Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 Mike Davis 1 Jan 1995

Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control (2)

The Ecology of Fear

The Half-Moons of Repression

In the original Burgess diagram, the 'half-moons' of ethnic enclaves (Deutschland, Little Sicily, the Black Belt, etc.) and specialized architectural ecologies ('residential hotels', 'the two flat area', etc.) cut across the 'dart board' of the city's fundamental socio-economic patterning. In contemporary metropolitan Los Angeles, a new species of special enclave is emerging in sympathetic synchronization to the militarization of the landscape. For want of a better generic appellation, we might call them social control districts' (SCDs). They merge the sanctions of the criminal or civil code with land-use planning to create what Michel Foucault would undoubtedly have recognized as further instances of the evolution of the `disciplinary order' of the twentieth-century city.

As Christian Boyer paraphrases Foucault: Disciplinary control proceed* by distributing bodies in space, allocating each individual to a cellular partition, creating a functional space out of this analytic spatial arrangement. In the end this spatial matrix became both real and ideal: a hierarchical organization of cellular space and a purely ideal order that was imposed upon its forms.

Currently existing SCDs (simultaneously 'real and ideal') can be distinguished according to their juridical mode of spatial 'discipline'. Abatement districts, currently enforced against graffiti and prostitution in sign-posted areas of Los Angeles and West Hollywood, extend the traditional police power over nuisance (the legal fount of all zoning) from noxious industry to noxious behavior. Because they are self-financed by the fines collected or special sales taxes levied (on spray paints, for example), abatement districts allow homeowner or merchant groups to target intensified law enforcement against specific local social problems.

Enhancement districts, represented all over Southern California by the 'drug-free zones' surrounding public schools, add extra federal/state penalties or 'enhancements' to crimes committed within a specified radius of public institutions. Containment districts are designed to quarantine potentially epidemic social problems, ranging from that insect illegal immigrant, the Mediterranean fruit fly, to the ever increasing masses of homeless Angelenos. Although Downtown LA's 'homeless containment zone' lacks the precise, if surreal, sign-posting of the state Department of Agriculture's 'Medfly Quarantine Zone', it is nonetheless one of the most dramatic examples of a SCD. By city policy, the spillover of homeless encampments into surrounding council districts, or into the tonier precincts of the Downtown scanscape, is prevented by their 'containment' (official term) within the over-crowded Skid row area known as Central City East (or the 'Nickle' to its inhabitants). Although the recession-driven explosion in the homeless population has inexorably leaked street people into the alleys and vacant lots of nearby inner-ring neighborhoods, the LAPD maintains its pitiless policy of driving them back into the squalor of the Nickle.

The obverse strategy, of course, is the formal exclusion of the homeless and other pariah groups from public spaces. A spate of Southland cities, from Orange County to Santa Barbara, and even including the 'Peoples' Republic of Santa Monica', recently have passed 'anti-camping' ordinances to banish the homeless from their sight. Meanwhile Los Angeles and Pomona are emulating the small city of San Fernando (Richie Valens' hometown) in banning gang members from parks. These 'Gang Free Parks' reinforce non-spatialized sanctions against gang membership (especially the recent Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act or STEP) as examples of 'status criminalization' where group membership, even in the absence of a specific criminal act, has been outlawed.

Status crime, by its very nature, involves projections of middle-class or conservative fantasies about the nature of the 'dangerous classes'. Thus in the 19th century the bourgeoisie crusaded against a largely phantasmagorical 'tramp menace', and, in the 20th century, against a hallucinatory domestic 'red menace'. In the middle 1980s, however, the ghost of Cotton Mather suddenly reappeared in suburban Southern California. Allegations that local daycare centers were actually covens of satanic perversion wrenched us back to the seventeenth century and the Salem witch trials. In the course of the McMartin Preschool molestation case - ultimately the longest and most expensive such ordeal in American history - children testified about molester-teachers who flew around on broomsticks and other manifestations of the Evil One.

One legacy of the accompanying collective hysteria, which undoubtedly mined huge veins of displaced parental guilt, was the little city of San Dimas' creation of the nation's first `child molestation exclusion zone'. This Twin-Peaks-like suburb in the eastern San Gabriel Valley was sign-posted from stem to stern with the warning: Hands Off! Our children are photographed and fingerprinted for their own protection. I don't know if the armies of lurking pedophiles in the mountains above San Dimas were actually deterred by these warnings, but any mapping of contemporary urban space must acknowledge the existence of such dark, Lynchian zones where the social imaginary discharges its fantasies.

Meanwhile, post-riot Southern California seems on the verge of creating yet more SCDs. On the one hand, the arrival of the federal 'Weed and Seed' program, linking community development funds to anti-gang repression, provides a new set of incentives for neighborhoods to adopt exclusion and/or enhancement strategies. As many activists have warned, 'Weed and Seed' is like a police-state caricature of the 1960s War on Poverty, with the Justice Dept. transformed into the manager of urban redevelopment. The poor will be forced to cooperate with their own criminalization as a precondition for urban aid.

On the other hand, emerging technologies may give conservatives, and probably neo-liberals as well, a real opportunity to test cost-saving proposals for community imprisonment as an alternative to expensive programs of prison construction. Led by Heritage Institute ideologue Charles Murray - whose polemic against social spending for the poor, Losing Ground (1984), was the most potent manifesto of the Reagan era - conservative theorists are exploring the practicalities of the carceral city depicted in sci-fi fantasies like Escape from New York (which, however, got the relationship of landvalues all wrong).

Murray's concept, as first adumbrated in the New Republic in 1990, is that drug-free zones for the majority may require social-refuse heaps for the criminalized minority. If the result of implementing these policies (landlords' and employers' unrestricted right to discriminate in the selection of tenants and workers) is to concentrate the bad apples into a few hyper-violent, antisocial neighborhoods, so be it. But how will the underclass be effectively confined to its own 'hyper-violent' super-SCDs and kept out of the drug-free shangri-las of the overclass?

One possibility is the systematic establishment of discrete security gateways that will use some bio-metric criterion, universally registered, to screen crowds and bypassers. The most elegant solution, according to a recent article in the Economist, is a bio-metric that can be measured without the subject having to do anything at all. The individually unique cart-wheel pattern of the iris, for example, can be scanned by hidden cameras without the subject being any the wiser. That could be useful in places like airports - to check for the eye of a Tamil Tiger, or anybody else whose presence might make security guards' pupils dilate.

Another emerging technology is the police utilization of LANDSAT satellites linked to Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Almost certainly by the end of the decade the largest US metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, will be using geosynchronous LANDSAT systems to manage traffic congestion and oversee physical planning. The same LANDSAT-GIS capability can be cost-shared and time-shared with police departments to surveil the movements of tens of thousands of electronically tagged individuals and their automobiles.

Although such monitoring is immediately intended to safeguard expensive sports cars and other toys of the rich, it will be entirely possible to use the same technology to put the equivalent of an electronic handcuff on the activities of entire urban social strata. Drug offenders and gang members can be 'bar-coded' and paroled to the omniscient scrutiny of a satellite that will track their 24-hour itineraries and automatically sound an alarm if they stray outside the borders of their surveillance district. With such powerful Orwellian technologies for social control, community confinement and the confinement of communities may ultimately mean the same thing.

The Neighbors are Watching

An anxious delegation of police officials from the ex-DDR recently contacted the LA Police Department. The former East Germans, faced with a massive upsurge in crime and ethnic violence following Westernization, desperately wanted to find out more about Los Angeles' most celebrated law enforcement personality. But they were not enquiring about Chief Willie Williams or his predecessor Daryl Gates. Rather they wanted to know more about 'Bruno the Burglar', the felonious cartoon in a mask, who appears on countless signs that proclaim the borders of a 'Neighborhood Watch' area.

The Neighborhood Watch program, comprising more than 5,500 crime-surveillance block clubs from San Pedro to Sylmar, is the LAPD's most important innovation in urban policing. Throughout what Burgess called the 'Zone of Workingmen's Homes', which in Los Angeles comprises the owner-occupied neighborhoods of the central city as well as older blue-collar suburbs in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, a huge network of watchful neighbors provides a security system that is midway between the besieged, gun-toting anomie of the inner ring and the private police forces of more affluent, gated suburbs.


Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control (2) - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 (1995)

Neighborhood Watch, now emulated by hundreds of North American and even European cities, from Rosemead to London, was the brainchild of former police chief Ed Davis. In the aftermath of the 1965-71 cycle of unrest in Southcentral and East LA, Davis envisioned the program as the anchor of a larger 'Basic Car' strategy designed to rebuild community support for the LAPD by establishing a territorial identity between patrol units and neighborhoods. Although Daryl Gates preferred SWAT teams (his invention) to Basic Cars, Neighborhood Watch continued to grow throughout the 1980s.

According to LAPD spokesperson Sgt. Christopher West, Neighborhood Watch block clubs are intended to increase local solidarity and self-confidence in the face of crime. Spurred by their block captains, neighbors become more vigilant in the protection of each other's property and well-being. Suspicious behavior is immediately reported and home-owners meet regularly with patrol officers to plan crime prevention tactics.

An off-duty officer in a Winchell's Donut Shop was more picturesque. Neighborhood Watch is supposed to work like a wagon train in an old-fashioned cowboy movie. The neighbors are the settlers, and the goal is to get them to circle their wagons and fight off the Indians until the cavalry - that is to say, the LAPD - can ride to their rescue.

Needless to say, this Wild West analogy has its dark sides. Who, for example, gets to decide what behavior is 'suspicious' or who looks like an 'Indian'? The obvious danger in any program that conscripts thousands of citizens to become police informers under the official slogan Be on the Look Out for Strangers is that it inevitably stigmatizes innocent groups. Inner-city teenagers are especially vulnerable to this flagrant stereotyping and harassment.

As an illustration, let me relate what happened at a meeting of my local Neighborhood Watch group (in the Echo Park area near Downtown). An elderly white woman asked a young policeman how to identify hardcore gang youth. His answer was stupefyingly succinct: Gangbangers wear expensive athletic shoes and clean, starched tee-shirts. The old woman nodded her appreciation of this 'expert' advice, while others in the audience squirmed in their seats at the thought of the well-groomed youth in the neighborhood who would eventually be stopped and searched because of this idiot stereotype.

Critics also worry that Neighborhood Watch does double-duty as a captive constituency for partisan politics. As Sergeant West acknowledged, block captains are appointed by patrol officers and the program does obviously tend to attract the most pro-police elements of the population. These pro-police activists, moreover, tend to be demographically or culturally unrepresentative of their neighborhoods. In poor, young Latino areas, Watch captains are frequently elderly, residual Anglos. In areas where renters are a majority, the pro-police activists are typically homeowners or landlords. Although official regulations supposedly keep the Neighborhood Watch apolitical, block captains are generally regarded as Parker Center's de facto precinct workers. In 1986, for instance, the police union routinely campaigned in Neighborhood Watch meetings for the recall of the liberal majority on the state Supreme Court.

The new 'community policing advisory boards' established in the wake of the Rodney King beating are hardly more independent. Although the reform commission headed by Warren Christopher criticized the LAPD's failure to respond to citizen complaints, it failed to provide for elected advisory boards. As with Neighborhood Watch groups, the board members serve strictly at the pleasure of local police commanders. When the Venice advisory board, for example, dared to endorse a Spring 1992 ballot proposal (Proposition F) crafted by the police commission, but opposed by the police union, they were simply fired by the captain in charge of the Pacific Division. The timorous police commissioners then refused to intervene on behalf of their own supporters.

Although the rhetoric resounds with pioneer values lifted out of a John Ford Western, the actual practices of the Neighborhood Watch and Community Policing programs more often evoke the models of (ex) East Germany or South Korea, where police informers on every block scrutinize their neighbors and watch for suspicious strangers.

Mini-Citadels and Gerontocrats

When I first began to study gated communities in Southern California in the mid-1980s, it was a trend largely confined to very wealthy neighborhoods or new developments on the distant metropolitan frontier (e.g., the areas Burgess described as the 'restricted residential district' or the 'commuter zone'). Since the Spring 1992 rebellion, however, dozens of ordinary residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles have demanded the right to gate themselves off from the rest of the city. As one newspaper put it, The 1980s had their boom in mini-malls; the 1990s may bring a bull market in mini-citadels.

Although crime and safety are the ostensible issues, increased equity may be the deeper motive. Some realtors have estimated that 'gatedness' can raise home values by as much as 40 percent over ten years. As communities - including black middle-class areas like Windsor Village and Baldwin Hills Estates - race to reap this windfall, Burgess' 'Residential Zone IV' begins to look like a fortified honeycomb, with each residential neighborhood now encased in its own walled cell. In most cases, the local homeowners' associations also contract 'armed response' private policing from one of the several multi-national security firms that specialize in residential security. Obviously this only further widens the 'security differential' between the inner city and the suburbs.

'Empty-nest' households are especially passionate advocates of restricted-access neighborhoods, and there is an important sense in which Los Angeles is not merely being polarized between rich and poor, but more specifically between the young poor and the old rich. Furthermore, the 1990 Census showed that metropolitan Los Angeles has the greatest discrepancy in the nation between household size and home size. On the Westside and Hollywood Hills, where 'mansionization' has been in vogue, older, smaller Anglo households occupy ever bigger homes, while in the rest of the city large Latino families are being crammed into diminishing floor-space.

California as a whole is an incipient gerontocracy, and any post-Blade-Runner dystopia must take account of the explosive fusion of class, ethnic and generational contradictions. Three of the state's leading demographers have recently given us a preview of what the near-future may hold. In their 'worst-case scenario', civil war breaks out in the year 2030 after the ruling class of aged, Anglo Baby-boomers, living in 'security-patrolled villages' and confiscating the majority of tax revenues to support their geriatric services, imposes an Iron Heel on a huge underclass of young Latinos who live in ''unlit, unpaved barrios.

Strikes broke out in assembly plants, security walls were set afire and toppled, the sale of guns, and their price, soared in the elderly areas. The younger Latinos painted the elderly as parasites, who had enjoyed all the benefits of society when those benefits were free and now blithely continued to tax the workers to maintain their style of living. The elderly painted the younger Latinos as foreigners who were soaking up benefits that should go to the elderly, as non-Americans who were threatening to dilute American culture, as crime-ridden, disease-ridden, and lawless. Each side prepared for a last assault on the other. ''

At the end of summer 1992, the California legislature took a giant step toward the realization of this scenario when it savagely cut the budget for schools and social services. The Democrats capitulated to the intransigence of Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who repeatedly emphasized that the underlying issue is not the current recession, it is demographics. Wilson, of course, was calculating that aging Anglo voters (still an electoral majority) were not willing to support the traditional high standards of California public education now that the schools were full of Latino and Asian children. The budget vote, thus, effectively ratified two, unequal tiers of citizenship and entitlement.