Monday, October 29, 2007

A Camp Called Justice

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

I'd like to point you to a short piece I wrote for a website called BagNewsNotes, a savvy run-on political scroll founded by Michael Shaw that I will periodically be contributing to, trying to decode the spinster language of visual media and its play with spatial politics. The Bag has a unique way of unraveling the media’s contextualization of images and helps us to read them as strategic props for political theater, and can be extremely valuable to our discerning of how imagery is used to depict the built environment.
Since those pieces are meant to be short and sweet I am going to comment a little further on the topic here in a typically Subtopian clumsy and convoluted kind of way.

Do you remember a few months ago hearing about a proposal floating around to build what would have essentially amounted to a little quaint unknown miniature city on an abandoned airfield at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba – to house federal judges and other personnel there for the sole purpose of trying detainees under the new laws of the Military Commissions Act? Ring a bell? Well, in any event, at a cost of potentially $125 million it was swiftly shot down by Defense Secretary Robert Gates who even he himself saw the political disaster in that plan, thankfully enough.

However, that “military commission compound” – as it was loosely referred to in our previous coverage – would have in theory accommodated up to 1,200 people and provided the capacity to conduct as many as five trials simultaneously in the first U.S. war crimes tribunals held since World War II. The proposed site we learned was used back in the 1990s to house “a tent camp for Cuban rafters.”
This fact was made even more curious when we later heard that the U.S. Congress approved earlier this year “an $18 million proposal for the Department of Defense to build a migrant detention facility” on the base as well. Or, as The Miami Herald quoted one U.S. official who called it a space “to shelter interdicted migrants.”
This abandoned runway sure is a precarious little strip of land, to say the least.

Though I’m not quite sure what has become of that contract yet there have been (it seems) various attempts to secure Guantánamo’s value in the war on terror by redeveloping and adding significant new permanent structures to it cementing not only the facility itself but the legal architecture that holds the site in place, too. And I find these last couple proposals a bit too eerily synchronized not to be part of a larger strategy to keep the controversial facility from being shut down altogether. Since Congress has faced continuous pressure to close Guantanamo Bay as a detention center – both internally and from governments abroad – it is hardly odd really to find this sudden plan to offshore a brand new warehouse for rounded-up coastal border-crossers (who can under law now be tried as felons or ‘alien unlawful enemy combatants’) and to establish a compound to expedite the rapid legal processing of them once they end up there.
It’s like Gitmo suddenly became a hot new destination for landscape urbanists, or something – really freaky. What’s next, a design competition to green Camp X-Ray? A Best Western hotel tower to watch the little men in orange suits from some prime Caribbean balcony real estate? MTV spring break parties drenching the airstrips in beer, wet t-shirt contests inside hangars, djs mixing the latest Gitmo torture soundtracks?

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

In my short for The Bag I call attention to a piece that appeared a couple of weeks ago in The New York Times, profiling none other than the surrogate project that has already begun to take the place of the previously rejected trial complex along side that “unused runway set against the glittering sea” we have come to love so much. This one – called by the Pentagon, the “Expeditionary Legal Complex” – will only cost $12m instead and is expected to be up and running as early as this spring.

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

According to the article the court building – “surrounded by trailers, moveable cells, concertina wire and a tent city” – is itself a prefabricated and totally portable kit of parts that’s been shipped to Cuba and, we are told, “could be unplugged, disassembled and put back together somewhere else.” Go figure, justice cast in Lego plastic ready to be made in an infinite reconfigurability of political forms.

[Image: This is an architectural drawing of the planned interior of a portable, prefabricated, high-tech court being assembled on an unused runway at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.. For Glaberson Gitmo story. Credit: United States department of Defense, Office of Military Commission. Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

In the Pentagon’s own words it is a state-of-the-art courthouse, completely unprecedented, never before seen, yet described literally by the Times reporter as “a squat, windowless structure of corrugated metal” rigged inside with the latest trial technology – “the perfect architecture for the long-running limbo that is Guantánamo.” Nicely said.

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

Like the sign reads ‘Camp Justice’ is – to its credit – just what it says it is: justice in the form of a camp. There is absolutely no pretense here whatsoever, nor can it be mistaken for anything else either, really, which is partially what makes it so disturbing. Not to mention how obnoxious and arrogant it is in its crude declaration of itself. CAMP JUSTICE. We're here. But, again – to be fair – the name does actually say it all.

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

The definition of camp in this case is a tent city “complete with military cots and a recreation tent” where approximately “550 court officials, lawyers, security guards and journalists from around the world” will live for weeks at a time. Apparently, diesel generators will supply the electricity while everyone including the judges will use port-a-potties. “Showers will be fed by 3,000-gallon water tanks, and food will be shipped in three times a day from kitchens on the base.” The complex in total will be about 6,000 square feet.

[Image: The Rule of Law Complex in Baghdad, photo by Benjamin Lowy for The New York Times.]

Is this a carbon copy of the makeshift Rule of Law Complex looming outside Baghdad we glimpsed in an earlier post? Sure seems like it. Man, these military urbanisms sure are getting good – Architecture for Humanity eat your heart out!
Yeah, right. Good thing I'm kidding. But, let me remind you, according to an older Times story additional complexes have been planned for various regions in Iraq, and I’d be willing to bet that if we took a closer look we might even find similar justice-in-a-can deployments in Afghanistan, Libya, the West Bank, etc. I don’t think it would be difficult to predict the future geographies of portable justice, if you know what I'm sayin'.

If ever there were a spatial qualifier for Giorgio Agamben’s argument that the camp is a space of legal exception or suspended state of lawlessness, then Camp Justice is the be-and-end-all grandiosity of this realization, hunkered down in the mud and all its splendid glory now.

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

In a frighteningly lucid and surgical essay Vanishing Points geographer Derek Gregory describes the war on terror as a “war on law”, or a “war through law” – through the suspension of law. While emergency is the state’s tactic it is ultimately the law itself that is the most critical site of political struggle, he contends. If I recall correctly, Derek explains how Guantanamo Bay was established as a purposefully ambiguous political space camouflaged in the folds of legal uncertainty. In short, the U.S. left Cuba while still claiming jurisdiction over the base but not official territorial sovereignty, which allowed it to exist in between a place of law and lawlessness – essentially a place of “indeterminate time” and “indefinite detention.” He calls it a “site of non-place” created for a “site of non-people” located on the peripheral edge – or the “the vanishing point” – of the legal spectrum where international law is no longer enforceable (and therefore non-existent), and where American sovereignty has no application. It is the ultimate space of legal oblivion, you might say.
It is neither a legal nor an illegal space and in all juridical dimensions is neither existent nor non-existent: it is – as far as I can make of it – the production of a convenient and sub-legal nowhere.

Unlike Abu Ghraib that is situated within the legal framework of the law operating under Iraqi sovereignty, and for all intents and purposes is a “legal site of detention”, Guantanamo is an extra-territorial site overseen by no official legal order, but is in fact in a place of the opposite: the very absence of law altogether. Both facilities are translations of a state of exception but arrive there from different proximities and points of intersection with the law.
In the case of Guantanamo Bay, Gregory anatomically dismembers the logistical architecture that’s been used to reshape the legal landscape and the ways existing or future law – or any interpretation thereof – pertaining to Guantanamo has been manufactured, or “performed” he writes, to create a permanent shelter, or shield from proper scrutiny.
Too much to get into here, but if we were to consider the “spatial products” of this performance of law (to borrow from Keller Easterling’s vocabulary), then this pop-up war-machine city with all its transient god-like powers to deliver mortal justice – is an Agamben prophecy made brilliant architectural flesh.
What are we to make of this new Camp Justice as it assumes a role in a space that is already neither considered lawful or unlawful? Are we really supposed to believe that the superficial application of this military pod is going to correct all of the unanswered legal tenets that currently underwrite the (il)legitimacy of such a place like Guantanamo Bay?

Another point he makes about Agamben’s observations is that they are too heavily steeped in a kind of obsession with the look or the image of the camp; with a fetishization of the camp – meaning he falls into the lure of the camp as a kind of political pornography, which I think is an interesting and timely criticism today given how western culture seems so lustful for its own fantasies of the apocalypse. Tracing a visual narrative of those moments in history when mankind was exposed in the raw and suffering image of the camp (the Holocaust, the Native American reservations, the Japanese American internment camps during WWII, and so on), Gregory suggests Agamben’s analysis is distracted by its own morbid aestheticization of the subject and that he fails to observe the more systemic underpinnings of the hidden legal landscape that is responsible for the outcome of the camp in the first place.

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

At least that’s how I read it, but this is also sort of what I was getting at with my thoughts for The Bag, how the Pentagon can use this same disaster-fetish to its own advantage; helping the camp to masquerade as some kind of evolutionary moral savior for one the most disconcerting spaces of our times. That is, I think the Pentagon knows how to use the very gratuitous nature of the camp to get the American public to buy into this notion of a higher flexible and dynamic model of delivering global justice in these new and complicated contexts of the war on terror.
And even if no one is buying into the portable justice hype it is ultimately more about the spatial production of a justice concept the U.S. government is able to push regardless – one that’s been designed specifically to operate outside any legal boundary.

So of course, I wonder: could this be that last piece in the spatial puzzle the war on terror needs to complete the harrowing urban totality of a nomadic fortress?

As I tried to articulate in The Bag, it's not a political space they particularly don’t want us to know about or see. Quite the contrary. They are rather proud of their inflatable complexes – their fly-by-night hovering courtrooms – that can be deployed, assembled, disassembled, re-deployed in a matter of hours. And they are more than happy to flaunt its reminiscence of those colonial days when justice strode out across the frontier in wagons and horse-drawn jail cells. And, certainly, they are the least bit ashamed that this kind of squatting legal vestibule exposes the blatant strategy of offshoring detention to these extended voided spaces of legal authority beyond the purview of public supervision that could presumably be cloned anywhere else on the planet at the same time.
In fact, that is precisely what they want us to see – how justice can be ultimately made elastic and modifiable, how it can be architected to fit any set of legalistic circumstances or interpretation thereof; how it can literally remake the political landscape in its own image.

[Image: Portable Halls of Justice Are Rising in Guantánamo, photos by Todd Heisler/The New York Times.]

If this exceptional space keeps expanding through camps like this one and the Rule of Law Complex outside Baghdad, across a landscape already dominated by wandering security walls and traveling “security theater” (that we have observed marking its course countless times already), then let me ask you this: what hope is left in our spatial spheres of observing the law? What is defining what: are our politics defining our spaces or are our spaces defining our politics? I mean if these new transit modules of law enforcement are themselves generated outside any legal domain then have we truly reached the end of justice? Isn’t Camp Justice the ultimate spatial hypocrisy? How do we even begin to consider spatial justice in a context like this?


Additional Linkage:

Justice Considers Revisiting Detainee Hearings (NPR)
Prime BEEF stamps hoof prints on Gitmo (Air Force Link)
Tent city sets up for detainee tribunals (LA Times)
Tent city built for terror trials (Baltimore Sun)

The Rule of Law Complex : Babylon's Crowning Achievement : Gitmo Courthouse Compound goes bye bye : A Mini-city for Trying Terror :
carceral urbanism: the CMU and the Arab round-up
: Guantánamo and the Border Exodus : Circus of Detention : The Immigrant, The Camp, and The NYSE : Walkthrough Gitmo: the de-restricted fortress : Instant Democracy: The Pneumatic Parliament : Architects of Nebulous Detention

Monday, October 22, 2007

If there is life in Flint...

There we were in this plain white vehicle truckin’ northbound on the I-69 with oversized Starbucks cups in our hands (unfortunately, without those there would be absolutely no coffee in Indiana, a very sad fact it seems), whizzing past corn fields and Rest Areas and strange taxonomies of roadkill that accumulated every few hundred yards or so on the highway’s shoulders (I’m convinced Indiana has more roadkill than any other state in the U.S. – after forcing Wes to open his eyes while driving we spotted three mangled little corpses blur past us in a single second followed immediately by a broken down Oldsmobile, the perfect exclamation point to all that ended up there and would never make it across the road), squirrels, raccoons, mice, gophers, rabbits, cats, drivers (who knows what else) … the road to Flint was already a stroll through a long cemetery.
When Wes, Nihal, and I headed up there a few weeks ago I couldn’t wait to pick up on that geography of urban ruins that weaves so many of my interests together about architecture, global economies, lost histories, indigenous culture, systemic poverty, the road trip, contexts of abandonment, informal communities, urban salvagers, and so on.

As you know, Wes has been paying close attention to Flint over the last couple of years, he says he’s photographed literally thousands of abandoned houses there, some that have just remained boarded up for years, others that have been tagged with For Sale signs from hustlers trying to collect money on structures they don’t even own. Still, some homes are being moved into by neighbors looking to upgrade next door just as the occupants have left the property. There are owners who are defiant, scared, territorial, proud, some who want to keep their homes and those who pray for demolition, and in many ways Flint is just another shade of New Orleans caught in between states of devastation and piddly renewal. Though instead of having been flooded, it’s all dried up instead.
Like I said, the highway out of Indianapolis towards Flint, which you basically take all the way, is like a migration killzone; a fatal border fence for rodents and transients of all kinds. It was a little creepy heading up towards one of the nation’s most notorious urban voids with dead animals spread all over the road along the way. There was this dingy suggestion of an ongoing mass exodus from Flint where life is regularly forced to flee but unable to get far before meeting a collective nomadic tragedy piled together a couple hundred miles down the main highway. I wondered how often these carcasses were hauled off - had they been left for weeks or were they really stacking up that quickly?
Nevermind. We swilled our white chocolate lattes and tried to hold them in our bladders until the next John on down the way.

On the road we all got to talking and Nihal Perera, an urban planning professor at Ball State (and an all around great guy whom you will get to know more in the future) told us a little about his research into the “tiger landscape” and how various spaces of civil war have been distributed in Sri Lanka, his native country. Fascinating stuff: the ways that landscape incorporates separatism and civilian forms of bordering and occupation. He is also examining how Asian cities are undergoing their own distinct patterns of urbanization challenging the notion that American urbanism is taking over the global landscape, all of which we will be hearing more about in days to come, as well. But it made for a crazy overlay en route to our encounter with Flint.
Of course, the question on everyone's mind that afternoon was how do you treat a landscape that suffers from so much urban evaporation? What are the psychological and cultural sensitivities of addressing wholesale abandonment this way? How do we even begin to look at such a place, or know that we are even really seeing it for what it is beyond the hollowness of its remains?

In a report Wes produced on the topic called Deconstructing Flint (which he presented at Postopolis!) specifically looking at the ways architects might proceed with a more humane / conscious/ and ecological strategy of demolition, in his estimate "the story of Flint’s decline is rather simple." He noted that in the time General Motors operated in Flint from early in the twentieth century, "the company’s ascent drove the worker-citizens to unparalleled personal, familial, and communal gains." Job production skyrocketed after World Wars I/II with enormous increases in automobile demand. "At its peak in the 1960s," he told me, "Flint was home to 190,000 persons and 80,000 General Motors’ jobs, and was believed to be on its way to a population of 250,000. Today, Flint’s population is at 120,000," he said. Half of its hopeful estimate. Today close to 17,000 GM jobs remain, though plants are closing left and right. "No one is sure if the bottom has been reached or if it is even in sight."

As we got closer Wes filled us in on a buddy of his we were hoping to meet up with once we got there. If there is life left in Flint, Wes told us, then Brian Willingham is it. Our plan was to drive around and take in the sheer vastness of the abandoned neighborhoods, the gridded emptiness, to see firsthand the stretches of serial depression, the gradual stages of decay that began as early as the fifties. I wondered, could we somehow measure the psychological ramifications by driving round and round the city's dying blocks, and past the GM plants that have mostly long been closed (but not as dead as you might think)? Basically, I just wanted to cruise and experience the vacuous heart valves and caved in lung scapes of the old industrial engine that once kept the shrinking city of Flint breathing strong.
And so, that’s just what we would do – roll around and soak in the place whilst trying not to be too blatantly obvious with our BSU marked sedan and our pocket sized cameras looking like suspicious developers or snoopy city officials busy plotting and re-planning the fates of the locals’ lives right under their noses.

Beforehand I gandered at some of Wes' research just to give myself a better sense of what to expect. Having read from his report in the car, I'll relay this:

Many, if not most, of the houses being demolished and in need of demolition were constructed using low quality materials and techniques. According to Beckley, following WWI and WWII, “small poorly constructed housing was quickly erected on narrow lots, close to the factories that provided employment.” These never were high quality houses. It can be argued that these buildings, long ago, fulfilled their original mission.

Hard, comprehensive numbers are difficult to establish due to the number of actors involved, the time that has passed, and the daunting work that lies ahead. A mayoral aide in Flint stated in late 2006 that City crews tear down two to seven houses every working day. A City of Flint demolition crew chief told me that 4,000 houses need to be torn down “today” and another 10,000 will need to be torn down in the future.

Quantity of demolition waste produced in Flint is significant: 200 cubic yards of waste/house x 5 houses/day (+/-) x 5 work days/week x 52 weeks = 260,000 cubic yards/year. That’s equivalent to a standard city block in Manhattan covered with a block of house debris the height of a 3-story building, or a 15-story building the size of an American football field. Every year.

The number of houses and other properties that are or will be in need of demolition in coming years is staggering. Again, it has been said that 4,000 houses are in need of immediate demolition. One can imagine that 10,000 buildings will need to be torn down in coming years. At the rate of 2-7 teardowns/day, 5 days/week, that’s approximately 1,300/year, or enough houses to keep crews busy for the next 3 years. Plus many hundreds if not thousands more are likely to be abandoned and boarded in coming years.

It should be remembered that the Land Bank pays between $6,000 and $9,000 to tear down and haul away a house.

It's one thing to read these numbers and to try and envision their architectural translation. But, it is another thing altogether to actually see these stats as they are represented physically, as they are naturally positioned in their origins of meaning - these places of urban death.

Once we got there we found some grub and planned on trying to meet up with Brian at the Brown Sugar Café later that afternoon, a new spot enjoying a little success from the recent inner core of urban investment that is beginning to take place near the university area downtown, while however further severing the outer districts from progress, into what Brian would later allude to as “The Two Flints of Michigan.”
With a hot corned beef sandwich stuffed in my belly we spent hours slowly ambling past old elementary schools that looked like they’d been closed for years (but also as if they had the money they could be re-opened and suddenly re-populated in a second). Strange, really. It’s quite startling to see places persisting in this kind of semi-abandoned shuttered state of urban limbomania – seeing spaces as essentially helpless.

Flint is covered in parking lots and sidewalks with public phone booths hollowed and conquered by wild grass and weeds. Apartment complexes look like they actually vacillate from day-to-day in and out of being open and closed, by people who have a job one day but not the next. In fact, the whole city has this feeling of living day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, of collectively watching itself house-by-house fall into disrepair; Flint is growing quieter, more sparse, in some ways it looks almost colonial again – like dense homesteads plopped down in the fields. They are historic vintage.

On a larger scale there are entire superstores that have been burnt out from the inside while a nearby video store looks to have just closed (maybe for a portion of the day, or for the winter season alone) and become someone’s home only the day before. Firewood filled the foyers and porch spaces of some houses, tired grandmothers kept refuge in others. Odd piles of collected furniture were pilfered on the corners while teens swept the sidewalks into massive mounds of anonymous memory and debris. Across the street tiny shotgun homes were naked, core structures exposed, picked apart by scrappers with a few occasional shacks in between their lots reduced to massive pits in the ground - their foundations uprooted in a giant scooping instant.
Flint seems like a forgotten graveyard waiting to die even more, as if at any time an army of vulture-like bulldozers might swoop in and demolish everything over the course of a week, before the burial grounds are reseeded and made into grassed over parcels of land ready to be abandoned all over again.
It's a heavy duty place like that. And no matter how much you look at it you never seem to figure out an answer to the plaguing question of what the hell should be done with Flint?

Most houses, however, stand still solid in their construction and become the nightmares of firestarters and angry neighbors instead, they become the haunted playhouses of innocent little children, the nondescript safehouses of heinous criminals and nocturnal ghost dogs, while somewhere out there a lonely shack manages to stash the legacy of some poor unremembered family, until it is discovered, thrashed, knocked down and hauled away in the back of some truck.

For all that is closed in Flint if there is any one thing you can count on being open, or in abundance even, it is the liquor store sadly enough. And while that alone is not surprising or even unique to Flint, what is unbelievable is the sheer number of liquor stores in a given range of blocks. I try to relate the phenomenon to the number of Starbucks you find in downtown San Francisco in just a couple of blocks. You might think liquor stores were the only things left operating in these parts of the city. Contrasted by all this cloned space of residential nothingness, this was an astounding visceral reality – I wonder, how many lives are completely sustained on a day-to-day basis by the liquor stores? One store we stumbled across was entirely wrapped in heavy duty barbed wire guarded against what I imagine to be thieves who were getting in from the rooftop somehow. But it looked like such a last ditch effort, like everyone and everything was equally desperate.

After somehow missing Brian’s call we hung around a bit more at a muscle car show in the little downtown area on S Saginaw St., which is where the Genesee County Land Bank is located as well. Some classic Def Leopard blasted over loudspeakers and reverberated in a very cool way off the surrounding buildings - you could almost hear the vacant dimensions of Flint echoing in the melodies of High 'n Dry and Pyromania. There was a booth that sold iced cold Genuine Drafts in a can, prepackaged sandwiches, antique car calendars, and random auto-fetish crap and memorabilia, messy piles on tables overrun by army recruiter propaganda: posters, pins, photographs of soldiers with their families and platoons, patches, magazines, videos, Army Strong's seductive schmooze. I could probably have stopped there, signed a few papers and been on a plane to Iraq the next day if I wanted to.
Maybe Flint is the fastest way to get to Baghdad these days, I don’t know.
Be that as it may, it was a vital little scene with a couple hundred people bumming around a parking lot to appreciate those sweet gurgling sounds of a guttural muscle cars and all the shine of buffed chrome that goes along with them.
We were just about to bail when Brian suddenly rang us up from around the corner to give word he was getting off work and would meet up. A minute later he raced by in his SUV honking the horn waving as we dashed back to our vehicle and bolted off to (yes, you guessed it) Starbucks, of all places, on the other side of town.
Apparently, Starbucks loves Flint, too, isn’t that nice? I am not sure what it really means that Starbucks is in Flint (let’s face it, they are the new McDonalds!), nevertheless we were soon downing flavored coffees with cream and sugar again like lecherous academic brats from a great corporate boob.

[Image: Brian Willingham as pictured in The Flint Journal, Jan. 11, 2006.]

At first glance Brian Willingham is not anyone you’d want to cross paths with in a dark alley especially in Flint where poverty has soared so high it’s become the third most dangerous city in the U.S. But then again, Brian isn’t your average cop. In fact, he is the first guy you’d want to meet in a dark Flinted alley.
When not out patrolling the surreptitious spaces of his hometown’s ghosted remains that are often used as cover for the worst crimes imaginable, he’s plopped down on the floor in a classroom reading books to school children and charming the teachers, meeting community leaders, parents and bridging that gap with neighborhood groups in areas where the perception of cops can be less than favorable, to say the least.
He’d just come back from a neighborhood where a skinhead rally in a hard black part of town was potentially going to occur and told us thankfully it never happened today. That by itself is crazy to think about. Skinheads still throw rallies? In Flint? Anyway, he could have been anywhere though, combing an abandoned factory, responding to a disturbance in a home with no address; or, he might have just been out photographing his friends in the park, or writing a poem at the Brown Sugar, speaking at the college again reciting a story about his undying pride in Flint. As I later learned he might have been right here at Starbucks half the day for all I knew working on an article for a column the ‘Human Spirit’ he writes in The Flint Journal.
It goes without saying, homie is one thoughtful dude.
Brian recently won a national award from the White House recognizing his work and commitment as a community policeman in Flint (not exactly a place you'd believe was on their map), which actually only says a little about who he is. It just so happens Brian has also published two books and is busy working on his third. Didn’t take more than a few minutes of hearing his story to see why all of the above is so true.
I mean he's no doubt seen some horrendous stuff in Flint, yet all it seemed to do was reinforce his big-hearted family-man spirit, his colossal humility, his knowledge that he is in the beginning and in the end just a man, a father and a son, a human being before anything else.

[Image: Brian Willingham as pictured in The Flint Journal, March 27, 2005 as he reads to a group of Bryant Elementary children during March is Reading month. Willingham said he likes to spend as much time as possible with kids. "They need black male role models," he said.]

But it wasn't necessarily hearing his story so much as how he told it. Perhaps the only thing that overshadowed Brian’s depth of character was his own modesty. There's something unbreakable in his words, dignified in his mellow tone, he made you feel as important as anyone else. I realized there in a jolt of caffeine that it is not just places like Flint that need Brian, but every city really. He was not trying to sell me anything or convince me of police duty or honor. He was just a man there helping me to understand what it is; the Flint I would never see, the Flint that is invisibly real before all our eyes.
He told me how he first got into poetry by writing love letters to his woman from Germany where he was stationed in the army and saw the Berlin Wall fall. As a kid he was fascinated by the work of photographer Gordon Parks, particularly Half Past Autumn and A Choice of Weapons – the notion that a camera or a pen was a black man’s most powerful weapon in America always resonated with Brian even though he would go on to carry a gun for his country and hometown. But, it was the pioneering work of people like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land that would guide Brian's own way not only of seeing the city, the urban epidemic for black folks, but of capturing it; of responding to its pain, and understanding how even places like Flint are eternally rehumanized by their struggles.
Only when he lost his job for a summer in Flint and his father passed on did he pick up his camera and shoot the photos you'll find in his first book of poetry Thunder Enlightening; deep personal reflections of life there that mirror a greater landscape of American racism stalking much of Flint’s psyche.
A poem comes to mind:

City Block

Locked in the city block system,
Subdivided on a lot,
Crowded on a porch,
Not far from the sidewalk,
Close to the curb,
Not far from a streetlight on the corner,
Around the block from the store,
On the corner of some street,
Once more.
On a cement lot
Not far from the sidewalk
Close to the curb.
When will I be free from these concrete borders?

- Brian Willingham, 2003

Brian expressed his struggles of being a cop, of resisting the force's machinations and managing to stay human. He told us Flint has a 70% drop out rate amongst its high school students; how he raises his own to do honest work for honest pay; how he’s seen his best friends return from jail only to flirt with death for the last time; how prison has even become preferable to some lives there now where alternatives refuse to appear. He explained more the division of The Two Flints: the one that is downtown growing, moving on, finding reasons to be hopeful about the future; a Flint that is actually beginning to breathe again – the Flint that is proudly blue collar and “born to work” he said. Because that's all the people of Flint want and need - work. "They need that much."

And so there is the other Flint, severed further from neighborhood development, marginalized from the new interior regeneration, enslaved to this lingering nostalgia of the auto factories one day resurrecting their jobs to them and their ancestors who have suffered the legacy of Buick for decades. He spoke about the wounded spaces of the lonely children on the street corner, in the alley, on the porch, sobbing in church or over a grave, spaces that have seen his people dwindle further and further from prosperity; the Flint that has been abandoned by its own country, and the people who have been written off to those desolate and unmapped shacks huddling there in ironic habitation.

Despite all of that Brian smiled, adjusted his ball cap and offered stories about placing his hand on the hand of a man who'd already stuck the knife a small ways into his chest, just talking with him and listening to him late one night helping in those dark moments to save Flint from itself when no one else was paying attention.
Spotting someone he knew in the cafe he exchanged a short hello then quickly turned back to us and relayed a story he recently wrote for the local paper, of a black woman who had eventually found the dead body of her son in a backyard one day after he'd been missing for days and assumed to have gone so in the area. Brian then described another woman who was white and lived inside a nearby house but had been too ashamed to come outside and introduce herself much less mourn with the woman for fear that she would be judged and blamed for having not found the body sooner, being it was in her own backyard.
As Willingham told it, the mother of the lost son came there every day afterwards to be with her son’s soul and to help it flee the imprisonment of that spot in the backyard, until finally the neighbor came out after crying for a week alone to tell the mother how sorry she was for having not discovered the body earlier. And without needing to be forgiven the neighbor and mother then forged a deep healing bound and spent the following weeks building together a permanent memorial structure there in the woman's backyard in the boy’s honor. Amazing story.
It’s vignettes like that that tell you who Brian is, about the Human Spirit that refuses to die in Flint. I am reminded of another poem:

Finding The Light

The infractions of humanity upon humanity
Innocent eyes have witnessed all their lives.
Inhumane – unhuman – humanity.
In absence of human guidance,
their spirits still teach them right from wrong,
And still, they may not learn the truth
that lies within their souls until it’s gone.
Physical casualties in mental captivity.
There are the images they can’t forget,
nor can they ease them from their human experience.
Life has expressed and impressed itself upon them,
Abandoning them as they are. Where they are?
The voices of pleasure and destruction sing new songs
about old things,
Weighing themselves evilly in balanced minds,
Beating, pounding, wearing thin the spirit
and soul of young humanity,
Still unconscious bodies carry on, walking forward
but moving backward into darkness,
hoping without hope,
thinking without knowledge,
about finding the light.

- Brian Willingham, 2003

I don’t think it could have been said any better, if there is life in Flint, then certainly Brian Willingham is it. Check out his website The Soul of a Black Cop which happens to be the title of his latest book. If you ever go to Flint ring him up. He alone is reason to visit. In fact, I can think of no better prism for peering into the soul of Flint. I know I will be back there soon enough, but until then I just want to thank Brian again for taking the time out of his Saturday evening to hang out with us and share all his insight and instinct about Flint, which in my experience is what it is because of you, Brian. Thank you. (And to you too Wes for hooking it all up!)

[All pictures except those noted were taken by Bryan Finoki / 2007]

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fossils of Refuge

[Images: Via the BBC, some pictures of the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared that was laid to ruin in the fighting between the Lebanese Army and militant groups. Officials claim that 85% of the infrastructure there has been totaled; allegedly, many of the militant fighters who died during the conflict were buried in the camp; and 400 families have been allowed to return to virtually nothing where 40,000 refugees once lived. Incidentally, a scathing report (Exiled and Suffering: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon) recently came out from Amnesty International detailing the intolerable discrimination and systemic inhumane conditions that the roughly 300,000 Palestinian refugees have had to endure in 12 camps since fleeing Israel.]

Monday, October 15, 2007

Switchboard Regime

[Image: Via Wired News, Switchboard to the World, a copyrighted map produced by the organization Telegeography Research.]

Curious how the nation's spies are managing to keep tabs on virtually every international call that rings through the U.S.? Wired News breaks down a recent bill called the RESTORE Act that could potentially "give the NSA legal access to a torrent of foreign phone calls and internet traffic that travels through American soil on its way someplace else." Read the article for yourself but it is a combination of the internet's origins in the U.S. and the fact that the U.S. has made it cheaper for telecom carriers to route international calls that has allowed the U.S. to become the global hub for global telecom traffic. It's wild to read about the secret geography of this switch and tower telecom urbanism in the U.S., and how to some extent a majority of international calls pass through only a very few facilities that could be tapped by the NSA, with some suspicious nearby arrangements that could lead one to speculate on all sorts of corporate collusion.
We also read "In August, Congress granted the NSA "emergency" temporary powers to continue the surveillance, which are set to expire in February. The RESTORE Act (the Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen Reviewed and Effective Act of 2007) is the Democrat's effort to extend that power indefinitely, while including some safeguards against abuse. It would legalize both the foreign-to-foreign intercepts, and the domestic-to-foreign surveillance associated with the Terrorist Surveillance Program." Bush however is prepared to veto this if it is not revised to give "retroactive legal immunity to telephone companies who cooperated in the NSA's domestic surveillance before it was legalized -- a provision absent from the RESTORE Act. AT&T, which is facing a class-action lawsuit for allegedly wiretapping the internet on behalf of the NSA, is reportedly among the companies lobbying hard for immunity."
Though, towards the end of Wired's piece we read about how all of this is beginning to be more subverted by alternative communication paths and networks which are emerging in other countries that are absorbing a growing portion of international telecom traffic through their own facilities and hubs.
Anyway, pretty interesting read. Don't miss it. And don't miss our previous post, or this video.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Return to Panic

[Image: Illustration by Leandros, from Issue Two of Occupied London, 2007.]

A few months ago I discovered a budding new journal called Occupied London dedicated to global activism and social movements, which in its first issue featured an interview with Mike Davis about resisting the copious snares of urban surveillance networks, as well as an article by Franco Berardi who described the nature of contemporary cities as being constituted by a kind of medium of urban panic.
You may remember, I wrote a response to that piece here on Subtopia exploring panic as an urban developer of sorts; panic as the de facto architect of many of the structures we find cropping up in the spatial craze of the war on terror - panic spatialized, if you will.
Anyway, in case you missed it Occupied London has published Urbanization of Panic in their current and second issue. It is more or less the same piece I originally wrote though it has been dusted with a few more thoughts here and there. You can read it in its entirety right here, and even download it as a PDF, if you wish. In short, let me post this extract:

Taking the City of Panic a bit further in Subtopian terms I ask, has panic become the main ingredient that binds the urban experience today – spread through a larger geopolitical climate as well? If we think of so-called globalization and the 'War on Terror' purely in terms of the spaces it occupies, we could examine the implicit panic in structures like border fences and illegal immigration detention centers, leftover bunkers and future secret fallout space; or in the atmospheres of urban conflict zones like the Occupied Territories; or from behind the walls of the new American embassy compound in Baghdad – there are entire cartographies of paramilitarism and slumaphobia to be traced across the map. The urban morphology of panic has left behind entire Cold War landscapes once modeled on a panic preparedness. Berardi likens this ubiquitous panic to an electrical charge, but I also see it is a critical vibration in some way - or, maybe more like a resident frequency that signifies the simultaneous (in)stability of the global city's core social and structural foundations. Panic as a volatile urban harmony. We have engineered a range of metropolises that vibe on the edge of collapse at every level. [...]

It is not entirely unobvious that panic appears almost as if it were a chief modus operandi for much of the world’s planning strategy. We've moved past the kind of bombastic but functional fear that the nuclear threat brought towards a more dysfunctional domestic terror that keeps everything on edge – both within the zones of safety now as well as outside the gates – where at any moment something on a smaller local scale could suddenly cause considerable mayhem. Either way the current urban response is less on how to unravel the causes of such a crisis and more so on how to armor ourselves from its penetration – a posture rooted in a perpetual state of anticipated panic, a great looming panic attack, ultimately a state of terror. [...]

One might ask, based on the panic-stricken nature of western culture what is the current diagnosis and mental health state of neo-liberal democracy? Or, how can the city be viewed as an architectural weapon to enforce a certain behavioral code, or to forcefully spatialize neo-liberalism in a way, to rear obedience (or addiction) to a rampant commerce? What are the inherent narratives of power that run through constructs like maximum-security prisons, megalithic casinos, shopping mall complexes, refugee camps, suburban sprawl, torture spaces and the hardened borderzones between nation-states? Is there a psychopathological connection between them all? Is there a new urban geopolitical archetype here to be deconstructed? I suppose to some degree Subtopia is an attempt to document these realms of spatial politics and the psychological underpinnings that govern these globalized architectures of control – these Cities of Panic.

With that, be sure to check out the rest of the issue with some great pieces on the uprisings in the Parisian banlieus, the legacy of revolts in South Africa’s cities, the nature of ‘urban unrest’, and a special portion dedicated to the recent G-8 Summit in Rostock, Germany. And, don’t be afraid to order a printed copy of the journal for posterity!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Peripheral Milit_Urb 20

Wanderlust in Surveillatopia

'Listening Post'
Big Brother is watching us all: The US and UK governments are developing increasingly sophisticated gadgets to keep individuals under their surveillance. When it comes to technology, the US is determined to stay ahead of the game.
Hitches a ride with a congestion-pricing scheme: Michael Sorkin offers his critique of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing scheme, part of his PlaNYC.
A security camera on every corner is not your pal.

U.S. Airport Screeners Are Watching What You Read: International travelers concerned about being labeled a terrorist or drug runner by secret Homeland Security algorithms may want to be careful what books they read on the plane. Newly revealed records show the government is storing such information for years.

Massive Surveillance Net Keeps Track of Americans' Travel -- Even the Size of Hotel Beds: The Bush Administration has been collecting detailed records on the travel habits of Americans headed overseas and the luggage they bring with them, whether they fly, drive or take cruises abroad.

The Panoptic Regimes

British Police's New Spy Drone

Terrorism Cited In Suppression Of Online Maps:
Online maps showing everything from city streets to gas lines and fire hydrants are increasingly available. Government officials have limited the availability of infrastructure maps due to their possible use by terrorists.

from Baghdad and Blackwater to sittin' in a tree...

Baghdad residents protest at wall:
Hundreds of Iraqis have staged a protest against the building of a dividing wall between a Shia district of Baghdad and a Sunni area. Residents of the Shula and Ghazaliya districts waved Iraqi flags and chanted slogans rejecting both the proposed separation and the US occupation.

TSC exhibits ‘Art Against the Wall’

Your Turn: Scotch The Notion

Aegis wins new US contract
: The U.S. military confirmed yesterday that it awarded the largest security contract in Iraq to a private British firm, Aegis Defence Services, in a deal worth up to $475 million over two years.
Defense stocks hit new highs: Defense stocks on Wednesday hit new highs as Defense Secretary Robert Gates requested an extra $42 billion in funding from Congress to cover military costs in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.

Illustration and Text By Steve Brodner

Given all this "Blackwatergate"
Iraqi government plans to regulate contractors: By drafting laws to control contractors, the Iraqi government appears to be asserting its sovereignty.
Iraq Can't Spend Its Own Money: The money is Iraqi. The workers are Iraqi. But on the smattering of reconstruction projects across the country -- including military bases, schools, water and power infrastructure and roads -- management is still mostly American. It's further evidence of the failure, four years into the occupation, to stand up competent, professional Iraqi mid-level leadership.

Billions over Baghdad:
Between April 2003 and June 2004, $12 billion in U.S. currency—much of it belonging to the Iraqi people—was shipped from the Federal Reserve to Baghdad, where it was dispensed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Some of the cash went to pay for projects and keep ministries afloat, but, incredibly, at least $9 billion has gone missing, unaccounted for, in a frenzy of mismanagement and greed.

Why Iraqi Farmers Might Prefer Death to Paul Bremer's Order 81:
Because Indian farmers are choosing death after finding themselves caught in a loop of crop failure and debt rooted in genetically modified and patented agriculture -- the same farming model that Bremer introduced to Iraq during his tenure as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that ruled the "new Iraq" in its chaotic early days.
Preventive Paradigm
The TAZ and black globalization

The Age of Disaster Capitalism (excerpted from Naomi Klein’s recently published book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism): Although the stated goal was fighting terrorism, the effect was the creation of the disaster capitalism complex - a fully fledged new economy in homeland security, privatised war and disaster reconstruction tasked with nothing less than building and running a privatised security state, both at home and abroad. The economic stimulus of this sweeping initiative proved enough to pick up the slack where globalisation and the dotcom booms had left off. Just as the internet had launched the dotcom bubble, 9/11 launched the disaster capitalism bubble.
Can Radical Capitalism Survive the Disasters It Creates?
Does Naomi Klein Oversimplify the Connections Between Globalization and War?
Why Can't the U.S. Have the Debate about Naomi Klein's Book That Europe Has?
Why Capitalism Needs Terror: An Interview with Naomi Klein

Misc_Milit_Urb 002649

Teen Tunneling to Poland Arrested

A Psychic Vacuum:
artist Mike Nelson "[takes] audiences on an unexpected journey through reconstructed rooms, passageways, and meticulously assembled environments."

Prosthetic leg stash found under floor

The Free Runner:
Will parkour be the vehicle that vaults Russian emigre Andrey Pfening to Hollywood stunt stardom?

Fake "tolerance" signs in Mexico

Deep Space Pharma: it is nonetheless
quite fascinating to think that, someday, depressed teenagers in suburban Arizona might pop space-made anti-depressants, affecting hormonal moods through the use of literally extra-terrestrial substances; or musicians in small apartments in Prague might swallow attention deficit drugs crystallized in microgravity, writing the world's most intricate symphonies in response; or perhaps even illegal new hallucinogens will be developed in windowless, symmetrical rooms hovering 250 miles above the Earth's surface

Programming (In)Security
Winners of the ASLA 2007 Student Awards have been announced.
Filtered through the jumble of thematic threads on Pruned, one remains.

A Proposal for a UN Playground:
One wonders, then,
if Noguchi intended his playgrounds to be the perfect environment to rear sophisticated aesthetes and connoisseurs of world culture. Or did he secretly scheme to turn the children of UN diplomats into psychopaths? Is the UN playground a “rabbit warren” for budding dictators? “Post-war Modernist landscapes turned me into a despot,” they would say during trials at the International Criminal Court.

Missile base on sale as ideal home:
It is the ideal home for an aspiring James Bond villain, or an anxious survivalist
seeking a refuge that can withstand an atomic bomb.
A former US intercontinental ballistic missile base - with a network of underground tunnels and silos, but no nuclear warheads - is on sale
on eBay for $1.5m (£750,000, 1.06m euros).

Huntsville's Bomb Cave:
Huntsville, Alabama is reviving Cold War era bomb shelters as part of a post-9/11 plan to provide protection against a possible terrorist attack. It's also adding new designated shelters, like a massive cave that was once a limestone quarry.

Tom Cruise's $10M Survival Bunker:
Tom Cruise is planning to build a $10 million bunker underneath his Colorado mansion in preparation for the end of the world, according to a bizarre new report.

Terrace House 2,Vienna, Austria

Punishing the fencer:
that an insurance company manager, Francisco Linares, was sentenced to six months in jail, without the possibility of probation or home arrest, for failing to get permits for a fence, retaining wall, patio and concrete columns at his Rolling Hills Estates home.

Italians fight charges on beaches: A campaign
is getting underway in Italy to take back large stretches of the country's beaches from private bathing clubs which usually charge to use them.

The fear of crime may turn a city into fortresses within a jungle:
Melville in Johannesburg is the equivalent of Golf Links in New Delhi,
only grander, in a fortified way. The houses are free-standing bungalows
and every bungalow is screened off from the road by high walls topped with small, sinister electric fences.
The walls
are interrupted by high gates, which work like electric sliding doors that open and close at a touch. A few signs, a foot square, appear in a row on the front wall of every house, like medals on a shirtfront.
The signs have names — ADT, Chubbs, Stallion — that seem enigmatic only till you read the last little board, which invariably reads “Armed Response”.

Chang'an: The City of Perpetual Peace:
It is divided into a checkerboard grid, each block reserved for one of the 108 wards (called "fang"), which would have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants in each. The ward is enclosed in its own walls with gates that were closed every night. These wards were organized according to geographic provenance and ethnicity--Chang'an was a multi- ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious center--there were even Christian churches here.

Black market goods between India and China

West Bank: A walkers' paradise?:
The Israeli-occupied West Bank is certainly one of the world's most politically tense environments, but it's less often credited for also being an environment of outstanding natural beauty.

Climate Change Refugees:
Is it supposed to become a virtual country?"
asked Rainer Lagoni, Professor of Maritime Law at the University of Hamburg.
There is no legal definition for a country entirely without land...

[Earlier peripherals ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19]