Occupy History

A People’s Librarian (Part Two) with Aeliana Boyer

(In Part Two of People’s Librarian Aeliana Boyer’s oral history of Occupy Wall Street and the People’s Library in Liberty Square, Boyer elaborates on life and work in the park as the weeks and months went on, the movement grew, and the standoff with the NYPD intensified. She recalls the strengths of Occupy and discusses infiltration of the movement by undercover provocateurs.

Boyer courageously saved Occupy books and memorabilia from the People’s Library as police were destroying it in the November 2011 raid, when the NYPD made a bigger mess of the park than any group of protestors or homeless people ever had or ever could.) 

At the People’s Library, we had poetry readings, all kinds of stuff that was a little different than what was happening in the rest of the park, and there were benches to sit on. It was just a more comfortable place to hang out.

How frequented, how in-use, was the People’s Library?

It was mobbed, pretty much every day. People would leave their stuff with us there too.

I remember it was my favorite part of the park … And what do you feel were some of Occupy’s strengths, more generally, at the time it was happening?

I really liked the conversational aspect of Occupy Wall Street. I really liked that it was a kind of open dialogue that wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. It was more about asking what was wrong with the world, and the need to talk about it, which I feel is always a healthy attitude. It’s easier to see what’s wrong than to know how to fix it. So, Occupy felt like a very honest thing. It was an honest platform for people to make their grievances heard. I really liked that about it.

But, then it turned out to be really shady and that was not at all unexpected. There was a lot of undercovers involved. And things got really dark.

Do you want to elaborate?

I mean, I can.

Like, for instance, every day, Occupy Wall Street would have these meetings and things would go up for a vote, people would vote on it, etcetera, and there were a couple of people, this one woman in particular, who was living in the park and doing a lot of work. I think she was working around the food, doing a lot with the kitchen, so everyone assumed she was just a member of the park.

And she would always create problems in the meetings and stuff. And then, the day the raid happened, she was with the police and wearing a detective’s jacket, and it was suddenly like, “Oh, that’s why she made everything a nightmare.” She was just doing the classic thing that police undercovers do: Infiltrate and make everything a nightmare.

And then she was laughing as everyone was getting arrested.

So, there was, like, real evil stuff.

The night the park got raided, this man who was a part of the Finance Working Group, who I knew because I had dealt with them in the past about getting stuff for the library, he stole $50,000. The night of the raid, he was like, “Help, I need help, I need help getting this money to the lawyers,” and I snuck him past the police barricade, because I’m a lot, like, wilier than him.

He was a corporate-type dude and he had definitely never snuck into or out of anything in his life, and he said he needed to get this money to the lawyers so we could bail people out in the morning who were arrested in the raid.

So, I was like, “I could sneak you outta here, dude. Let’s go,” and then we just never saw him again. The next day, everyone was like, “Well, $50,000 is missing,” and I was like, “Well, the guy from the Finance Group told me he needed to take it and get it to the lawyers,” and he turned out to be some shady person.

I didn’t elect him to the Finance Group, so I don’t really feel responsible for that, because his group should have sussed that out a long time ago. Like, they let him hold all the money and he just ran off with it and disappeared into a Wall Street building. Like, Wall Street people literally stole that money. It was crazy.

So, accountability things like that, I think, are a problem. It’s great to have an open platform, but it was maybe a little too open, so it allowed for all this infiltration to happen and that’s why it didn’t really accomplish anything.

People always say Occupy Wall Street was a failure. I don’t think it was a failure. I think it accomplished a lot. It changed the narrative about a lot of things, and I think it opened people up to a lot of things, and I think, for that, it was a success.

But, like, it definitely had some shady characters in it …

When the raid happened, I watched the whole thing go down, but I was on probation at the time, so I could not get arrested, so I was super careful about running in and out of the park. I was sneaking all the stuff out of the People’s Library as the police were trying to destroy it.

For example, I snuck all the Korans out, because if there had been photos of police breaking Korans, that would’ve been a huge taboo. It’s against the religion of Islam to break a Koran, and we had all these religious texts.

And I snuck out all the poetry anthologies that we had made.

Let’s come back to that in a moment … What is your fondest memory of participating in Occupy?

I really enjoyed the poetry assemblies. That was probably my favorite part. It was such a beautiful mix of people: There were kids from the Bronx who were into hip hop, NYU Professors, famous published poets, so many different kinds of people all converging in one place.

That doesn’t really ever happen. You know?

Let’s talk about the day of the raid. First, broadly describe what that day was like for you from beginning to end?

We had known for a while that they were preparing to shut it down, but there was a call network of 50,000 New Yorkers who would be alerted whenever it seemed like it was going to happen, and about half of them were going to rush to the park. So, it was just crazy.

I forget exactly why there weren’t a lot of people around that night, but there weren’t a lot of people around the night it happened. I mean, the Core Working Group was there.

But it all happened really quickly.

It was the middle of the night. We were hanging out in the library and only me and a couple others were there. That’s how I ended up becoming a witness in the court case, because most of the People’s Library team was not around when it happened, and the ones that were around were from Canada, so they couldn’t really be that active in the court case.

But, basically, this old man I was friends with came up to me, like, shaking, and was like, “THEY’RE GONNA DO IT. THEY’RE GONNA RAID THE PARK TONIGHT,” and he was working as a security person for the protesters.

I was like, “No, it’ll be fine.”

And he was like, “No, this police officer just approached me and told me, ‘Remember the Battle of Normandy,’” which is, like, really crazy.

My grandfather was in World War II and he was at Normandy. That was one of the most psychotic days in human history, so for a cop to cite that as, like, what was about to go down, is really scary. You know? That’s a really scary historical thing to cite. So, this old man was shaking.

And I was like, “Um,” and then out of nowhere, we looked over and we realized, on this one side-road, there was a lot of cops gathering, and within minutes, they created a rectangular wall around the park, so there was a solid line of police completely surrounding the park.

Then they launched the sound cannon.

And that was, like, the end. You know?

He said into the bullhorn, “You have 15 minutes to evacuate the park,” but within five minutes, they had the sound cannon going off and the police marched into the park in a straight line with their knives and batons out and started slashing and breaking everything.

I was in the library and I watched them destroy everything and throw it all in the trash. I was a witness in the lawsuit that was filed on behalf of the books.

Describe watching them destroy the library.

They came in with garbage trucks and backed them up along the edge of the park, so they were just grabbing everything and throwing everything into these trucks: books, tents, clothes, everything that was there.

I took the poetry anthologies we had made, because people from all over the world were sending us their poems.[i]

We had the anthologies locked to the library, because people kept stealing them. They were in three or four of these three-ring binders. Later, it got pressed into an actual book through a Kickstarter that I did. That was in a bunch of libraries.

Was there anything else you wanted to say about the raid?

Just that it was really scary, and I think that testifying against the police ruined my life …

But, the day of the raid, I was very careful to not get caught. Like, I ran. Some people were locking themselves to trees with gas masks on. I was not one of those people. I had to get outta there but there were people doing a lot more direct action than I was. I was trying to get things out that I thought were important to be saved.

It must’ve been hard to grab some of those things …

Yeah, we had become friends with a woman who lived nearby, and she let us take a bunch of stuff to her apartment a few blocks away.

Was it hard to get the books themselves while you were in the park?

Most of them were destroyed but we got a few crates out, of books that were really important.

We actually did the NYPD a huge favor, because there’s a whole thing about how, if anyone destroys a Koran, Muslim extremists will go to war against you. So, we actually did the police a huge favor by making sure that they didn’t do that.

There was also a lot of ephemera that we got out of there, not just the Poetry Anthology, but newspapers that people had made. People were making all kinds of stuff in the park and we were getting that stuff out.

Were you surprised the police hadn’t been able to destroy the poems before you got to them?

No, because we got it out.

I grabbed the poetry books the second it started, like, the second they started coming in. I grabbed a few crates worth of stuff and ran. Then I came back for more.

What was the second trip like?

They had already really begun dismantling the park, so I wasn’t able to get as much out the second time.

I started reading poems to the police from The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology as I was running around them, avoiding getting arrested.

What was that like, reading poetry to the police?

Everyone had sent me their poems, and I felt like that was what they were there for. It just felt like what was supposed to happen, like it was why the poems were there.

Do you feel like any of the police were listening to the poems?

Yeah, they all called me “Sparrow” the next day, which was the name of this poet in the book who wrote some really funny poems, and the cops then thought my name was Sparrow, which was kind of funny.

What was the rest of that day like for you, the day of the eviction, after it happened?

It was really exhausting. We didn’t sleep for about 24 hours. I cried a lot. It was really sad. A lot of people who I became friends with got arrested. I saw a lot of people get hurt, brutally arrested. The police were in riot gear.

And the sound cannon was really terrible. My head was rattled for a while after that. It really messed everyone up. LRAD sound cannons are built to fuck your head up. [ii] It really worked. You know? So, it was exhausting.

I had really bad PTSD after that. I was having crazy nightmares for a while. We were all sent to sleep in these churches and I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. It was really bad.

What was the main cause that, the PTSD, nightmares, waking up screaming?

The sound cannon, and the police violently hurting everyone. Like, if you don’t know what an LRAD sound cannon is: It’s a military war machine that was developed to basically break your brain through sound and they used it on American civilians in the park.

You said you went to the churches that night.

Yeah, we stayed in different churches for a few weeks after that.

What was that like?

Exhausting, moving around, trying to figure out what was happening, trying to figure out where all our stuff went. We got our belongings back about five days later.

Our stuff was basically dumped in this giant NYPD structure in giant piles, and we had to dig through to find our belongings. That was awful.

How many people were there?

I mean, everyone from Occupy Wall Street. All of our stuff went into those trash bins, then we had to go look through these giant piles of trash to find it.

The process of digging through it was all organized by the police. All of that was a blur to me.

What did you lose?

My clothes, my tent, my sleeping bag was ruined. We had pretty nice stuff, because we had raised money as the People’s Library and we were preparing for winter, so we had gotten all this winter gear, really expensive camping gear, and it was all just destroyed.

And now the Tree of Life is a steel monument.[iii]

Did Occupy end after the raid? Where did the movement go from there, in your view?

After the raid, a lot of the energy behind Occupy Wall Street moved to Hurricane Sandy Relief, and a lot of the people who were involved in Occupy Wall Street who were housed became involved with Occupy Sandy.[iv] So, all the energy of Occupy went into that.

Then other things happened. The Black Lives Matter movement started and a lot of people moved in that direction. It became other things, inspired other things. But, directly, Occupy Wall Street became Occupy Sandy.

Then it was clear that we weren’t gonna have another occupation and that’s when people started to go in new directions …

Some of my friends were part of Occupy Sandy. They were straight up going into buildings that didn’t have power where disabled people were trapped and getting people out. They didn’t sleep for about five days straight. They were doing real direct action to save people’s lives and get people food and water, because the city didn’t do what they get paid to do.

In general, where do you feel the country has gone since then? Where do you feel we are now, 10 years after Occupy, compared to then?

Well, I don’t know if you’re dealing with this in New England, wherever you are, but in New York City today, we are breathing in the smoke from the California wildfires.[v]

So, obviously, Wall Street is still in charge and destroying the future of our lives.

[i] https://peopleslibrary.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/occupypoems1.pdf

[ii] Ben Kesslen, “‘Plug Your Ears and Run”: NYPD’s Use of Sound Cannons is Challenged in Federal Court, NBC News, 6/22/19

[iii] (See part one of this story for more on the Tree of Life)

[iv] Alan Feuer, “Occupy Sandy: A Movement Moves to Relief,” The New York Times, 11/9/2012

[v] Peter Szekely, “Western Wildfire Smoke Causes Cross-Country Air Pollution,” 7/21/21