Cameron “C-Grimey” Williams says his instructions were clear enough: The 35-year-old library staffer was supposed to comb through the shelves of his branch in Chattanooga, Tenn., looking for books that were damaged, outdated or untruthful.
After nabbing Ann Coulter’s “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)” and Donald Trump’s “Crippled America,” he allegedly set them on fire in his backyard in December, live-streaming the blaze on Instagram, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Last week, the library fired him over the alleged incident, saying that he’d broken the rules by “improperly removing items from the Library’s collections.”
“The City of Chattanooga has policies in place to protect the public’s interest, and we follow those directives,” Corinne Hill, the Chattanooga Public Library’s executive director, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Williams, though, maintains that he did not break any rules. Instead, he said, city and library officials pushed back especially hard on him because of his prominent role leading racial justice protests in Chattanooga.
“This is not the precedent on how this stuff is handled,” he told The Washington Post. “To be frank, it’s because I’m a community member that’s been speaking for the betterment of Black people for several years.”
His firing is the latest flash point in a series of incendiary battles over racial issues and free speech at public libraries, where conservative boards and politicians have clashed with free speech advocates over book selection and events like drag queen story hours.
In this case, though, the controversy centers on accusations of book burning, which holds its own ugly history closely tied with efforts to suppress free thought.
Williams had started as a part-time library specialist at the downtown branch more than two years ago, helping to manage a computer room and maker space and conducting outreach campaigns encouraging residents to take advantage of the resources. Before his firing, he was the only Black man on a staff of about 80 people, he said.
Last summer, as nationwide protests of police brutality swept the nation, he was one of several Chattanooga activists who led demonstrations in the southeastern Tennessee city. While speaking up about the deaths of Black people killed by police, he and other activists were arrested for allegedly blocking an emergency vehicle, among other charges.
At the library, Williams had helped organize the shelves only a handful of times before December. But with a partial work-from-home policy still in place — and an influx of 90,000 new books set to enter the library’s collection this year — the facility needed all the help it could get to free up some space.
He said his boss asked him to weed through the political science section, specifically citing his activist background and instructing him to take down titles that contained misinformation or where views, attitudes, or information had changed. Books more than 10 years old could also come off the shelves.
A library spokesperson previously told the Times Free Press that Williams had been trained in the library’s “rigorous and thorough standard practice” for managing the shelves. She added that the library weeds out books based on publication date, circulation date and physical condition. A spokesperson declined to answer questions from The Post about this process.
Williams said that Coulter’s collection of political columns, first published in 2004, seemed to fit the bill for removal based on age alone. Trump’s 2015 “Crippled America” was newer, but potentially raised flags following the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, he said.
Whether he should have been allowed to take the books home is a different question. While library officials say neither book had been flagged for removal, Williams insists that employees had previously been allowed to claim old titles that had come down from shelves.
“Time after time, we’ve used old books for art projects. Time after time, employees have been encouraged to take books,” he said. “This is a BS rule that doesn’t exist. They’re just using it to persecute me.”
According to the Times Free Press, Williams in December posted an Instagram video showing him spraying the Coulter and Trump books with lighter fluid while blasting “FDT,” the anti-Trump anthem by YG and Nipsey Hussle.
After the video came to the attention of the library, they placed him on paid administrative leave. A spokesperson for the library told the newspaper that “personal feelings” should not be factored into decisions on what books are kept.
“It’s our job to ensure that all walks of life have access to information without judgment or prejudice,” she added. “Whether these materials were actually destroyed in a fire or even if they were just removed, that does go against our policy. Because at the end of the day, we believe that censorship has no place in a library.”
On Feb. 10, he was fired from his post permanently.
But Williams argued that the response to the incident was a sign of retaliation and racial discrimination. He would never get rid of a book that has “meaningful historical substance,” he said, and noted that any historical incidents of book burning pale in comparison to a history of discrimination against Black people.
“I was treated as a token Black man,” he said, “but as soon as I speak forcefully for Black people, they essentially tried to assassinate my character.”