Over the last week, we’ve seen a collective outcry sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Protests have been punctuated by demands calling on the city to defund the police and fully-fund black communities. The death of George Floyd cuts deep and has unleashed a rage that I and so many black people carry with us. This rage is fueled by prolonged, systemic failures to invest in our jobs, housing, education, and community resources.
As these protests continued, the National Guard used Philly libraries for shelter. The irony of this cannot be overstated. The libraries are not a place for soldiers who criminalize and hurt our people with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests. The library should serve as a sanctuary. It should be a safe haven that provides books, resources, and programs to uplift people. I wonder when that purpose was forgotten? When did the city start choosing cops over communities?
I’m a seasonal library worker, or at least I was. Last Monday, I received my pink slip — a notice that I was being laid off from my job as an After School Leader with the LEAP program at the Coleman Regional Library in Germantown, a program available at every branch of the Free Library for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. On any given day we might be making slime, painting with watercolors, playing with design software, or helping with homework. The variety of activities provide a world of exposure to students and childcare relief to working parents, for free. But most of all, we were a friendly face the kids would see everyday.
For years, black communities have fought to expand programs like LEAP. Instead, we have been starved of resources due to austerity measures put in place by elected officials and technocrats lacking a bold vision to transform black communities in the city. In Mayor Jim Kenney’s original proposal, 15% of the operating budget is dedicated to the police department, nearly 20 times the budget for community libraries. On Tuesday, Kenney announced new plans to eliminate a $19 million increase to Philadelphia’s police department budget and take other steps toward reform. The impact on other department cuts remains unknown.
When electeds employ these kinds of measures, they strip budgets of resources communities need and encourage the policing of under-resourced black communities. This cycle of disinvestment and hyper policing causes an uptick in fines, fees, and surveillance. It causes people to feel trapped.
I am part of a wave of workers left without a job because of Mayor Kenney’s revised budget. It proposes funding the library at $39.3 million for the next two years, a $12 million cut during that period. The outcome of these cuts? Limited full-time work, three-month layoffs, and temporary non-union workers. These are devastating losses to black, seasonal workers like me.
And we’ve learned the hard way, these cuts are not temporary. The libraries never fully recovered from the Great Recession. In 2010, Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget drastically cut library funding down to $40.5 million, after adjusting for inflation. As a result, the library system experienced staffing constraints, shortened service hours, and the loss of Saturday hours. Kenney’s current proposed 19% cut to the library mirrors Nutter’s cuts. Library workers and Friends of the Free Library fought to substantially increase the library budget only last year.
The library is so much more than a place to get books. It’s a free, safe place to be after school. It provides access to a computer with internet, so you can apply for a job or beef up your computer technology skills. It’s a place to play Minecraft with a bunch of your friends, and you might get pulled into a cookie-baking workshop while you are there. It’s a warm place in the winter and a place with air conditioning in the summer.
When library funding goes away, people lose this refuge when they need it most.
When Black Lives Matter, the city’s budget prioritizes black communities. It protects black jobs and funds city services that our communities rely on. It recognizes that expanded policing has never benefited us, and regressive budgets that put the burden of the crisis on black and poor communities further trap us. Instead it finds progressive revenue sources, through cutting the inflated police budget and increasing taxes on the ultra wealthy and corporations. It believes in and funds a city with libraries, housing, education, and arts, where black communities can truly thrive.
Kah Yangni is a seasonal city worker at the Free Library of Philadelphia.