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NYC agrees to pay more than $230,000 after destroying Occupy books

April 10, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • New York sanitation workers remove debris and belongings left by protesters of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park during a nighttime raid on Nov. 15, 2011.
New York sanitation workers remove debris and belongings left by protesters… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

The City of New York has agreed to pay more than $230,000 to settle a lawsuit over destroying thousands of protesters' books after the city's November 2011 raid to break up the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

"It was more than just money," Norman Siegel, an attorney for the protesters in a federal lawsuit, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. "It was the importance of books and libraries and the importance of not violating people’s constitutional rights."

The national anti-inequality movement that began in New York partially faded from view after enthusiasm waned and police crackdowns around the country cleared out encampments that officials viewed as problematic.

Cities' attempts to police the movement sometimes brought costly lawsuits against public officials, including a $1-million settlement by the University of California with students pepper-sprayed by police.

The Nov. 15, 2011, nighttime police raid to break up the 24/7 Zuccotti Park encampment in New York swept up 3,600 books that had been donated to an on-site library by volunteers, librarians and authors, according to the lawsuit.

Some 2,600 of those books, which included works by Shakespeare, Dostoeyevski and Ayn Rand, were never seen again, Siegel said -- including a copy of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's autobiography that was destroyed.

“They actually threw the books in the back of these sanitation trucks that I call 'grinders,' and they grinded out the books and incinerated them,” said Siegel.

The city, which agreed to pay $47,000 in damages and $186,000 in attorneys' fees for seizing the library, did not outright apologize for destroying the books and remained unapologetic about the mayor's go-ahead to sweep the camp.

“It was absolutely necessary for the city to address the rapidly growing safety and health threats posed by the Occupy Wall street encampment," Sheryl Nuefeld, senior counsel for the city's administrative law division, said in a statement provided to The Times on Wednesday. "There are many reasons to settle a case, and sometimes that includes avoiding the potential for drawn-out litigation that bolsters plaintiff attorney fees.”

The language of the settlement was a little oblique: The city said it would "acknowledge and believe it unfortunate" that the books were taken and destroyed, adding that "when a person's property is removed by the city, it is important that the city exercise due care and adhere to established procedures in order to protect the legal rights of the property owners."

The language does not express an outright apology, but Siegel said a settlement would not have happened without a "mistakes-were-made" admission from the city.

“It was very important for historical purposes, not only to get compensation, but that there was some record that what they did that night was wrong, and that they should be held accountable," Siegel said. "I think we achieved that.”

Siegel said the four attorneys working the case were working pro-bono and that the protesters would use their $47,000 for library and literacy initiatives in New York.

Brookfield Office Properties Inc., which controls Zuccotti Park and was a defendant in the lawsuit, will pay the city almost $16,000 to help cover the settlement.

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