High tech class control

Watch this video from The Guardian on Camden, NJ. It’s ostensibly about police surveillance, and I was expecting to be outraged (once again…) at the use of over-the-top high technology – visual and audio surveillance – to deal with everyday crime.

But instead, what struck me was not so much the ostensible subject but the backdrop: the place itself. The areas patrolled by the officers in this film look almost post-apocalyptic. I’ve seen favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are in better shape, and many certainly seem to have more hope than this. Poverty and inequality in the USA, grounded in a history and present of racial and class exploitation, have become extreme. There’s no other way to put it.

And yet, outside of these places, which are everywhere across the USA, and ironically given the investment in technologies of visibility, the reality is invisible. The use of surveillance here is just a recognition of the lack of anything that amounts to a conception of a decent and fair society in practise, while people are still blinded by the noble goals of the USA as expressed in its constitution. This constitution means little to millions of Americans forced to live in these conditions, while being treated all the time as not even ‘potential criminals’ but simply ‘future criminals’, who will commit a crime at some point, and are destined for nothing more than to be churned through a carceral system that is in itself now a profitable and perhaps even essential component of American capitalism. However, this seems to have escaped the notice and concern of those who actually vote in elections and make decisions, whether they class themselves as liberals or conservatives, most of whom are so far removed from these conditions, physically and emotionally that they could not possibly understand.

This makes it even more bitterly ironic that The Guardian choses to title this report as ‘Minority Report meets The Wire‘, as if the only way to understand this is through fiction – that, somehow, it can’t be real. Yet here it is.


Leaving Sao Paulo

It’s my last morning here in Sao Paulo. I have to say that, with the greatest respect to my friend and Sao Paulo native, Rodrigo, I am not going to be sorry to leave. A lot of what I thought when I arrived here hasn’t changed. This is big, dirty, noisy, exhilarating city with an unapologetic commercial drive, and all the divisions and human debris that this creates. In many ways, it reminds me of Osaka in Japan, but the extremes are greater. The problem is that the huge divisions can’t be ignored if you are in any way sensitive to human suffering, and the suffering here cries out from every raw-smelling homeless man sleeping on the street, from the ragged kids sorting through rubbish at night, from the women selling themselves in the parks, stations – well, everywhere. Certainly, these things are part of city life in many places in the world, and there are many far, far poorer places, but there is something profoundly saddening, depressing, about the gulf between the helicopter-chauffeured elite and the people on the street in O Centro, and especially in the ignorance and indifference – which I have not only been told about but have seen. By the end of just one week, during which I have tried to be as much a part of the place as I could, when I have spent time talking to everyone from human rights groups to people in ordinary bars, I feel like retreating, curling into a ball in the corner of my room.

So thank-you, Sampa, but I am not sorry to be leaving. Here are some pictures of the hundreds I took, of aspects booth good and bad…

First impressions of Brazil

“whilst Curitiba may not be as divided as its bigger northern neighbour, the pervasiveness of defensive urban architecture is clear”

City of Walls by Teresa Caldeira
City of Walls by Teresa Caldeira

I have only been here a few days, but some things are already pretty clear. Brazil does not (yet) seem to be as obsessed by surveillance as the UK, but there is a noticeable concern with physical security. The Brazilian urbanist, Teresa Caldeira, called Sao Paulo the ¨City of Walls¨ in her excellent book of the same name, and whilst Curitiba may not be as divided as its bigger northern neighbour, the pervasiveness of defensive urban architecture is clear. Even fairly ordinary suburban houses have high walls, fences and gates,  and some boast razor wire or even electric fences on top. Shopping malls and banks have large numbers of private security guards who are not just hanging around doing nothing as they do in the UK, but seem alert and active. When I went to change some traveller´s cheques, the agency could only be accessed one person at a time, via two locked doors with intercoms and an intervening antechamber with a metal detector.

What is the source of the fear? Of course it is the poor, and in particular the favelados (the people who live in the favelas, the informal settlements that line the riverbanks). Even though in Curitiba, there are not so many favelas and they are not so extensive as in the larger cities of Brazil, the favelas are still no-go areas for non-favelados and I have been warned not even to think about entering. Of course I will be later in Rio, but I will have local help (I hope). Whether one thinks that these are people driven to desperation and crime, or as one contact here said, it is because the drug-runners chose to live amongst the favelados because the police will not follow them there, the division between the favelados and the rest of society is obvious. It is also blatantly racial. The favelados are generally darker, although in Curitiba, which is generally a more European and less African part of Brazil, there are also a significant number of favelados of eastern European descent, the families of immigrants who came to work in construction and were later left without work.

The engineering faculty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Parana, home to the Postgraduate School of Urban Management, where I am based for now, is right up against one of the favelas of Curitiba. The large windows at the back have had to have concrete shields fixed across them as some young guys from the favela had started to enjoy testing their guns out on the panes. There are still a few bullet holes visible in the walls! But don’t let me give you the impression that this is a war zone, or that everyone is paranoid and afraid of each other. It doesn’t seem that way either, and I don’t feel any less safe than I did in Washington DC in the early 90s…