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Cities under siege

Updated Wednesday, 4th January 2012

Cities are no longer just the backdrop to conflict, but an integral part of it. Dr Melissa Butcher explains

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Barb wire, fence, city, San Diego US city perspective from barbed wire In the aftermath of last summer’s riots there have been calls for the use of water cannons and rubber bullets on the streets of Britain’s cities.

This visible demonstration of the militarisation of urban space is part of an increasing trend according to the writer Stephen Graham. Cities are no longer just the backdrop to conflict, but an integral part of it, with military tactics and technologies being used to track, monitor and control populations. But with this deployment also comes new forms of dissent and resistance as urban residents attempt to maintain civic engagement and mobility.

After major terror attacks in cities in the 2000s, including in New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai, it is common to see fully armed police at airports and transit hubs, and blast barriers around buildings that create a no-man’s land between the state and citizens. Governments have reinforced the perimeters of the nation-state, introducing new screening and identification systems at the periphery, and heightening the creation of internal borders through profiling particular populations as greater threats than others. Tactics such as ‘kettling’ demonstrators, the privatisation of urban space and concomitant privatisation of its security are also part of this phenomenon.

The city has never been immune from military strategy; there have been walls and fortresses in the past, and authorities who used networks of spies instead of CCTV.

But it is perhaps the automated, technological ubiquity, the connection between military industry and civilian security strategies, and the seeming everydayness of security interventions that makes the contemporary militarisation of cities unique – from identity controls in transit hubs developed by military companies, to surveillance in shopping centres, to gated communities. Security has become ritualised, part of the everyday, embedded in how we navigate through urban spaces, so that at times we don’t even notice it.

These forms of militarisation also blur the hierarchies between cities. The global cities of the North (of which London and New York are prime examples) are co-constituted with cities of the South, through colonial history, transnational ties, and now, ‘security solution’ strategies. The circulation of knowledge informs policy in both Delhi and London on how, for example, to secure an international sports spectacle.

It can be argued that this increased militarisation of cities is tied to what Michael Burawoy calls a ‘transformative crisis’ in urban space. Cities mediate global economic activity and mobilise people under conditions of disparity and segmentation, resulting in the fracturing of urban landscapes into enclaves of spatial and economic inequality. This has the potential to be an explosive mix, as we saw in last summer’s riots in British cities.

It is this sense of the potential for disorder, imaginary or otherwise, that has led to cities becoming the site of increased efforts to maintain order. The city is the paragon of diversity: a hub of human mobility and difference that can disrupt former frames of reference and spaces of order. The stranger among us is threatening, and even more so when transnational connections enable the possibility for community, and loyalties, to stretch beyond the neighbourhood and the nation-state.

There is an ‘orientalism’ projected onto particular suburbs as the fear of the mob engenders its own stereotypes, not only racialised but classed. The project of militarisation can be seen then as part of a strategy of homogeneity, or, at best, managed diversity, drawing clear boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. This categorising of urban space is predicated on hegemonic, shared ideas about what that space should constitute, who and what should be in it, and that these values and associated practices should be maintained.

Yet it is also the disorder of cities that is part of their attraction. Creative industries are centred on urban spaces precisely because they offer the potential for innovation. The necessity of managing diversity and the challenges of urban conurbations, from the environment to how we live together, is the mother of invention. Therefore, there is an inherent tension in all urban space between release and restraint, the desire for order and the desire for change.

As a result the city has always been the site of contested politics and resistance. And just as urban authorities redefine our understanding of security, so too can we broaden our understanding of what resistance can entail, including the use of creative cultural production and imagination to redefine the meaning of a place. Diverse struggles have adopted this approach to dissent through developing alternatives under the radar of the state, often formed around specific issues relating to gender, work, the environment, identity, or neighbourhood.

Creativity, embedded in new forms of dissent, can generate a counter-narrative to the discourses of ‘invasion’ and ‘war’, on drugs, crime and terror. Whether it is subversive jokes spread virally through social media, graffiti, the refusal to move, or collective movement in a particular direction, boundaries and military technology can be challenged.

These are frequently cultural struggles: that is, not only over material conditions and needs, but also over the meaning of everyday life, including, as French sociologist Henri Lefebvre asked, who has the right to the city. The global Occupy movement is a good example, as is the claiming of Tahrir Square in Cairo as the heart of the social revolution in Egypt. From Beijing to Dublin, urban protest movements from disadvantaged neighbourhoods have been associated with the preservation of social spaces, challenging the dominant political and economic influences in cities that direct gentrification and securitisation programmes.

Re-appropriating space, or redefining what is possible within it, has become an integral part of redefining new forms of democracy. So while the desire for order may see a battery of ‘security solutions’ imposed onto a city, legitimacy can still be withdrawn. It is impossible to give up on the human capacity to dissent, no matter how sophisticated the technological hardware marshalled against it.

Further reading

Global Ethnography
Edited by Michael Burawoy et al, University of California Press

Dissent and Cultural Resistance in Asia’s Cities
Edited by Melissa Butcher & Selvaraj Velayutham, Routledge

Cities Under Siege: the New Military Urbanism
Stephen Graham , UK: Verso.

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