Archive for the ‘policing’ Category

My place in the world is right here.
On the back porch of a house in Detroit:
A breeze stirs from time to time, cutting through the June air.
It catches the wind chime. I close my eyes and hear: clinking glasses, the hum of a Tibetan singing bowl still carrying on after contact.
The sun lights up the leaves at the top of a young tree.
One of my feet touches the ground.
The other is suspended a few inches above, as I sit one leg crossed over the other.
My place in the world is right here.

The above is excerpted from a free write on the first day of the Allied Media Conference. I had just been at the UAW Constitutional Convention and was feeling a little disjointed from switching from one gathering to another and anticipating a third: the US Social Forum.

The AMC was a totally new experience for me. I’ve wanted to go for several years and finally got to.

I was immediately grateful to be in a space where “we spend more time building than attacking” is one of the core principles.

I moseyed through the AMC, pacing myself and resting. I started out by participating in make/shift’s collaborative editing workshop. Collaborative editing is one of the ways make/shift practices feminism(s).

Next was the workshop on radical m/othering, parenting, and childcare collectives. I appreciated the tips for how to be more inclusive of parents and children in meetings and community gatherings. These were simple things, including: saying up front that children (and the sounds they often make) are welcome, offering childcare is helpful to parents even if they opt not to use it, acknowledge children, and offer to hold them or play with them if their parenting is occupied.

Poor magazine schooled us all on “poverty scholarship” and the difference between research done by academics outside the community and the “we-search” that they do. The folks at poor magazine take media-making and research into their own hands.

Finally, in a workshop focused on responding to violence in our communities outside the formalized police state, we explored the “middle path” in responding to violence: community accountability. The Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System uses a step team to raise awareness and do outreach. Always a Safe Space (ASS) hands out guides on how to pick people up in safe and respectful ways in the bathroom lines at queer clubs. And Community United Against Violence hosts a fun “safetyfest.” One thing that the person from CUAV said that stuck with me is that isolation is one of the major things that contributes to people both being harmful and being harmed.

At the USSF, a lot of the things I participated in were with UAW. At a discussion on labor, faith, and community activism, the new UAW president, Bob King, said that unions are strongest when we’re active participants in our community. He said that over the years we’ve done a good job building up great contracts for those we represent, but haven’t done enough to protect other workers in our community. He said that unions must fight for everyone in society. I couldn’t agree more.

The next day we marched to Chase bank in protest of Chase’s role in the foreclosure crisis that Michigan is experiencing and their bankrolling of JR Reynolds which is currently denying its workers decent wages and working conditions.

One of the evenings, I caught some of the art programming outside at the amphitheater. A poet talked about non-cooperation in two specific ways that resonated with me: 1. not believing the lie that you are not good enough and 2. challenging our over-consumption. Of course, these two things are very intertwined.


Read Full Post »

In this section of my dissertation, I discuss the origins of modern policing in the United States. Policing in the U.S. emerged at first to control the movement and behavior of slaves. From the enforcement of slave codes to black codes to Jim Crow laws, policing in the U.S. is closely tied to the maintenance of racial stratification and inequality.

U.S. historians tend to agree that around the mid-1800s is the period when police forces throughout the States came to resemble the systems of policing in place today. This telling of the history, however, leaves out “an entire branch of the American police family tree”: City Guards in the Deep South (Williams 2007:35-36). As early as the 1780s, paramilitary municipal police forces were put in place primarily to control the slave populations in Southern cities (which often had black slave populations that exceeded the white population) (Rousey 1996; Williams 2007). These City Guards were “armed, uniformed, and salaried; they patrolled at night but kept a reserve force for daytime emergencies. In most respects, they resembled modern American police departments to the same degree as did the London Metropolitan Police of 1829” (Williams 2007:36). So, while modern forms of policing did not appear in the Northern states until the mid-1800s, modern policing emerged much earlier in the Southern states.

The difference in the timing of the emergence of modern policing between Northern and Southern states is most strongly influenced by slavery, the preservation of which necessitated white control over the black population (Hindus 1980; Williams 2007). Control over the black slave population was legislated through slave codes which restricted the movement and activities of slaves, including prohibiting the gathering of slaves in groups of more than four or five without whites present (especially religious gatherings) and forbidding slaves from learning to read or write (Websdale 2001; Williams 2007). Slave codes also enabled (and in some cases, required) enforcement by the entire white population (Websdale 2001; Williams 2007). “In such a racially stratified society, with few legal rights afforded to the black man, every white person, by virtue of his skin, had sufficient authority over blacks” (Hindus 1980:37-38). During the development of these codes (the mid-to-late 1600s, early 1700s), white supremacy empowered the average white citizen to act in lieu of an established police force and it wasn’t until the early-to-mid 1700s that formal slave patrols became a regular fixture in many Southern cities (Williams 2007). The transition between private enforcement and the regulation of the enforcement of slave codes through either the militia or the courts was slow as,

Each colony tried to cope with the unreliable nature of private enforcement, first by applying rewards and penalties, and later by appointing particular individuals to take on the duty. Volunteerism was eventually replaced with community-sanctioned authority in the form of slave patrols. (Williams 2007: 41).

Although slave patrols emerged in the rural plantations, the provided a model for urban patrols. “The growing numbers of black people in the cities were of obvious concern to the white population” and the control of black people—slaves and free—became just as much of a priority in the cities as it was in rural U.S. (Williams 2007:41). City guards went through a similar transition from private to public regulation of black codes, which, like slave codes, restricted the movement and activities of the black population. Black codes included curfews for slaves and free alike, pass systems requiring blacks to carry papers indicated they were free, and bans from the use of public spaces, such as parks (Williams 2007). Some codes were spelled out very specifically the ways in which blacks should interact with whites (e.g., a black person should step aside if a white person walks toward her/him, black men are prohibited from using a cane in the style of a Southern gentleman, et cetera) (Websdale 2001). Other codes were less specific, allowing for the punishment of “disorderly behavior.” The closely related “vagrancy codes” were often extended to lower class whites and whites who associated with blacks or advocated on their behalf (White 2008; Williams 2007).

Slavery was made illegal in the U.S. with the North’s victory of the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteen Amendment (ratified in 1865), yet many black codes remained in place and new laws to regulate blacks were created (Alexander 2010). Eventually black codes were overturned and in the period following the emancipation of slaves, known as the Reconstruction Era, a slew of legislation was passed which strengthened the rights of blacks. In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery, these laws included the first Civil Rights Act (1866), which extended full citizenship to emancipated slaves; the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868), which affirmed the citizenship of all individuals born or naturalized in the U.S.; the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870), which granted men the right to vote, regardless of race; and the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (aka the Ku Klux Klan Act) made it illegal to conspire to deny citizens of their equal protection under the law, including interference with voting or the violent denial of one’s civil rights (Alexander 2010; Websdale 2001). While these civil rights gains provided a serious challenge to white supremacy, they were largely symbolic for a number of reasons:

Notably absent from the Fifteenth Amendment, for example, was language prohibiting the states from imposing educational, residential, or other qualifications for voting, thus leaving the door open to the states to impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices to prevent blacks from voting. Other laws revealed themselves as more an assertion of principle than direct federal intervention into Southern affairs, because enforcement required African Americans to take their cases to federal courts a costly and time-consuming procedure that was a practical impossibility for the vast majority of those who had claims. Most blacks were too poor to sue to enforce their civil rights, and no organization like the NAACP yet existed to spread the risks and costs of litigation. Moreover, the threat of violence often deterred blacks from pressing legitimate claims making the “civil rights” of former slaves largely illusory—existing on paper but rarely to be found in real life. (Alexander 2010:29-30)

In addition to barriers to the enforcement of laws discussed above and the violent resistance by whites to legal protections for blacks, legal challenges were mounted against civil rights legislation (e.g., the 1883 overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had outlawed discrimination against blacks in public facilities) (Alexander 2010; Websdale 2001). Two years before the Supreme Count nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875 on grounds that it was unconstitutional, Tennessee passed the South’s first Jim Crow law, which mandated the segregation of railroad cars by race (Websdale 2001). Such laws were supported by the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where justices of the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to support the segregation of rail cars, allowing for accommodations to be “separate but equal.” The separate-but-equal doctrine remained unchallenged until 1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate was, in fact, unequal in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Still, Jim Crow and vagrancy laws provided the basis for the state-sanctioned harassment and punishment (including brutality that ranged from beatings to death by lynching) of the black population in the decades between emancipation and throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

Just as Southern legislatures had passed black codes in response to the early steps of Reconstruction, in the years immediately following Brown v. Board, five Southern legislatures passed nearly 50 new Jim Crow laws. … The Ku Klux Klan reasserted itself as a powerful terrorist organization, committing castrations, killings, and the bombing of black homes and churches. NAACP leaders were beaten, pistol-whipped, and shot. (Alexander 2010:37).

From slave codes to Jim Crow, blackness had become conflated with criminality (Hindus 1980). The linkage of blacks to criminality helped maintain a system of slavery despite abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment allowed for one exception to the abolition of slavery—slavery was legally allowable as a punishment for crime. Convicts were in essence slaves of the state (Alexander 2010). The U.S.’s first prison boom occurred during the Redemption Era (1877-1896) (Alexander 2010). This era is characterized as a period of declining federal intervention in the Southern states and when “the political forces that backed the Confederacy and the traditional racial hierarchies of slavery reassumed control without restoring the formal mechanism of slavery” (Websdale 2001). During this time, the convict population grew at ten times the rate of the general population and prisoners “became younger and blacker, and the length of their sentences soared” (Oshinsky 1996:32).

The policing of African Americans in the era of Jim Crow and vagrancy laws was shaped by the bleed over and cooperation between police and the Ku Klux Klan (Williams 2007). Williams argues that the actions of vigilantes and the police during Reconstruction are often indistinguishable and, moreover, connected. Examples (cited in Williams 2007) include:
• In 1866 a group of black veterans in Memphis kept police officers from arresting two of their friends. In retaliation, the police led white mobs through the city’s streets beating blacks they came upon and torching the homes, schools, and churches of the black population. The rampage lasted four days and resulted in the deaths of 48 people (46 of whom were black) and the burning of 91 houses, 12 schools, and four churches (Berry 1994).
• Police in New Orleans led an attack against a convention of Union loyalists in 1866. A fight broke out between the group of approximately 100 black convention delegates and the 1,000-1,500 whites after, by most accounts, a white policeman fired at the group. The group of delegates returned fire and quickly made their way into the convention building where they were followed by the mass of whites who broke down doors, fired at the crowd, and clubbed the black delegates. There were at least 38 (mostly black) casualties. Despite the fact that a Congressional committee determined that the attack had been planned by a group of police comprised mainly of Confederate veterans, no one was prosecuted for the carnage (Rousey 1996).
• In 1868 the sheriff of Camilla, Georgia deputized the entire white population to prevent a political procession of blacks. A military investigation of the sheriff found the he made no effort to control the deputized whites and “was party to the wanton and unnecessary destruction of life which subsequently ensued” (Hennessey 1978:129).

Even the last known lynching in the Northern part of the United States (the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930) involved the cooperation of police. This lynching occurred when a mob of white people broke into the jail with sledgehammers, dragged the men out, beat them, and then hung them. The men were accused of robbing and murdering a white man and raping his white girlfriend, but had only been arrested the previous night and had not stood trial. A friend of the men was also arrested but spared from the lynching (Cameron 1993).

Legal authorities who did try to enforce laws meant to protect the civil rights of blacks and stand up to those who terrorized the black population became targets of terror themselves and were only successful in areas where the Klan was politically weak (Trelease 1971).

When Klan-type violence occurred, arrests were unusual, prosecutions rare, and convictions almost unknown. The attitudes (and sometimes involvement) of officers and sheriffs certainly impeded the enforcement of the law, but this was only one of the many obstacles standing in the way of convictions. Prosecutors were unwilling to press such cases, and magistrates were often glad to dismiss them. Klansmen frequently dominated juries—including grand juries and coroner’s juries. Witnesses and victims … were intimidated and refused to testify while Klan members were eager to swear false alibis on one another’s behalf (Williams 2007:80, citing Trelease 1971).

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York and London: The New Press.

Berry, Mary Frances. 1994. Black Resistance, White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America. New York: The Penguin Press.

Cameron, James. 1993. A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.

Hennessey, Melinda Meek. 1978. To Live and Die in Dixie: Reconstruction Race Riots in the South. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Kent State University, Kent, OH.

Hindus, Michael. 1980. Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1768-1878. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Oshinsky, David M. 1996. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press Paperbacks.

Rousey, Dennis C. 1996. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Trelease, Allen W. 1971. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row.

Websdale, Neil. 2001. Policing the Poor: From Slave Plantation to Public Housing. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

White, Pete. “Safer Cities Unplugged.” Pp. 71-75 in The CR10 Publications Collective (eds.) Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Williams, Kristian. 2007. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Read Full Post »

This week I went up to San Francisco with LA CAN. The 50 or so of us on the bus met up with folks from all over the West Coast for a “House Keys Not Handcuffs” action. Despite the rain, several hundred of us marched through the streets of SF to deliver our message at the federal building. And through it all, we enjoyed the rain with a lot of help from a very spirited marching band. The next day this quote came to me in the form of a love note left on the gift exchange alter of the Evolver Long Beach “Give It Up” event/spore: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

On the way up to SF, we watched several movies, including Revolutionary Road. The movie has really stuck with me throughout the week. An excerpt from my journal writing about it: “It’s a movie about people’s reactions to nonconformity and the pressures to conform. It’s also about the label of ‘mental illness’ and what gets deemed crazy and the ways other (unhappy) people will use this label to put down others in order to feel better about themselves and their own unhappiness.” I’d love to discuss this movie more with others who have watched it.

Also, this song is where the name of my blog comes from. Dar Williams’ “After All” is an anthem of sorts for me. “And when I chose to live, there was no joy, it’s just a line I crossed. It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost. So I was not lost or found.”

“Go ahead, push your luck …” This song also inspired one of my sisters’ tattoos!

One thing that has meant a lot to me over the last week is having relatives post pictures from when I was younger on Facebook as part of the retro/throwback phenomenon. These photos mean a lot to me because they help me remember connections to my childhood and my family members. Here’s one that my Aunt Kelly posted:

[removed 2/09/11, feeling shy at the moment]

According to the date on the back, I am about to turn three here.

As I write I am experiencing one of the things on my list of simple pleasures–hearing my cat, bell, snore. My turn soon.

Read Full Post »

Review of Gore, Dayo Folayan, Tamara Jones, and Joo-Hyun Kang. 2001. “Organizing at the
Intersections: A Roundtable Discussion of Police Brutality through the Lens of Race, Class, and Sexual Identities.” Pp. 251-269 in Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City, edited by Andrea McArdle and Tanya Erzen. New York City: New York University.

Much of the research and analysis on police violence focuses on the ways in which people of color (especially African Americans, and, increasingly Latinos) and poor folks are disproportionately brutalized by the police. In this roundtable discussion, members of the Audre Lorde Project’s Working Group on Police Brutality (Dayo Gore and Tamara Jones) and executive director Joo-Hyun Kang discuss the many ways that police brutality intersects not only with race and class, but also gender and sexuality. The Audre Lorde Project (ALP) is a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, and transgender (LGBTST) people of color organizing for social and economic justice. They are based in New York City and their organizing is mainly focused in NYC.

At the onset the group broadened the definition of police brutality beyond physical attacks and murder to include more subtle forms of violence. Examples given were police not taking crimes against community members seriously and not properly investigating reports; verbal harassment and attacks by the police; police making illegal stops, searches, and seizures; and the community’s exposure to near-constant surveillance. Kang points out that this pervasive violence is built into some of the standard operating procedures of police work (e.g., NYPD officers can wait up to 48-hours to obtain legal counsel and be questioned about the shooting incidents, which can be used to cover up evidence and allows time for the police to “get their stories straight”). That these more subtle forms of violence are so ubiquitous makes it challenging to organize against them because they become normalized and, for some, there’s a perception that this (especially the surveillance) is a small price to pay for the safety of the community. (This “small price to pay” argument came up in recent meeting with organizers at LA CAN; one of the co-directors was saying that outside the community people get up in arms about the surveillance but, inside, downtown’s new residents have accepted that it’s a small price to pay for their safety and that once they get rid of the undesirables, they’ll be able to get rid of the surveillance.)

Another challenge for people uncovering and resisting police violence is to organize build coalitions across race, class, gender, and sexuality lines: “As activists against police violence we need to be aware of the ways in which oppression can work both against us and against others who may not be exactly like us. If straight activists never integrate gender and sexuality into their analyses and action programs, then they are supporting and strengthening police abuse of power against women and LGBTST peoples. The same logic holds for white LGBTST activists on this issue; without a solid anti-racist stance, you’re not being effective. It’s like fighting a Hydra—you need to chop off all the heads to kill it” (Jones, 261). Members of ALP point out that while analysts of police violence often talk about the ways that people of color and poor people are over-policed, it’s harder for most people to recognize that people who do not conform to gender stereotypes or who are perceived as nonheterosexual are subject to greater police surveillance and violence.

Not recognizing or organizing around gender and sexuality biases in policing reinforces the susceptibility of people who do not conform to normative conceptions of gender and sexuality to police violence. With their discussion of Abner Louima—a Haitian man who was severely brutalized and sodomized at the hands of NYPD officers, ALP members talk about how media constantly underscored that he was not gay, as he was perceived to be by police, and that he was a legal immigrant. Both of these things, his sexuality and his status as a legal immigrant were used in establishing him as a “good victim,” someone people could and should rally behind. Though this issue of immigration status is not discussed in much detail in the roundtable or in most other non-immigration-specific accounts of police violence, it is another layer in police violence. Joo-Hyun points out, “The question was never raised, but what if he had been gay? Had he been gay, or transgender, it’s hard to imagine that degree of public outrage even if it had been the exact same incident.” Similarly, one could add “undocumented” or “illegal” to Joo-Hyun’s point. As an “illegal” immigrant, Louima would not have been a “good victim” either.

Another key point made in the roundtable is the tendency for women to underreport violence they experience, whether it be police violence or otherwise. Joo-Hyun expressed skepticism about media coverage and research that suggests that men are more likely to be victims of police violence than women. She says, “I guess having grown up as a woman in this society, we often know that our histories are so hidden that it leads me to question whether we can believe current statistics and conventional wisdom” (263). Joo-Hyun went on to say that women of color experience so many incidents of racist, sexist, and homophobic violence each day, that a verbal attack from a cop may just get lumped in with the rest. “If we reported all the acts of violence against us as women, every day, some of us would be reporting twenty-five incidents a week” (264).

Read Full Post »

today i broke protocol. i yelled at a police officer while on community watch with la can. it was stop two of the night.

stop one:
we arrived on the scene to find four black men handcuffed and facing a wall outside the union rescue mission. we talked to onlookers and asked for information. no one had any. we waited, watched, observed, documented. three police cars (a fourth rolled by); five police (seven for a moment). what i saw: the men handcuffed. ids being returned with an officer slipping them into the men’s pockets. one officer digging through a man’s jacket and then his pant pocket. and then, one by one, the handcuffs were unlocked. the men were free to go.

so we asked one of the guys–the one who i saw being searched by an officer–what had happened, why they had been stopped and handcuffed. he said when he asked the officer said that the men had been observed “standing around.” the man asked the officer how long he had observed this. the officer replied “between 30 seconds and one minute.” so, it was up against the wall. a fellow community watch member asked, “did they ask you if you were on parole or probation?” “yes,” said the man. “did they search you?” “yes,” he said, “and he was really disrespectful–sexually harassed me.” we prompted the man to ask one of the officers for his card. the officer replied, “you can get it at the station.”

a few things:
it is against the law for lapd to stop and question people about their parole/probation status and to conduct warrantless searches of this manner.
lapd officers are supposed to provide their business cards/identifying information when asked. the officer suggesting that the man go to the station to get it served as a threat to the man who quickly backed off.

stop two:
just around the corner. this time in front of the los angeles mission. homeless men were waiting for beds. the police, some of the same officers from stop one, came and began confiscating and throwing away any of the men’s belongings that were touching the ground as they waited. a cleaning crew from the central city east association then came through, sweeping up debris and asking us and the men to move aside as they swept the sidewalk. (they did not clean the other side of the street, which was equally littered but did not contain homeless people waiting for shelter beds.)

one officer began confiscating milk crates, putting them in the back of his car. at some point there was a little back and forth between the officer and those of us on community watch. usually we are very focused. day after day we watch and document the civil rights violations that are occurring in downtown la. it wasn’t a new situation: warrantless searches. harrassment. rubber gloves as belongings are confiscated. the flip attitude of the officers: “no pictures, please,” said one with a movie star grin. “why do you hate me,” he asked.

i wanted to tell him, look, it’s not about you as an individual.
it’s about the institution you work for.
the lapd.
and it’s about what you’re doing here, to this community.

and so i did.
it seemed like more in the moment.
but i’m pretty sure that’s all it was.

he told me that maybe i should try to do something to help the community. like pick up trash. like he was.

Read Full Post »

Reviewing Smith, N. 2001. “Global Social Cleansing: Postliberal Revanchism and the Export of Zero
Tolerance.” Social Justice, 28(3): 68-74. Available online: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3427/is_3_28/ai_n28888957/

While most of the research discussed thus far focuses on examples of order-maintenance policing in the United States, Smith (2001) argues that zero tolerance is being exported globally “at lightening speed” (XX). He notes that a visit to Berlin by William Bratton (between his New York and LA gigs) was followed by the implementation of NYPD-style computerized surveillance of homeless people. Smith discusses similar developments in New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and England. Like other scholars (e.g., Gilbert 2008; Parenti 1999), Smith ties the proliferation of zero tolerance to global economic restructuring, or what he calls “postliberal globalization.” According to Smith, this restructuring includes a project of social cleansing, which is packaged and sold as a necessity to maintain “decency” and “civility”—terms which are defined through Eurocentric and class-privileged lenses—in order to reduce crime. However, the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. Take for example the fact that, “violent crime peaked in New York City in 1990 and was already 20% below its peak in 1994, the year zero tolerance was implemented” (XX). Instead of a crime reduction strategy, Smith argues that zero tolerance is “a rapidly crystallizing antidemocratic form of global social control”—one that is rooted in revenge for the successes of the social movements of the 1960s (Smith cites feminist, civil rights, immigrant, and union movements as examples) (XX; XX).

Read Full Post »

Growth as a measure of success is another troupe of neoliberalism that impacts LA’s Skid Row population. Following the “growth is good” theme, downtown LA is currently experiencing a “revitalization”—which includes the proliferation of condos, restaurants, and services which cater to people with incomes and/or credit much higher than the majority of the area’s pre-revitalization population. Logan and Molotch (2007) [1984] argue that “local conflicts over growth are central to the organization of cities” (xxvii). Borrowing Marxian terms while expanding the overly deterministic framework, Logan and Molotch discuss the tension between “exchange value” and “use value” and the actors tied to each. Exchange value is gained by making money off the land, whereas use value comes from people actually using the land and communities attached to it as part of their daily lives. The concept of the “growth machine” is central to Logan and Molotch’s work because they argue that it is those for whom “the city is their business” that are dominant in the structuring and governance of US cities (they also note that this model is proliferating globally, informed by the logic of free-market capitalism).

Despite the “growth is good” mantra, Logan and Molotch find that in many cases the growth agenda actually erodes the standard of living for local residents. This is especially the case in poor communities of color:

Over the long haul of US history, such neighborhoods have been the dumping grounds for waste and first candidates for other forms of disruption. Disinvestment lowers use values as buildings crumble, streets become less safe, and public health dangers emerge. When growth elites sense opportunities to convert their spaces to more profitable uses, like a convention center or urban renewal project, there goes the neighborhood and the daily round it sustained. (Logan and Molotch 2007: xii).

Although exacerbated by racial inequality, poor people’s neighborhoods in general are the most vulnerable to disruption and displacement in the wake of growth machines. In addition to the process of letting a neighborhood become dilapidated which drives rents and property values down and provides a space for developers to get in while it’s cheap, this vulnerability is because the daily rounds and even the mere presence of poor people threatens exchange values. Poor people, after all, don’t have the money to pay higher rents, eat at high-end restaurants, or purchase expensive goods for themselves (much less their pets—downtown LA has seen a number of pet boutiques pop up in the last few years). Poor people are unattractive residents in this way, but also by way of social stigma.

Logan and Molotch, however, do not see the growth machine as all powerful. Sure, the capital and political cards are certainly stacked in favor of growth. But the conflicts that arise between those whose interests are exchange value and those who are seeking use value make a place what it is. And, although difficult, those who live and use a place can shape and even change the course of growth. One major difficulty is the predominating doctrine of “value-free development”—the underlying assumption of the growth machine that the free market should decide what is produced and where it is produced. This assumption omits any consideration of the value of the product or venture to the community and the social consequences of its production. Instead it is uncritically accepted that all growth is good and will bring value to the community, increase job opportunities, and expand the tax base and all that that entails (Logan and Molotch 2007: 32-33). To be clear, this is not just a belief held by conservative developers and politicians. More often than not it goes unquestioned by liberals and progressives, labor, and even residents who will bear the brunt of its negative consequences.

As pervasive as the “all growth is good” agenda is, in many cases it simply is not true. Logan and Molotch point out that it’s hard enough for cities to coordinate the most basic services (e.g., schools, health and safety, environmental protections) competently, much less manage the impacts of the growth machine. The authors evaluate the effects of growth on fiscal health, employment, job and income mobility, eliminating social problems, the environment, accommodating natural population increases, and satisfying public tastes—areas (except for the environment) that the growth machine is often toted as benefiting. They conclude that, “Some of these claims, for some times and places, are true. … Nevertheless, for many places and times, growth is at best a mixed blessing and the growth machine’s claims are merely legitimating ideology, not accurate descriptions of reality” (85). For example, Logan and Molotch find that in most cases growth does not create jobs, it merely distributes them; and social problems are not reduced, instead class and racial inequalities are often exacerbated by growth policies.

In terms of resistance to this sort of value-free city building, Logan and Molotch note that “there is precious little evidence” of such resistance (53). Further, they assert that it is especially difficult to organize opposition in the neighborhoods of those most negatively affected by the growth machine—poor people—because the organizations that represent their interests are ineffective and “low-income people are difficult to mobilize; their day-to-day marginality makes it hard for them to contribute time or funds” (113, 136). In the LA Skid Row case, however, the most audible resistance to the growth machine is coming from predominately low-income people of color. This resistance comes in the face of the severe demonization of the Skid Row community. And while you’d be hard pressed to find someone to argue that the conditions of Skid Row are ideal and should be preserved as is, when detached from a historical analysis of what created these conditions, they are used to pave the way for the displacement of the community (through a reduction of affordable housing and services and through the heavy policing and increased criminalization of a community and its daily round). Simply put, “Blaming the victims helps justify destroying their community” (Logan and Molotch 2007: 134).

Those who do challenge the growth machine must be mindful of the different strategies governments use to control them. “When residents’ claims on behalf of use values threaten to undermine growth, government can turn back the challenge, either by invoking police power or by distracting dissidents with payoffs (for example, relocation allowances to displaced tenants)” (Logan and Molotch 2007: 35). Both of these are seen in LA’s Skid Row. In this case though, the policing element did not start because of resistance to growth but as a part of the plan to revitalize the downtown area. LA CAN organizers have been targeted and harassed by the police, however, as their activism around this issue threatens the city’s plans to clean up downtown. And relocation allowances have only come after hard fought legal battles (e.g., settlements to Alexandria Hotel residents). Yet amidst concessions for those who have been displaced and opposition to increased “quality of life” policing in downtown LA, city officials are standing firm in their support for the renewal of downtown and its policing component, the Safer Cities Initiative. The pro-law-and-order and pro-growth policies are complement one another. They are palatable to most, and shoved down the throats of others (attempted to, anyway). To question the growth machine as someone within the political mainstream is to potentially kill one’s political career. (Logan and Molotch offer the careers of Dennis Kucinich, Jerry Brown, and Jan Cartwright as examples.) Earlier in their analysis Logan and Molotch argue, “To question the wisdom of growth for any specific locality is to threaten a benefit transfer and the interests of those who gain from it” (98). Politicians who question the growth machine are disciplined by the denial of funds and the funding of opposition by business interests and bad press.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »