Community forces temporary stalemate in library struggle: New phase begins

Community members make their voices heard at the April 24 meeting. Photo: Jared Grillo, Indianapolis Liberation Center.

Months of sustained struggle by the local community at large against the Indianapolis Public Library Board of Trustees made the Board’s corrupt and anti-democratic nature clear for all in the city and even country early on. Wildstyle Paschall, a local historian and cultural worker, expressed the people’s consensus in a December 2022 Indianapolis Recorder piece: “Most of the Indianapolis public library board needs to resign.” After long-standing disorder, broader public outrage, a series of Board member resignations, and multiple victories for the people, the anti-people faction of the Board led by Hope Tribble temporarily re-consolidated its control over our library system with the outrageous appointment of the uninspiring, unqualified, and unpopular Greg Hill as CEO, an appointment that literally took place behind closed doors and potentially in violation of the Indiana Open Door Law.

This is the time for us to reflect on our remarkable successes and minor setbacks in this relatively long battle so we can build on our victories and recommit to the struggle to make our library truly public. Our reflections should be prefaced by one significant but under-reported fact: The majority of the current board members—Hope Tribble, Raymond Biederman, Drs. Eugene White and Luis Palacio—are deeply entrenched in the political machinery and have access to funds and numerous positions of power. The same was true of former anti-democratic members T.D. Robinson and Curtis Bigsbee. The people, on the other hand, have nothing but our determination, willingness to sacrifice, ability to unite, not to mention the support of courageous board members Dr. Khaula Murthada and Dr. Patricia Payne who consistently fight for the people and remain on the board today.

Hill’s appointment more evidence of board’s corruption

Hill’s potentially illegal appointment as CEO is certainly a disappointment to working-class people in Indianapolis who overwhelmingly favor Nichelle M. Hayes. Hayes is a long-time IndyPL employee, director of the Center for Black Literature and Culture, and recently served 8 successful months as interim CEO of the Indianapolis Public Library. Hayes popularity is based on the trust she built with the community, evidenced by a petition to hire her that gathered nearly 2,000 signatures in December of 2022.

After numerous contradictory excuses, recounted in Black Indy LIVE, the board announced they would initiate another national search. Unsurprisingly, this was another lie.

Tribble’s faction hired Hill without ever submitting a resume, participating in an interview process, or presenting his vision of the library to the public. Instead, he received the job because he was a yes man who happened to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, Hill was ultimately hired because he was the only person left. No one else was shameless enough to accept the position in the face of massive public condemnation after months of chaos and mismanagement on the part of the board.

A stalemate, not a defeat

The current moment in the struggle to establish public control over our public library is not characterized as a defeat but as a temporary stalemate the people forced on the powerful. This in itself is a tremendous accomplishment, as hundreds if not thousands of community members stayed regularly engaged in through all of the twists and turns of the struggle.

Public board meetings are now packed with the public

IndyPL meetings, which are usually rubber-stamp sessions in front of a few reporters, turned into forums of democratic debate and even argumentation. This not only demarcated the battle lines between the community and a small clique of powerful people but, more importantly, demonstrated what makes public entities like our library so important: the public is the place where we engage in dialogue and exchange perspectives and opinions not to merely express them but to make a public decision.

While this in itself is reason for optimism, the people won several concrete victories in the past course of the struggle, not to mention our 2021 movement that successfully kicked out racist CEO Jackie Nytes.

We organized and flexed our collective power in an unprecedented way, organically connecting with our fellow residents and forming alliances and relationships between religious, political, neighborhood, and other organizations and leaders. It is important to recognize that library workers themselves—and not only their union, AFSCME Local 3395—led this struggle together with library patrons and a variety of community partners. Together, we forced major concessions in the face of enormous odds, including five major victories.

Victory 1: Forcing Gabriel Morley to decline the board’s CEO offer

The board’s nationwide search resulted in two finalists. During their November 30, 2022 public talks, Hayes emerged as the clear winner, particularly compared to Gabriel Morley’s embarrassingly inept and pointless presentation. The board made the still-unexplained decision to extend the offer to Morley, who abruptly quit his job overseeing the New Orleans library system after a local news team discovered he was in violation of the residency clause.

As a direct result of our movement, Morley declined the offer less than 24 hours later. One lesson here is that, what appears as a defeat one night, can turn into a victory the next morning. It is rare that we can accomplish victories so rapidly. The other general lesson, then, is that it takes time for organizing to result in concrete victories.

Victory 2: Black librarians’ caucus refuses to host conference in Indianapolis 

As a result of the Board’s continued refusal to appoint Hayes, the other finalist of the national search, a leading member of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association flew to Indianapolis to speak in front of a public board meeting, threatening to boycott Indianapolis where they planned to hold their July 2023 conference.

On January 6, 2022, the Caucus announced they were officially moving their 12th annual conference. They also released a damning statement condemning the Board’s decision, part of which reads:

“Due to the actions of the Indianapolis Public Library Board of Trustees, BCALA members have determined that Indianapolis is an inhospitable location, and the conference will not be held there.”

The lesson here is that our ability to disseminate information about our struggle garnered national support from this prestigious and reputable organization that expressed deep solidarity not only in words, but in action.

Victory 3: Campaign forces multiple resignations of anti-people Board members

Board member Dr. TD Robinson, who voted against hiring Hayes, resigned from the board a month after the struggle broke out and well before the 2025 date of his appoint. Tellingly, his resignation was announced on January 10, the day after protesters packed the City-County Council demanding that they rescind his appointment. Possibly the wisest member of the anti-people faction, it is likely that Robinson took the opportunity to run knowing that public outrage wasn’t going to die down.

Photo: Bryce Gustafson

Then, on March 16, worn out by the ongoing struggle, board Vice President and cop Curtis Bigsbee resigned. Bigsbee used his resignation letter as one last attempt to prevent the public from winning. He utilized the the racist and conservative rhetoric of a “silent majority” who are in favor of unpopular opinions but apparently not supportive enough to say anything.

He urged his appointing body, the Marion County Board of Commissioners, to “find an appropriate new member who is dedicated to the purpose of IndyPL’s Strategic Plan, someone who will not waver or be intimidated by a few voices that seem to overpower the silent majority.” This rhetoric is widely discredited by historians.

Victory 4: Former library worker and community organizer appointed to the board

On January 19, just on the heels of Robinson’s resignation, we accomplished what is perhaps our most concrete, long-term, and significant victory when the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners appointed Stephen Lane to the board. Lane is the only current board member who has actually worked for the Indianapolis Public Library System. His appointment lasts until 2026 and adds a third people’s advocate to the board in addition to Drs. Murthada and Payne.

The IndyPL’s announcement touts Lane’s numerous credentials and deep roots in Indianapolis. Lane, who lives in the Haughville neighborhood, graduated from Lawrence Central High School, pursued undergraduate education at Indiana University in Bloomington and earned his degree in cultural anthropology with a minor in Africana Studies. He also earned his Master of Library Science and Master of Public History from IUPUI, formerly worked at the Indianapolis Public Library, and continues to work in library services today.

Lane speaking

In addition to being more qualified than Tribble and her faction, Lane is actually involved in his community. Lane is a central coordinating organizer with the Indianapolis Liberation Center. In the past two years, he has been a consistently vocal and active advocate for the people. He’s been a key figure in the ongoing library movement while, at the same time, leading struggles for justice for victims of IMPD murder and terror, including movements for justice for Jermaine Vaughn and Herman Whitfield III. He has also been involved in the mutual aid program, Hope Packages, among others.

In an interview, Lane affirmed that his appointment wasn’t about him but about our library. “Tonight it wasn’t just me that got elected, he framed it as a victory for “all the library workers who were made to feel powerless!” Significantly, the IPS press release stated they appointed Lane because “he is an advocate for social justice” and “has worked as a librarian in this system and understands both what libraries mean to our community and the opportunities this library system can bring to bear for our community.”

One lesson here is that we must be open to and, if appropriate, pursue all avenues to advance our cause. Another lesson is that, when we organize consistently and have popular support, our gains can come from unexpected places. There was no campaign to appoint Lane to the board; it was purely the result of the IPS body realizing the stakes of the struggle and how they could best make the library public.

Victory 5: Raising public consciousness about IMPD terror and exposing Tribble’s lies

Since the community organized our first protest in support of Hayes, armed officers have been present at every public board meeting. Our movement made this a focal point of the February meeting. During public testimony, ANSWER Indiana Co-Coordinator Sam James said the deployment of armed officers at peaceful public meetings where no violence or even threats of violence occurred was ludicrous.

Newly-appointed member Lane asked Tribble why the rest of the board members weren’t notified about the decision. Tribble said she was acting in the interests of the board’s safety, stating “members have been aggressively approached” at previous meetings without citing a single incident. No board member chimed in to offer any evidence. When asked about how much money she was spending on hiring armed cops as her personal security, she had no response. Later, she revealed it was to the tune of $80 per officer per hour.

We revealed that Tribble unilaterally decided to use public funds to mobilize armed IMPD officers, creating an intimidating presence to prevent the public from participating in public meetings. She didn’t ask or even inform her fellow members about the decision. In addition to exposing Tribble’s lies, having this dialogue occur in public demonstrated how Tribble runs the Board as what can only be described as a dictator.

At the next meeting in March, we again made this a focal point, as dozens of people from city leaders, workers, and religious leaders taking to the microphone. The Minister for Justice & Community Collaboration at St. Episcopal Church, Rev. Patrick Burke, was among them. It was his first time attending because, he said, “I thought it would resolve itself. But that is clearly not the case.” He spoke against the overwhelming police presence at public meetings on behalf of his organization.

“Bringing in the IMPD is very concerning from our perspective,” Burke remarked, citing statistics and Indianapolis’ recent and devastating history of police violence. “There are children in the lobby standing next to police officers. I was there in 2020,” referring to the uprisings against the War on Black America, and “we don’t want to see it anymore… I implore you, please don’t bring the IMPD into the mix any longer.”

Tribble refused to listen to Burke, like she refuses to listen to the rest of the public. The April meeting was scheduled to take place at the Michigan Road branch, where IMPD officers murdered and then mocked Dreasjon Reed in May 2020. Our movement seized on this opportunity to raise consciousness about ongoing police terror and reveal just how disconnected Tribble is from the community. One of our central demands when mobilizing for the April meeting was “No Cops at Library Board Meetings!” In response, Tribble moved the location to the Library Services Center, where there were even more armed police officers there to intimidate the public. She has not scheduled a meeting to be held at the Michigan Road branch, abandoning that community and depriving them of access to the board in their neighborhood.

One lesson is that we should take every opportunity to expose the anti-democratic and corrupt nature of Tribble and her crew of Biederman, White, and Palacio, which helps everyone recognize this is systemic and not incidental. Another lesson is that we shouldn’t shy away from connecting one struggle to another struggle. Not only are these struggles deeply connected, but when we merge them we energize both movements. In a sense, Tribble unintentionally helped revive public consciousness of IMPD’s routine terror, which gave fire to struggles for justice for Jermaine Vaughn, Herman Whitfield III, and over IMPD victims.

Looking back and moving forward: The next steps in the struggle!

Aside from these impressive concrete victories, there have also been major advancements in terms of working-class consciousness in the city. The library board has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that, like other so-called “public” institutions in the city, it is composed mainly of careerists loyal to money and not the public good. 

Tribble, Biederman, White, and Palacio have been exposed as frauds who refuse to listen to the people of the community. Drs. Murtada and Payne, as well as Lane, on the other hand, have proven their commitment to the community by standing strong in the face of outright disrespect and disregard from the rest of the board.

The struggle on the ground is far from over. A new petition has been opened calling for a public hearing on lost confidence in the four IndyPL board members who have neglected the input of the people. Sign the petition and raise your voice in favor of a truly public and democratic library system!

Up until now, we’ve been fighting on their terrain. We were subject to their Board meetings, had to enter their heavily-policed spaces with armed IMPD officers, and were forced to respond immediately when they called “emergency” Board meetings.

On June 5, however, we’re taking the struggle to our terrain: the streets! Join the community for a protest to continue the struggle on Lugar Plaza in downtown Indianapolis at 6:00 pm. Afterwards, we’ll march into the City-County Council building, holding our signs to make our messages clear, and deliver the over 200 signatures to demand a vote of no confidence in Tribble, White, Biederman, and Palacio.