Sprawling Police Zones

Just a couple of links and thoughts here that may be of some interest to the psychogeographically inclined reader. They may not. I really have no idea what is of interest to anyone. Frankly, that subject is of little interest to me.

But these links came up because of a recent conversation about how atomizing and centerless effect of car based sprawl in American cities are underestimated obstacles to worker organization and action. America has created a physical and psychological inhospitable terrain that is fundamentally inhospitable to mass action.


The first link comes to us by way of The Anarchist Library.

In the Distance: Suburbia against the barricades.

“Alienation is built into the city and into the suburbs, in its concrete and asphalt. Take the example of Los Angeles, the city built to accommodate cars but not walking human beings. In LA many people think nothing of driving 45 minutes just to go a bar to have a drink. Instead of having neighborhoods where one finds a whole street of bars or cafes, places to socialize are spread out over the city. North American cities lack any pre-capitalist history; they were built from the beginning by the dictates of capital, with government help. The result: urban blights that are more adapted to the automobile than the human being.”

I can find little fault with that. I would add that, on the level of action, American consumerist infrastructure is easily transformed into military/police staging grounds or carceral fortresses. Walmart easily turns into a detention center, parking lots can be used as command centers. We see these re-purposed zones appear in response to every protest. There always seems to be cops taking over a CVS parking lot and snipers on rooftops. Now, we even see these detention facilities and command centers appearing aggressively – as offensive moves against populations guided by policy. The abandoned sites of capital find a second life as prisons and enforcement centers. The consumerist stage lends itself to changes that favor militarized power and its supply lines. A martial state is physically embedded. Militarism is latent. Whether it was designed that way or not, it’s there. And it certainly seems that the architectural profession is currently complicit in coaxing it out.

Why are architecture’s major professional organizations silent on the immigrant detention debate?

Most notoriously, a 200,000-square-foot former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas came under scrutiny in recent weeks as a detention center with a unique claim to fame—the largest detention center for migrant and refugee children. Operated by the privately-run Southwest Key Programs organization, the big-box detention center was converted from a retail store to its current use in 2016 as a result of corporate downsizing and currently holds roughly 1,500 separated children. The conversion likely required building permits, construction drawings, and the like—services that often require architects. It is safe to assume that local jurisdictions would require basic planning approval and permitting for these projects, so it seems natural that architects would somehow be involved in the propagation of these facilities.

Fucking collaborators. What can you do?

On the level of mass action, there is no equivalent space for the public. This problem is added to by the private ownership of these spaces.


Mall of America’s ability to so zealously suppress the December 23 protest there highlights how, in a nation where more and more public life takes place in privatized spaces, the ability to exercise First Amendment rights has become increasingly contingent. From Zuccotti Park to Twitter, some of the last decade’s most iconic venues for dissent have been privately run. In cities like New York, privately owned public spaces have been proliferating for several decades, racing ahead of the case law that will ultimately decide their relationship to Constitutional rights. And legal experts expect social media to be a primary subject of First Amendment battles for decades to come.

The few places where protest is physically possible are only affordable to those least likely to protest. Downtown New York can facilliate a protest. But most American cities are not built like that. Most are built like Phoenix Arizonia.

The architecture of dissent

Phoenix did not see the large protests of other cities because it is not built for humans; it’s built for private vehicles. People just happen to live there. This character of the city closes off opportunities for civic action by isolating — and disempowering — people, leaving them with little or no opportunity for gathering in solidarity. Many people, especially those in marginalized communities, live in neighborhoods and towns that are effectively restricted from accessing large parts of the city. And the flows of activity in Phoenix are such that the downtown becomes a ghost town after 5:00 p.m. and on weekends, when people hop on the highway and retreat to their homes. So even if protesters managed to gather and march, they would be chanting at empty streets and closed buildings.

To create an interference with commerce involves blocking highways and, there, it puts human bodies against machinery — an unequal and difficult position. There is also no way to have a prolonged occupation, since the supplies needed for such an action cannot be delivered and can be easily blockaded. The action also needs to be traveled to, rather than joined. This, in itself, disrupts the spontaneity a protest requires to organically grow. You can’t have a Tahrir Square without a square and the network of tiny streets leading to it, which protesters were able to fill – creating a human tide that was easy to join and difficult to police. Basically, America is built to favor cops, capital and snitches.

On the level of social, the major social spaces in American cities are varieties of malls, reached in private cars, where people are shoppers, not citizens, and this state of mind is basically incompatible with social action. In that zone, a protest or strike is most likely to be seen as an inconvenience rather than a liberation. Adding the cyber-mall to it, the picket line becomes theoretical and people are not going to hold to a theoretical line. Even a real line is hard to hold. Conscience is not adequate. Barricades are required.

We also see this atomization on the job, in irregular hours, workmates being forbidden from speaking to each other, so on and so forth. Management understands that the foundation of strikes is social. They disrupt and control that. America, most of it anyway, is deeply anti-social. It’s anti-social right from the ground up.

None of this, of course, represents a fait accompli. Nor does it show that protest is impossible or obsolete. It simply shows some obstacles to protest that must be understood and addressed in order to be surmounted. And the mere fact that these obstacles were built argues for the power of mass action. One does not build barriers to protect themselves from things that do not frighten them. The managing class are scared of mass action and organized workers. They have good reason to be.

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