Tarnel Abbott isn’t just a staunch defender of free speech: she’s also a dedicated practitioner.
She can often be found addressing the Richmond City Council and walking picket lines, and she recently pounded the pavement in support of the campaign of Mayor-elect Gayle McLaughlin. She’s a leader in her union, SEIU Local 790, which represents most of the city’s workers.
But it was her work at the Richmond Public Library that won her honors as a champion of intellectual freedom.
Her passionate devotion to the right to express unpopular views proved inspirational to the California Library Association’s (CLA) Intellectual Freedom Committee, which recently awarded her the Zoia Horn Intellectual Freedom Award for 2006.
“As one of our committee said, ‘If every library had someone on staff taking these actions, imagine what a strong voice the library community would have in the fight to defend freedom of speech!’” wrote committee chair Janis O’Driscoll in the letter announcing the award.
The honor is named for the librarian—and sometime Daily Planet contributor—who went to jail for contempt when she refused to testify against Rev. Philip Berrigan and his six co-defendants in the “Harrisburg Seven” trial in 1972. She had met them while serving as head reference librarian at the Bucknell University reference library in Lewisburg, PA. Horn is now retired and lives in Oakland.
Among the activities cited by the CLA were Abbott’s annual displays of banned books, an annual film series co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Berkeley-Albany-Richmond-Kensington chapter, her ongoing work with Richmond Sister City Regla, Cuba, her part in helping to found Librarians for Intellectual Freedom and her role in winning a city council resolution opposing the PATRIOT Act’s provisions that allow federal investigators to snoop on the reading habits of library patrons.
“The Committee honors your proactive intellectual work,” O’Driscoll wrote, citing a committee member who said, “What I like about what Tarnel does is that she tackles the issues before there is a specific incident.” Said another, “Many librarians never think about ‘intellectual freedom’ until someone tries to deny its importance.”
The vote to bestow the honor on the Richmond librarian was unanimous.
An East Bay native, Abbott wasn’t always a librarian. “I’ve done a lot of different jobs, from being a short-order cook to stringing barbed wire for East Bay MUD,” she said.
But a love of books was always there, along with a literary heritage that goes back to her great-grandfather, radical author Jack London.
“There are some things you can’t avoid, and this was just something I was bound to do,” said Abbott as she sat at a table in the Richmond library.
“My grandmother was an author who became a librarian and worked for the labor federation. My great-aunt was also a librarian, and so was my former mother-in-law.
Her first “intellectual job” was a position with the Holmes Book Co. in Oakland, once one of the city’s great bookstores.
A single mom, Abbott enrolled at Antioch University West and went on to earn her Masters in Library and Information Science from UC Berkeley in 1986—a program no longer offered by the university.
After jobs with the Benecia and Contra Costa County libraries, she began as a children’s librarian in Richmond in 1990, and in 2001 moved into her role as reference librarian.
The low point in the library’s history came three years later when the city, faced with a $35 million budget shortfall, laid off two-thirds of its staff, and reduced most of those left to half-time positions.
“That set us way back. We have increased the hours and rehired or replaced most of the staff, but sometimes it’s almost like people don’t know we’re here. Library use is way down, and we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Part of it may be fear of violence,” she said, referring to the crimes that have earned the city the dubious statistical honor of being one of the state’s three deadliest communities.
But Abbott doesn’t get discouraged. She runs a nine-week program once a year with the Small Business Administration and the Small Business Development Center on building a business from scratch. “I’m a great advocate of small business,” she said.
“I try to do one or two cultural programs a year, and we did a human rights video series.”
She’s also eager to teach young people the skills of information-seeking, and in an era where students are often overly reliant on the Internet for their homework, she’ll help them learn to use the web better, along with the more traditional ink-on-paper media.
A lifelong progressive, Abbott went to Cuba along with other city officials when Regla became Richmond’s sister city, and was very much involved when Regla officials came to Richmond in 2001 as the first-ever official delegation from that island nation to the West Coast.
“The two cities have a lot in common. Both are communities in larger metropolitan areas, and Regla is right across the bay from Havana. It has a large Afro-Cuban population, and like Richmond it is poor and it has refineries,” she said.
Abbott came away impressed by the dynamism she found, and with unique programs devoted to aiding at-risk young people.
“We were gifted with prints by Antonio Canet, a world-famous artist who does linoleum block prints,” Abbott said. The 96-print series traces the history of the Cuban Revolution from Fidel Castro’s disastrous 1953 assault on the army’s Moncado Barracks through to recent times.
What particularly impressive Abbott was a program Canet has started to take at-risk youth from the streets and teach them the art of print-making. “He’s started an alternative school, and it seems to be working,” she said.
Another impressive Regla citizen is Dr. Raúl Gil Sánchez, director of the city’s community mental health program, Abbott said.
“He’s very dynamic, and their whole approach to mental health is very radical and is becoming a model for Cuba and the world.,” she said. “They do an annual program with the whole community to help integrate the mentally ill into the community so they are not so isolated.
“We have a lot to learn from them.”
Abbott is also plays an active role in the ongoing drive to provide medical supplies to the community clinic in Regla.
Abbott is a mainstay of the Richmond Progressive alliance, an ardent critic of ChevronTexaco and an outspoken critic of the city’s rush to embrace the casino economy.
“Issues around the environment are really important to me,” she said.
Her concern with pollution led her to join the Community Advisory Group appointed by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to help with the cleanup of the Campus Bay housing development site, the UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station and other contaminated sites on the southern Richmond shoreline.
“I live right across the highway” from Campus Bay, “where they buried 100 years worth of toxic waste under a thin concrete and paper cap. That’s pretty scary,” she said.
“Chevron’s a whole issue in itself,” she said, “and I’ve marched against Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon.”
Her concerns with the oil giant involve not only pollution, but its secrecy in reporting on utility use and its ongoing battles to avoid taxes—including the massive funds it spent on unsuccessfully trying to defeat McLaughlin’s run for mayor and its winning drive to defeat Measure T, which would have increased the business taxes it paid to the city.
“It’s always about the money,” she said. “Chevron throws peanuts at the city, but it’s the people who suffer from the stuff they put in the air.”
As for the two casino proposals now awaiting approval, one in unincorporated North Richmond and one in the city limits at Point Molate, “they’ll be sending most of their money to their out-of-state backers” while increasing traffic and without any guarantee of providing good jobs for local residents.
“Richmond never got the benefits of all the good years” when industry was booming and profits were flowing out of the city, she said. “Now we need to look at creating new ways to build a green economy.”
But the library is the first and most important need, she stresses. “We need to educate our public, and we need the public to come in. The most important thing the public can do is to come in and use our materials. That’s the best way to support us.”
And through it all, Abbott said, she’s been able to rely on the support of her spouse, Robert Fowler, who raises and sells palm trees.
“He’s been wonderful,” she said, smiling. “He’s not an activist the way I am, but he’s nice, and he cooks me dinner.”
Photograph by Richard Brenneman. Richmond Reference Librarian Tarnel Abbott’s display about Sister City Regla Cuba was just one of the examples cited by state librarians when they honored her for her ongoing defense of intellectual freedom. She is the great granddaughter of another East Bay activist, author Jack London.