Brad Lander for NYC

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A tale of two all-nighters

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The very worst and the very best of our democracy had all-nighters in Brooklyn last night … at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza.

My daughter Rosa and I went back and forth between them (no, we did not stay out all night, but a whole lot later than usual). We were struck by this study in contrasts: how our public institutions can draw out our best and our worst human selves.

At the federal jail in Sunset Park, the prisoners had another night, after a full week of them now, with no power, limited heat, no contact with family members, no information about what is going on, much of the time on lockdown, without the ability to leave their cell, even to take a shower. If you want a more detailed update on what we know now, the Times and the Intercept have good pieces up (You can also read my posts from Saturday & Sunday on my visits inside in the afternoon, and I’ll be back tomorrow morning to make sure the power gets turned on).

What disturbed me most was the attitude of prison officials, which ranged from lackadaisical to openly contemptuous (late at night, some corrections officers even came out to intimidate the protestors). It looks to me like some elements within the Federal Bureau of Prisons have, not surprisingly, had their law-and-order, give-em-what-they-deserve, racist, worst selves authorized and amplified by the Trump regime.     

Last night, the prisoners were joined in all-night solidarity by a protest vigil organized by the Justice League. Family members, neighbors, and activists have committed to stay out there until power is restored (and FWIW, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory are central leaders of the effort; I heard more than one of the Jews in the crowd say: “Whatever you thought about the Women’s March controversy, I’m really grateful for their leadership here. We definitely need to stay in solidarity.”).

Well after dark, a haunting call-and-response protest rang out, in which protestors would ring bells & chant “we see you,” and prisoners would respond by banging on the narrow windows of their cells with book lights. A chilling, and yet still very beautiful form of solidarity.

Meanwhile, about two miles away at the Brooklyn Public Library, Rosa & I also spent some time at the #NightOfPhilosophy, where thousands of people packed the library fuller than I have ever seen it, to attend talks by philosophers & thinkers of various stripes, lasting all night from 7pm to 7 am. It’s really hard to describe what a beautiful and uplifting event it was.

We got to hear Kwame Anthony Appiah talk about his work on identity with Emerson Sykes of the ACLU for a live taping of their At Liberty podcast, to hear talks on “Democratic Representation Beyond Elections” (you know I loved that one, especially the shout-out to participatory budgeting), and “How to Err Wisely.” (whole schedule here).

My favorite talk of the night was “Palaces for the People” by Eric Klinenberg, a wonderful story about libraries as profound social infrastructure -- where we take our tax dollars, build (sometimes) beautiful buildings, hire aggressively welcoming librarians, and in this hyper-consumerist world, offer books & music for free.

What we were doing last night at BPL was making collectively ourselves better (just as what is happening at the MDC is making us worse). Seriously. With thousands of us packed in (not fully as diverse as Brooklyn, but a lot closer than you might think) to think and learn together, surrounded quite literally by the shared knowledge & cultural heritage of our species. You could really feel your more generous, more thoughtful, better self rising up to meet the night.

Our public goods, the things we build together, and how we take care of them, say a lot about us. Not just libraries and prisons, but schools, parks, streets, and subways. It’s why I love participatory budgeting (and the recent episodes on Chris Hayes’ podcast on libraries & subways).

It’s not only that they reveal what we value, though they surely do. Or that they can be spaces of equality and community, though they surely can. It’s that they have the power to construct, elicit, and elevate our best democratic selves. Maybe even our best human ones.

It’s not quite as simple as this, but it’s not so much more complicated:

More libraries. Fewer jails.

Annie Levers