Challenging oppressive security measures at Winnipeg's downtown library

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Image: By Vivienne Ho. Used with permission of Millennium For All.

Joe Curnow is an assistant professor of education at the University of Manitoba. Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. Both are actively involved in Millennium For All, a group organizing against the forced bag searches and metal detector scans instituted in February as conditions of entry to the Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg. Scott Neigh interviews them about the new security checkpoints, about how that relates to what public libraries are actually supposed to be, and about the community struggle against them.

Here's the context -- as is true in so many cities, public space in Winnipeg's downtown is highly contested. Existing residents are disproportionately Indigenous and poor, and in barely-coded racist and classist ways that part of the city, regularly gets tagged with labels like "dangerous" and "run down." City elites are encouraging the kinds of capital investment and social reorganization that some might call "revitalization" but that others would name "displacement" and "gentrification." And in entirely predictable ways, the things that are done to make the downtown more inviting and comfortable for whiter and wealthier Winnipeggers also tend to make it less accessible and less safe for people who already live there, particularly people who are already more marginalized.

The library administration explained the new security measures by arguing that there was an urgent need to act in response to an increase in "incidents" happening in the library. In explaining what these incidents consist of, they emphasized violence and the threat of it.

In general, public libraries are one of the few public spaces remaining which work to be welcoming to everyone and do not require you to spend money to be there. No other public library anywhere in Canada uses these kinds of security checkpoints. In making this decision, the library administration consulted with police but not with library patrons or even with their own advisory board.

A more rigorous examination of the "incidents" in question reveal that there had been no increase, most were not violent, and those few that were violent would mostly not have been prevented by bag checks and metal detectors anyway. The library administration's identification of dangerous and potentially violent patrons as the reason for the checkpoints invokes existing racist stereotypes tied to downtown Winnipeg and the people who live there. According to today's guests, research shows that rather than making people safe, what security checkpoints actually do is create barriers of various kinds to marginalized people entering a space. Indeed, usage of the library is down by at least 25 per cent compared to the same period in 2018.

Community opposition to the new security measures has taken lots of different forms from lots of different sources, but one important nexus for resistance came together under the name Millennium For All. They have focused on being strategic in how and where they exert pressure on the library and the city. They have of course done cleverly themed public actions -- a read-in, a shush-in, and so on -- and they have also made careful choices about how and when to meet with decision-makers, which municipal committees to present to, when to mobilize supporters, and how to amplify their message via the media.

Millennium For All has also released their own detailed report on the situation, rebutting most of the fundamentals of the library administration's account of the security change. Among other things, the report talks about the approaches successfully taken by other Canadian public libraries, and highlights the effectiveness of being welcoming, reducing barriers to access, offering resources and supports for marginalized people, and having firm and gentle guidelines around conduct that emphasize de-escalation, in order to make libraries genuinely welcoming and safe for as broad a range as possible of patrons and staff.

The group recently won a small but crucial victory. City council was debating making the new security measures permanent, but mobilized community pressure convinced them not to do so. While the checkpoints are still in place, there is now an opening for further organizing to push the library and the city to remove them. And Millennium For All has bigger goals as well -- they want to take aim at the broader agenda of development and securitization that is trying to remake Winnipeg's downtown.

Image: By Vivienne Ho. Used with permission of Millennium For All.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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