About Debbie Humphry

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Debbie Humphry has written 127 articles so far, you can find them below.

‘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

“Those people in there, like the phoenix shall rise from the ashes, the truth shall come out”: 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:

1.Does the result of the US election ‘change everything’?

  1. 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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

Future Suspended film and Interview with co-director Jaya Klara Brekke, by Debbie Humphry

The film Future Suspended is from Crisis-scape research project examining crisis-ridden urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. www.crisis-scape.net

Interview by Debbie Humphry with Jaya Klara Brekke of the Crisis-scape collective and co-director of Future Suspended. 26th September 2016

 

Debbie: Could you briefly explain the research idea that drove the film?

Jaya Klara Brekke, co-director of 'Future Suspended'.Jaya: The film is the coming together of several research strands. So the way Crisis-scape was set up, five people worked on the project. Ross Domoney was the project photographer and filmmaker. I worked through interactive digital media so I did a lot of tying theory together with visual practices. Dimitris Dalakoglou was focusing on the waves of privatization that were happening following the sovereign debt crisis in Greece – the selling off of assets and the privatization of public space. Antonis Vradis did ethnographic research looking at everyday interactions in public transport in Athens, and Christos Filippidis was focusing on the militarization of public space and how crisis discourses were impacting marginalized people like refugees. I worked these different strands into a script, that myself and Ross finalized into the film. So the film was the grand finale of the project with everybody’s input brought together into a more general picture of what was happening in Athens at that time.

Debbie: I really thought the film was fantastic on every level, academic and visual. Because you can get academic films that have lots of brilliant content but visually are weaker, and vice versa – strong visual films that don’t have the analysis.

Jaya: It’s really because of all of us being involved, so everybody brought different strengths to the film.

Debbie: The sovereign debt crisis started in 2009, and obviously austerity came in. And I know in the film it said that in 2004 there was a boom, with lots of money coming in for development, but were people already struggling before the EU debt crisis, or was it really that sovereign debt moment and the austerity measures that changed it for everybody?

Jaya: Obviously it depends on who you’re talking to. Crisis is a weird concept that can be used for a lot of different purposes. But what happened when the financial crisis became a sovereign debt crisis, things got a lot worse for everyone, including the middle classes that all of a sudden had the stability and ground ripped away. What you might have considered steady improvement and steady growth and some kind of secure prospects for your kids, or some kind of class stability, all of a sudden was taken away and people were faced with a lot of insecurities that they didn’t have before. And that was quite a dramatic, quite a drastic and fast process.

Debbie: Why did you as a team want to make a film as an output? Or to put it another way, what do you think are the benefits of having a film as an output for a research project?

Policing public space in Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Policing public space in Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Jaya: Well there’s the obvious benefits of reaching completely different audiences. And also there’s something about using a visual way of story-telling that can give a different sense of what’s happening. You can give people a sense of something, a sensory experience. You can do that to some extent with written text as well but text tends to be a bit more intellectualized, whereas with film you can really work with bringing out some of the felt narratives, and some of the feeling of a space, of a place at a specific moment in time. So that’s why both the film and also the photography was a big thing in the project.  So it can to reach different audiences. The initial wave of screenings were mostly in activist and anarchist spaces, in different social centres and occupied spaces around Europe, so you’ve got a lot of the local activists and groups working on these issues already. And then distributing it freely online makes a big difference because it goes through the various social networks, and gets seen by lots of people and their grandmothers kind of thing.  Various people have picked up the film and used it for educational purposes so in that situation I would expect it might have also been seen by people who are not necessarily sympathetic to or understand the issues.  It’s been shown at some festivals too, so there’s also a bit of an arts audience. With text you end up thinking a lot about issues, wanting to address a problem. But I think what visuals do, and what that form of story-telling does, is it allows people to get a feeling for something, and it’s a different form of solidarity that you can get from that. It’s like, I get a piece of your experience now, and that means I can feel and be with you in a different kind of way. This was a conscious effort when working through the script and the visuals, to make sure we were making a film that was not just talking heads, discussing structural issues, but that we would put the city at the forefront, letting the audience explore the city and see actual events as they played out. And that’s what I think it powerful about it.

Public space, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Public space, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

 

Debbie: So in a way what you’re saying is that it generated more chance for there to be solidarity with the people in the film, with the migrants for example?

Jaya: I would hope so.

Debbie: So rather than just intellectualizing it, it might spur action, or some kind of empathetic response.

Jaya: Yes. Absolutely. Ok, we all know that visuals can also be used against people. Representing other people on film is always a tricky thing. There are ways of showing things where you can victimize people in a way that isn’t very empowering, or doesn’t allow a person to speak for themselves. There can be a lot of problems in using film. But I think that’s one strength that Ross has with his camera, he manages to have a very subtle way of showing people as their own subjects. They speak for themselves. Rather than it being like, I am now going to take this picture of you that strips you of being a unique person and makes you look like a category of people, a poor victim or something.

Everyday feelings, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Everyday feelings, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Jaya: The main challenge is how do you make a film that does something that text can’t do. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of having talking heads. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of having people just explain things, rather than showing things. And the two are quite different. So that is the big difference between a filmmaker, and a researcher that picks up the camera. A researcher picks up the camera, is used to an interview format, so they can go out and do a lot of interviews and they’ll capture material where the subject is speaking, and you piece together some opinions and perspectives. But showing and story-telling where the visuals get to speak for themselves is where it’s a documentary film, with things happening on the screen that allow you to witness something. That’s a different thing entirely.  A few of us knew Ross from before because he’d been making films in Athens already. He’d been shooting a whole bunch of demonstrations and actions because he’d been around that scene. So some of the footage we used was stuff Ross had already shot. So it was kind of accumulated knowledge. Rather than it being like, we’re going to make this film, these are the shots we need and this is the story we’re going to tell. It was more something that emerged out of research efforts and work that all of us had been doing for a number of years, and then it came together in this film format.

Response to police murder in Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Response to police murder in Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Debbie: The three key themes of the film, which is ‘Privatisation’, “Devaluation’ of migrant space, and ‘Militarization’, have there been any key changes in these spheres in Athens since the film was made?

Jaya: Yeah definitely. The biggest thing was, when we were there the party in power was New Democracy, which is a kind of Conservative right-wing party. Golden Dawn, the far right neo-Nazi party, were very powerful. They’re still polling surprisingly high, like six, seven per cent now. But at that point it was 12, 13 per cent. So there is a difference with Syriza being in power. For a period of time the level of violence and conflict was extremely high, in that period of time when we were researching. That has gone down a little bit, in terms of public space conflict. I think Golden Dawn is starting to be a bit more active on the streets in this past year, but for a period of time they were quite quiet. Also because they committed a murder. They killed Pavlos Fyssas, quite a well-known anti-fascist activist who was also a hip-hop artist. Killah P is his hip-hop rapper name. They stabbed him on the street and that sparked a series of court cases against Golden Dawn that also went back in time because they were known for other various crimes. And for a period of time that meant that their popularity really dropped as people were like, ok we’re for an anti-establishment party, but not like people that are killing. So there’s been a shift in the mood since Syriza came into power, but at the same time they ended up imposing all the austerity measures anyway so it’s kind of like a depressed calm. Where at least before there was a clear enemy. And now without the clear enemy, it’s a bit of a cliché but the Left party is the party that has allowed for a consensus. They created the social consensus to push through austerity measures that otherwise would be seen as absolutely unacceptable. So that’s been a big political betrayal for a lot of people, and so there’s quite a depressed mood. It has been a year or so since I was working there, so it is hard to give specifics, but that is my impression at the moment.

 

Privatised space Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Privatised space Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Debbie: Do you know what’s happened about the public space situation in terms of privatization? Is that still going on? The thing you really got from the film was that basically public land was being sold off but, relative to the debt, for miniscule amounts. So it was actually giving everything away and gaining very little, and I just wondered what had happened?

Jaya: There was a bit that I really wanted to put in the film but we couldn’t manage to translate it visually. So there’s something called the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, which is a private fund that’s responsible for selling off public assets. There’s a lot of corruption surrounding it. But on the website you literally have drop-down menus such as ‘Infrastructure’, and the drop-down will show you, say, an electricity company. Or islands. They list all the islands that are for sale. Its like a kind of website shopping experience.

Debbie: Ebay for the super rich.

Jaya: Exactly. So that to me was so in-your-face, but it’s hard to represent. A website on a film just doesn’t really work. So we didn’t use that in the end. I haven’t traced it in detail, but from what I can understand they weren’t very successful in selling off assets. It’s been slow.

Debbie: But that’s still basically the policy of the government. My other question is about the opposition. It’s really interesting how that’s shifted since the government changed. So my question is partly what is the state of the opposition, because the opposition seems to be no longer focused at the political party level. And then, secondly, what would be the way forward from these issues that, as you say, haven’t actually disappeared?

Protest against police violence in Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Protest against police violence in Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Jaya: So in Greece, when you say opposition, it’s not like that was ever primarily channelled through parliamentary politics. There has been a large anarchist movement for many many years, for example, and the broader left. And there is the solidarity movement. The solidarity movement cuts across the Left and includes a broader spectrum of people who wouldn’t necessarily place themselves like that politically. The Solidarity movement was something that really came about during the crisis, and it spans a whole wide range of basic material needs that people then have been trying to work out other ways of covering. So if your social security is ripped away then how do you start getting organised to make sure that basic social security is re-established in different ways? That’s what the Solidarity movement really has been doing, so you have Solidarity clinics where doctors are donating their time. Refugee housing initiatives, educational initiatives, and all the different kinds of occupied spaces, such as solidarity kitchens, and language classes. Then there is some organizing starting to happen around housing, because they’re in the process of changing legislation to make it easier to evict people if they can’t pay mortgages. So the opposition is a movement based around re-organizing how we provide for and protect basic needs.

Concerns about threats to migrants in Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Concerns about threats to migrants in Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Debbie: Because the state is no longer doing that.

Jaya: Yeah. Exactly. And there’s obviously a lot of things that have to be thought through and worked on when it comes to that kind of political practice. Because what is the difference between that sort of political practice in an empowering way where you’re really creating resources for yourself, or alternately in a way that is a constant drain. These debates have been very present in the UK, especially around the Big Society and volunteer economies where it’s a bit more of a forced solidarity, where the government wants to create a Big Society and everybody should step up and provide for the social services that no longer exist. The difference I guess between the UK and Greece is that there’s a strong political consciousness behind those actions in Greece. So there is some thinking through about how do you translate that into something that can become an autonomous force? Instead of just covering the holes the state has left behind. But it’s open questions, and questions around rethinking economics, how you organise resources, and how you make sure these things are long-term sustainable.

Debbie: Did the grassroots Solidarity movement come directly out of the financial crisis?

Jaya: Yes, and it was lots of very different people who were coming together around it. Also things like organizing other types of food distribution so there’s what they call the potato movement, which is people bringing in food from rural areas, so circumventing the supermarket chains. So selling cheaper. A lot of reorganizing basic needs and resources.

Debbie: The Solidarity  movement sounds really well-organised. Do you think in terms of activism and organization in Athens, compared to London or other European cities, is there something historically in Greece that has enabled this to be so well-organised, or is it simply because the situation is so desperate?

Jaya: I have a particular angle on Greece because of the people I surround myself with, but my impression is that Greece does seem to have a strong historical memory. A lot of people have a mistrust of authority. In the UK there is a mediation by authority that tends to happen a lot, and it feels a lot more fragmented in terms of communities and politically. It’s more of a struggle to get people together, for there to be a shared understanding and a shared historical narrative around who we are, and who we are in relation to authority. Whereas in Greece that’s quite strong. And I think that makes a big difference.

Debbie: Can you elaborate on what you think historically has impacted on that in Greece?

Jaya: Well there’s the dictatorship in Greece, and there’s still dates that are celebrated around that. So 17th November 1973 is when there was an uprising by the students at the Polytechnic University that led to the fall of the dictatorship, and that’s celebrated with big demonstrations every year. Whilst the UK it’s subtle things, like these holidays are called bank holidays. Even Labour Day, 1st May, it’s called a bank holiday, it’s not called International Workers Day or anything like that. So the universal combining narrative of the ‘bank holiday’ depoliticizes things. Greece is culturally more homogenous than the UK so I’m not going to glorify the Greek tradition, but it’s two very different ways of organizing society. Lets just say there’s a very strong common sense of history from specific groups in Greece. So the Anarchist scene has been around for a long time and they’ll have things that they remember. The same with the Left, and the same with the Right wing. And there’s strong lines of continuity so people will remember this and this family that was part of the police or were involved in the Dictatorship, or were fascists back then. Again, this is my impression as a non-greek who has been working and hanging around there for some years.

Debbie: Do you have any more thoughts on the way forward for Greece?

Jaya: You were saying the Solidarity movement is well organised, but it’s also fragmented. How do you step up and progress in a situation where resources are really tight? So there are the usual kinds of problems around solidarity-based economies, such as burnout and lack of resources.

Debbie: I wondered what you thought about Brexit here in the UK.  I mean we had the left Lexit position that wanted to leave because it was critical of the EU enforced austerity measures such as you see in Greece.

Jaya: The two countries are politically in very different situations. So I think one thing is the signal you’re sending around, like whether you agree with EU austerity measures, or the way the EU is structured, or what is stands for as an institution. But another thing is what the vote symbolizes for domestic policies, and the issue with the Brexit was the way it tied so tightly with the right wing politics domestically.

Debbie: And the cultural politics of how we think about immigration.

Jaya: Yeah exactly. Like these types of referendums are more a kind of registry of sentiment, because you’re not actually voting on a specific policy. Nobody knows what a Brexit materially will actually look like. All those things take years of negotiations. So you’re not really voting on anything specific, it’s a sentiment. And the way the sentiment was constructed in the UK was a right-wing sentiment, in the way that it was debated in the media. That’s why it was a bit different in Greece. So the Lexit in the UK, I think that might be an important position to take but maybe it wasn’t strong enough for that sentiment to be understood if you voted for Brexit. That wasn’t how it was going to be interpreted. In Greece the 2015 referendum was a signifier of no, stop, no more austerity. But the government decided to ignore that. So thinking about a way forward on the larger scale, when it comes to EU policies, it’s quite a complicated question because the EU is in a strange state right now. After the Brexit and with the refugee situation, Greece seems to be put in a worse and worse position. It seems more like a territory that’s being negotiated over its head. Geographically it’s between Germany and Turkey, and Greece is like a holding place for refugees, and a place where various economic policies can be experimented with.

Public space Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Public space Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

Debbie: What I really loved about the film was the fact it managed to focus on the everyday experiences but also give a sense of the wider structural causes.

Jaya: Thank you and it is great to hear that we managed to do that. It was a very conscious decision – and we worked hard to make that happen. It was probably one of the trickiest parts when I was working and reworking the script, to make sure that the structural bits and talking heads were always then grounded in images of actual events in a meaningful way. Our intention was to make a film that would primarily give a lived and sensorial experience of Athens at that time, while also giving enough information of the structural events and contexts so that the audience would be also able to make sense of it.

To see map of racist attacks www.map.crisis-scape.net

Underground in Athens, Film still from 'Future Suspended'.

Underground in Athens, Film still from ‘Future Suspended’.

For editorial and articles relating to Future Suspended and its themes see CITY Vol. 18 nos 4-5.

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

“A Disaster for Ordinary People”: Exclusive interviews with Ken Loach and Aditya Chakrabortty on The UK Housing and Planning Act (2016), by Debbie Humphry

KenAdityaCoverPhoto by Debbie Humphry (c) _

                              All photos and copy by Debbie Humphry

CITY’s web-editor Debbie Humphry talks to Ken Loach and Aditya Chakrabortty about the UK Housing and Planning Act, which was passed into law in May 2016 despite widespread opposition.

Ken Loach, renowned British film-maker, directed the critically acclaimed Cathy Come Home (1966) , changing perceptions about homelessness. So what does he think about the Housing and Planning Act, 5o years on?

Aditya Chakrabortty, Chief Economics leader writer for the Guardian, brings us his insights into the underlying political intent of the recent Housing and Planning Act (2016)

The Chartered Institute of Housing predicts the Act will cause the loss of 350,000 social rented homes by 2020.

Thousands of council and social housing tenants face massive rent rises.

Council tenants are denied permanent secure tenancies.

Local councils and housing associations say implementing the Act is an expensive nightmare.

Debbie Humphry in conversation with Ken Loach

Debbie: What do you think of the new Housing and Planning Act?Ken Loach COL Photo by Debbie Humphry (c) _

Ken: The Housing and Planning Act is getting us further and further away from the possibility of providing decent housing for everyone. There are two conflicting visions of housing. One is the right-wing view that housing is a market and the market will provide. The other is a people’s view, which is that housing is something that everyone is entitled to and that we can provide by using our collective endeavours. The Tory view is that the market will satisfy the need. But in fact the needs of people are disregarded because of the ideological commitment to the market. Everything is seen as a commodity: ‘if a commodity is valuable people will invest in it, and commodities will be made to satisfy needs’. Well homelessness is an absolutely prime example of how the market has failed to provide housing. So the Housing and Planning Act is getting us further away from seeing housing as a social need, and moving us farther towards the market view, and that is a disaster for ordinary people.

Debbie: Is there any particularly aspect of the Housing and Planning Act that stands out for you?

Ken: One of the major points of the Housing and Planning Act is the selling off of social housing, which will mean more people will rent privately. Social housing could be sold to private landlords, and already the number of private renters is increasing, with the number of home-owners decreasing. The Tory propaganda of a home-owning democracy where everyone owns their house and their plot of land is now no more than a fantasy. The reality is that people are becoming private renters, with landlords making a profit out of them. So the sale of social housing is disastrous.

Debbie: You lived in London for a long time. What impact do you think the Housing and Planning Act will have in London?

Ken: We’re already seeing how London is going to look with Boris Johnson’s tower blocks, sold off-plan as investments across the world. The market is destroying housing in London by building luxury flats, which are attracting wealthy buyers as investments. We’re getting these monstrous buildings disfiguring the architectural face of the capital, and driving ordinary people out. But with a capitalist economy nothing is stable so who knows what will happen. The housing market is a bubble and will collapse, and the anarchy of the market will just create mess after mess. The one thing we can be certain of, London will not be a well-planned integrated city where people can live and work in the same area, where everyone has somewhere decent to live, and there’s a balance between employment, social services like schools and medical centres, green spaces and sustainable living. We need to plan for all those things, or we’ll end up with a chaotic mess of buildings that are not suitable for what we need. The Housing and Planning Act will mean people who do necessary work in the city will be unable to live here.

Debbie: Do you think we can we do anything about this situation?

Ken: I think we need to campaign for the opposite of the market: for publicly-funded housing, sustainable housing, controlled and owned by local authorities, where the labour is employed directly, architects are employed directly, and the planning takes into account sustainability, green spaces, social needs and, above all, employment.

Overhanging all this is the issue of the environment and climate and that is part of the housing problem. We need sustainable planned housing, and the only way we can do that is through local authorities who can plan their area, and build houses that people can sustain economically.

Debbie: Can you compare what is happening now with what was happening when you made your film ‘Cathy Come Home’ about the terrible housing conditions?

Ken: ‘Cathy Come Home’ came out 50 years ago in 1966 and showed how easy it was to become homeless. But it’s worse now because the economy has gone through several changes driving the idea of housing as a private business. The consequence is ever-rising numbers of homeless people, including homeless children, and rising numbers rough sleeping. The percentage of people who are now renting privately has massively increased, and the latest figures are that 60 per cent of people in London will be renting privately in a few years. That’s a mark of how disastrously things have gone wrong. I’ve got grandchildren now who are just about to leave school and it is difficult to see how they will find a decent home.

Debbie: How do you see the future?

Ken: At some point there will be a crash. House prices can’t go on escalating into infinity. We need to make demands on the Labour party‘s new progressive leadership to re-assert Bevan’s plans for council housing: planned council housing with all the services, environmental issues and work taken into account. And that’s a fundamental shift from housing as a private matter for money. We must change our priorities. We’ve got a chance here with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. We should demand that the Labour party stands up for a new policy on housing based on public finance, public ownership and planning.

Debbie Humphry in conversation with Aditya Chakrabortty

Debbie: What does the Housing and Planning Act mean to you?1. Aditya

Aditya: To me the Housing and Planning Bill isn’t about providing more housing to those who need it, nor is it about providing more planning for local authorities that need more planning powers. What it’s really about is a full-throttle upwards redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle classes to those right at the very top. And property developers in particular, with huge subsidies to build these starter homes, which are meant to be affordable but are unaffordable to all but the very richest. And that’s the thing that really galls me about it.

Debbie: Is there any particular aspect of the Act that you’d like to mention?

Aditya: For instance, a household on a modest income being forced to pay not social rents but market rents, the so-called Pay to Stay clause, I just thought that was absolutely shocking. And what really troubles me is it’s dreamt up by people who plainly have an agenda against social housing, and even more so against having cities with mixed communities. The big brain behind the Conservative housing policy is Alex Morton who used to be at Policy Exchange where he came up with various papers about how basically we ought to get people whose faces didn’t fit out of London. He supports forcing people to move from ‘expensive’ social properties. So it’s him that came up with the idea that social housing in places like Westminster, Camden or Tower Hamlets is so valuable because of the land they’re on that they ought to be sold, and the people who live in them ought to move to the perimeters of London. I mean when you’re getting to the stage where you’re handing to big property developers ten of billions in tax payers money for building supposedly affordable housing that most British people simply can’t afford, well then I think you’ve got to say it’s pretty transparent that what you’re up to is taking the money from the poor and giving it to the rich. We are paying people huge sums to rip us off and the Housing and Planning Act fits exactly into that pattern.

Debbie: How does the Housing and Planning Act fit into a wider political picture?

Aditya: What we’ve seen in Britain is the private sector infiltrating the public sector.

Britain’s increasingly run by the private sector, and housing is another example of that because we’re handing over public land to property developers who’ll then charge us a whacking great sum to build houses. The Housing and Planning Act is the last part of that, it’s the latest part of that game, and that’s what I find so abhorrent about it. There are certain places that are valuable because they’ve had public money poured into them, which then allows speculators to come in. Everything from the big property speculator building that new tower to the middle-class person who’s got a bit of money left in their pension pot and thinks they’ll get into the Buy-to-Let game. So then the people whose faces don’t fit it get kicked out, that’s what you’re really seeing with the Housing and Planning Act, the drive to do that. So the people who used to be productive and are dispossessed from their labour are now being dispossessed from their homes.

Debbie: You were brought up in London, so what changes have you seen regarding housing?

4. AdityaAditya: I was born and raised in a place called Edmonton, on the perimeter of North London. There you see the Housing Crisis. You see people who have been dumped in Edmonton into temporary housing by other local authorities, so that the local council hasn’t got enough housing itself to house its own residents. You see people living in beds and sheds, you hear all sorts of things going on right at the bottom range of the rental market. This is where you see the real sharks going on, in Edmonton in the rental market there.

But most of what you see is how this idea of trickle-down economics never really reached a place like Edmonton, Croydon, Hainault, those sorts of places. Part of Edmonton has got some of the worst economic statistics in Britain, yet it’s ten miles from Westminster, in one of the richest and most powerful cities on the planet. A city that can raise billions for a stock flotation if it wants, a city that can send people off to war, and yet ten miles from parliament you get people who are fighting with each other discounts in Tesco’s.

Debbie Humphry is web editor for CITY, visiting research fellow at The University of East London, and Director of LivingMaps Network. She is an academic, writer and photographer whose research interests include housing, neighbourhood, social justice and social mobility.

  • Many local Cabinet Members for Housing have requested the Minister of State pause the Act.
  • Many MPs and Peers, from all parties, objected to the legislation.
  • The Act returns to parliament after the summer to debate secondary regulations.
  • Axe the Housing Act campaign continues the fight http://www.axethehousingact.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/atha_briefing1_june2016_2nd-1.pdf

 

Aditya Chakrabortty featured in CITY’s London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms conference, and review by Debbie Humphry CITY 20 (3)

Axe the Housing Act A full campaign briefing on the Act from Axe the Housing Act campaign is available http://www.axethehousingact.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/atha_briefing1_june2016_2nd-1.pdf

And a Planning briefing http://www.axethehousingact.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/atha_planning_briefing_june2016-367622.pdf

 

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