This column has discussed book after book that has been banned and/or challenged for various reasons. Most incidents are the result of ignorance and intolerance, others may even be innocently well-intentioned; but what happens when entire libraries are threatened in order to serve the arrogant hatred of racism from ignorant individuals to push a political agenda?
That’s what happened this week, as the Golden Meadow Public Library contended with what has to be the most sordid censorship effort to ever occur in the United States. There was a “special election” held to defund the public library in order to use the funds to build a new jail. What makes this more odious was the reasoning behind it:
“They’re teaching Mexicans how to speak English. Let that son of a bitch go back to Mexico. There’s just so many things they’re doing that I don’t agree with. …Them junkies and hippies and food stamps [recipients] and all, they use the library to look at drugs and food stamps [on the Internet]. I see them do it.”
That’s an exact quote from Lindel Toups, chair of the Parish Council in Lafourche, Louisiana, said in reference to Biblioteca Hispana, a Hispanic-language segment of the Golden Meadow library branch. Toups wants to redirect money that has already been voted by the people to fund the library- an institution dedicated to educating people of all ages, helps them find jobs in a damaged economy, connects them to social services, and a place of self-discovery and community identity- to build a new jail. To do that he held a special election yesterday in an area that is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Lafourche Parish is west of New Orleans.
Nearly 1,200 people voted early on yesterday’s ballot proposal, a number that Tammy Wendelschaefer, deputy registrar of the Lafourche Registrar of Voters, described as “very high.”
“I think it’s the controversy of the issue,” she said.
Supporters of the plan claim that the revenue stream is the one way to finance a new $25 million jail without raising taxes on parish citizens and they point to the library’s continually-growing budget as evidence that the system is collecting more money than it needs.
To be fair, the existing jail does have serious issues. It is overcrowded and badly damaged do to its age, but most agree that defunding libraries is not the answer to those infrastructure problems.
Library officials were quick to refute those claims and say that increased spending, done at deficit levels by drawing from a fund balance, is necessary to make up for self-inflicted spending cuts. They also noted that seven years ago the system voluntarily reduced its tax rates by 2 mills- double the amount posed on this weekend’s ballot.
Public debate on this issue has been sharp and, at times, quite personal. Nevertheless, the parish council placed the proposition on the ballot via a 5-3-1 vote. Three councilmen opposed it and one was absent.
Not surprising, Toups served as the chair of the “New Jail Committee,” established in 2011 to help secure funding for a new facility. He said the library’s revenue is a “logical choice”, but this just seems like a callous means to an end.
“They’ve got too much money,” Toups said. “We’re giving the public the chance to raise the jail money without raising taxes. Any blind man can see that.”
But it’s more insidious than that.
Toups does not personally or philosophically agree with the library’s evolving role in the community, which influenced his repulsive quote.
Toups says that he doesn’t remember making those comments, and “that little writer just wanted to make a name for himself.” That rather condescending comment was in reference to Tri-Parish Times reporter, Eric Besson, who, according to Toups, “apparently picked up on informal comments made after a meeting without saying he was using the comments for a story.”
Toups isn’t the first politician to burn himself from a “hot mic” episode, nor will he be the last.
So how did the election turn out?
The results are in and the anti-library measure in Lafourche was defeated with 53% voting against the measure, thanks mainly to a social media campaign by John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary.org, to educate and inform the public on the issue.
About 43% of households in Lafourche Parish lack internet access at home, but more than half of its residents hold library cards, and they consistently vote in favor of milages for libraries. That could have been enough in its own right to bring citizens to the polls, but it was Toups’ blatantly unrestrained racial comments that riled library supporters, prompting many in the community to suspect his motivations for using library funds to build the jail.
Before the victory celebrations begin, though, there is a very sobering reality to consider that the ballot initiative was only rejected by barely a five to four margin- a move that would have quickly and surely sent the library system into deficit.
That’s not much, when you really stand back and look at it. Had only a handful of voters chose differently things could have gone the other way. This is also a very distressing commentary on voter apathy, in general. What if supporters of the library had not taken the time to go to the polls? This is proof that every vote does count and that every ballot proposal has a long-term impact on the people, no matter how mundane those effects may seem in the short-term.
Today the voice of the people was heard, but what about tomorrow?
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/
Sources: EveryLibrary.org, Tri-Parish Times, Huffington Post, LA Times
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions