There will be a citywide demonstration at the Central Library on Dec. 6.

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