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Counter-Organizing in Libraries

Published onDec 27, 2023
Counter-Organizing in Libraries

Libraries are increasingly on the frontlines of defending democracy, and resisting efforts to disrupt LGBTQ+ programming, ban books focused on inclusivity, and attack critical race theory. In response to a series of white nationalist programming and presence on college campuses and in libraries in 2019, a group of library workers partnered with Western States Center to create Confronting White Nationalism in Libraries, a toolkit aimed at providing library workers, administrators and communities with tools to effectively push back. 

In developing the toolkit, authors interviewed library directors and workers across the U.S. to gather incidents and scenarios of white nationalism and bigotry present in our communities. Workers were asked how staff, administrators and larger library structures responded, what actions were taken, safety of staff and community members, and what training or tools were provided. A common thread in the interviews was feeling a lack of ability to enact change or disrupt white nationalist presence safely. Often as government workers and publicly funded institutions, it can feel limiting to work within free speech laws. This toolkit is all about finding creative actions using our own free speech to support inclusive values that reject white nationalism. From information literacy lessons to community building programs, there are many creative tactics at our disposal. 

The toolkit is organized around six realistic scenarios, highlighting proactive and reactive practices for acting along with communications approaches: A) anonymous use of hate symbols or speech; B) invocation of white nationalist ideology; C) white nationalist iconography and group identifiers; D) evidence of white nationalist groups organizing; E) meeting room bookings to organize or antagonize; and F) protest of programs that promote inclusion. Included are materials to help readers learn more about white nationalism as an organized social movement so that we can understand its intentionality in creating harm. 

This piece provides an overview of a strategy outlined in the toolkit under scenario E: Meeting Room Bookings to Organize or Antagonize and how it was used to counter-organize against an event held at a public library.

The Event

Kirk Cameron, former child-actor and now right-wing political Evangelist, has been making appearances in public libraries since 2022 to read the children’s books he’s published with Brave Books. Brave Books’ mission is to “promote free speech and traditional values in public institutions” and to win back story hour from “Marxist libraries” that promote Drag Queen Story Hour.1 Cameron sought for public libraries to sponsor his Freedom Island Tour and, after being “denied” financial support, started renting rooms. He claims to be in favor of free speech and the takeback of public spaces.2 The tour aims to evoke a moral panic around public institutions like libraries no longer honoring “viewpoints that are foundational, time-honored, and true” in favor of “the more radical.”3 Cameron’s strategy of booking library rooms is an organizing strategy to disrupt public spaces, and is a known tactic that other white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys use regularly. It brings in additional security and can promote hostile environments for workers and community members. 

On May 27, 2023, Cameron’s team rented a room at the Seattle Public Library, but was moved, free-of-charge, to a larger, 200-person room by the library. The event pulled in an audience that referred to Seattle as "the belly of the beast," and Cameron thanked them for traveling so far to attend, in one of the "darkest places in America right now."4

Counter-Organizing Strategy

The tactic for most public libraries has been to deny Cameron direct support and promotion for the tour, but Cameron’s team is able to go through public channels for booking rental spaces within those libraries. Some libraries, like Toronto Public Library, have proactively changed their meeting room policies to make it more difficult for these types of bookings that don’t align with their values.5 While many public libraries have not been able to deny this rental due to free speech and use clauses, a team of community members and library workers used the Confronting White Nationalism in Libraries Toolkit to get creative with counter-organizing, with the aim of disincentivizing ultra-right activists like Cameron from using our public, democratic spaces to spread their hate. 

Scenario E: Meeting Room Bookings to Organize or Antagonize, outlines a strategy that partners with organizations, businesses and the community to raise money and awareness in response to white nationalist organizing in the library’s space. “For instance, you might convince local businesses to donate money to a civil rights organization for every white nationalist that shows up to a local rally or meeting. That way, their organizing becomes a de facto fundraiser for the group that they intend to harm.”6

For the event at Seattle Public Library, community members contacted their local networks and communities and asked for pledges of support. For each attendee that showed up at Cameron’s event, community members pledged a dollar amount. Like a walk-a-thon, organizers asked the community to pledge a specific amount, such as 25 cents, for every participant who attends Cameron’s event. Then, a counter-organizing member attended Cameron’s event to perform a headcount. 

The great news is that this strategy raised over $5000. Individuals who pledged were notified and asked to choose from three provided options to donate their contributions: Drag Queen Story Hour, LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund, or Libraries for the People. The three organizations were chosen specifically to counter Cameron’s attack on drag queen story hour and library workers who stand up against censorship. Drag Queen Story Hour is a non-profit started in 2015, offering literary and creative programming for kids and teens to explore gender fluidity, with all events led by drag queens and kings. The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund is a trust founded to support library workers who have been discriminated against, denied employment or challenged due to identity or defense of intellectual freedom. Libraries for the People is an anti-censorship leftist library project that advocates for public libraries. 

The bad news is that this strategy raised so much money because 227 people were in attendance at Cameron’s event. The total amount of money raised was publicly announced, along with the message that when anti-library bigotry groups come to our communities, we will counteract their intended effort: we will grow support, love, and resources for libraries off the back of their hateful organizing.  

The Toolkit

Interested to see other organizing strategies to counteract white nationalist and hateful ideologies that are present in our libraries and communities? Download the toolkit for free from the Western State Center site, and host a conversation with staff on the scenarios and possibilities for your workplace. 

This piece is written by a group of library workers who partnered with Western States Center to write and publish Confronting White Nationalism in Libraries, a toolkit for library workers, administrators and community members to proactively push against white nationalist and bigoted attacks on our communities and libraries. 
Ruth Griffith:

Thank you for your courageous work, and for spreading the word about the CWNL toolkit. If I’m doing the math right, there were FAR more people pledging a donation than there were at the hate-based event. This summation in your article just makes my heart sing: “when anti-library bigotry groups come to our communities, we will counteract their intended effort: we will grow support, love, and resources for libraries off the back of their hateful organizing.”

Thank you!!