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Conference
 

76th Annual Summer Conference, August 9–12, 2007

Is Diversity a Threat to Safety?

Sophie Body-Gendrot

In numerous societies, safety has become a worthy premium. Amplified media coverage on the tiniest incidents, an overabundance of information concerning safety risks and the advice of experts in the growing safety industry in turn create urban insecurity and fuel the demand for more protection. But why does this endemic “insecurity” of our times – what Z. Bauman calls unsicherheit and which could also be translated as unsafety or uncertainty – focuses on life in large cities rather than on other forms of social anxiety? Is city life condemned to be overshadowed by unexpected urban violence and its avoidance? Issues of safety/unsafety raise deep and complex questions. Can populations be protected, without jeopardizing liberties? How are European cities doing? What resources cities have to deal with major risks and threats in current times of global uncertainty? How do thehy transmit a sense of order to their residents as well as to the hyper-mobile actors on whom they increasingly depend? Can and should order be co-produced by institutions, private entrepreneurs and citizens? If so, what shape should this co-production take? These are the questions I have asked myself for the past few years as I was associated with the Urban Age program of the LSE and with other European networks related to fear of crime and urban disorders. It meant travelling from one global city to another and in my field of expertise – safety, diversity and public space – asking the local experts on safety what their riddles and answers were. I would like to share some of their observations with you. This implies that I am not going to tackle all the issues that this question “is diversity a threat to security?” entails. I will focus on a comparative approach and on cities. I have structured my talk along several dimensions. First, after defining the terms diversity, threat and safety, I will briefly point out that diversity has always been a dimension of urban life and that perceptions of differences betrayed an ambivalent phenomenon, varying according to time, contexts and countries. Then I will scrutinize the French disturbances in immigrant neighbourhoods in 2005 as a case study of diversity interpreted as social threat before defending the idea that urban insecurity is frequently invoked as an excuse not to live together. Is there a convergence among European governments, making use of diffuse fears that people have and leading to new order regimes? Are civil societies’ capacities of resistance to such instrumentalization?

1. We Believe that We Think with Words but Words Think Through Us

Why is the use of the term diversity so much praised those days? Obvious reasons come to mind which have to do with different national cultures and histories. In Europe, societies acknowledging ethnic and racial differences and minority rights should be distinguished from those with universalist perspectives. In the first type of countries, a cultural trauma or threats have led to question multiculturalism and its discontent. Take the Netherlands. Respect for cultural diversity was deeply rooted in Dutch society which could claim success in its race relations. How could just the murder of one person, Theo Van Gogh, by a radical Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri have such far reaching consequences for the culture of control of the country? How could changes in discourses related to immigration, integration and crime change so radically and so quickly? Acc to researcher, W. de Haan, the traumatic event was culturally interpreted as a wound inflicted to the cultural tissue of Dutch society. It shattered its belief in multiculturalism and the wealth brought by cultural diversity. It allowed all kinds of negative stereotypes related to Muslims to be openly expressed.. Trust, loyalty and identity (belonging) were questioned. The same development occurred in U.K. after the July attacks. In France, by contrast, where ethnic and racial differences are not officially acknowledged, currently, the concept of diversity allows to tackle discriminations in the workplace and promote upward mobility for second and third generations. France has the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe. I will come back to this point later.

What about threats and risks as related to diversity?The key question that we need to bear in mind we think of diverse and dense cities, it seems to me, is whether people are adaptable enough to get on with their lives under almost any threat, or whether certain threats deeply unsettle populations I will distinguish two types of threat. One linked to homegrown terrorism and the other to persistent delinquency in certain areas, both linked to the perceptions of young males, very visible in the public spaces of immigrant neighbourhoods. In the first case, it seems to me, people can make sense of bombs and of suicide-bombers, they are aware of what violence can do and why certain targets are chosen, they can handle their fears. The second case is more complex, it relates to persistent threats felt by residents in low-income and marginalized urban communities but also to the social threat they themselves represent for mainstream majorities. Such perceptions vary according to gender, age, social class, the consumption of TV, the place where one lives. Fear of crime is stronger if this place is filled with drug dealers in the public space, if rumors are contaminating daily talks, if people feel a loss of social control over their norms and values, do not know their neighbors, experience fears of downward mobility and feel powerless. As long as people have these perceptions of unsafety, they become real. Their political impact is strong. They result in “minimum security societies” as we see them developing in the U.S. (in Canada?) or in some countries of the South. Such representations lead to lockdown strategies. Fearful people secede and lock themselves in (for instance in gated communities) while pressuring authorities to lock others out (massively in prisons). J. Simon calls these trends, “trends of exile and exclusion.” They are only beginning in Europe where punitive populism is not as strong as in some parts of the United states, namely the South. But they question our democratic values and the equality in the res publica, namely the organization of a public conversation open to all and where all have the freedom to express themselves.

The changing role of the state is also an important dimension. While governments claim an increasingly effective monopoly of “legitimate force” (or is it “legitimate violence”?) to maintain internal order, there is a general distrust, more pronounced in Europe than anywhere else, of the protective role attributed to the state. An “ontological” disenchantment with modernity or more simply with institutional efficiency lead individuals to feel isolated and powerless when confronting larger problems.

Is this a new phenomenon? Throughout the centuries, urban historians in Europe have tracked the specific links between the notion of urban unsafety and certain places and categories of people who were perceived as “unmeltable.” Influential authors, such as Thomas Hobbes, Charles de Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt, have problematized the state as dangerous and its political instrumentalization of feelings of unsafety. Instrumentalization makes it easier to govern people and it enables the mobilization of law-abiding citizens against specific targets. Consequently, it legitimizes spontaneous social separatism. When society suffers, Durkheim observed, it needs to find someone to whom it can link its pain, against whom to revenge for its disappointments; and those naturally selected for this part are those who are already somewhat disfavored by public opinion. Parias play the part of scapegoats. And he adds that to fight this evil trend, one wishes that governments should have the strength to enlighten masses about the error in which they are maintained and rather than looking for allies in the party of intolerance.

2. “Riots” in France: A Word Too Much?

On November 12, 2005, a caption under a picture of burnt cars at Clichy-sous-bois, a locality at the periphery of Paris, published by The New York Times read: “Disorders in immigrant enclaves in France remind those of the 1960s in the U.S. or the riots in Los Angeles.” The media using indistinctively blanket words like disorders, riots, disturbances, unrest, rebellion, confrontation, uprisingand many more make all events look alike. Words are the fiercest enemies of the real, Conrad said. By using blanket words such as riots in this case, they blended in the same category phenomena which are in fact distinct from one country, one city, one month, one year to another. What they have in common is to evoke an unbearable threat to social order. But then while the Anglo-American media emphasized the ethnicity of the rioters, the clash of civilizations, the fury of Muslims of North-African descent, a Jihad-led revolt, the role of French-Arabs of French-Africans and of imams, by contrast the French media focussed on the structural causes of the events and on the consequences of globalization on post-Fordist, marginalized, working-class areas.

The reasons why I do not use the term “racial riot” for these crumbly forms of violence are numerous. First, the actors’ identity. The centrality of race, the singular history of African-Americans deported as slaves, the denial of their full citizenship with the complacence of national and local authorities along centuries, then the civil rights movement, the efforts launched by institutions in the 1960s to redress the ghettos’ situation and the impatience with their slow pace are major elements in the understanding of the riots of the 1960s. Minorities instrumentalized violence to intimidate majorities and the power structure and to force a redistribution of benefits, power, mobility, etc. The Kerner commission pointing at “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal” in 1968 encapsulates the American dilemma. In the French problem areas, thirty to fourty different nationalities, some French, others not, live together, frequently in massive housing projects, along with poor old-stock French families. Was it a racial/ethnic revolt? Not in the American/British sense. Identities in France emanate from turfs rather than from ethnicity. Identities are constructed, here and now, and they rarely emanate from skin color or religion. Less than 20% of Muslim youth living in banlieues practice their religion, as other youths in France. (Only 7% of Roman Catholics go to church every week.) What took place was not a Jihad-led mobilization. Al Qaida has little interest in events of this type located in marginalized areas. Tens of thousands of Muslim students in universities did not mobilize. But unsurprisingly, every time collective problems of urban violence erupt in a country, the issue of identities, of differences and of unity come forward.

It is complex to distinguish between the specific contexts and the logics which triggered the events and their structural causes giving an impression of déja vu; they interplay in various degrees, according to places and timing. It is not every death of a youth which causes civil unrest and it is not every banlieue which is a springboard for violent reactions. Every locality is differentiated by accumulated or lack of social capital. Not all banlieues are poor, and even within banlieues understood as inner-cities, there is diversity. Male youths of Muslim culture – a deceptive word again – are diverse in these areas, some are college students, some have regular jobs, some are high school students, others are jobless, their attitudes and age vary.

The torched cars or phone booths which attracted the television crews were frequently limited to one or two streets (as in Toulouse). In no locality did the events last more than four nights. Youths were stimulated by the potential attention they could get when setting cars on fire, something very easy to do. Their pride was involved, they had fun, they were not controlled, they were in competition with other youths. Most of all, they wanted to become visible. “We are perfectly aware that there won’t be one camera left when all becomes quiet again. We won’t exist anymore,” a young man explained to a journalist at Aulnay-sous-bois. After the riots in Watts, in 1965, a young Black told the sociologist Lewis Coser that they had “won.” But “the houses are ruined, the streets are spread with dead Blacks, the food and clothes stores are destroyed and you need rescue,” Coser objected. “We won because we forced the whole world to pay attention to us,” the young man replied. “The police chief came here for the first time, and also the mayor who until now had never left City Hall.” In the French case, the media acted as a magnifying glass for isolated incidents, rewarding negative heroes, making sense out of the acts but after a while, denouncing them for their excess.

In the French case, the disorders were not riots as defined by E.Hobsbawn; they were not a prelude to negotiation, they did not lead to further social integration via their transformations into conflicts. What is striking is that these youths asked nothing. They probably were aware that there were no structures, no social proposal elaborated to engage in a dialogue with them. The nature, the contagion of the events and their questioning of the state mark a major difference with those of the U.S. Researchers need thus to adopt a “cautious ignorance” when analyzing events of this type and to make sense out of a multiplicity of discourses and interpretations.

That in 60% of the “problem banlieues,” there were no disturbances, that mayors, religious leaders, public housing managers and parents calmed down the tensions with a lot of savoir faire due to the ordinary violence that prevails in their localities is frequently overlooked. The mayors’ reluctance to resort to curfews, for instance, and the restraint with which most of them as well as policemen, educators and other social actors acted after a national emergency law was passed is a proof in point.

Civil unrest in deprived areas is a symptom of the disconnection of a distant central state and its elites from the populations who are the most difficult to reach, who are the most unable to form coalitions with political allies, a phenomenon well explained in Protest is not enough in the case of contesting racial minorities in American cities.

In France as in U.K., urban unrest involves usually second or third generations who expect an equal treatment. In Milan or in Barcelona, outbursts involve newcomers. But in U.K. in 2001 as in former East Germany landers, the far right was one of the contenders against immigrants, which is not the case in the French banlieues where the police were targeted as oppressive and unfair when they force the youths to be at the right place at the right time. The multiple problems usually de-constructed by researchers (unemployment, social integration, identity, citizenship, disempowerment, disenfranchisement, etc.) leading to urban violence have in common to happen on restricted, segregated spaces, articulating multi-dimensional issues.

France is not the only country to blame for its difficulties in dealing with “visible minorities” (the very word minority has no official recognition in France). The Netherlands, Belgium, U.K. experience similar problems with some of their Muslim populations but at least local experimentations occur and can be successful. In France, a strongly centralized country, with the largest number of civil servants (30% of the working population) and the largest Muslim population in Europe, it appears that empowering civil society in the solution of its problems is not a chosen option.

New “Order” Regimes in Europe

That the French state gave the impression that it dealt with an emergency crisis in November 2005 and not with long lasting problems comes from the non-issue of the banlieues during the (very long) Presidential campaign. Yet, this silence does not mean that the state apparatus did not take seriously what had happened at the urban periphery and the presence of French of immigrant background in the government as well as the visibility given to antidiscrimination bodies are signals of this awareness. Actually, the new order regime which is aligning France on other European countries implies that no government can tolerate lasting disorders. Disorders are a proof of institutional weakness which would be sanctioned by elections.

Disorders, crime and terrorism are perceived as urban threats of our time. Consequently three strategies are usually developed which converge in Europe. The first one secures space without mentioning threats coming from specific groups. For instance, security measures displayed at airports or railway stations where very diverse people intersect are applied to everyone. Policemen are required to patrol no go areas for order maintenance.

The second strategy gives legitimacy to identification, surveillance and repression of individuals and groups perceived as threats. In Europe, unlike the U.S. (and Canada?), the threats are perceived as internal and frequently linked to some disenfranchised second or third generation males. Some countries like France prefer to act on risks without saying it via the savoir faire of intelligence services and specialized judges, but others like the U.K. regularly warn the public about active plots from radical Muslim groups and publicize the security measures that they take. Although security wins over civil liberties in the polls, this strategy is always dangerous for a democracy. Targeting Others as is done in the U.S. appeals to a punitive populism leaving the targeted very vulnerable against discriminations. Security measures frequently cause more fear that they intend to thwart.

In an era of hyperactivity and ambiguity, security should be perceived as a thick public good, not reductible to the activity of the state and this is the third strategy.

Norbert Elias has argued that a “civilizing process” has put an end to the masses’ tendency to seek justice for themselves, and that urban safety has subsequently been delegated to professionals and specialized institutions like the police and justice. It should be clear, however, that policing should be carried out by consent as Sir Robert Peel advocated in 1829: “The primary objectives of an efficient police are the prevention of crime and the preservation of public tranquillity.” He added that the police are the public and the public are the police. To use Jane Jacobs’ more contemporary phrasing, citizens can indeed be the eyes and ears of the street. The public peace on our streets is primarily kept by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, cooperating with community policemen, she said. In London, for example, teams of six policemen patrol 630 wards across the city “on their feet.” Their task is to get closer to the community, find out what residents want and simply be there.

Such an approach reconciles basic police work and specialized counterterrorism. It remains complex indeed to extract information from terrorist networks. A small group of 10 people may accumulate 860 different identities, 2,500 SIM cards, etc. It is only by cooperating with Muslim communities and especially with women and the youth that information might begin to trickle upwards. Local law-enforcers have to display an “entrenched realism,” talk to moderate as well as to radical community and religious leaders, use cameras and other technical resources, and rely on their know-how. Both intelligent counterterrorism and ward policing display an excellent knowledge of cities and of their social environments. In a sense, the British police is far ahead of other institutions in the co-production of solutions.

The issue, then, is one of communication supported by constructive partnerships. This is not an easy task. Major cities need to win over bureaucratic habits of distrust in order to protect their populations and their assets without jeopardizing citizens’ civil liberties. It is in the mayors’ interest to strengthen trust and thus safety, emphasizing consensus and commonalities, and to stimulate people to stay rather than leave their cities. It follows that more secure yet diverse populations can then bond and make links with various parts of the city and beyond.

3. Safe Cities, Resilient Cities

Against a background of crime, fear of crime and indeterminate dangers, the continuous concentration of diverse people in dense cities sends a clear message of resilience, and trust in their institutions’ efficacy and in their own civic capacities. Historical accounts offer examples of individuals and groups resisting, refusing to succumb to moral panic and acting in positive ways to perceived dangers in times of risk and uncertainty

Many people living in cities refuse to dramatize risks. 60 per cent or more Americans have done nothing to change their modes of living or their mobility after 9/11. The same numbers are found in surveys of Londoners and Madrelinos.

In marginalized and diverse areas plagued by delinquency, crime and disorders, can architects and planners contribute to creating a sense of security in disadvantaged areas? Do they have a preventative role, perhaps comparable to that of community-based organizations, in improving the quality of their environments and the safety of the people inhabiting them? Is the civic participation of all, residents, employees, users of space to be advocated?

An obvious lack of equality for all in the city is visible in the distribution of services. These inequalities characterize the issue of safety. However, the range of people who are humbly trying to get along well with one another in their neighbourhoods, despite the Babel tower that globalization produces, is very visible. The advice offered by some public-housing residents, as well as the information circulating on web logs, reveals the tactics deployed to avoid danger linked to empty space, parking lots, public transport, certain times of the day and night. In poorer immigrant neighbourhoods, numerous residents manage risk themselves.

The destruction of public housing buildings is one possible solution. It intends to yield space for different groups and to promote “social mixing.” This solution is controversial and always causes pain to the former tenants. However renewed public space can help a city find its own order and life. It is important to create mixed used buildings, such as courts or malls as well as plazas, parks and gardens for those who work, relax and live there. Residents should be proud of their public spaces, which contribute to their feeling of collective belonging.

An example from the South in Mexico City, is offered by Chapultepec Park. Partly financed by the million-plus residents each giving one peso, the intervention is based on the utopian vision of parks as a means to coalesce a great variety of visitors at the same time and in the same space. The designers aimed for a social cohesion transcending class divisions, and relied on the universal needs for peace, entertainment and recreation within cities. Every weekend, 17,000 users mix and mingle in the park without fear. Micro-control systems are at work: security guards make sure the processes that organize movement smoothly are respected. They act invisibly. They interpret situations, make sense of them. They represent, in summary, an alternative to CCTV cameras and high-end surveillance technologies.

With all the precautions owed to the difference in political regime and social history, Shanghai and other large Chinese cities reveal that new neighbourhoods, though often built on the space of which the old populations have been brutally deprived, are not only made of buildings but also of a whole complex of public services and spaces where citizenship can express itself.

An intriguing example comes from Johannesburg, the South African city most affected by crime. The legacy of a brutal apartheid regime and fear of crime instrumentalized to justify spatially separate urban forms make the poor very vulnerable.

The question of the state as a vehicle for producing the maintenance of public tranquillity and safety is then set. Two conceptions of the state usually prevail. On the one hand, in France for instance, the role of the state in its sovereign role is to produce forms of trust and abstract solidarity between strangers via its hold on public space. This conception of security is social in the sense that the security of any individual depends in some important ways upon the security of others. The other conception leaves the state out, because it is perceived as infringing on citizens’ freedoms and it emphasizes self-help and privatization as virtues. But in this case too little state is a catastrophe. Despite a strong constitution, the “right to life,” the right to stay alive is not respected and the poor are killed by neglect. The state is then held accountable by the courts to protect its citizens from violence. Struggles occur here over rights because institutions are unable to secure them. There is no doubt in my mind that when the state is weak, the language of rights must be strong.

In Conclusion

Cities have resources to confront threats coming from diversity. It takes time, patience, imagination, skills and resources to bring areas back to life and make diverse people live together, but it does happen. Inclusive, unexpected spaces send out powerful message. Each “solution” for change reveals a mixture of various imaginations, voices, expertises, trust and political will. Specific demands from a population can lead to better governance and to partnerships between city residents and public and private agents – bus drivers, street cleaners, car-park attendants, caretakers, street-level bureaucrats – who already contribute to a sense of safety by their very presence. Trust between citizens and these more or less visible alchemists give each user (resident, user, commuter, investor) the sense of belonging to a shared urban space, which can become synonymous with the absence of threat.

One may feel safe within a crowd when demonstrating on large avenues of Mexico City, Bogotá or Rio de Janeiro, as diverse as that city may be, and despite high homicide rates. This lesson is drawn from the various megalopolises I observed. The question that comes to mind concerns the exceptional character of urban innovations. How often can large-scale or small-scale experiments be launched with success? And why? And should they be duplicated? How can trust and consent to change be expected in times of high uncertainty? As in the above quotation by Durkheim, governments should have the strength to enlighten masses about the error in which they are maintained and rather than looking for allies in the party of intolerance, they should organize forums where people can talk about fears, racism and xenophobia.

Yet civic mobilization does not occur overnight – it takes time and effort to build trust and commitment. Only more inclusive cities can eradicate both lethal threats and various forms of urban fear which are continuously instrumentalized by the media and self-serving politicians. Social order and disorder are deeply intertwined. What needs to be examined is the emergence of stable/unstable city spaces in the context of urban change and global flux of immigration. Police maps and spatial representations of crime hotspots need to be contextualized with the links and boundaries between diverse groups of people (differentiated by income, ethnicity, gender, age, culture, status and lifestyles) in the city and the built structures. Only then does the complex urban landscape of safety/unsafety emerge in a way that goes further than the separation between law-abiding citizens at one end and criminals at the other.

Reforms happen, they happen in cycles, their effects wane, and then political will, control and commitment are needed again.