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Violence and Cities

April 19, 2013

(An entire metropolitan area is on “lockdown” l as I write this. It is surreal, tense, and really makes clear the unnatural state quiet and emptiness is to the urban.)

Twelve years ago, I was literally on the Williamsburg Bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan as planes hit the World Trade Center towers. On Monday, I was just across the Charles River, in my office at MIT, when two explosions brought the Boston Marathon to a tragic end. Of course, there is no parallel in scale, and no attempt here to compare possible motives. What strikes me is the intense unsettlement that follows such attacks that I, as someone not directly affected by either event, felt in the long months after 9-11, and again as I biked back down Massachusetts Avenue to MIT the morning after the attacks on Monday.

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John Hancock building, near Copley Square, Boston

Not directly affected, of course, except by the sense of collective mourning, mediated through the “city.” We all extend our sympathies when these events happen, whether we live in or near Boston, across the continent, or the ocean. But I think this feeling of acute unsettlement manifests itself specifically in the city that is attacked. It is like a fabric that is stretched and distorted, tearing at the seams. While in my own research I’m part of a team of people trying to question and dismantle the ideological distinctions between city and non-city, in everyday life this close-knit urban fabric that binds all of us in the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Brookline “city” seems not to be denied. It is why it is so meaningful to so many when small acts like shining a NY<3B symbol on the Brooklyn Academy of Music building.

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Projection on Brooklyn Academy of Music building, image via illuminator99 on Twitter

I often think about political scientist Iris Marion Young’s exhortation, in “City Life and Difference,” that the city is potentially a place of “difference without exclusion,” and “unassimilated otherness.” That, in its ideal form, urban life offers us the chance to be different together.

That chance is threatened, of course, when targeted violence strikes the city. There were many moving accounts of people rushing towards the blasts to help, many demonstrations of sympathy and selflessness. But it’s also clear that there is increased tension, fear, suspicion. Do events like Monday’s bombings make us, on the whole, more likely to embrace difference, uncertainty, unknowing? Or do they sow seeds of fear and hate, in spite of our better judgement?

It is coming to light that among the many incredible, heroic acts on Boylston Street right after the bombing was an act of racial profiling. After the attack there were numerous calls from President Obama down not to jump to conclusions about the attacker(s) and motives. Perhaps this is commendable, but not if we realize it’s only necessary because many have jumped to conclusions in the past, to deadly effect. Instances of racism in the Boston area and elsewhere have already begun. (And more.)

This tragic event will no doubt be followed by attempts to increase policing, surveillance, and control of Boston public spaces and events. One can hardly fault the authorities, or the residents, for wanting more security. But such enforcement is unlikely to stop all attacks of this sort. Urban life is dynamic, and it is messy. Accidents are commonplace, anonymity and secrecy often desirable things in the urban, no one can know everything.

So how do we move forward? I’m left thinking that we won’t be able to stop violence in American cities, and the harm it renders to possible urban ideals as envisioned by those like I.M. Young, without a concerted effort to stop violence everywhere else. Acts of violence do not really strike me as random and senseless, even though we perpetually describe them as such. They result from anger and hate, from rational and irrational passions, instabilities, and oppressions.

I think it would be a particularly constructive thing for us (who, for the most part, aspire to progressive or liberal democratic ideals) to reject and resist increased policing, surveillance, and control of our urban spaces, and as well make a deliberate effort to undo, as much as we can, our complicity in other acts of violence, particularly that which is wrought in our name, for our supposed security –

I.M. Young ends her piece with a call for democratization and empowerment at a regional urban scale. I think this is true, but we must scale up even more. A recent piece on the neoliberal market forces driving extreme global inequality made a clear point: if we are going to have a global economy, we must have global democratic oversight. So, along similar lines: in a globalized world, with globalized violence, what kind of radical, global democratization and empowerment movement must we have? How do we get there?

Friday night update:

The second suspect has apparently been caught. The most intense part of this week and these events is likely over.

Justin Davidson at New York Magazine has an interesting piece on whether a city-wide lockdown is really a good thing in this case.

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