About Debbie Humphry

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Debbie Humphry has written 129 articles so far, you can find them below.

What would it take?

Kensington and Chelsea town hall in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire. Photo source: Debbie Humphry ©

Anna Minton

Big Capital came out on June 1st. Two weeks later the Grenfell Tower fire propelled social housing to the top of the news agenda. As the Grenfell Action Group had written presciently on their blog, it would take a ‘catastrophic event’ to expose the scandal over how housing was run in Kensington and Chelsea.
There are many parallels with the tragedy which unfolded at Grenfell and the events covered in the book, chief among them the total lack of accountability that councils and the assorted quangos and companies that now deal with housing, display towards communities.

The chapter attached is from Big Capital and focuses on the demolition of London’s housing estates – ‘estate regeneration’ to use the term favoured by the alliance of councils, developers and lobbyists – or ‘social cleansing’ to use the language of the activists protesting against the destruction of their homes. As at Grenfell, lack of accountability and failures in democratic representation are at the heart of it. Read Chapter 3 online now.

At the Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn addressed these issues directly for the first time, describing regeneration as a “much abused word” which really means “forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out”. He promised that Labour would guarantee residents living on estates undergoing redevelopment would get a home on the same site, on the same terms as before, and that no scheme would take place without a ballot of residents – in contrast to London Mayor Sadiq Khan who does not support ballots.

This felt like a huge victory for campaigners against estate demolition, but was swiftly tempered by the clarification that such policies would only apply under a Labour government, leaving councils like Lambeth, Southwark and Haringey free to proceed with their highly contentious plans. And Corbyn’s words continue to place the accent on redevelopment rather than the refurbishment of what are often potentially high quality homes.

The paradox of Grenfell is that this unprecedented tragedy is shining a light on the multiple failures in housing policy and the tide seems to be turning against estate demolition. But for communities across London, from Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, the Aylesbury in Southwark and Northumberland Park in Haringey, it will take more than rhetoric to save their homes.

Anna Minton is a CITY contributing editor, author of Big Capital and Reader in Architecture at the University of East London.

 

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Debbie Humphry interviews Tom Slater.

CITYTom600

 

CITY Interview: Debbie Humphry interviews Tom Slater in response to his delivery of the 13th David M Smith Annual Lecture at Queen Mary, University of London.

Debbie: You gave the 13th Annual David M. Smith lecture at Queen Mary’s University this year entitled ‘From territorial stigma to territorial justice: a critique of vested interest urbanism’. What was the most important lesson you learned from David M Smith?

 Tom: As an undergraduate (1995-1998), I took David’s course entitled Geography and Social Justice, and read the superb book he wrote with that same title. The whole experience was like being mentally electrocuted! It’s a very busy book, and it was a very busy course, one that covered many different theories of justice and the importance of thinking geographically when considering all of them – all brought to life by fascinating case studies. I soon realised that this was as much an education in moral and political philosophy as it was in human geography. David was inspired throughout his career by the 1954 words of August Losch, one of the great economists of locations and regions, who famously said, “The real duty…is not to explain our sorry reality, but to improve it.” That duty to improve our sorry reality ran through everything David did, and he conveyed it with gripping passion and enormous integrity. It was an honour to give the lecture and to see him there in the front row with his daughter.

David M. Smith

David M. Smith

The most important lesson from David, for me? That social justice should never be left to market forces. Instead, David argued that, given the chance of birth (that is, the chance of to whom you are born and particularly where you are born), and given the grotesque inequalities between people and places, social justice should be a process of equalization. He argued that this should be a process that places constraints on the inheritance of advantages such as wealth, land and political power; and in terms of other spheres like education, health care and the law, a principle of strict equality according to human need should apply, so as to give people the same capabilities in society. Informed by decades of mixed-methods research in very different places, David’s argument was: the more equal a society, the better for everyone in that society. He was making this argument way, way before anyone was talking about a book called The Spirit Level. Crucially, his work was a critique of uneven geographical development, anchored in a universal commitment to the equal realization of what is minimally required to be, and to feel, human. As all human beings have no choice but to occupy a place in the world, and as place is so central to human existence in so many ways, David argued that not being involuntarily banished from a place is a very solid principle and a building block for social justice, anywhere. These are lessons I hold close to me whenever I think about poverty and inequality.

David M. Smith

David M. Smith

You applied the theory of agnotology to research on UK right-wing free-market think tanks. Could you summarise your argument?

One of my favourite writers, the late great James Baldwin, once said, “It is certain…that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” A few years ago I started thinking seriously about the deliberate production of ignorance when I was researching the political assault on the UK welfare state, and particularly the role of Iain Duncan-Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (a splendid example of Orwellian doublespeak). Due to all the disinformation flying around about the welfare state and particularly the way in which numerous ridiculous unsubstantiated assertions from that think tank had informed devastatingly draconian cuts to benefits, I discovered that a conventional approach rooted in epistemology (the production of knowledge) became stranded. It seemed necessary to shift questions away from what people know about social issues towards questions about what people do not know, and why not. So I asked myself: what can we learn if the focus is shifted to the intentional production of ignorance?

Agnotology, coined by Robert Proctor, a science historian, is the word for the intentional production of ignorance. Proctor’s focus was on the tobacco industry’s efforts to manufacture ignorance about the health hazards of smoking. There are powerful institutions that want people not to know and not to think about certain things, and agnotology is an approach that traces how and why this happens. Given the world-historical catastrophes that took place 2016, it seems really important to understand how ignorance is produced; by whom, for whom, and (especially) against whom. Consider the fact that millions of Americans genuinely believe that a billionaire property tycoon is somehow an “anti-establishment outsider” who is going to “make America great again”. Consider the fact that millions of people in Britain genuinely believe that leaving the European Union will help fund the NHS. Consider the fact that the Tories in Britain are telling the electorate that there isn’t a “magic money tree” to fund public services, when it is estimated by the Tax Justice Network that £120 billion is lost annually through tax avoidance, fraud and collection errors. So, it seems to be the right time for studying intentionally-produced ignorance, and how it circulates.

I received unexpected feedback from people outside academia – particularly anti-poverty activists, opposition politicians and, astonishingly, senior police officers – that my critique of the Centre for Social Justice was useful to them, as not enough people have been going after these think tanks and what they have been up to. These institutions have become massively influential in the formation of policies on welfare and housing that have led to evictions and displacement on a disturbing scale. The housing crisis has become too important to ignore, and my argument in the David Smith lecture was that what we are seeing is a vested interest urbanism. Those who fund the think tanks and give them a voice are right at the heart of ensuring that there are certain things that people hear and read about and ultimately believe in respect of housing and urban issues, at the expense of some much more important things that people really should know about if we are to do something about the appalling inequality, poverty and social suffering we see in the UK. Quite simply, the vested interests that gain from housing and urban inequality don’t want us to know certain things! Crucially, the activation and amplification of the stigma attached to certain places is a key tactic of think tanks in order to control the narrative, and then what we see is territorial stigma becoming an instrument of governance. So for the David Smith lecture I tried to provide a thorough analytic dissection of the stigmatising tactics of the free market think tank, with a view to opening up political alternatives inspired by David Smith’s work.

CITYTom-2

 

It seems to me that one key element your argument about agnotology and post-truth have in common is the relationship between the production of ignorance and false facts for the purpose of influencing public opinion in order to perpetuate the interests of power. Clearly the deliberate production of false facts and ignorance for political purposes is age-old. But do you think we are in a particular historical moment where this is intensified? And if so why?

Certainly this is intensified and in terms of free market think tanks I think this has a lot to do with their shifting make-up and tactics. The early free market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) and the Centre for Policy Studies – the trio behind the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s – saw themselves as pioneers, as “the motorcycles ahead of the presidential car” (as an ASI employee once told Jamie Peck). They were certainly on a moral and political crusade, but they came into existence because of a deep hatred of state interference in the lives of individuals, borne of an ignorant fear of Cold War socialism. In their early think tank days, the economists working in them, as dangerous as they later proved to be, probably could make legitimate claims of being independent from politicians. They worked hard to get their unorthodox arguments into political circles, and they found the perfect recipient in Thatcher, who, true to form, was intent on creating a ‘market for ideas’. The IEA, for instance, would not exist had Antony Fisher, a wealthy battery chicken farmer, not formed a friendship with the economist Friedrich von Hayek, who of course was Thatcher’s economic icon and mentor. A very favourable constellation of circumstances led to quite marginal economic views becoming mainstream.

What has happened in recent years, however, is that the newer and most influential UK think tanks have actually become the presidential car. They are deeply political creations, started up and initially financed by wealthy politicians to advance their own agendas and to change the terms of the debate. What is striking to me, having trawled through their reports, is the astonishing, almost shameless intensity of their propaganda. The venomous zeal, the unwavering conviction, the simmering hatred of any view that doesn’t conclude that the ‘free market’ should be left alone and we’ll all be richer for it. As Jamie Peck has pointed out, these think tanks portray themselves as “lonely voices of reason”, as people somehow on the losing side, even though they shape and sail with the prevailing political wind. They indulge repeatedly in what I have called “decision-based evidence making”, yet they make repeated claims of objectivity, lack of bias and especially ‘rigour’.

Policy Exchange is a fascinating example. It was established in 2002 by three Tory MPs who had backed Michael Portillo’s campaign in the 2001 Conservative Party leadership contest. In his pre-trainspotting days, Portillo had advocated a modernizing shift towards more liberal social attitudes, whilst maintaining a commitment to Thatcherite economics. The day after Portillo withdrew from the leadership race, Archie Norman, former Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells and the former CEO of Asda who masterminded its sale to WalMart in 1999, said that he was planning to finance a new think tank: “This is the future of the Conservative party and we would like to find a way of channeling that and harnessing it.” Nick Boles, currently Conservative MP for Grantham, was also involved from the start. Previously he had a modest business career supplying painting and decorating tools to the DIY industry, a career where he felt hampered by nuisances such as paying taxes. He describes Policy Exchange as his “biggest achievement in politics so far”. Francis Maude, now Lord Maude of Horsham, a fixture on Conservative benches for over 25 years, was the third founder. Maude felt that a new think tank should be free of the “Thatcher baggage” that he felt was affecting the older free market think tanks.

Policy Exchange was registered with the Charity Commission in 2003. Registering as a charity can provide numerous advantages for a think tank, as charities don’t normally have to pay corporation tax or capital gains tax, and donations to charities are tax free. But think tanks can also use charitable status to refuse requests for transparency in terms of who funds them. To be clear, many think tanks are charities, and many do in fact release information on who funds them. But my research indicates that the more right wing a think tank is, the less transparent it is. In 2007 Policy Exchange was investigated by the Charity Commission after a complaint was made that it was effectively a research branch of the Conservative Party. The investigation, incredibly, found no evidence of party political bias!

The theory of agnotology has a powerful resonance right now, at a time when the ‘fake news’ is being widely used, and discussed in the media, in what is being termed a period of post-truth. Could you comment on how the un-evidenced assertions and ideologies being produced by the free market think tanks you are researching either relate to, or are distinct from, the production of false facts we saw during the BREXIT campaign (such as the false promise of £350 million EU membership fees per week going directly the NHS), and that we regularly witness with Donald Trump?

They are very similar in many ways, but perhaps the key difference is the think tanks are more dangerous, as many of their false facts (lies) and absurd claims work their way into legislation and policy agendas as “evidence” without any debate. When think tank officials are quoted or interviewed in mainstream media coverage, their political orientation is almost never mentioned. What we are seeing is a new political economy of ‘expertise’ – it is unusual these days for academic publications and research findings to receive the same amount of media attention as think tank reports. Academic work that does not challenge the status quo tends to be the sort of stuff that gets significant media attention. Much of this has been fuelled by a systematic dismissal of academic research by neoliberal politicians, as the vast majority of social science scholarship and evidence is totally at odds with their rhetoric – but I also believe that the neoliberalisation of higher education in the UK has fuelled the subordination of scholarly to policy agendas. Countless academics have abandoned intellectual autonomy and framed their work in the dubious terms and categories of public policies in order to stand out in the push to secure external funding. The ‘impact agenda’, as I feared when it was first announced, has morphed narrowly into impact on policies way above impact on activists, grassroots struggles, the lives of people with least resources, and so on.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

To return to the topic of your lecture: you talk about how most of the UK media overwhelmingly reproduces the market view on housing – such as the assumption that rising house prices are positive for the national economy, that home-ownership is an appropriate aspiration good, and that social housing estates are best demolished as they are nothing more than a trap for poverty and dysfunction. Why is this a dominant media position?

I don’t see this as just a media position – it is also a political position, a think tank position, and a position of neoclassical economists who have never been trained to see the world in any other way (or maybe do not want to!). In terms of housing, we have witnessed the reframing of a serious crisis of housing affordability as a crisis of housing supply caused by too much state interference in the market, or to use the terms of the neoclassical economists, ‘artificial manipulation’. Viewed through an analytic lens of agnotology, we can see a complete inversion going on: the structural and political causes of the housing crisis – that is, severe deregulation, rampant privatization, and attacks on welfare state – are put forward as desirable and necessary remedies that will make us all richer and squash an intrusive state apparatus.

The irony is that without the enthusiastic embrace of neoclassical logic by the neoliberal state, we would not be in this housing crisis. Neoliberalism couldn’t make inroads without the state. In opposition to the usual rhetoric that neoliberalism demands state retreat, in fact it actually requires continuous statecraft, and in ways that beggar belief. Take the infamous Right to Buy scheme. Over the past 37 years, over 3 million publicly owned homes have been sold off under that scheme. There are many declamatory debates on Right to Buy, but they tend to silence a pretty stunning contradiction, in that Right to Buy actually failed as a privatization strategy. 42% of all those who exercised their Right to Buy then sold on to private landlords, who then rented them to tenants at double or triple the levels of council rent, which required tenants to apply for housing benefit from the state in order to pay rent. So Thatcher’s flagship policy actually ended up costing the taxpayer far, far more in housing subsidies than it ever did in the provision and maintenance of council homes. How is that a successful privatization scheme, by any measure? It got the state knee-deep in housing expenditure! The main long-term effect of Right to Buy was to rob subsequent generations of affordable housing, diverting them into the landlord bonanza that is the private-rented sector – and now the state has to pay a vast sum of money (over 35 billion pounds annually) directly to landlords so tenants don’t become homeless. This is a truly preposterous situation, and it is tenants who have been suffering, most recently with the assault on housing benefit under austerity. The most outrageous thing of all? Many politicians have been profiting from the vast expansion of the private rented sector – one in three MPs are private sector landlords

I think in the UK one of the problems is the dominance of the neoliberal discourse across political, economic and media spheres is related to the turn of the left to the centre in the 1990s that we saw with New Labour, meaning that as a populace we have been bulldozed by a neoliberal ideology since Thatcher came to power in 1979, i.e. for 38 years – around two generations. Following the financial crisis of 2008 many on the left thought the public would recognize and reject the excesses of neoliberal capitalism when they witnessed bankers’ greed and their bailout by the state. Instead the opposite seemed to happen – and as you said in your lecture, the financial crisis was repackaged as a crisis of the welfare state –to be solved by austerity measures rather than control of capital. How did this discursive repackaging occur and why was it swallowed by the public? Has it been swallowed by the public? The last election perhaps indicates that the tide is turning.

I would argue that New Labour was a turn to the right from the centre! Since the late 1970s Britain has been subjected to an extraordinary neoliberal revolution. What began as a radical series of policy shifts towards privatization (a systematic assault on the Keynesian welfare state and on labour unions) has mutated into what Adam Tickell and Jamie Peck helpfully call “the mobilization of state power in the contradictory extension and reproduction of market (-like) rule”. This has fundamentally reshaped social relations from above, and led many to swallow and defend – passionately – the myth that economic growth is all that matters to a society as wealth will ‘trickle-down’ and benefit everyone. But housing wealth does not trickle down; it flows upwards, into the hands of lenders, investors, speculators, developers and housebuilding corporations. New Labour’s abysmal record on housing inequality paved the way for the 2010-2015 Coalition government, where the housing crisis deepened and intensified under the dominant Conservative Party (which campaigned using the language of compassion and social progress to shield the electorate from its rabidly right wing, ruling class and corporate ethos); and the subordinate Liberal Democrats (a small set of centre-right political lightweights without a coherent message or set of policies). David Cameron and George Osborne (both members of the British aristocracy with substantial family fortunes, who surrounded themselves with many more such people) were confronted by a substantial budget deficit which they argued was a consequence of reckless and irresponsible public spending by the previous Labour government. They even attributed the entire global financial crisis to the actions of that Labour government too, at any opportunity. The budget deficit was effectively a banker’s overdraft (big bail-outs of disgraced financial institutions) but you wouldn’t know it. For Cameron and Osborne, two archdeacons of low taxation and low public spending, there was only one way to deal with this budget deficit: a vicious austerity package, which, conveniently, was also an opportunity to destroy the welfare state that ‘Thatcher’s children’ of the Conservative Party so despise, and replace it with their dream of a thoroughly privatized and individualized society which would protect the sanctity of private property rights and a free market.

Symbols of the Fordist-Keynesian era such as the welfare state are viewed by Conservatives as dangerous impediments to the advancement of financialisation and the accumulation of wealth. British ruling elites have set out to monitor and monetize more and more of those human needs that were not commodified in previous rounds of financialization. Pensions, healthcare, education, and especially housing have been aggressively appropriated, colonized and financialised. For Conservatives, the redistributive path – increasing taxation of corporations, land and property – is not a matter for public discussion, and an entire cadre of cultural-technical ‘experts’ (chief among them think tank economists) is in place to make sure the conversation does not head in that direction. This ensures that it is largely unknown that just the money lost through tax avoidance alone could pay for 25,000 nurses on a £24,000 a year salary for 20 years; could put 130,000 children through school from ages 5-18; and would allow the government to give every single pensioner in the UK an extra £65 a year. There are so many simple statistics like that which could change the debate, but they never make the news. Another one: if food prices had risen at the same rate as house prices since 1979, a chicken would today cost £52! As you say, I think the tide is turning, but there is so much damage to deal with, and the not insignificant matter of the right wing mainstream media in the way of political consciousness.

Tom Slater and David M. Smith

Tom Slater and David M. Smith

Do you think the hold of the right wing market view of housing has taken hold of the public discourse and imagination to the extent of being hegemonic? – with the idea that the market is the solution to the housing crisis legitimated as the norm?

Without any doubt. Nearly 40 years of neoliberal housing policy, and the neoclassical economic logic undergirding it, has created an extraordinarily impenetrable belief system, with the core view that ‘high house prices mean good news for an economy’. When you have 99% of the press quoting the real estate industry, and think tank literature that says the market will always work for owners of property and for borrowers, no matter what, it is very hard indeed to get alternative views across. You would think that the 2008 financial crisis would have been a wake-up call in terms of what housing bubbles can do to societies, but it was revealing that the economists, politicians and financial sector all spoke quickly of returning to “normal” after the crash. The futile norm, for obedient debt-encumbered homeowners, is hoping that your property value will go up and everything will be fine in the end. ‘Resilience’ discourses, which have become so popular of late in academia and policy circles, are anaesthetizing in this respect: the logic seems to be, ‘bounce back from an economic catastrophe’, rather than ‘think about how that economic catastrophe happened’. I do not want to be resilient! I want to understand and challenge the systems and institutional arrangements forcing us to be resilient.

Savills’ estate agents are now key advisors for local and national government and in your lecture the Savills’ planning officer in the audience claimed Savills has over 200 local authorities as their clients for estate regeneration. I have attended talks and heard Savills present themselves as saviors of the housing crisis by – as they put it – releasing land value from council-owned housing estates into the private sector – enabling more properties to be built. But we know most of these houses will be for the wealthy, including the government-subsidized ‘affordable’ starter homes. Given that all the evidence indicates that housing estate regeneration results in a net loss of social housing and an increase in displacement of lower-income people, I would argue that Savills are producing a form of agnotology and ‘territorial screen’ (to use the terms of your lecture) that are hiding this reality . How can such a dominant discourse be challenged? How do we un-make the ignorance?

I agree with you here, and Savills is being either delusional or dishonest by saying it is the savior of the housing crisis. In April 2014 the Department for Communities and Local Government created a £140m Housing Estate Regeneration Fund, and then it commissioned Savills to investigate the potential of Policy Exchange proposals to demolish high rise social housing in London. In January 2016 the Savills report was published and was then used to justify a government strategy proposing to demolish 100 ‘sink estates’ in England. Although the Savills report did not make a specific call for demolition, it said, “We have assumed cleared sites.” But never mind the language – something strikes me as going dreadfully awry when Savills is commissioned as expert consultant on the matter of urban poverty on social housing estates, given that Savills’ expertise is in high-end, luxury and elite real estate markets!

Let’s think about this popular strategy of demolishing social housing estates and the logic undergirding it, which is that people who live on these estates tend to be poorer and more troublesome than people who do not. Let’s apply that same logic to health. People in hospital tend to be less healthy than people who aren’t in hospital. But I hope nobody would argue that to improve health, we should demolish hospitals! But land value is an interesting one. We can certainly ‘release land value’; just not in the way Savills wants to do it. Land value is never created from land ownership. It is created from collective social activities and investments on land, from the productivity of organisations and workers. But a monumental problem is that the Land Compensation Acts (1961 in England and Wales, and 1963 in Scotland) require landowners to be compensated for land as though it had planning permission, so any uplift in land value flows straight to landowners. So right now, landowners are pocketing a total of £9billion of profit per year from doing absolutely nothing. We are in a crazy situation: the rewards of rising land values in cities flow to the indolent! This encourages rampant speculation: the urban land market has become a place for very wealthy rentier capitalists – especially investors from overseas – to park their money at an annual rate of return of around 10%. Speculation means that more and more capital is being invested in search of rents and interest and asset pursuit and asset stripping, rather than invested in productive activity. Neoclassical economists get very flustered when you point this out, but it’s worth reminding them that even Adam Smith argued that England’s landowners were a major barrier to increasing the wealth of the nation. By grabbing and then bidding for land among each other, they were able to maintain high land prices and line their own pockets at everyone’s expense. John Stuart Mill, who was also rather partial to free market economics, became so frustrated with the behaviour of landowners he argued that they were not fit to play any role in maximising aggregate utility. £9 billion per year from rising land values – that’s a lot of money right there to house a lot of vulnerable people affordably and securely. But landowners now pocket all of it. So, both Land Compensation Acts should be repealed, and land value taxes are an urgent priority to prevent speculative landed developer interests from damaging cities and societies even more.

And is an attack on discourse enough? Discourse justifies policies and the substantive material production of inequalities, such as the austerity measures that are making people homeless and hungry, with Savills embedded in positions of power making financial deals with councils, homes being demolished and thousand of people being evicted and displaced. But how do we stop these material effects already so far down the line?

An attack on discourse is never enough, but by the same token, it is never enough to address the social disasters that surround us without a focus on symbolic power. The literary critic Kenneth Burke had a lovely phrase when he spoke of “terministic screens”. Certain terms are selections of reality that can quickly function as deflections of reality; as screens that hide what is actually going on if you were to take the trouble to look closely, or if you take the trouble to look at any ethnographic work going on places that are stigmatised. The “sink estate”, first used by The Daily Mail in 1972, and amplified significantly following Tony Blair’s visit to The Aylesbury Estate in 1997, is surely one such terministic screen. It makes it a lot easier to justify bulldozing a place to the ground and displacing its residents if that place gets repeatedly condemned as an incubator for the social ills of the world. We can also see terministic screens in the Housing and Planning Act passed in 2016, which allows social housing estates to be reclassified as ‘brownfield’ sites – a category normally reserved for contaminated ex-industrial land. The symbolic erasure of homes and entire communities paves the way for their literal erasure. We know from Bourdieusian scholarship that symbolic structures don’t just reflect social relations – they help constitute them. So material effects are fuelled by symbolic structures just as much as they are fuelled by economic and political structures.

We are seeing resistance on the streets, for example in the explosion of housing activist protests – Axe the Housing Act, Radial Housing Network, The Living Rent campaign in Scotland that you mentioned, FocusE15 and Generation Rent to mention a few. At the same time I hear many members of the public talking about the inevitability of regeneration and gentrification and social cleansing. How much hope is there that the powerful ideas produced by the free-market think tanks can be challenged in a way that meaningfully shift the public debate and neoliberal dominance?

These protests have achieved remarkable things against the odds, which gives me (and many others I know) a lot of hope. The huge difficulty is that the free market think tanks are bankrolled by very powerful interests, and speak the language of the dominant, whereas the housing activist organisations have hardly any resources at all and have a mountain to climb. Those who call the shots in the housing industry have a huge amount to lose, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their privileges.

The vast majority of housing economists are trained to think in the neoclassical way: it’s all about striving for equilibrium in supply and demand. I have a wonderful cartoon in my office, which shows an economist saying to a homeless person, “The fundamentals of the economy are in great shape.” The homeless person responds, “But I am not earning enough to survive!” and the economist replies, “That’s not one of the fundamentals!” To a neoclassical economist, the housing crisis is a basic economic conundrum – too much demand and not enough supply – and the ‘solution’ is thus to increase supply by stopping all government interference in the competitive housing market, which (true to neoclassical beliefs) must be allowed to operate free of cumbersome restrictions to provide incentives for producers and consumers to optimize their behaviour and push the market towards equilibrium, whilst yielding the maximum amount of utility for the maximum number of people. I think housing activism, if it is to be effective, has to shatter the blatant lie that the housing crisis is created by too much demand and not enough supply. There are over 750,000 empty homes across the UK (and that’s before counting empty 2nd homes). If house prices were simply about supply and demand, then that massive surplus of homes would surely result in falling prices. But that’s not happening, so the crisis cannot be about supply and demand. Economists call for even more deregulation in the form of ‘planning liberalisation’ that would lead to the construction of new housing on greenbelt land currently shielded from housing development by government red tape. This is absurd – if we think of the deregulation that led to the housing crisis, they are like quack doctors applying leeches to themselves. The really important questions that need to be asked are: what kind of housing is to be built, by who, who for, and on whose land?

Rent control has to become a central battleground for housing justice, just as it has in Scotland. Just hearing the words ‘rent control’ is deeply unsettling to people who believe in so-called ‘free’ and competitive markets and in private property rights. The usual argument advanced by neoclassical economists is that if you had rent controls, landlords would all withdraw their properties from the market immediately, leading to a severe shortage of rental housing supply. This is simply not supported by the evidence where rent controls are well established, and also totally absurd: if landlords are told they can only charge £1000 rent for a property and not the £1200 they want to charge, they are not all suddenly going to go on strike and forgo the entire £1000! Also, imagine if housing benefit was under a different kind of attack, via modest rent controls. Reducing private rents by just one fifth would save £4billion annually in housing benefit – money that could then be used by councils to construct desperately needed housing. It was interesting that when Living Rent published an interview they did with me, where I dispelled some of the mythology around rent controls, two people at the Institute of Economic Affairs got hold of it and instead of engaging in a constructive debate, they felt it necessary to take to Twitter and attack the entire discipline of geography. It showed me that they have a lot to lose, and are scared of losing it. There is a world of difference between a home-owning economist working in a think tank being paid to argue against rent control, and a very low-income tenant struggling to pay scandalously high rents whilst feeding and clothing their children.

There seem to be different levels at which the production of false facts, un-evidenced assertions and ignorance occurs. In your talk, for example, you refer to the deliberate production of ignorance – implying that the think tank authors are self-consciously producing lies or at evading evidence in order to forward their views and interests. Yet you also refer to the “Impenetrable belief systems” of these authors, in which case their unswerving convictions are perhaps perceived by them to be sufficient unto themselves, and do not require evidence. In the first case there is a chance of undermining their view through some fact-finding – in the way that a house of cards may topple when you remove one. But in the latter case the facts are less likely to make an impact on their views, as they are made of a stronger, inflexible material. What would be your analysis of their position? Deliberate lies? Or convictions untouched by the truth?

The horrendous housing policies we have seen since 2010 have mostly come from the pen of someone called Alex Morton, who used to work at Policy Exchange until he became David Cameron’s special advisor on housing policy. One report he wrote in particular, entitled Making Housing Affordable (2010) quickly became Coalition housing policy (as did other things Morton wrote, notably a report called Ending Expensive Social Tenancies). The Making Housing Affordable report argues that social housing of any form is a terrible disaster on many levels, but particularly because it makes tenants unhappy, poor, unemployed, and welfare dependent. Not only is this baseline environmental determinism, it’s a reversal of causation: the reason people gain access to social housing is precisely because they are poor and in need. It wasn’t social housing that created poverty and need in the first place. The things he says about social housing in order to denigrate it come from cherry-picking various sound bites from a deeply problematic report on social housing written in 2007 by John Hills of the LSE, and also from numerous dodgy opinion polls that are treated as the definitive verdict on the topic. ‘Convictions untouched by the truth’ would be a very polite way of describing Alex Morton’s contributions to the debate on housing!

In the Making Housing Affordable report, having effectively argued that social housing is the scourge of British society, Morton proposes what he feels are solutions to the housing crisis. Predictably, they involve helping social tenants into home ownership and knocking down the ‘worst’ social housing estates and selling the land to developers. He ignores the land-banking epidemic facilitated by a system that actively rewards speculate-to-accumulate investment, and dismisses the importance of abundant mortgage credit and consistently low interest rates as factors behind the crisis (it’s not as if he doesn’t know about these things). He says the crisis is actually too much NIMBYism, so he proposes that fearful existing residents should be given “financial incentives” by developers to give their blessing to proposed new developments nearby. But what’s most disturbing about this report is setting the content against its title: making housing affordable. The whole report attacks the very idea of affordable housing, and suggests numerous methods to raise house prices and raise rents, with no shame at all. It’s people like Alex Morton who are behind the current madness of the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, which gives £20billion of taxpayer funds straight to big developers to build so-called “starter homes” (for which, in London, you need a household income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000). If that isn’t an upward redistribution of income from the masses to the tiny few at the top, then I don’t know what is.

Have you seen any shifts in the discourse or think tanks since May replaced Cameron?

No – they have just carried on hammering out the same predictable stuff, in the same “lonely voice of reason” way.

 How can we make change? How can the left reclaim the discourse? How do we stop the neoliberal steamroller?

Redistributive and communal solutions tend to gain in popularity if the market is shown not to work in practice as well as shown not to work in theory, and I think there’s a lot more work to do there – and this work can only be done in collaboration with housing activists, neighbourhood organisations and tenant councils, who know far more than academics do about the misery of housing markets at ground level.   Housing studies, as an academic field, can be incredibly boring and mainstream, and is still dominated by mindless number crunching and tedious cost-benefit policy analysis (as opposed to hard hitting policy critique rooted in a thorough understanding of political economy). Massive grants still flow to people doing this kind of work in “evidence centres” – almost always activist-free zones – and I see little positive change happening as a result of their work. I think a way forward would be for a global network of scholars and activists to form, comprised of people who know and understand that housing policy in several societies has quite simply become the financial ruin and displacement of the poor. Once we accept that, and I think we have to accept that based on urban uprising and struggles for housing justice, then some really exciting analytical and political work can be done.

 Given that the right wing neoliberal discourse of fairness is premised on equal opportunities as a basis for the ‘fair’ competition for resources – a kind of survival of the fittest justification for inequality – how can an alternative discourse and policy approach of ‘justice is equalization’ be argued for and convince the public’? How can we ensure that the public understand the difference – as the right-wing use of the term ‘fairness’ can be quite beguiling?

‘Fairness to the taxpayer’ is a stupid way of considering what is socially just or not. I’m amazed by how ingrained it has become in recent years. As a taxpayer, if I consider something to be ‘fair’ to me, and you, also a taxpayer, do not consider that same thing to be fair to you – then what possible arbitration procedure could there be between us?! This approach gets us nowhere other than….if we paid no taxes, we would not have any disagreement! And this is precisely the direction in which certain right wing zealots want to take us. Far too many of us are under this spell.

A way out of this spell is to reclaim the language of social justice from the right. When pushed, people on the right can never define it. The Centre for Social Justice has never attempted to define ‘social justice’ – no definition appears on its website, nor in any of its publications. Only in a 2010 interview in the New Statesman did CSJ founder Iain Duncan-Smith attempt to define it:

“I mean to improve the quality of people’s lives, which gives people the opportunity to improve their lives. In other words, so people’s quality of life is improved.”

How’s that for vacuous tautology?! Most scholars of political and moral philosophy tend to concur that in the context of the distribution of any society’s benefits and burdens, redistribution in the context of inequality, or the defensibility of unequal relations between people, must lie at the core of any understanding of social justice. But ‘social justice’ has been hijacked by the right, to the extent that society is viewed by so many through behavioural filters such as ‘family breakdown’, worklessness, dependency, anti-social behaviour, personal irresponsibility, addiction, and out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancies – things deemed ‘unfair’ to the ‘hard working taxpayer’, and hey presto, social justice can be achieved if we make it harder for people in this situation by paying less tax! It seems to me to be crucial for any social movement to smash this hideous reasoning, to show that massive inequality hurts us all (we are all victims), and to reclaim social justice as a condition of striving for greater equality in all spheres of life (and that this is never something that can be achieved under neoliberal capitalism).

In your lecture you deploy a critique of right-wing free-market think tanks. Have you also looked at left-wing think tanks? And can they equally be found wanting in terms of the production of ignorance, lack of evidence and ‘decision-based evidence making’?

I have been looking at this, and I am starting to see that there aren’t actually very many left wing think tanks. Most identified as such are dull and centrist, or trying to shed the ‘Blairite’ tag with varying degrees of success! There are some left wing think tanks doing remarkable work, but they struggle for resources, and find it hard to make inroads given the prevailing political wind. The centrist ones usually operate firmly within the status quo and produce desperately boring documents working with the categories of neoliberal reason such as ‘resilience’, ‘community cohesion’ and ‘housing choice’. It’s all very depressing, and why I turn to activist organisations for actual insights!

You say there has always been territorial stigma attached to places of poverty, but that this has intensified in the past two decades – can you explain how? Are you talking about since the Coalition came to power in 2010? Or had a shift already occurred with New Labour?

It was happening under New Labour, but nothing like to the same degree as we have seen since 2010. It’s not a new development that certain parts of cities have negative reputations, but what we’ve seen in the last decade or so is that certain urban districts and housing estates have come to be widely renowned and reviled as epicentres of self-inflicted and self-perpetuating destitution and depravity. More than ever before, territorial stigma is activated and amplified to try and procure consent for punitive policies. The label “ghetto” is commonly hurled about to dramatize and denounce poverty, suggesting places ready to erupt in mayhem at any moment. There’s also profound gendering going on: we see the portrayal of entire areas as full of single mothers scrounging off the state, unable to control their numerous rampaging children, whilst the fathers are nowhere to be seen. When David Cameron gave a speech responding to the 2011 riots in urban England, he said this:

“I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad, where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger.”

Another development is that when persons of power and eminence visit disreputable districts nowadays, it is not in the voyeuristic mode of the past but rather in a martial mode, to announce measures designated to root out rot, restore order, and punish miscreants.

Do you have any further comments in the light of what happened at Grenfell

This was a horrible, preventable and deeply political tragedy. There have been some excellent analyses already – all I would add to them at this juncture is that it is worth considering in depth whether political struggles could organize around the question of making it illegal for those with property interests to stand for public office. The Deputy Leader for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the borough’s Cabinet minister for “housing and regeneration”, is a man called – I kid you not – Rock Hugo Basil Feilding-Mellen, son of the Countess of Wemyss and March. He has a lot of questions to answer about Grenfell and he appears to have gone into hiding!*

I clashed with Feilding-Mellen back in 2013 as his family owns all the land around Longniddry, the village east of Edinburgh where I live (as well as large swathes of southern Scotland and Gloucestershire), and he wants to build a lot of expensive houses here with his company “Socially Conscious Capital” (a pure exemplar of a contradiction in terms if ever there was one!). He ran roughshod over residents’ concerns and treated us all with arrogant dismissal and disdain – and our campaign against his plans for the “sustainable expansion of Longniddry” resulted in him reluctantly reducing the amount of houses he wants to build here (which of course are not going to be ‘affordable’ like he claims, and certainly not ‘sustainable’ as they involve ripping up excellent arable land and replacing it with concrete).

Anyway. It speaks volumes about the grotesque inequalities of wealth and power in British society, particularly acute in Kensington, that Feilding-Mellen is even in a position where concerns of poor residents in Kensington have to be addressed to him (and other Tories on the Council with property development interests). Not only have they ignored the concerns (multiple sources confirm this, and are well documented on the Grenfell Action Group blog) – they have done so whilst sprucing up the facades of ‘unsightly’ high rise social housing with dodgy cladding in a thinly-veiled intent to gentrify the area, which will cleanse the borough of the poor.

Nobody can control the circumstances into which they are born – neither Feilding-Mellen nor the tenants of Grenfell – so it beggars belief that we still live in a society where inheritance and land titles (and arbitrary electoral boundaries) can result in someone so removed from (and so indifferent to) the plight of working class people having the most say in their housing situation. Grenfell was a tragedy shot through with grotesque class inequality. If anything progressive is to come from the anger it has triggered, at the very least it should be that landowning, property developing, rent-seeking politicians should never be allowed anywhere near the question of providing safe and affordable shelter for people in the most housing need. This issue goes far beyond Grenfell – one of the global problems of our time is politicians with major real estate interests investing in developments that bring them profits, whilst disinvesting in the lives of people they are elected to serve. Grenfell is about far, far more than dodgy cladding, and certainly must never become an excuse for politicians ‘informed’ by think tanks to knock down high-rise social housing.

What are you working on now?

 I’m trying to convert all my work on think tanks into a book entitled Vested Interest Urbanism – I just need more agreeable working conditions to write it! Hopefully that will be the case sometime soon, and when done, I hope it will contribute to numerous efforts to resist the appalling tactics of think tanks and their supporters, which have such serious consequences for so many people.

 

David M. Smith and Tom Slater

David M. Smith and Tom Slater

 * Feilding-Mellen has since resigned as Deputy Leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, but he is still a ward councillor.

Recording of lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3a3-MlqF9M&feature=youtu.be

Dr. Tom Slater is reader of Urban Geography at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Debbie Humphry is web editor of CITY-analysis; photographer and researcher (Research fellow CELS, UEL; human geography lecturer Kingston University). http://www.debbiehumphry.com

 

‘This place is post-something’

London’s housing in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Paul Watt

Over a year ago, Anna Minton and I began our article in City on ‘London’s housing crisis and its activisms’ with this quote from China Mieville taken from his book London’s Overthrow:

‘London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.’ (Mieville, 2012, cited in Watt and Minton, 2016: 204).

At the time I had no firm idea what the apocalyptic ‘something’ might be that we were ‘pre’, but it seemed that London’s housing – and its often mentioned crisis – had something to do with it. The Grenfell Tower fire may well be this ‘something’ since it has revealed the injustices, deprivations, expulsions and brutalities that are routine in the lives of ordinary, working-class, multi-ethnic Londoners. These include: overcrowding; being ‘regenerated’ and watching your home and neighbourhood crumble around you; being shunted into unsatisfactory temporary accommodation; being displaced out-of-borough; being ignored and/or patronised by political elites; being invisible and not counting; and not even being properly counted. How many people lived in Grenfell Tower? No-one knows. How many are dead? No-one knows. Disposable homes, disposable lives.

All of this is occurring at the very same time that London’s skyline is full of cranes building luxury tower blocks for London’s ‘winners’, as at least one developer has labelled its denizens. But these new private developments are ‘not for us’, as young homeless people living in Newham presciently said with reference to the 2012 Olympic Games’ related housing (Watt, 2013; Kennelly, 2016; Watt and Bernstock, 2017). Media interviews with the residents of Grenfell Tower show that – just like the homeless youth in uber-gentrifying Stratford – they are only too well aware of their subaltern position within the surrounding unequal neoliberal urban landscape with its associated social cleansing.

All capitalist cities are riven by the contradictory gap between exchange values and use values in the field of housing. Everyone needs a place to live, a place they can call home, a place where they can be safe and secure. Under capitalist relations of production, however, housing is primarily produced in commodity form for surplus value extraction so that exchange values (housing as property investment) dominate use values (housing as home and meeting needs). In 21st century London, this exchange/use value gap is a mile-wide crevice which slices through the city, giving rise to deep social faultlines. The super-rich living in London’s ‘Alpha Territories’ (Glucksberg, 2016) over-accumulate bedrooms and under-use their luxury apartments, including letting them lie empty, while breadline Londoners have to squeeze themselves into ever-diminishing residential space, guided and coerced by a burgeoning rentier class (Dorling, 2014; Minton, 2017). Politicians of all stripes have “in too many cases […] been complicit in gearing housing production and distribution in London towards maximising real-estate exchange values at the expense of fulfilling use values and meeting housing needs” (Watt and Minton, 2016: 218).

Housing is conditional – upon keeping up rent and mortgage payments. Default and you are displaced. In the terms of Saskia Sassen’s (2014: 1; original emphasis) ‘new logics of expulsion’, eviction and displacement in London are ever-present threats and realities. ‘Home’ for many private renters – as well as council tenants and leaseholders on regenerated/demolished council-built housing estates (Watt, 2013; Flynn, 2016) – is less a place of security than of gnawing existential angst. In fact, the termination of an assured shorthold tenancy in the PRS is now the main reason for loss of the last settled home among the nation’s homeless applicants, and was “behind 40% of all statutory homeless acceptances in London” in the third quarter of 2016 (Wilson and Barton, 2016: 3).

Public, council housing offered a partially decommodified form of housing which post-war working-class Londoners relied upon – ‘take yourself down the council, they’ll sort you out’. Now the council don’t sort you out – they ship you out. If you are evicted and you lack a regular, large salary, you might apply to the council as homeless (Watt, 2017). This involves going to the council’s housing office on the day of your eviction and waiting there for many hours only be told, ‘we have no social housing, but there’s emergency temporary accommodation in Hastings or Welwyn Garden City’ (if you’re ‘lucky’) ‘or Birmingham or Manchester’ (if you’re ‘unlucky’) – ‘but you have to go now’. Don Corleone would approve – it’s an offer you cannot refuse. If you do happen to refuse, then you’ve just made yourself ‘intentionally homeless’ and the offer will be rescinded (Watt, 2017). In Sassen’s terms, you will have been expelled from the housing arm of the welfare state. But if you accept the offer, you have rescinded your right to the city. You will be expelled from the city, from your family and support networks. Such expulsionary logics are now routine in London. Displacement is forced upon Londoners by an insecure and expensive PRS, as reinforced by Local Housing Allowance cuts (Powell, 2015), coupled with chronic shortages of council/social rental housing, the only really truly affordable housing for ordinary, low-income Londoners. What there is of the latter is all too often being dismantled by regeneration/demolition schemes which a Greater London Authority report has demonstrated contributes towards a net loss of social tenancies (London Assembly Housing Committee, 2015).

London’s expulsionary logics have been revealed in all their brutality in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Unsurprisingly it appears the traumatised survivors have said they don’t want to live in sub-standard B&Bs, and that they want to be rehoused near their neighbours and not to be displaced from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. As such, they are rejecting the dominant expulsionary logic of being forced to go anywhere that the authorities tell them to go. But it should not take such an emergency for ‘right to the city’ values to prevail since all Londoners deserve a right to their city.

Ultimately, the deep exchange/use value gap has to be drastically narrowed. This can only happen if monetary values around housing-as-property are subordinated to use values of home and need, and this will only begin to be achieved once a growing proportion of housing production is decommodified. This would mean recreating large-scale social (preferably public) rental housing programmes. It would also mean preserving what social housing already exists. Social housing represents a precious jewel in London’s crown which is largely responsible for stalling the several waves of gentrification and especially its 21st century state-corporate variety (Watt, 2013). Demolishing council-built tower blocks is therefore a chimerical ‘solution’ to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy that some London politicians, including Labour politicians, have mooted (Independent, 2017; Khan, 2017). Those blocks and estates were built during periods of sizeable state funding, funding which has been pared to the bone following decades of neoliberal housing policy coupled with shorter-term austerity cutbacks (Hodkinson, et al., 2013). Knocking down council-built tower blocks will simply exacerbate London’s housing crisis as it affects ordinary Londoners.

 

Justice for Grenfell by Paul Watt (c)London, England, UK. 16th June 2017. Hundreds protest at the Department for Communities and Local Government march to Downing Street and to BBC broadcasting house demand Justice for Grenfell victims. Photo by Paul Watt

 

References

Dorling, D. (2014) All That is Solid. The Great Housing Disaster. London: Allen Lane.

Hodkinson, S., Watt, P. and Mooney, G. (2013) ‘Neoliberal housing policy – time for a critical re-appraisal’, Critical Social Policy 33(1): 3-16.

Flynn, J. (2016) ‘Complete control’, City 2(2): 278-286.

Glucksberg, l. (2016) ‘A view from the top’, City 20(2): 238-255.

Independent (2017) ‘Grenfell Tower fire is “corporate manslaughter” and arrests must be made, says MP David Lammy’, Independent, 15 June 2017.

Kennelly J. (2016) Olympic Exclusions: Youth, Poverty and Social Legacies. London and New York: Routledge.

Khan, S. (2017) ‘We owe it to the Grenfell Tower victims to establish the full truth’, The Guardian, 18 June 2017.

London Assembly Housing Committee (2015) Knock It Down or Do It Up? The challenge of estate regeneration. London: Greater London Authority.

Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital. Who is London For? London: Penguin Books.

Powell, R. (2015) ‘Housing Benefit reform and the private rented sector in the UK: On the deleterious effects of short-term, ideological knowledge’, Housing, Theory and Society 32(3): 320-345.

Sassen, S. (2014) Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press.

Watt, P. (2013) ‘‘It’s not for us’: regeneration, the 2012 Olympics and the gentrification of East London’, City 17(1): 99-118.

Watt, P. (2017) ‘Gendering the right to housing in the city: Homeless female lone parents in post-Olympics, austerity East London’, Cities, online,

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275116302165

Watt, P. and Bernstock, P. (2017 forthcoming) ‘Legacy for whom? Housing in Post-Olympics East London’. In P. Cohen & P. Watt (Eds.), London 2012 and the Post-Olympics City: A Hollow Legacy? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Watt, P. and Minton, A. (2016) ‘London’s housing crisis and its activisms’, City 20(2): 204-221.

Wilson, W. and Barton, C. (2016) Statutory Homelessness in England. Briefing Paper, No. 101164, 20 December 2016. London: House of Commons Library.

Paul Watt is Reader in Urban Studies at Birkbeck, University of London and housing campaigner

Voices and analysis, Grenfell Tower. Debbie Humphry

Thanks to Melissa Herman for recording the audio clips. Text & photos Debbie Humphry5.Grenfell16June17C-60m by Debbie Humphry (c).

Much has already been written about the shocking Grenfell Tower fire, with Facebook and Twitter in particular creating a space for the voices of local people directly affected. Pilgrim Tucker (Radical Housing Network) had been working with Grenfell Tower residents to address concerns about safety, neglect and mismanagement by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), who we now know failed to respond or undertake basic, vital maintenance. This horrendous tragedy pivoted on the symbolic inequality of people being unheard, silenced and dismissed, with the most grievous and heinous material consequences. Tucker says,

“The people who lived in Grenfell Tower should be writing this article. But those who died cannot tell their stories, and those who survived are still dealing with their trauma. The residents had tried for so many years but were silenced by a system that prevented them from being heard. The most persistent were threatened with legal action defamation, which had the effect of discrediting their claims of neglect and mismanagement. It’s only now that people are listening – when it’s too late. (The Guardian, 20th June, 2017)”.

A few days previously (16th June 2017) residents and protesters had marched from Kensington Town Hall to Grenfell Tower demanding answers and justice. Local residents then participated in a series of spontaneous and simultaneous speeches over several hours, at the same time as candles were lit and flowers laid outside the Latymer Christian Centre. We don’t want to speak for the local people, so this piece is primarily intended to give their voices some space, briefly contextualised within the wider structural inequalities that scar our present historical moment.1. Grenfell16June17C-52m

Fury drove all the speeches, directed at the under-investment and neglect that had caused the fire, and at the continuing negligence by both local and central government in its aftermath,

“We are not disposable. These people that lived here and died here are not disposable. Their neighbours are not disposable. They all mean something.”

“People who don’t have enough are treated like crap by people who have so much. There’s a certain level of struggling that I understand, but we are not from the third world, and when you live in a country that call themselves Great Britain they should be doing things that are great for everyone, not just sitting in the council and doing them for themselves.”

“Where are they?”

4.Grenfell16June17C-29m by Debbie Humphry (c).Every speaker invoked an acute awareness of extreme inequality, and their position in this scheme,

“This is the richest borough in England, apparently the richest borough in Europe, why haven’t all of the hotels in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea offered rooms to these people that are lying down on cold floors, wondering if their loved ones are alive or dead? Why has the government given them an 0800 number to phone like they’re trying to win a scratch card prize, instead of setting up a crisis management centre? We all shop in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, but not a single supermarket has sent a food truck or some kind of services to people. Why are they treating us like the shit underneath their shoes? It is because we are people of colour? Is it because we are poor? Is it because they consider us the working class? Why? Why isn’t Theresa May out here amongst you, talking to you, as humans? Where is the government? Why are they not physically here? And that is why I am so angry.”

This neglect was understood as the product of a self-interest prioritizing the wealthy and powerful over the vulnerable and poor, communicated via images of avarice and greed,

“So our government, they act like animals. While they’re eating their steak, drinking their fine wine, it’s us that are struggling, going to Tesco and Iceland shopping for the last penny in the pound.”

Relationality lay at the heart of people’s understanding, as all the narratives invoked how the privileged seized their interests at the expense of the poor. This was expressed with reference to ‘regeneration’, which was understood as a political process of neglect, destruction and displacement of social tenants and their homes in order to make way for the wealthy. This was invoked with reference to the fire itself, and responses to it,

“I used to work for the council. Where there’s a tower block they want to shut it down and remove them. And you know why? Because the rich people want to come in. So they put the cladding up to make it look nice and pretty for those who are coming in, to make the property values go up. Whilst you sit in your homes, waiting for your toilet to be fixed, waiting for your children to get the right school, waiting for people to understand that you are struggling.”

“If this government thinks they are gonna move these people outside of Kensington, no way!”

“They are trying to uproot people who have lived here all their lives. West London is the heart of London. How dare you try and uproot these people and move them to Birmingham, this place, that place? How can you do that to people who have contributed to this area? This area is this way because of the community, because of our culture, not because of them. Take us away! We are not the minority, we are the majority. Stand up!”

Grenfell16June17C-78m by Debbie Humphry(c)Public housing and local culture is understood as being appropriated by the private sector in order to profit the wealthy, and this is understood as part of a wider neoliberal drive for austerity measures that shift resources from public realm to private purse, with devastating consequences,

“When I watch them in Parliament, go and understand what these people are really doing. Go and understand that when they try to shut down the NHS, there’s a private company waiting in the background, who are their friends. So the same way you’re seeing this building has gone down. I’m a doctor. What they’re doing to the NHS, they’re killing thousands of people with their policies. This government and these corporate empires.”

“What happened to me when I saw this fire? I cried. I’m a grown man, I have three grown teenage children, and I cried and I broke down, because I have never seen something as terrible as this in my whole entire adult life. I am so disgusted, disgusted to the bone, that the company that fitted that cladding, saved themselves £2 per square metre, which worked out to between five and ten thousand pounds to choose a flammable instead of a non-flammable cladding, and they could have saved many lives. Why haven’t they been arrested?”

Grenfell16June17C-197m by Debbie Humphry(c)

So much grief and anger: but might this be channeled into progressive social change at this moment already wrought with political instability? The show of unity and the call for unity have been ever-present since the fire,

“People have to come together. This is just too much. This has to change things. We cannot let people burn to death. We cannot let children be thrown out of buildings, from the 20th floor. We have to call this government to account, and we have to stop this. And we also have to do more. We have to change this entire society so that normal people have value. They have put a pound sterling value on all of your lives here, and I can tell you its not very high. We have to change things.”

Grenfell16June17-320m by Debbie Humphry(c)

 

From the care and support amongst local people on the ground at Grenfell Tower, to the public who have poured in their donations and labour, the power of the collective is profoundly moving. Anger, but also love, was present amongst the residents and protestors,

“In all this peril, in all this heartache, look at our community, look how we are tight knit, black, white, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, we’re all here. We are untouchable if we use love and unity. We are untouchable. Let’s all stand together, in love and respect.”

Conclusion

Following this tragedy there is a chance for a political, social and economic sea change. But we cannot assume or rest, we need to grasp the nettle and persistently work together for change. Grenfell16June17-244m by Debbie Humphry(c)Like many others I thought the bankers and what they stood for would be held accountable in 2008 for a global financial crisis detonated by their voracious heedless risk-taking regarding the financialisation of housing (US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission 2011). But in its wake the UK Conservative party came to power by turning this story of greed and ineptitude by the rich into one of stigmatization and subjugation of the poor. The state bailed out the banks (unlike in Iceland where bankers were imprisoned), and let the poor pay the bill through punitive austerity measures, justified by a stigmatizing narrative of the individual pathologies of benefit dependency and worklessness (Jay Wiggan 2012; Tom Slater 2016). We can see hints of it already in calls by some media and politicians to pull down tower blocks in response to the fire, so it is vital that the solutions offered to the Grenfell tragedy do not result in further oppressions against those already at the sharp end of inequality. Neither must the response be piecemeal with no wider structural, political and cultural change. Survivors of the fire may have been offered social homes in the luxury development Kensington Row, but this does nothing to address the underinvestment, neglect and displacement of poor people, driven by the privatization, primacy of profit and financialisation of housing that underpins the long-term neglect, mismanagement, stonewalling and contempt experienced by not only Grenfell residents, but thousands of other lower income people struggling to live in secure and habitable homes. This is not just about unsafe cladding or even inadequate inspections and regulations. The quest for justice and accountability must drill down to the underpinning practices of neoliberal economics, highlight the political elites who prop it up, and replace the associated individualistic values with an alternative ethic of equality and care.

Grenfell16June17C-191m by Debbie Humphry(c)However, in the midst of the justifiable anger it is crucial that all quarters hold on to the ethic of love, respect and care evoked by these speeches, as expressed so well by the words of Ishmahil Blagrove, who is part of the ‘Justice 4 Grenfell’ campaign,

“Jackals in the form of agitators are attempting to stoke the flames of anger and bring violence to the streets… We will no longer tolerate such opportunists, the community must be left to grieve and to centralise and organise the voices that will eventually bring justice to the victims, their families and the community. I am asking the young lions of this community to harness their anger and to continue eating grass, knowing full well that you want meat. You have my assurance that I will be hovering over this campaign to ensure that JUSTICE is received and that ALL of those responsible for this tragedy will be held to account. This campaign will be steered by survivors and bereaved families. They need time to recover from their trauma and when they tell us they are ready to start the walk to JUSTICE, then the process will begin. (Facebook 20th June 2017).”

Grenfell16June17C-94m by Debbie Humphry(c)

Debbie Humphry is a researcher, photographer and housing campaigner.

Melissa Herman is a participative filmmaker and housing campaigner.

CITY at Boston AAG 2017

 

CITY had two panels at this year’s AAG 2017  in Boston:

Boston Skyline. Photo by Antonis Vradis (c)

Boston Skyline. Photo by Antonis Vradis (c)

CITY Panel 1:What Theories Do We Need for a Revitalized Urban Praxis? Thursday 6th April. This panel brought scholar-activists with different disciplinary perspectives together to discuss the roles that theory plays in constructing an urban praxis, both by taking a look at some analyses published in CITY and critically reflecting on our own work as scholar-activists. Panelists: Mark Davidson (Clark) and Sharon Meagher (Widener).

Mark and Sharon opened the panel with some theses/questions for the audience to then discuss.  Their aim was to begin with some brief and provocative comments that allowed us to engage in a discussion about the key questions:

  • Does the result of the US election ‘change everything’?
  • How must we describe and theorise this and act now?

CITY:1996-2017 : How can we build our capacity for response and struggle.  CITY journal has long been at the center of debates about how best to use social theory to transform our cities for the better.  The present moment demands a reconfirming of this commitment, reflection, and a renewed dialogue about how we move forward.

Mark noted that Richard Rorty made comments in 1998 that predicted the election of a populist “strong man” like Trump back in 1998, and Mike Davis made a similar prediction.  Sharon noted that one of the on-going debates in CITY has been on the need to think the urban and the rural together, and the failure to do so in part explains Trump’s election win.

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Mark Davidson. Photo by Andrea Gibbons (c)

Mark then raised the following questions (with some additional remarks):

1) Following Rorty, what is a subject?  He argued that we need to theorize answers to this question if we are to know how to act politically.

2) Do we need to confront the concept of community and what is meant by membership?

3) How does critical scholarship respond to identifiable needs?  Analytical concepts will not always be helpful in thinking through political problems, and we live in an age where we must prioritize the political.

4) How might we think about the ideological premises of our scholarship?

5) Where is critical scholarship on the left-right spectrum?  If we fail to offer real alternatives, then left-appearing theory might in fact be conservative, in that it supports the status quo.

6) Can we go beyond resistance to think about future and opportunity?

7) How do we understand emerging politics of the academy?  What does a “successful” academic look like?  Is there sufficient room/support for scholar/activists in the academy?

8) do we need to return to greater analysis of class?

Sharon then presented a couple of theses:

THESIS 1 We need art and arts practices (always, but especially now) to both illuminate our theories and our practices.  I argued that this is a thread in CITY; although we publish primarily articles, there are many visual images and we also interview artists and many authors frequently reference literary and visual works of art to make their points.  I quoted from Debbie’s interview with Andrea Gibbons on our website to both provide an example and also to support the thesis, as Gibbons points out that scholarly theory and art captures different experiences:   ” I think exploring how we understand reality through reading fiction really helps you understand things that you’  ve never experienced. I think for academics that’  s really important. Particularly given the way that academia is set up to really privilege certain kinds of experience and background. So I think to use stories as windows into experience, I like that idea. I’  ve found – and this is speaking very generally of course – that many people in academia don’  t always realise how removed their way of thinking, their theory is from practice.”

Sharon Meagher. CITY AAG Panel 1 Photo by Andrea Gibbons (c)

Sharon Meagher. CITY AAG Panel 1 Photo by Andrea Gibbons (c)

Corollary 1: Arts help people find voices and connect everyday experiences to things and issues bigger than themselves

Corollary 2: Creating things together connects people in real ways; builds bridges over boundaries [here is discussed exampled from my work in Chester, PA in collaboration with artists]

THESIS 2 We need theories that inform practices on different scales and in different contexts, so no one theory will do.  Sharon said she wasn’t going to endorse particular theories, as she thought CITY can and should draw on multiple theoretical frameworks. But she offered some things to think about:

In the streets, engaging in practice, the theories of improvisation and DIY might be most useful:  [theories of improvisation draw on arts and arts metaphors, jazz, improv theater—and I think that these theories would be more robust if we thought that through those connections even more]

To think about our work as scholar-activists: in CITY:  on-going dialogue on the following questions:  how do we account for the positionality and role of the urban theorist? And how do we account for the positionality of urban activist (including the times when the urban activist and the urban theorist are the same person?). debate by Alex Schafran and Paul Madden; picked up by Jean-Paul Addie, or as I discussed in Politics of Urban Knowledge (CITY 2015)

Robust, critical, and reflective concepts of PRAXIS  Streetwalking (again, arts—Gibbons’ point) and urban epistemology as a weed (referenced many debates in CITY on these issues)

For both in the streets and scholar-activists:  renewed emphasis on materiality, on bodily embeddedness.

To continue to offer critique of oppressive SYSTEMS that operate above and influence local context and also analysis of how different types of interventions and different scales might affect, re-enforce, skirt, or de-rail oppressive systems.

The importance of illuminating everyday struggles, as referred to in Debbie Humphry’s interview in CITY with Andrea Gibbons,

“Debbie: The two worlds of the structural and the everyday voices? Andrea: Yeah. Exactly. And how people understand their own reality. And how that’  s shaped, and how that shapes bigger contexts. Because I think having been engaged in struggle for so long I always felt that when you’  re fighting you keep hitting these walls. Power’ s a very real thing when you’  re engaged in a struggle, a campaign. So for me theory is most exciting when it illuminates those walls, and shows you ways to think about them and how to get over them, how to smash them or break them”

To utilize theory to help us imagine radical alternatives(debates about scale of that theory, need for “ universal theory or framework”  vs. developing through comparative analysis of various specific contexts vision for a just city, but that is a vision developed in dialogue with others and tested against experience.

THESIS 3:  We need to think together the rural and the urban—and there’  s more than one rural-urban divide (but also more than one way that we can find connection)  In this context, Sharon referenced the writings of Bob Catterall and others and then discussed the US Film (2017)GET OUT and an SNL sketch featuring Tom Hanks called Black Jeopardy.

Sharon argued that there are several urban/rural divides that we must think to bridge: elite urban vs. poor rural;  Gentried rural vs urban;  Rural poor vs. urban “ elites”; Urban white intellectual elites (academics) vs. urban poor (often people of color)

The discussion that followed really covered all this terrain.  There was a great deal of discussion about scholar-activism as well as people’s takes on various debates (especially in CITY, thanks to great audience participation from Antonis Vradis, Andrea Gibbon, and David Simon).

CITY Panel II: Capitalisation and Materiality: post-colonial thought and urban-rural revolts

Thursday 6th April. CITYs second panel discussed how to fight back and organise toward a Revitalized Urban Praxis.

Panel Photo CITY session 2 AAG 2017. Photo by Evie Papada (c)

Panel Photo CITY session 2 AAG 2017. Photo by Evie Papada (c)

The panel brought scholars-activists together to discuss the ways in which we can organise ourselves politically in the eye of the storm. Chaired by Antonis Vradis (Loughborough), panelists David Simon (Royal Holloway). Andrea Gibbons (Salford) and Nasser Abourahme (Columbia).

The session took the form of a panel discussion rather than presentation of research results. Each panellist provided a distinct set of reflections on the theme and provocation to debate drawing on their professional transdisciplinary engagements as scholar-activists or facilitators of multi-stakeholder co-creation/co-production research programmes. These highlighted lessons and opportunities as well as shortc

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Boston 2017. Photo by Andrea Gibbons (c)

omings and challenges based on asymmetrical power relations in terms of gender, ethnicity, class and – especially in the current international context – religion and nationality.

 

Thanks to Sharon Meagher, Andrea Gibbbons, Antonis Vradis, David Simon, for their contribution to this webpost.

 

 

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Philipp Katsinas reviews anti-gentrification workshop, ‘Staying Put’.

Philipp Katsinas reviews the workshop, Staying Put, that brought activists and scholars together at the University of Rome Tre, to discuss the theory and praxis of anti-gentrification in Southern Europe.

Fig 1. Staying Put: An anti-gentrification tool kit for Southern Europe.

Fig 1. Staying Put: An anti-gentrification tool kit for Southern Europe.

Staying Put! An Anti-Gentrification Toolkit for Southern Europe.

By Philipp Katsinas

What types of displacement are occurring in Southern European states? What forms of resistance have been developed and what are their achievements and limits? These crucial questions were the focus of important discussions at a workshop held at Roma Tre University in Italy in October this year. The workshop was organised by Dr. Sandra Annunziata and Professor Loretta Lees (both at University of Leicester) as the concluding event of a two-year Marie Curie Action Fellowship on “Gentrification Practices and Policies in Southern European Cities”.

The workshop brought together activists, scholars, collectives, and platforms from, and working on, different cities in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece to engage collectively in the exploration of the potential and limits of anti-gentrification discourses and practices in facing the regimes of expulsion that characterise Southern European cities in the current period of austerity. The workshop included the excellent documentaries Real estate fiction[1] by Left Hand Rotation using cinematic depictions of gentrification (Fig 2), walking tours in gentrifying neighbourhoods in Rome, a book presentation of Planetary Gentrification (Lees et al. 2016) by Loretta Lees in the social centre associated with the anti-gentrification Libera Repubblica di San Lorenzo (Free Republic of San Lorenzo), and several presentations that dealt with a broad set of issues around struggles against evictions and gentrification in Southern Europe. The collaborative atmosphere at the workshop fostered a set of substantive and engaging discussions, which allowed participants to reflect collec

Fig 2. Still from Real Estate Fiction, a film by Left Hand Rotation. Clip from 'Batteries not Included'(1987)

Fig 2. Still from Real Estate Fiction, a film by Left Hand Rotation. Clip from ‘Batteries not Included'(1987)

tively on issues surrounding anti-eviction struggles. Rather than attempting to reflect upon the event as a whole, a nearly impossible task given the more than twenty contributions in total[2], I provide a selective overview of key issues raised.

Activist groups analysed their campaigns, illustrating the varied experience of evictions and struggles in different states and the potential for cross-border synergies. The PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca – platform for people affected by mortgages) in Spain presented their principles of assembly-ism, horizontalism, and non-party politics and analysed their direct actions of preventing law enforcement officers from carrying out evictions, their campaign of escraches putting pressure on politicians, and their popular legislative initiatives to change the law regarding evictions by collecting signatures. The Stop Auctions (Pleistiriasmoi stop) platform in Greece similarly provided an overview of the legislative changes during the last quinquennium of crisis and austerity and the continuation of these policies under the Syriza-led state government, while noticing the recent increase in anti-eviction activism mainly through the physical blockade of court proceedings.

In what followed, the connection between evictions and gentrification processes was at the core of discussions. The presentations focused on the dramatic effects of the economic crisis in Southern Europe, especially with the structural adjustment programs in Greece and Portugal, and the subsequent austerity imposed by the state and supranational institutions, which has exacerbated the effects of gentrification. The rise of the involvement of private equity firms in real estate markets, creating the conditions for the financialisation of housing, incurring massive rent hikes and the dispossession of existing residents, and the exploitation of rent gaps to accumulate wealth by dispossession, was addressed.

Several speakers focused on touristification and holiday rentals, especially Airbnb, in the historic centres of Lisbon (Rita Silva) and Barcelona (Agustin Cocola-Gant and Daniel Pardo) as a new gentrification battlefront and a business opportunity for investors and individual landlords, while long-term residents represent a barrier to capital accumulation. The conversion of housing into accommodation for visitors involves different forms of displacement, which are resisted by neighbourhood assemblies. Similarly, Georgia Alexandri discussed resistance of neighbourhood assemblies against commercial gentrification driven by nightlife entertainment entrepreneurs with the complicity of the local government in Athens.

Real estate speculation in the periphery of cities was also addressed, both in self-build neighbourhoods in Amadora near Lisbon (Rita Silva) and in Bon Pastor in Barcelona (Stefano Portelli). Examples were drawn from the experience of state-led gentrification in London, with the demolition of council estates (Mara Ferreri) and the production of an anti-gentrification handbook (London Tenants Federation et al. 2014) to inform resistance attempts, and from alternative urbanisms such as housing squats in Rome (Margherita Grazioli) or strategies to deal with vacant housing (Dimitra Siatitsa). Questions about everyday resistance to gentrification and non-conscious forms of resistance were raised by Nick Dines and Pietro Saitta, who argued that the production of hostile environments and specific uses of public space may act as barriers to middle class and tourist appropriation of space, but might also have ambivalent effects, attracting certain types of tourists.

Subsequently, it was argued that classic gentrification assumptions in Anglo-Saxon urban theory are not completely fulfilled in Spanish cities (Daniel Sorando), while Thomas Maloutas questioned the usefulness of the application of the term gentrification in the Southern European context. Maloutas insisted on more detailed analyses of local contexts, of the specificities of the built environment, social and power relations, and of the historical trajectory of urbanisation processes in the Southern European states. These arguments were countered by Loretta Lees, who pointed out that this had already been done and to the political weight that gentrification has gained in debates and struggles. She argued that the process cannot be framed by Ruth Glass’ definition anymore, as it has escalated globally, with the ascendancy of the secondary circuit of capital and real estate speculation.

Fig 3. Sandra Annunziata launches Staying Put: An anti-gentrification tool kit for Southern Europe.

Fig 3. Sandra Annunziata launches Staying Put: An anti-gentrification tool kit for Southern Europe.

Finally, the anti-gentrification Toolkit for Southern European Cities, developed as part of the research project and with fieldwork conducted in Athens, Madrid and Rome was presented by Sandra Annunziata (Fig 3). The tool kit was informed by the valuable input of activists and scholars in all four states and will be made available shortly in Italian and subsequently translated into English, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese. Creating a framework of prevention, mitigation and civil disobedience, the toolkit highlights diverse practical and innovative ways for local communities, social movement activists, collectives and platforms to fight evictions and gentrification and provides concrete ideas for policy makers. While at times at the workshop the chasm between abstract, academic discussions on the relevance of a theoretical framework of gentrification in Southern Europe and the pressing, everyday struggles of social movements and platforms seemed unbridgeable, it is to be hoped that such practical guides will contribute to further collaborations, co-enquiry and meaningful relationships between academics, non-academics and activists in social movements and community grassroots organisations that may enhance radical analyses and engender praxis towards socio-spatial justice.

References

Lees, L.; Shin, H.B.; López-Morales, E. (2016): Planetary gentrification. Cambridge: Polity Press

London Tenants Federation; Lees, L.; Just Space; Southwark Notes Archive Group (2014): Staying Put. An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London. https://southwarknotes.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/staying-put-web-version-low.pdf

Philipp Katsinas is a research student at King’s College London, investigating urban regeneration during severe austerity in Thessaloniki.

Fig 4. Loretta Lees (left) organises, presents and collaborates at Staying Put workshop and Anti-Gentrification Toolkit launch.

Fig 4. Loretta Lees (left) organises, presents and collaborates at Staying Put workshop and Anti-Gentrification Toolkit launch.

 

Professor Loretta Lees and Dr. Sandra Annunziata (Department of Geography, University of Leicester) comment on the importance of the workshop:

This workshop was important for four reasons: first, it underlined the visceral reality of gentrification and displacement in Southern European cities today, despite austerity, in nations without a long academic history of critiquing and criticising the process of ‘gentrification’; second, it brought together emerging scholars on this subject, many of them scholar-activists committed to the fight against gentrification in Southern Europe; third, it allowed us to gain further and insightful input from activists into the Anti-Gentrification Toolkit for Southern European Cities, which was the goal of the workshop; fourth, it brought together activists and academics focusing on that same goal and reminded us all of the complexities involved in this scholar-activist interface.

The array of activists who attended underlined the diversity of those fighting gentrification in Southern Europe, some were middle class, some were low income and marginalised, some identified as Gypsy and some of the latter had never been on a plane before. Hearing all the different practices used to fight gentrification in cities like Madrid, Lisbon, Athens and Rome, was an important learning experience for everyone. These were compared with tactics used in Northern European cities and elsewhere. The everyday experience of resistance was in the room, the difficulty of staying put was in the room, and the need for much more detailed studies of resistance to gentrification and of alternatives was also in the room. The Anti-Gentrification Toolkit for Southern European Cities will be on-line soon.

 

For a full list of participants, affiliations and presentations at the Staying Put workshop in Rome http://architettura.uniroma3.it/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/20161011_Annunziata-_EN.pdf

Real Estate Fiction is a film from a Spanish collective called Left Hand Rotation. The films mix movie scenes about real estate, housing, and forced evictions. Available online: https://vimeo.com/133215797 (Part 1), https://vimeo.com/133443529 (Part 2)

Details of  Planetary gentrification. Lees, Loretta, Hyun Bang Shin, and L. Ernesto. (2016) John Wiley & Sons http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0745671640.html This is the first book in Polity’s new ‘Urban Futures’ series

Post by Debbie Humphry, CITY website editor; Research Fellow Centre for East London Studies (CELS), University of East London (UEL); photographer. http://www.debbiehumphry.com

 


A reflection on John Berger’s passing by Antonis Vradis Jan 8th 2017.

Antonis Vradis is Senior Editor at CITY, based at Loughborough University.

Athens January 2017

Athens January 2017

I read John Berger―no. I read over John Berger. No, not even that, not quite. I slowly scan through the pages and investigate his words, returning to favourite passages and devouring new ones. I try to find what it is that makes these such a pleasure to read. I come to realise it is not the use of words alone―aberrant, disconcertingly, urgent and mute. No, it is not the use of the beautiful words. For all the joy I derive from encountering these, there is something in the mastery of their use, something in the way in which they have been moulded, crafted, slowly taken over. There is something in these words that radiates, in glaring lucidity, how they have travelled from afar to land onto the page, and how they have done so slowly. Slow: this great, unreachable luxury of a time that devours and diminishes; a time of so much action yet so little interaction where, from skimming through a text to skirmishing with the police, there is never the depth, never quite the prolonged quality that will turn the fleetingness of an ever-nonsensical moment into the substance of a coherent present.

Against the electric-like shock and violence of the current, Berger was the grounding: a serene reminder to stop if we are to ferociously act in any meaningful way. I pause. I find myself unable to put together any further thoughts. I listen to one of the last recordings, I suspect perhaps even the last one; an audio-recorded interview with a frail John Berger calling in from a Parisian suburb somewhere. A broken voice that pauses longer than the usual. I quickly travel back to a long Greek summer evening, back home, when I had the pleasure of taking a similar call myself. A request for a written interview turned down in the most humble of ways. “In transcribing an interview”, you tell me, “there is so much that is lost”. Pause. “There are the gestures”. Another pause. “There is the significance of the pauses, of the silences”. The sturdiness of a sonorous voice wrapped in a fleeting French accent: “Do you see?” I do see. A text, then? A text it will be.

 

A text that was―as always―not like most. I read it over. There is something in these seemingly fragmented notes that brings together the hard-to-remove packaging of modern-day commodities, the calculated rigidity of modern work, the Goulag, undocumented Mexicans in the States, and a young girl learning how to swim in a municipal indoor swimming pool. The images are jotted down in a stream of consciousness; separate but not fragmented, they come together to sketch out the great mystery of experiencing freedom in our prison-like world. Their prose, weaving fragments into a constant, has the serenity of playing punk music and the viciousness of painting a portrait. Their energy smells nothing of an auditorium. It reminds me of the scent of a favourite basement, where friends come together every now and then to enjoy the rawness of an improvised gig.

 

Friends tell me a sense of loss is near-irrational for someone your age. Of this I am not sure. I have now stood enough on this planet as it orbits around the sun to have witnessed what might very well be, statistically speaking (if this is even a fathomable quality), my fair share of loss. From the utterly unexpected―the loss of a dear childhood friend―to what would, I imagine, count as the “expected”: the departure of those up in the genealogical line. What is rational, anticipated or logical in the timing of our loss? There is of course the calculation of biology, the linearity of life, its trajectory, the timing of its end. But what remains of life when you break these linearities and trajectories apart? The timing becomes irrelevant. It would never be too soon or too late to say goodbye. Still, there is something deeply poetic in losing you at this moment of utter absence of meaning, when time whizzes so agonizingly fast, leaving us struck, frozen.

 

In the days passed since your passing, Athens has descended into a paralysing cold; vehicles coming to near-halt on its roads, passers-by evaporating from its pavements. Our freezing city might be trying to freeze time. I think it might even be trying to say goodbye.

Punk painter of words, prophet of the present: so long, so beautifully long, Johnny B.

https://medium.com/@da_slow/johhny-b-f71608a81032#.q9h6case7

 

Athens January 2017

Athens January 2017

 

 

 

Race and class segregation in the USA.

Andrea Gibbons talks to Debbie Humphry about the El Rey Bar, and race and class segregation in the USA.

Andrea Gibbons is from Arizona, USA, and worked as a community worker in Los Angeles, which influenced both her short story, The El Rey Bar (2011)- featured for CITY’s October blog The El Rey Bar by Andrea Gibbons, and her article Linking Race, the Value of Land and the Value of Life in CITY Issue 20(6). Here Andrea talks to Debbie Humphry about the key themes running through both her fiction and academic work. Debbie is CITY’s web editor, UEL research fellow, and photographer, who works on housing, class, social mobility and social justice.

Los Angeles, photo by Andrea Gibbons

Los Angeles, photo by Andrea Gibbons

Debbie: What motivated you to write the story

Andrea: Well I’ve always written fiction, but of course my stories are shaped by my history. Because I grew up very poor, and since then I’ve worked in communities of even greater poverty and problems, and I think that sort of experience just fills you with so much frustration and rage and anger. And also love. The two things that really fuel me are fury and love. So fiction for me is the best outlet for that. The story’s by no means biographical, but there are people that I know that are very much in that world. Young people. And there’s always that feeling you have somewhere like LA where homicide and gun violence is so prevalent — you’re always worried about them. So this is me reacting.

Debbie: Could you talk a bit about the social and political context from which the story emerged?

Andrea: I was thinking about riot and rebellion and what that would actually look like in LA if it became more widespread. And there are of course already famous examples in LA. In ’65 the Watts Riots, better said the Watts uprisings. And then ’92. So really thinking about what would happen now. There’s this idea of walls — what’s always struck me most living in LA was the segregation, which is why I’ve also written about that academically. Thinking about the walls between groups that exist, that are implicit, and the amount of fear, and what might grow from that if there was a serious uprising. So combining that macro-level with what would happen at the micro level. Thinking about what I would be doing. I worked for a group called Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) in South Central LA, so we would obviously be collecting water and helping people and doing all this work. Then what would people around me be doing? When you are part of a community, different realities always sit side by side. People who are politically aware, and then people who are still trapped within these violent worlds. Things happen to them and they take what they can from it and they don’t think about it in a bigger context. So I was thinking through these things. We also live in physical context that works to keep people from thinking too much, that focuses them on just getting through each day. Right across the street from SAJE there was a for-profit methadone clinic, which is just a horrific thing to even exist. So it’s a methadone clinic but they didn’t provide any kind of supportive services, so people would get their methadone and then there was a thriving drug economy right in front of it. One morning someone got shot out in front. So it felt very desolate and apocalyptic already. So some of the bits of this story were just responding to this apocalyptic landscape in front of us that I had to see every day. It’s a landscape of death in a lot of ways, of self-destruction, sitting right next to other really vibrant stuff. I think that’s the reality of South Central, and the reality of a lot of disinvested neighbourhoods, where you have people fighting to make it better, fighting to make community, right next to other people that have given up basically, and are just trying to get through the day. So survival and self-medication and hedonism and finding family in gangs and violent activities. You have these two kinds of reactions side by side and the21st-and-main-by-andrea-gibbonsy inter-mingle. And you love people that are involved in both of these reactions. It’s a very difficult place to live and to thrive. And everyday there were visual reminders of these contradictions in the landscape of disinvestment and despair.

Debbie: What were you doing at the community centre?

Andrea: It was a popular education centre, so working with people to solve their own problems. We did community work, organizing and bringing people together to name their reality and to change it. The principle issues were displacement and slum housing. We were working right on the edges of downtown, where properties were being bought up as downtown was gentrifying. So for ages this area had been severely disinvested with white flight, with beautiful Victorian houses cut up into smaller apartments, and absentee owners just milking their tenants for money. Collecting rents but never investing anything back in. So we worked with families with rats and roaches everywhere. One of the doctors told us they had to pull roaches out of kids’ ears three times a week on average. And there were stories about rat bites, roaches nibbling children’s eyelashes. And rashes, mould and lead poisoning.

Ceiling leak - Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Ceiling leak – Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Roaches at the Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Roaches at the Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We saw that under development pressures the slum conditions were getting worse, as owners let buildings deteriorate to force people out. Then they would be redone and rented to students or turned into boutique hotels. So most of the work I did was around environmental justice issues. We were fighting to improve the housing, but preserving people’s right to stay in their own housing. We were also fighting huge levels of harassment, and owners coming by at 3 am to harass tenants, or threatening them with immigration or child protection services. Taking them to court over and over and over again. So we formed Tenants’ Unions. We worked very closely with families, primarily with women’s circles. So a lot of stuff would come out just in talking, having a circle of women talking about their housing and then that would come round to domestic violence and problems with their kids, around drug use. So we were completely immersed in the issues the community were facing and trying to solve them together. The other thing that became clear to me was that we won pretty much every campaign that we w

Trash - Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Trash – Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

ere involved in, but it wasn’t enough to win in the long term, particularly the fight against gentrification and displacement. Nothing we were doing was really tackling that.

Damp and mould, the Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Damp and mould, the Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debbie: So it’s like winning all these battles but not winning the war. I’ve thought that myself with campaigning, especially when you’re up against money, capital.

Agustina - Morrison Hotel by Andrea Gibbons

Agustina – Morrison Hotel by Andrea Gibbons

Andrea: Yes exactly. So that was the stuff I was tackling in my PhD thesis, this bigger picture of development and why was it that all the money had left the neighbourhood and now it was all coming back in. And it’s inexorable the way it comes back in. So thinking about how to have an impact on that level is what drove me to go and do my thesis. So indirectly my nonfiction, but especially the fiction comes out of all of these stories and what I felt, the frustration and the rage, and the love as well. Because some of the most amazing people I’ve met have been there fighting and fighting and fighting. But these huge impersonal forces are still coming in.

Debbie: When Bob Catterall referred to your short story in his editorial he was talking about the use of fiction in sociology, about different ways of telling the socio-spatial story. The style in your CITY article is obviously very different to the story, but it touches on some of the same issues. So I wondered how you felt about the two different ways of speaking about social issues, and the divide between fact and fiction.

Andrea: For me they are two very different ways to think through the same issues. For me fiction is more about the story. It’s about the emotions and the character and the thought trajectory. I knew that story was done when the twist at the end came to me, when they found the vicodin , which was probably stolen off the friend that was killed. I mean the goal of the story writer is to write a good story. To write a believable story that really brings someone into a world and makes them feel something. And then the goal of the academic is to wrestle with an issue and illuminate it through a lot of thoughtfulness and connecting it to theory and thinking about what’s happening. So for me they’re very separate in how you approach them, and I think probably for me fiction will always remain separate. That said, I think exploring how we understand reality through reading fiction really helps you understand things that you’ve never experienced. I think for academics that’s really important. Particularly given the way that academia is set up to really privilege certain kinds of experience and background. So I think to use stories as windows into experience, I like that idea. I’ve found – and this is speaking very generally of course – that many people in academia don’t always realise how removed their way of thinking, their theory is from practice. For ten years I’d been in practice, and the difficulty of relating to people in that first year of my PhD was striking.

Debbie: The CITY article that comes from your PhD uses historical documentary evidence, and doesn’t focus on people’s stories.

Andrea: So I used documentary evidence because I wanted to contextualize my own stories, and the stories of the people I worked with to try and change LA. For me the question was, what was the bigger context that we were fighting against? I was grappling with how property markets worked, looking at David Harvey’s work and Neil Smith’s work. But in some ways that didn’t relate to the situation in LA because these critics don’t really deal with race and segregation. So the thesis was a moment for me to step back and grapple with all these issues, to understand the larger forces at work shaping the neighbourhoods we lived in, how they were related to race and class because I knew those two things were fundamental. Now that it’s done I think I’d really like to go back more into oral histories and interviews, allowing people to tell their own stories, to me that’s really powerful. So the thesis was laying a groundwork. And I like that tension between those two very different worlds.

Debbie: The two worlds of the structural and the everyday voices?

Andrea: Yeah. Exactly. And how people understand their own reality. And how that’s shaped, and how that shapes bigger contexts. Because I think having been engaged in struggle for so long I always felt that when you’re fighting you keep hitting these walls. Power’s a very real thing when you’re engaged in a struggle, a campaign. So for me theory is most exciting when it illuminates those walls, and shows you ways to think about them and how to get over them, how to smash them or break them

Debbie: I’m thinking about what the wall is. What I think you’re talking about is the structure. So you did your thesis to understand the structural underpinning of what was stopping your campaign, despite winning the battles. So the structure of the property development machine and the speculative housing market. So I guess it’s a different wall to the story but it’s still about people in power putting structures in place that allow them to perpetuate their own privileged resources, positions and discourses. So visible and invisible walls.

Andrea: Yes so I think there’s all this stuff bubbling, subconscious and conscious. I think the beauty of fiction is it allows you to let it out without controlling it in the same way, in following up an initial idea you often don’t even know what will come out when you’re writing fiction. The thesis is a different journey, though surprise is still a part of it. Theory helped me to understand, helped me to make sense about how change can happen. Fiction helps me get to that same point but in a very different way, and there’s lots in there that I don’t need to explain. It’s a very different process but I think they’re complementary.

Andrea: It was very emotional writing the thesis and working through all of this stuff, learning about the long, long history in LA of struggles over land and walls and segregation. So stuff about the KKK, which was a force in LA with over 18,000 members. They practically ran a suburban town in South LA, Anheim, where Disneyland is. They had a majority there on the council for a while — someone coined the term Klanaheim, which I love because it is still a conservative place. I had no idea about the level of bombings and arson attacks and the killings. So the story explores my sense of that reality, even before I had started thinking about it very analytically, it is the lived result of all that history. It’s interesting just how much history impacts you even if you don’t know it because of the ways it is built into the city itself and the relationships that fill it, and that the story still holds up even with knowing more about the history and larger context now. And actually it makes more sense in a way. It shows what your intuition or your lived experience feels like, that illuminates this longer history.

Debbie: Yes because when I was reading the story it made me think about all kinds of things, academic concepts such as capitalism and consumption, Angel as the flawed consumer. Then gender divides, intersectionality. And I started thinking about Black Lives Matter. So not only did you bring this stuff to your story without necessarily being aware of the wider context, but as a reader you bring your own understanding. So I was thinking for example about control of space, the military police control of space that was such a big theme of the analysis of Athens in the film, Future Suspended, in September’s blog.

Andrea: I think that’s one of the unifying aspects that we’re seeing around the world now is this military control of space.

Debbie: And the issue of ‘crisis’, which is caused by this structurally induced plundering of resources by the rich, which means that the poor are getting poorer, whether that’s austerity or unfettered capitalism. The ‘crisis’ is that the people who are in poverty are then rioting, erupting, looting, whatever means of survival. And then in the name of ‘crisis’ they are then over-policed, which just exacerbates even more the unequal divide. And with the Future Suspended film in my mind, I think these issues played totally into the themes of your story.

Andrea: One of the books I read recently that I liked the most was Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. She writes about this moment that we’re in where actually a whole community’s been written off. It follows on from this Marxist idea of the surplus of labour, that you keep this proletariat that can take on jobs and then get fired. But there’s been a whole population now in the U.S., and I think in a way the EU has done that to all of Greece, you’re not even seen as a proletariat or future workers, you are all disposable. The only thing that’s left is for us is to cut our losses and keep what we have and the rest of you, we’re just going to let you go. Just do whatever you do.

Door behind Bars, Los Angeles, photo by Andrea Gibbons

Door behind Bars, Los Angeles, photo by Andrea Gibbons

Michelle Alexander talks about how that’s been the major change, that whole communities are just written off, it’s not even worth keeping them around as surplus labour. So we’re just going to put them in jail, or let them live in these areas that have been completely, completely devastated and do our best to forget they are there.

Debbie: So push them out of the city, which is what’s been happening in London.

Andrea: Exactly.

Debbie: To where housing’s cheap. Why’s it cheap? Because there’s no employment.

Andrea: Exactly because there’s nothing there so you keep them penned in to a ghetto or you’re penned outside, into marginal areas. That’s the pattern in Latin America where you have the favelas. So there’s different spatial expressions of that, but I think it is really an expression of disposability. And that’s another thing that was in the story, if uprising did happen wouldn’t they just write you off? Like wouldn’t they just stop sending ambulances to certain areas? I’m quite interested in is dystopian fiction because I think that’s really exploring some of these issues.

Debbie: In the story you were talking about they wouldn’t send an ambulance, and it made me think about New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Andrea: So just knowing that the first people who came into Katrina were armed soldiers and police, and they were there to shoot people. And it’s the same thing that happened to Haiti I think, and again it’s a military response rather than a humanitarian response, because you have these disposable communities. Less than human. To me that’s the beauty of fiction, all that stuff can bubble up and you don’t have to be aware necessarily, you don’t have to process it analytically – you don’t want to process it that way. Whereas if I was going to write about that academically I’d want to think about that deeply and be analytical and clear.

Debbie: It’s a bit like everyday life, it’s all happening all at the same time and you can suggest that in fiction. You can do academic analysis of everyday life, but when you analyse it you end up dissecting bits out.

Andrea: You kind of have to, but how do you knit that back together?

Debbie: Intersectionality is way of trying to do that, of trying to deal with everyday complexities.

Andrea: It is, and that’s something I struggled with. In my academic work I didn’t do gender nearly enough because its just a whole other level of stuff to think through. So in the story I think it comes through really clearly, but in my academic work it’s a whole other literature and lens. So there’s a book coming out where I’m working through more of that better. The one thing that’s similar with both writing fiction and non-fiction is that you’re still telling the story, that explains in different ways.

Debbie: So I was thinking about Black Lives Matters that started in 2012, and I wondered how your story relates to current issues and contexts.

Andrea: I think what the Black Lives Matter stuff has really succeeded in doing is really bringing out a lot of the stuff that I’ve been struggling with, bringing it really right into the open. The whole time I was in LA the killings, the deaths in custody, the police killings of people, that has always been there. And always been under the radar of people outside of that community. I was so filled with rage so often in urban planning at UCLA, because there were a lot of people really removed, again going back to the segregation, whose life experiences were so completely removed. The amount of violence, particularly from the police, was always a huge part of our worlds. And it really struck me that one of the dividing lines in our society is attitudes to the police. I come from a world where the police are always dangerous. They’re always the bad guys, and they’re not safe, and you don’t call them when you’re in trouble unless you have absolutely no option. And when I was teaching at LSE and we were talking, it just struck me that I’m talking to a room of people for whom the police are good guys. And I think that’s one of the major dividing lines in society. And I think that had always been in the background for me, coming from a poor area, that’s just your status quo is that the police aren’t there to help you. Whereas for other people that’s not true. So I think the Black Lives Matter has really been able to bring that stuff up to the surface and make that an issue. Particularly with kids like Trayvon Martin. The reaction of the entire press and a lot of the white community was to vilify the kid that had been shot, and they couldn’t see him as a kid. And for me I think Trayvon was the first one where that was just so gut-wrenchingly obvious, if only because for the first time it seemed to me mainstream press paid attention to it at all. The fact it got publicity, because for so many years these things hadn’t got any publicity at all, like nobody in other communities even knew that people were being shot by the police. Occasionally before something would break through — like Rodney King — but recently there’s been this huge slew of people capturing on phones the murders of kids, alongside the inability of white media to recognise their humanity, or recognise they’re kids. It’s just so horrifying. And I think Black Lives Matters really succeeded in highlighting how horrifying it is. But in doing that it’s made visible dividing lines in society that are really ugly. Revealing the ugliness of white privilege that’s tried to stop the conversation. It’s so abhorrent.

Debbie: It’s impossible to think about these issues now without reflecting on the recent American election, and I was particularly struck by parallels between the image in your story of building a raced and classed wall, and Donald Trump’s threatened Mexican-US border wall.

Andrea: I think Donald Trump is just another reflection of those dividing lines. In my academic work I explored LA’s segregation and it has always been about putting up walls to protect white privilege, socially and spatially and economically. It’s about preserving white supremacy. These walls were maintained in the courts, in policy and practice, and through an extraordinary level of violence from both police and white communities. Trump taps into this, talks a lot about walls. His world is divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and it is terrifyingly obvious who ‘us’ is – white, mostly middle-aged and older, with something to protect and afraid of how the world is changing. It’s an enclave mentality, a circle-the-wagons mentality that is going to continue to pillage and gather all the resources possible while there are still resources to gather – because I think they are all afraid of global warming even as they deny it with their last breath – and deny the humanity of everyone outside those gates. It is a familiar mentality. We’re seeing it all play out again in the military actions against Native American struggles for water at Standing Rock – they are fighting for all of us and the land itself and yet the government has brought in tanks. And so Trump’s election has not surprised me, yet it has also hit me with an almost unbearable level of existential dread, because everyone I love is outside those gates. One thing, though, there is a good thing about walls in that just like barricades, those with more privilege can choose where they stand. Being on the right side – and there is clearly a right side here – and supporting the struggle of those who have long been fighting there, because they don’t have a choice, is a choice that people can make. And hopefully we will see the alliances come together that we need to change how things work. Hopefully we will see a great diversity of people taking their stand to bring down those walls from the outside.

Debbie: You can see how the race-class divide is embedded in spatial segregation. That’s what’s really scary about London right now. Because London still does have a certain amount of social-spatial mixing, but gentrification and government housing policy is leading to the social cleansing of lower income groups from the city. Ok so the social mixing is not perfect. Some people send their kids to private schools and they exist in privileged enclaves, but lots of people of different classes send their kids to state schools, and live next door to each other. It’s Paul Gilroy’s notion of conviviality. Ok they might not be friends, they might have parallel lives to some extent, but they’ll talk to each other in the shops, they’re not totally alienated from each other. A diversity of parents mix in the playground and the humanity is visible, tangible. Much as you can pick it apart, and not negating that privilege does reproduce itself in these common spaces, I still think there’s something to be said for not being totally segregated. And this is one of the things that’s so scary about what’s happening now with social class cleansing from places like London. We’re in quite a good place at the moment but we stand to lose it.

Andrea: Yes I completely agree. That was my finding in a way. One of the real keys to solving this problem in the United States has to be ending this physical segregation. It has to be people growing up together. There’s no other way you can explain half of the country looking at a 16-year-old kid and seeing a thug. In fact segregation in the U.S. is worse now than it was in the 60s. Because of the way that sprawl has happened, with people just wanting to keep their neighbourhoods white. But I have to say, because I lived in Brixton when I was writing my thesis, it was so healing in a way. It was such a relief to walk outside around Brixton and, whilst there’s problems and there’s obvious issues around race and the police and stuff, but you can look around Brixton and see people mixing. There’s more inter-racial couples than not. And you just get this feeling that this can work, it doesn’t have to be like it is in the States.

Debbie: But we need to keep it in London. I remember going to Brixton recently after a few years gap, and going into this trendy bar and everyone seemed to be white, and I was just so shocked.

Andrea: Yes Brixton’s really under attack. It’s starting to shift.

Debbie: To go back to your story, the police issue is really clear there, because what you’ve got basically is police protecting property and they’re not protecting the people.

Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Andrea: and that comes directly out of, there was this horrible building that we were working in. There were 110 units and we heard that the owners wanted to empty it out and sell it. The Morrison hotel. There was a rumour that one of the tenants was thrown out at gunpoint, that there was a physical throwing out. That other people got pay-offs, ranging from 25 dollars to a 1000. So they did a brilliant job of emptying out this building. And we had rights as tenant organisers to go in. But the police showed up, and we had the copies of the civil law. But the police said, ‘As police we’re not here to enforce civil law, we’re here to protect property’. And they barred us from going in. What could be more clear than that?

Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Black Lives Matter, BLM website

Black Lives Matter, BLM website

Debbie: To link back to Black Lives Matter, when you go on their website what’s really clear is that they’re highlighting state oppression. And obviously the police is an arm of the state. And that whole thing about institutional racism is in the story. So the structural underpinning is suggested in the story. And what Black Lives is trying to do is get these personal stories, this emotional stuff about kids being killed, and yet its trying to reveal the bigger structure.

Andrea: Yes absolutely. The thing about Black Lives Matter is it’s making something public and putting in words something that was just experiential knowledge. Its been enormously influential, not just trying to show the white community what they’re not seeing, but also trying to help educate within communities of colour to see these bigger structural patterns.

Debbie: Because otherwise you can get that intra-class fighting.

Andrea: Exactly. So it’s just opening up all of that. Especially stuff around all the shootings, but also stuff around imprisonment. A lot of elderly people that live on their own, are quite fearful about the levels of crime and violence in their community, and so those folks often will blame the youths themselves, without understanding the bigger things as well. So I think what Black Lives Matters is also doing is a lot of really important work around educating their own communities. Why are so many of our kids in prison? And it’s actually not because they’re criminals, it’s because of these other issues. I think they’re doing amazing work on both fronts, educating the white community and then their own communities of colour around these issues. Then you throw in immigration and there’s a lot of tensions between Latino and blacks and Asians and Koreans. Like what happened in ’92 with the Korean shops getting burnt out. So there’s so much work that needs to be done to look at that the real problems are the structural issues and not these kids that are out shoplifting or whatever they’re doing.

Debbie: I think the emotional element really matters. Because what we’re discussing really is how these divides are played out emotionally on the ground. You can see that coming through the American elections. You know that people’s emotions are being played on. So actually emotions are a really important part of the political story.

Andrea: Yes it really is. I think it’s so important to pay attention to emotion, but it highlights the desperate need for critical thinking, for the time and space and practice of reflection– what am I feeling, and why? What do I really think about this? It is naming your reality and then working to change it. Respect for how we feel and reflection on it are what is needed, and this has to happen collectively and this is exactly what isn’t happening. Instead we have a media that ceaselessly promotes fear and angerwithout critical reflection, and people like Trump who are building it further and channeling it. The same can be said of Brexit I think. Both have highlighted just how irrational ideologies can be, how people can believe multiple contradictory things and the destructive ways that works.

Debbie: So I think it’s interesting to move between these two different texts, the story and the academic interpretations. In my own work I’ve looked at how emotions are played out through class divides. I mean how can you talk about anger and violence without considering the emotions? So actually its just connecting these things up.

Andrea: And I think its very tricky. I think the composite of the kids I knew who formed Angel in the story, they’re kids who are doing bad things. Those are kids who are getting stopped by the police not without reason. But they’re still kids that you love. And they’re still kids that we need to take care of, and we need to try and figure out what’s going on with them, and we need to try and shift that. And you don’t want the response to them to be a policeman shooting them. So I think that’s another aspect of it, how do we deal with these issues? And it means we have to figure out what’s actually happening with kids, and what is the larger context of that? It definitely doesn’t mean anyone should choke the life out of them. So we’re thinking about how do we solve this from a place of love? These are our people, these aren’t those people. These aren’t criminals. These are our people and they’re suffering and they’re doing bad things sometimes. It’s like what’s going on there? How do we fix that? And it’s a really conflicted posi

Pimped-out, cromed-up bike, L.A., by Andrea Gibbons

Pimped-out, cromed-up bike, L.A., by Andrea Gibbons

tion to be in. and so it’s a very hard thing to deal with. As people we want hard lines sometimes, because it’s even harder to take the complex way, like loving someone and dealing with addiction and crime and violence and all of that stuff. But that is what we need to do.

Debbie: Yes and in the story you could address the complexity. I loved the fact that at the end it was this guy who we were about to make into a romantic hero, you know he dealt with the situation and he lit the candles for Angel but then it looks like he stole from the dead body. And it stops it being sentimental, and it deals with reality because his reality is both, that he did all this stuff in the church for his friend with love, but at the same time he’s got to survive, and he survives by selling the drugs. It made total sense to me, and it stopped you having a simple moral position. And that’s really important that you don’t take a hardline moral positions, because that’s what leads to the newspaper articles writing them of as ‘just criminals’. So I think the moral complexity’s really important. We need to be challenged not to make the simple binaries.

Andrea: Yes its’ funny I don’t really think about my writing like that, I’m just telling a story I need to tell. But in the thesis one of that groups I look at is called LA Can, and they work with people in downtown Local Authority, and they’re fierce and amazing. Their key position is that these are our people. And we don’t pretend that they’re different to what they are. We don’t romanticize it and we don’t cover it up. There’s all these issues going on and we love them just the same and we’re going to fight for their right to be human, to live in this neighbourhood, and to find a better life for themselves. And I think that’s really where all these conversations need to start. And they’re not starting there, ever. Which is so frustrating.

Debbie: When I read your academic article, about the construction of community, then went back to the story, one thing I picked up from the story was the solidarities. So Angel couldn’t go to his mum so he had this other family, the gang. Then she and Angel had the solidarity because they had the childhood thing. Then there was her and her mates. Then I thought in your academic article that was about the construction of community that excludes black people . Whereas the story was about bringing the value of a different sort of community. And I thought the hope in the story was all about solidarities. Because we’re clear at the beginning that she’s working for some kind of group to help. It was like a fable of solidarity. That can be invisible to some people.

Andrea: One of the things that I’ve looked at in the literature is it talks about the ghetto or inner cities. Like Waquant . I really like his work in general around structure, but he just misses the amount of solidarity and community that exists there, and that’s part of what helps people get through. In good ways or bad ways. These intense relationships of trust, and the amount of people who are fighting. People from outside look at these areas as wastelands, as horrible places you would never want to go, that you’d just want to get out of. Whereas in fact there’s all this stuff that’s there that is vital and beautiful and I think is often much more real than what happens in the suburbs.

Debbie: Where people don’t need those relationships because they’ve got money. So they’ll pay for their plumber, they won’t go next door and see if their mate can help them fix the leak.

Melanie - Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Melanie – Morrison Hotel, by Andrea Gibbons

Andrea: Exactly. So in some of the buildings I worked in people had these intense relationships all over. So they’ll have someone who will pick their kid up from school, that will bring them food if they’re ill, there’s all these solidarity relationships that you need to get through the day, working below the minimum wage. And so I think that’s completely missed in a lot of the literature around poverty or poor areas. People are so amazing that they can survive like this and that they can do all the things they do. The struggles we had growing up were nothing compared to what the people in LA were facing. But having grown up also in these very densely networked communities of people who were there to support you, and do all kinds of stuff when you need it. So there is so much dystopian fiction of the suburbs that is almost entirely about the emptiness, the drinking, the absence of that kind of community. But in terms of real estate, or in terms of the political debate, the suburb is what’s held up as community. It’s crazy. I don’t want to romaticise poverty, these are often solidarities of survival, and what you want instead is a world beyond, a world where people can thrive and grow. But there is a vibrancy there that I have not found elsewhere.

Debbie: So the bit that isn’t community is held up and the bit that is community is totally ignored. And not recognising that that allows people to talk about ‘sink estates’ and justify erasing it.

Andrea: Exactly. In my thesis I was interested in what make it possible for a larger community to say see Trayvon Martin as a thug and not care about that death at all. And I think its part of the construction of this ideal community, and it’s a certain colour, they speak a certain way and they live in certain kinds of places, and that tinges so much of the media and political debate and people’s perceptions. But also academic work. Why is it not appearing in the literature? I think a lot of its about the class difference, about who’s writing and where their starting point is when they look at. Because if you’re in these places for any length of time you immediately get a sense of the really amazing networks people build up to survive. I think we need to write more, fiction and non-fiction, academic works and literature, from a place on the right side of the walls that we are facing.

 

Fire Los Angeles by Andrea Gibbons

Fire Los Angeles by Andrea Gibbons

 

Debbie Humphry www.debbiehumphry.com

 

The El Rey Bar by Andrea Gibbons

el-rey-bar-400-x-260Bob Catterall illuminates fiction’s potential for telling sociological stories in his Editorial: Utopia on the Edge, (City Vol. 20. No. 3, 343-349), drawing on Andrea Gibbons’ short story The El Rey Bar, which he describes as, “partly socially realist, partly bordering on the mythical solar-environmental dimension, and partly prophetic in drawing on a runaway phantasmagoria of strangers building walls against each other.” (p.348). The story emerged from Gibbons’  community and organizing work in South Central Los Angeles, “So the fiction comes out of all of these stories and what I felt, the frustration and the rage, and the love as well. Because people are so amazing”.

The El Rey Bar  by Andrea Gibbons

The sun fell from the sky today, about fucking time too. Weeks it had been loose, wavering, drunkenly unsteady across the sky. I watched its thread snap, though no one else saw. It hit the city, bounced once and disappeared to sink into the ocean’s swallowing. It gave itself without struggle.

I wondered about that in the sudden darkness and the mad falling of stars.

We were all strangers then, all strangers, though my fingers still achingly sought the warmth of a hand that had never known mine. They found rubble’s chill weight and I sat my eyes stone, dark and unbelieving, from nothing to nothing they turned as the earth slowly slowed its spinning. Everything collapsed to its center and I collapsed to mine. I was not afraid of death but of struggling with no one to hear me. I was not afraid of life but of living with no one to love me. I was not afraid

of my fears but their small nature shamed me, and their unmastered strength left a trail of ashes in my stomach that I pursued, fury in hand.

Fury in shards of hope ripped from a broken bottle, demanding accountability. Was it Isaac who wrestled with god in the darkness and held? Jacob? I could not remember, but I sought god out even as Los Angeles unforgivably opened her legs one last time with a no and a whimper, and screaming came in through the windows.

 

I was at the bar. It was not on my list of things to do, and I had so many things to do. There was just too much; everything was fucking breaking. It forced you to realize you couldn’t do all of it. And then relief came, because some things just weren’t going to get done. Fact. And you just had to say fuck it, and fi gure out your priorities. I looked with pity on the people still running around squeaking over the wrong things, wringing their hands. And then felt ashamed of myself, but you can always tell those driven by love and fury from those running on six cylinders of guilt. Of course, most of the guilty ones had already run to the places they commuted from and now counted on to keep them safe, so I couldn’t talk shit about anyone still here. But my comadres were still out hunting down supplies or dealing with today’s emergencies, and they were the only ones I wanted to talk to when I got back to our office turned community center turned emergency shelter, muscles aching from the weight of the food and the water.

I washed the soot and grime off my face, cleaned the blood from the new and jagged scratchdown my arm. Stared at it between all the bruises and thought it was a good thing I wouldn’t be dressing to impress anytime soon. If ever. My throat hurt, my eyes hurt, my heart fucking hurt. My nostrils were still full of burning.

Children were screaming, laughing, fighting. I just couldn’t handle the noise, the people, the stress and the smell. So I texted Caro and Evie, and then headed towards a quiet beer. I spent the trip wondering how muchlonger our cell phones would actually keep working. But then I stopped thinking at all, just sat there in the El Rey with exhausted content as that first cold swallow went down smooth. Thanked fucking Christ this spot was still open for business, a little room to breathe. Glad they had the right protection. One of my favorite dives, more full up, more nervous, serving more tequila than usual. But the hipsters had cleared out, maybe for good, and Chente was on the jukebox. Some of us sang. Only then did I think about my priorities. I rolled the word around in my mouth stretching out its syllables, wanting to spit out the anger and sweat, the futility of it. Or let the beer wash it down. But half the world was on fire; we had to do something, no? Something. Priorities had to be set. I wondered one more time who in fuck had blown up the first bank and most of the mall with it. I wondered if there would ever be a time again when the causes of this thing would matter, not just the survival of their effects.

I was watching the door, expecting my girls any minute. So I saw him as he walked in with a bunch of pelones I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen him in years, and sure hadn’t been missing anything either. If I could have gotten the hell out of there without him seeing me, I would have run. Fast. I hunched down onto my stool and stared into the bar instead, but it didn’t work. I heard his voice behind me.

“God damn, Gloria?”

I stood up and gave that smile that says anything but happy to see you. Especially cuz his eyes were running me up and down. You wanna see me angry? Just try that if you’re not my man. Just fucking try.

“Damn, girl,” he said, “you’re looking good. How the hell are you?” He held that “good” too long, that hug too long; left his hand round my waist until I removed it. I should’ve said something. But I didn’t know what to say to someone who’d been family, some kid I’d known such a long time. Long story. Sad story. I knew more sad was coming, and fuck if I wanted to hear it. I came here to wash sad away.

“I’m good, I’m good. And you?”

“It’s my first night out since I got stabbed. Three times, check it.”

He lifted up his shirt and I saw the bandages, other marks almost healed, bruises on his skin. First night out; kicked out of an overwhelmed hospital early I was sure. Amazed he even got into a hospital, must be the baby-face good looks still helping him through the mess he made of his life. Now here he was, already drunk, high. My heart broke a little more.

“Damn, girl, it’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you too, Angel.” And silence then, it wasn’t good to see him, and I hate lying. His face was puff y, all that was fine in it steadily disappearing into whatever shit he was doing to himself now.

He looked at me again, had trouble concentrating, uppers and downers together I thought. I’d seen all the variations, hoped he wouldn’t crash while I was there.

“So what the hell happened to you?” I asked. “Is it cuz of all this?” I gestured at the television.

“Nah, same old thing. You know how it is.” A couple walked in even as he said it, and he broke off to stare at the girl. Always a girl with Angel, he was a fucking predator. She was pretty, knew it too, all falling out of that red halter-top. She didn’t look away either. Not until they were passed us and settled into the back corner.

Same old thing, I thought? Same old fucking thing when L.A. was burning and they were parking tanks on the corners? Ninety-two was a hell of a riot, but this? They’d blown up a fucking bank. To start with.

And whoever had started it, terrorist cell or not, shit was homegrown now. This was more like a war, and it wasn’t just the ghetto now. It was everywhere. I looked up at the TV; saw the flames in Santa Monica and down Wilshire. Can’t say I was sad it wasn’t just my neighborhood on fire. Angel looked up too.

“This is some crazy fucking shit, ey?” He snapped into excited. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of watches. “Girl, check these out. Rolexes.” His shiny eyes were hot on my face. “You believe it? Goddamn gold fucking RO-lexes. Thought I’d missed all the action.” He laughed and lightly patted the shirt over his stab wounds, still looking at me like he wanted me to be proud of him, like I should be. He’d never figured out what would have made me proud of him, even after I told him. “You know what I can sell these for?”

“Shit,” I said. “You think anyone’s buying watches right now?”

“Huh.” He paused a minute, smiled that still charming smile. “They will. These’re the real thing. Might be a while though, huh.” He kept thinking. “Hey, Gloria.” I already knew what was coming. “You got a place now, right? You think you could do me a favor? You think you could hold them for me? I’m withmy mom but you know how it is.”

I laughed. “You know I can’t do that, Angel. How many years you known me?”

“Same old Gloria, you haven’t changed at all.” He laughed too, playing it like he didn’t care. “Girl, it’s good to see you. You know I love you like family. But goddamn you used to piss me off back in the old days, always in the house and I couldn’t smoke out, couldn’t sell my crystal. Damn, girl, you were fucking annoying. But you know I always loved you, right?”

“Right,” I said, and drank some more of my beer. More silence.

“Girl, you want some Vicodin? They gave me a whole bottle, you fucking believe that?” He pulled the prescription bottle out of his shirt pocket and shook it.

“Nah. You know I only ever took that shit after my surgery.” I had another drink.

“What about jewelry, cuz Roman knows all the spots, we’re going back out tomorrow. You want rings? A necklace? A bracelet?”

“Nah, Angel, you know I don’t want any of that shit. It’s too fucking dangerous to go out there. You got enough water, enough food? That’s the only reason to go out. You should be looking after your mom and your little brothers.”

“Same old Gloria, always taking care of other people, huh.” He had his hand on my shoulder and was getting all misty-eyed. Fuck. “You know I got your back, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“You with me, girl? You family to me? Three gangs got your back.” He listed them. “They all got your back. You need anything, just let me know, we all got you.” He listed them again, counting them off on his fingers. “You’re safe, you don’t have to worry about any of this shit.” He waved at the TV.

“Thanks.” I didn’t ask him where they’d all been when he was stabbed.

“I love you, girl,” he said, hugging me again. I hated him drunk, he’d always get soft like this, then head straight to depression. I’d never forgiven him for what he said last time I’d been around for that. Took me a while to realize he wasn’t actually sorry for anything he’d done, just for himself cuz it had turned people against him. Told me all kinds of shit I didn’t even know about, shit that he’d done way back when, when things were damn hard. Actually wanted me to make him feel better about his fucking me over, fucking his family over. I couldn’t handle it again, especially not aft er the day I’d had. Not now.

But that’s when Caro and Evie showed up. I breathed a sigh of relief, made my excuses. “Don’t leave without saying goodbye!” he said hugging me again. Goddamn, I thought, enough with the hugs. I lied and said I wouldn’t without blinking, and finished off my Red

Stripe.

“Cougering again?” Evie elbowed me into the booth.

“Shut up,” I said, grinning in spite of myself. “I’m nowhere near forty. Still a fox, baby, still a fox. Besides, I’ve known that kid fucking forever.”

“Never stopped anyone before,” she laughed. “And he ain’t no kid.

What the hell’s he on?”

“Besides the Vicodin and the booze? No fucking idea.”

We ordered drinks all round. Talked some shit to help get rid of the stress, made jokes about how fucked-up everything was. It was working too. But we got quiet aft er Caro pointed at the TV.

They were building a wall.

It had been almost two weeks since the bombing and the madness started. It had entered a holding pattern in the hood but the edges were rippling throughLos Angeles now. There had been a lot of arrests, blame bounced back and forthbetween rioters and terrorists. Of course, we knew round here they’d always seen us as pretty much the same damn thing.

“Why don’t they turn the goddamn sound up?” Caro asked. I looked around and shrugged, no one was really watching but us. The news hadn’t been anything but twenty-four-hour speculation for the past week, that and lame excuses from the government. Mainly people watched it now to see how many of the “rioters” they could recognize, or to watch the cops getting rocks thrown at them. You didn’t need sound for that. But now a manicured news presenter showed plans, computer-generated approximations. No maps, of course. It was a fucking huge-ass wall, a TJ–San Ysidro border kind of wall. Ticker tape claimed it would be temporary. And looked like they were building it just east of La Brea, to curve round where soldiers lined up to protect Hancock Park. At least that bit of it. You couldn’t tell where the wall was supposed to stop. They’re the kind of walls that don’t stop. Just grow, meet up with other walls.

Then they cut to commercials. I still couldn’t believe they were showing commercials. Telling you the very latest thing for looting, not buying.

Tu creas?” said Evie. “They’re building a fucking wall?”

“When have they ever had to deal with this kind of shit? When did we ever get it together enough to take all that rage to the rich folks?” I leaned back against fake red leather. Thought about what a wall might mean. “What do you think? They planning to keep us in, or keep us out?”

Caro was hell of pissed. “Keep us in where? Keep us out of what?

What they going to do? Airlift all the white people from Silverlake? Evacuate the downtown loft s to the West Side? Clean their own damn houses and watch their own fucked-up kids? USC gonna move to the coast? It’s not like we’re not there too. Pendejos. What the fuck.”

We all took another drink.

“Shit, it’s not like the wall hasn’t been there all along though,” I said, “we all know where L.A.’s color walls run. Now they’re just finally building them.”

“Chicken-shit thing to do.”

“What you expect?”

“Racist, greedy . . . ”

“But what will it mean?” interrupted Evie. “A real wall. What does that mean for jobs, food, school, getting to my abuela’s house, what?”

“Who knows,” Caro said, “we gotta figure that shit out. Where it is. How it works. Whether we tear it down. Or what we build on our side of it. Fuck it, I say we let them wall themselves in, who wants them around anyway?”

We were ready to take all of them on, right then. Build a new world. Damn straight the beer had been fl owing. We clinked bottles at that, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Angel. Of course. And I couldn’t help it; I jumped up. Saw at once it was all about that girl in red. She was crying and trying to talk her man down, more by hanging onto him than anything. It was always about a stupid girl, and it was always too late for talking down. They were all in it now, that stupid mindless bar-brawl surge back and forth. I fucking hate bar fights. I turned to leave when a fi st landed and Angel came flying out of the crowd towards me. I grabbed him, tried to shake him. He stayed still a minute, eyes all glazed over; he couldn’t even hear me.

Fucking mad-dogging that other guy and ignoring me like I wasn’t even there. Except I was there, and holding onto him and yelling too, and I’m strong but that pendejo was stronger, and he pushed me hard into the pillar at the end of the bar without saying anything or even looking at me and flung himself back into the fight. I said fuck it and fuck you and went to where Evie and Caro were waiting at the door.

Then the gun went off and a girl started screaming. The fight was over and people were scattering, there was a cluster of people in the back and I craned my neck to see and then there was just a body there on the floor. I could see the blue shirt in glimpses through the crowd. Angel. Just some dead kid I once knew. Drunk and high, shot over some stupid girl in some stupid dive while the city itself was at war. The placas? They were all busy defending someone or other’s property; they were sure as hell staying away from these neighborhoods.

Maybe there would be an ambulance, but I didn’t think they’d be coming either. Some girl had her cell phone. Kept dialing 911 but didn’t look like they were picking up. We could all forget about emergency services.

We stepped aside to let the panicked crowd rush the door, the white-faced kid with his gun and his screaming ruca ran past us with us the rest. I barely saw them, couldn’t stop looking at the body on the floor, the shattered head and the blood and just the fucking horror of a dead body that was once someone I knew. If only we’d left earlier, that’s what I was thinking. Stupid selfish son of a bitch, even the way he died. My eyes hurt, my skin stretched tight across the bones of my face, my legs didn’t feel like they were working. Caro and Evie put their arms around me, goddamn but I was glad they were there.

I looked around, the girl pleading on her cell phone in the corner, just one of Angel’s so-called friends still remaining, staring down at the body. Someone had fucked up his eye and it was starting to swell up. One waitress had backed up against the bar, held the other one crying into her shoulder. The owner shut the door on the staring faces outside, locked it. Started pacing up and down and watching the girl with the cell. We were all watching her now as she lowered it.

“They’re not coming,” she said with wonder, not even angry. “They can’t send anyone tonight. They said not to touch anything, it’s a homicide scene. They’ll try to send someone in the morning.”

“Try?” asked the owner. The girl looked at him helplessly.

“Oh hell no, that body can’t stay here all night, all day tomorrow, fuck knows till when that body going to stay here. It’s fucking July. You think they actually sending someone?”

The girl didn’t respond, just stared at Angel wide-eyed. She was in shock I thought, she might lose it in a second. Evie went over to talk to her and led her to the door. Who needed three gangs when Evie had your back?

“You know him?” the owner’s chin jutted out at Angel’s friend. “You know him?” chin jutting at me. “You get him the hell out of here or

I put him in the dumpster, you get me? They’re not coming for him.”

Fuck. I wished again we had left just a little bit earlier, walked off into the night free of just one more impossible problem. I didn’t even feel guilty about it. Felt like I hadn’t slept since the first bomb went off. I’d been working so damn hard for the living; I didn’t want to work for the dead.

I stood up, pissed off, felt like I’d been in that fucking bar fight. My stomach hurt. I walked over to his friend.

“What’s your name?” He started, stared at me without seeing for a second.

“Junior.”

“I’m Gloria.” We shook hands like it was any old nice to meet you.

“You know his mom?”

He nodded, rolled his eyes. “She’s fucking crazy.”

“I know. You got her number anyway? Angel’s home phone?”

He shook his head. “We never call him there.”

“Fuck. His dad’s in Michoacán I think. And I don’t have his number either. Or his sister’s.”

“Maybe his cell phone’s in his pocket?” said Caro. Junior and I looked at each other. He was still shaking his head. I took a deep breath, stepped up to Angel, stepped into his blood. Nowhere else to step. I shivered. There was nothing in his pockets, no wallet, phone, Rolexes, nothing. I don’t know why, but I checked for the Vicodin too, gone. Stupid, but that’s what made me blink back tears for the first time. Felt like I might not be able to keep shit together after all.

Who the fuck robs a kid with no head. I took another deep breath as I stepped back.

“I need another beer,” was all I said.

“Anyone else? They’re on the house,” said the owner as he handed a cold one to me. “You got half an hour. I gotta clean up and get home.”

Junior took off his long-sleeved shirt and covered the mess of Angel’s head; he was all tatted up under the wife-beater, sureño big and gothic across the back of his neck. Little soldier boy, way the fuck out of Angel’s league. If Junior told me three gangs had my back I’d fucking believe him. I sat down. “Someone’s gotta go to his mom’s.”

Junior sat next to me, “She hates my ass. And you know she’ll fucking jump anyone bringing that news. Then be after them with her pinches brujerias.”

“You don’t believe in that crap, do you?” Evie sure as fuck didn’t.

He looked at her. “Me? I don’t fuck around with that shit. And she believes it. I don’t need Angel’s crazy vieja trying to kill me with a kitchen knife, and then spending the rest of her life sticking pins into a little Junior doll.”

“She will too.” I shivered. “She scares the shit out of me.” I took a long drink. Evie lit up a cigarette and gave it to me. Passed the pack around to the others after taking one for herself.

“Hey, no smoking in here!” said the owner.

“Call the fucking cops,” Evie laughed back. I smiled in spite of myself. I stuffed the giggles down. Way down. They scared me. I focused on logistics.

“We move him,” I said after a second. “We can’t take him to his pad, but we move him somewhere safe. We write a note to his mom and let her know where he is. Put it under her door. And then go home.

What else can we do?”

“Yeah, but where’s safe?” Good fucking question from Caro. She

always asks the good questions.

“Fuck if I know. We sure as hell ain’t going to get him far on our bikes. We could call Reese maybe. Maybe Carlos.” Tired. I was so goddamn tired angry nauseous tired.

“Let me see what I can do first,” said Junior, “our ride fucking bounced. His ass is gonna be sorry.”

He moved to one side and started making calls. The rest of us just sat there. The waitresses started cleaning up the bar, one of them was still crying. I picked at the label of my beer to the sound of broken glass and sweeping, the clinking of bottles. I tried to think. Failed. Just sat there stupid and tired staring at the bloody footprint I’d left on the floor right in front of me.

“They’re coming, they have a car. And blankets.” Junior sat back down next to me. We smoked another frajo.

“We should break into the church then I think, no? The Catholic one down the road, it’s nice.” My voice broke but we all ignored that.

Caro and Evie nodded.

 

They rolled up ten minutes later, banged on the door even as Junior’s phone went off. He nodded at the owner who unbolted the door to let the five pelones inside. They crossed themselves when they saw Angel. Stood there quiet and clustered together, trying to look brave. One of them just looked like he was going to throw up. All of them looked very young.

“Who the fuck did this?” demanded the short one. Junior shrugged and jerked his head towards us. They’d save retaliation for later. They unfolded the blankets and started to roll him up.

I looked down at it, and there was so much left, so much that couldn’t be rolled up.

“Can we use the broom?” I asked the owner.

He was staring at the floor. “I would have to throw it away then . . .” he said. I hoped he fucking remembered those words as long as he lived. The cost of a broom.

One of the waitresses came up, handed me a roll of paper towels. I unwound them slowly, used them to shovel up the pieces of Angelito. So many pieces, tears rolling down my face, asco crackling down my spine. I scraped up what I could and threw it into the blanket, stared at my fingers. Stared at the wandering trails I had left in the blood on the floor, almost like fingerpaint. I wanted to throw up. I went to the bathroom and did, then cleaned up in the sink, watched the blood and bits roll down the drain until the water ran clear and got so hot it was burning my hands.

When I came out it was just Evie and Caro waiting for me, the others had left. It already reeked of bleach.

“You wanna go to the church?” Evie asked. I nodded. “Let’s walk the bikes then, I don’t feel like riding.” We pushed bikes through an almost empty night, the streetlights all broken but the reflected red-orange of fire lit up the darkness and the angry breathing of a burning city. We passed broken glass and locked grates; everything was crusty black. The air stung my throat and my eyes. I couldn’t even tell if it was the smoke or if I was crying again. I fucking hated

Los Angeles.

When we got to the church they were already in, the wire had been cut and forced jaggedly upwards, some of the shattered glass of the window it protected lay on the pavement beside the open door. It was cool and very dark inside, smelled like wax and incense. They’d laid him on the ground in front of the altar, Junior’s bloody shirt back covering the place where his face should’ve been. Angel’s hands lay peacefully at his sides. He was still wearing his hospital bracelet. They were lighting votive candles, surrounding him in a circle of light. It was strangely beautiful, silent tears that I couldn’t stop rolled down my cheeks, collected along my nose and chin. They lit candles in front of the virgen too, the light flickered across her calm face and I felt like praying for the first time in years. We all stood quiet then, a moment of silence.

We filed outside, closing the door behind us, wedging it shut with stones.

Junior hugged me. “You going to be all right?” I nodded, though I couldn’t stop the tears. I couldn’t stop them. I never fucking cry. He gave me a folded up piece of paper. “I’ll go to his mom’s. Here’s my cell, call me later, okay? Let me know you’re all right.” I shoved it into my pocket.

“You guys okay to get her home?” he asked Caro and Evie.

Claro,” said Evie, putting her arm around my shoulders. “We should take her to Maria’s, no? That’s close, we can walk there, stay the night.”

“Good idea,” Caro replied. Then stared at Junior a minute before we left . “Thanks, man. You’re way too good for this gangster shit, you know? Everything’s changed now. Come help us, we need all the help we can get.”

He shrugged. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but he smiled at me.

When we got to Maria’s I unwrapped the paper. A couple of large pills fell out. He had written his number, and then in sloppy letters underneath: “vicodin, feel better.”

 

I was asleep, half asleep, dreaming perhaps. And then yet another thought caught me on its hook, yanked me from my own depths with horrifying suddenness. I came up into awareness, gasping.

My thoughts prey on me.

I don’t know when they started to have teeth, I don’t know what they want from me, I don’t know what more they can take after landing me curled around my stomach on the floor, tasting my own blood. I suppose these are not times for sleeping. But I ache for it. I feel the tiredness calcify my face, bruise my eyes, carve itself into my forehead.

There is so much I have to do. A harvest of tragedies in the lives of the ones I love. The things I can’t answer about how people get by in this world. The fucking wall. On my eyelids I see pieces of Angel, in a silhouette surrounded by candles.

 

End

Andrea Gibbons is Research Assistant, Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit, University of Salford.

With thanks to the publishers of the short story collection, ‘Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!’ (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011), for permission to publish Gibbons’ insightful and heart-stopping story in full.

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Debbie Humphry is web editor for CITY-analysis, a researcher and photographer, currently a research fellow at University of East London’s (UEL) Centre for East London Studies (CELS), with interests in housing, neighbourhood, class, social mobility, social justice and participative visual methodologies. http://www.debbiehumphry.com