Confronting the geographies of enmity

by Andrew Davey

Spatial strategies can inform activists with varied agendas, including those on the extreme Right

An anti-BNP protest in the UK.

An anti-BNP protest in the UK.

Recent months have seen significant struggles taking place against the far-right’s presence in British cities. Those struggles have been taking shape in the marginal communities where the British National Party (BNP), a far-right political party with links to white supremacist groups and European fascist parties, has taken advantage of post-industrial communities fearful of new patterns of immigration and economic restructuring; and in town and city centres where the English Defence League (EDL), a mobile group of anti-Islamists, has attempted to occupy strategic spaces through street demonstrations and marches to promote an anti-Islamic agenda.

The production of unjust geographies must be a critical concern in the praxis of the urban activist. Ed Soja’s book (Seeking Spatial Justice, below) offers hope and tools for those seeking models for analysis and action, inviting comparisons and mutual learning.(1) In the UK our understanding of the unjust geographies of our cities caused by the global flows of capital, regeneration strategies and the privatisation of space, and challenged by living wage campaigns and grassroots community actions, has made us acutely aware of the intensification of spatial injustice and social polarization that urban restructuring has brought about.

Soja’s analysis offers a clear dialectical understanding of spatial justice campaigns in Los Angeles and the critical contribution of a spatial theory of justice. But what happens when seriously destructive forces seem to be using what appear to be similar spatial strategies and place based knowledge to those identified by broad based organising and social movements?

The struggle is not just against the production of unjust geographies but against the production of false geographies, intent on division and enmity, seeking power through the exploitation of vulnerable places, claiming that space can be reorganised on ethno-racist lines. The rise of the far right in places marginal within the restructuring of British cities is an indication of the depth of the fissures that are appearing. This is the misappropriation of geography in mundane places. Elsewhere David Harvey has used Hannah Arendt’s phrase – “he banality of geographical evil.”(2)

The England left behind.

The BNP target areas of Britain where unemployment and poverty rates are high.

The BNP has targeted areas remote from or on the fringes of significant cosmopolitan areas and glitzy urban renewal programmes: periphery housing estates or small post industrial communities, feeding the impression that they are at home among and fighting on behalf of those who are marginal to the financial and cultural agendas of the metropolitan political elite.

These are the places that regularly appear on maps of the least resilient places during the economic downturn. Immigration, particularly Islamic, is portrayed as a threat, not least through spatial colonisation. The BNP’s spatial narrative has been one of uncontrolled immigration causing unfair social housing allocations, the swamping of white working class communities, traffic congestion, security threats and an overcrowded, fractious nation.

There is a determination to create a sense of fear of the other, of processes out of control. The white urban poor unable to build the walls of their suburban compatriots adopt a narrative that calls for segregation and control.

While activity and rhetoric do not necessarily lead to results through the national ballot box, the presence of the BNP and their views within local civic spaces is an urgent concern as the normalization of the party has given license to banal forms of racism and religious hatred, alongside a rise in recorded hate crime. The failure of the parliamentary ambitions of the BNP in the 2010 General Election, and major infighting, may lead to a different style of movements emerging which use a populist politics that seeks to exploit any social instability caused by financial or constitutional chaos, alongside anti-Islamic/immigrant sentiments.

EDL Supporters

Supporters of the far-right neo-fascist EDL march in the UK

That may already be happening with the rise of a new populist anti-Islamic grouping – the English Defence League (see the Guardian’s short investigative documentary on the EDL). While the BNP had become obsessed with the restrictive geographies of electioneering, the EDL uses space in a very different way. As a self-designated social movement, the EDL works through social networking sites and football hooligan ‘firms’. The EDL occupies space in its actions – bussing in supporters to town centres where there are local disputes about mosque building or where community relations are often fragile. Community mobilization has meant that marches are usually banned, though static assemblies are not subject to the same regulations. The EDL have developed a strategy whereby the occupation of significant civic space brings fear and sows the seeds of mistrust within contexts that that have often taken years of patient negotiation to reconcile.(3)

Opposition groups differ over tactics. Unite Against Fascism favour counter demonstrations preventing the occupation of town centres and others spaces. Hope not Hate look to community based opposition through grassroots mobilization, consciousness raising about the realities of extremist groups, and preventing potential violent confrontation through working with the authorities and those who have experienced an erosion of spatial justice in their towns and cities, who find themselves vulnerable to recruitment or provocation.

The root causes of the rise of support for the far-right in Britain can be traced back to policies which have created uneven geographies of inequitable social relationships that send people fearfully into ghettos of reality or the head. Fair distribution of resources has not been apparent as metropolitan centres have taken resources denied elsewhere. Rumours of unjust geographies have also played on perceptions of space colonised by new waves of immigration, intensified as civic real estate is used for places of worship and community facilities, or local shops become ‘ethnicised’.

At the same time national and local media have promoted geographies which refuse to acknowledge the causes of the movement of people across the globe, and acquiesce to banal anti-Islamic racisms. Very real spatial injustices have been exploited, opposition to far- right movements must offer a clear analysis of the need for social justice across communities as part of the vision for the towns, cities and society we wish to become. At the same time there are fears that a ‘respectable’ side of these groups is emerging, fuelled by the acceptable discourses of the right-wing press. Peter Marcuse’s recent warnings on the Tea-Party movement need to be heded on both sides of the atlantic.(4)

What might the right to the city discourse look like in such a context? The campaigning group Hope not Hate, with which many mosque, synagogue, church and community groups are closely allied, seeks in its grassroots work to build relationships and empower communities with a positive vision that exposes the destructive extremism of the BNP and EDL, and their counsels of despair.(5) This is the drive to restate the importance of place and the commitment to negotiating face to face the spaces we share with those who may not be like us.

Doreen Massey has recently reminded us of “the responsibilities that inhere in being placed.”(6) In Seeking Spatial Justice, Soja offers us the challenge of how we utilize our critical groundwork in the spatial struggles we find around us. The challenge of the moment in many British cities is to bring an understanding of the spatial dynamics of our cities to the table, creating more hopeful spaces that unmask the iniquitous geographies of the far right.

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Notes

  1. Soja, Ed (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.10
  2. David Harvey, “Cosmopolitanism and the Banality of Geographical Evils” in Popular Culture. Society for Transnational Cultural Studies. Duke University Press. Vol. 12. No. 2. Spring 2000
  3. At the end of August 2010 churches in Bradford took part in a symbolic cleansing, with water and incense, of the space which the EDL had taken in the city centre in the previous weekend
  4. See Devin Burghart and Leonard ZeskindTea Party nationalism’ & Nick Lowles ‘Crossroads’ in Searchlight October 2010.; Peter Marcuse ‘The Need for Critical Theory in Everyday Life: Why the Tea Parties have Popular Support’ CITY 14/4 August 2010
  5. Some of these are documented in Andrew Davey & Elaine Graham ‘Inhabiting the good city: the politics of hate and the urbanisms of hope’ in Christopher Baker and Justin Beaumont eds. Postsecular Cities – space, theory and practice Continuum 2011 (forthcoming)
  6. World city Polity 2007 p.216 (Reviewed in CITY 12/2 July 2008)

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