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Violence and the Urban Commons


This is the third post in a series on police violence, race, safety and cities. See more at the end of this post.

There are times when the very fabric of society seems to be unraveling. This is certainly one of those times. San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas, Nice. Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling. Each of these episodes is ghastly. Taken together, they make it easy to imagine a dystopian collapse into violence and tribalism.

Are the doomsday preppers right to be stocking their bunkers with food and ammo? Certainly there are cautionary tales from Syria to Nuremburg of humanity jumping the rails — we have it in us to turn on each other utterly. But is there, as I suspect, something in the social nature of our species that resists chaos and dissolution even under great duress? If that something exists, it is deeply implicated in the project of urbanism. We seem not only to survive but often to thrive in very dense urban settlements, our darker impulses held in check by some inexplicable, but not inevitable, deference to the collective.

The American social contract has proven surprisingly resilient. Even as we grapple with the sense of chaos and danger that this violence engenders, it is worth considering how rarely American life is rent by mass disorder. How in spite of all our latent fears and seething hatreds, our grand promises and chronic disappointments, the raw injustice of our diverging fortunes and, perhaps most of all, the ancient, festering wound of race, the social order so rarely breaks down.

Despite everything, we do have to remember how good we have it in this country. It does not trivialize our injustices to acknowledge that there is plenty of food for nearly all of us. That our legal institutions are basically reliable and (often begrudgingly) responsive to petition. That social and economic mobility, while too much reduced, are enviable by global standards. The one arena where all these factors dependably fall short, of course, is racial inequity. It should surprise none of us that it is in African-American communities in the United States that we see both reflexively brutal policing and periodic bursts of mass rage.

Our much more common pathology is the lost individual, grotesquely amplified by military weapons. As Dallas illustrated, our despair (if not our policy response) is broadly shared, even across our divisions.

The mad truck driver in Nice wasn’t just going after large numbers of people where he could find them. He was going after the idea of people gathering, after peaceful collectivity itself. The Orlando shooter wasn’t just looking for a lot of gay men; he was looking to murder the safe space in which they gathered.

How stubbornly we gather together despite the supposed digitally enabled “end of space” and the deliberate targeting of public life by various forms of terror. We could sit barricaded in our homes, ordering groceries and gadgets, working remotely, staying put. But we don’t. We feel compelled to gather together, whatever the risks. We’re left with a conundrum. Loathe to give up more of our commons than we already have, open societies can feel like sitting ducks, only as free as we are vulnerable.

How are those of us who think about cities to understand this moment? If it’s an inflection point in our society, we can’t read it yet. Many of us find ourselves thinking about the late 1960s, when racial tensions, police brutality and festering inequality yielded widespread violence, both individual and collective. We also share with that moment a frightening surge of geopolitical instability — much of it of our own making — that defies our attempts to make right. When things are going wrong at every scale, we feel especially powerless.

But there are some key differences. The American city was in precipitous decline, with civil unrest turning white flight from a trickle to a torrent. Although so-called “race riots” were a longstanding feature of American cities, they often consisted of white mobs attacking black (and in San Francisco, Chinese) individuals who had dared establish themselves. Watts, Newark, Detroit and other uprisings in the 1960s saw black rage turn from protest to a ferocious nihilism. If the fuel of these events was poverty and exclusion, the sparks were almost universally episodes of aggressive or violent policing. African-Americans had found industrial opportunity in the Great Migration and a political voice in the civil rights movement, only to see the nation’s urban and industrial project collapse together.

The American center city was left to those whom industrial decline, redlining, urban renewal and racial animus left with no option but to stay.

The world white America built in the late 20th century — of cars, strip malls and culs-de-sac — was exquisitely engineered to separate us. To relieve our bodies of urban mixture and allow us — at a mass scale — to not see. Our boxes of metal and stucco kept so many of us at a comfortable remove. And the American city became in the popular imagination a space of racially charged chaos and danger that needed to be contained by force.

Today, the urban tide has turned. Many Americans want to live in cities again. Our urban problems are those of scarcity, demand, high cost and displacement. Many communities of color are shrinking or relocating to suburban locations. Where the public realm was abandoned a generation ago, today it risks exclusivity — or at least the degradation born of cultural and ethnic sameness. Nevertheless, many American cities are thriving, proudly diverse and facing the traumas of the moment with a resurgent public life.

It’s no accident that “the street” is shorthand for mass political expression. Nor is it coincidence that the street as a zone of public mixture, rather than mere conveyance, was explicitly designed out of both the Modernist city and the postwar suburb. Indeed, one of Le Corbusier’s chilling anti-urban maxims (always rendered in capital letters) was “WE MUST KILL THE STREET!” The reassertion of the street as essential democratic space dates from the 1960s, when observers like Jane Jacobs and Donald Appleyard crafted an urban agenda that absorbed the insights of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

At their best, cities bring us together across economic, social and racial divisions. If the anonymity of the Internet seems to breed trolls, the anonymity of the city mostly yields a decent civility. The public realm is where we safely mix across boundaries. Where we sometimes celebrate as one. Where, at the margins, norms of behavior are contested and enforced. Where protest calls us to account. Where the organs of the state translate white anxiety into violent control. Where symbolic acts of mass murder are performed. And where paroxysms of collective rage at times erupt. This is how much public space matters. It is where everything finds expression. It is where we face ourselves.


Read more from this series:

What's Going On: Tensions, and Solutions, in a Changing Oakland

A Plea to End Racial Bias:  A Mom's Response to Police Violence in Our Cities

Building an Inclusive Community in Times of Fear and Distrust