Forced evictions make the urban world go round

Forced evictions – by whatever name they might go under in different places – are so widespread across the urban world that it is not a stretch to call them routine. Here Amnesty International reports on the forced eviction of internally displaced persons from central Mogadishu, Somalia. The context in Somalia is distinct, if not entirely unique, but there are a some aspects of displacement here that allow us to group these evictions with others from very different contexts, including public housing demolition in the United States. While we shouldn’t lose sight of the many ways that each case is context dependent and, at some level, essentially different from any other, we also have to acknowledge that there is in fact something “universal” about the politics of eviction.

Mogadishu watched from the sky - Wiki Commons

Mogadishu watched from the sky – Wiki Commons

In the case of Mogadishu, the temporary settlements are located in the central city and the plan is to use evictions to displace already displaced people to the outskirts of the city. This pattern is a common one, though centrality and peripherality do not always correspond to the conventional downtown/suburban dichotomy. Center and periphery are defined in large part in relation to each other, rather than having fixed meanings, and they reflect both social and spatial locations, as well as inequalities of power. There are more than a few cases of socio-spatial peripheries being located in traditional downtowns – this has been the case in Johannesburg, and arguably captured much of urban America in the post-WWII period. But as these examples also reveal, social and spatial divisions are never absolute or clean.

The pattern of urban division here is consistent with other cities that have been subjected to redevelopment processes. Evictions in Mogadishu, in line with mass evictions in otherwise very different cities, appear to be linked to government plans to “clean up”, secure, and develop the capital.  As I’ve written with regard to Cape Town, here and here, for example, the process of ejecting visible poverty and signs of ‘disorder’ from valuable – or potentially valuable – urban spaces is a key governance tactic employed by urban governance networks as an integral part of revitalization efforts. We see this in cities embracing a range of – closely linked – development strategies, including creative cluster models, mega-event driven growth, and more traditional tourist and consumer oriented economies.

In most cities of the global north, these efforts can blanket huge swathes of the city, pushing the urban poor out of the metro entirely, into densely populated and dispersed pockets within the city, or into expanding suburban rings. As long as the urban poor are less visible, and their labor remains accessible, where they go and how they survive is, from the point of view of this type of governance, largely irrelevant. In most cities of the south, however, the sheer size of the poor population makes this approach untenable – spatially, socially, and, most importantly, politically. Protecting redeveloped zones (their value as well as their populations) from the predations of the urban poor becomes a central preoccupation of governance in the global south.

Rarely is redevelopment focused on all or even most of the city in the south. Instead, certain quarters, often but not always those where affluence is already concentrated, are indentified as renewal zones. And it is from these spaces that the urban poor are pushed. We can observe this dynamic right now as Brazilian authorities attempt to remake/retake downtown Rio in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. As we also learn from Brazil, despite the reliance on force, this type of governance also requires balance. On the one hand, governments have to calibrate their efforts so as to not unleash mass protest, while on the other, they can often only achieve their goals through a resort to draconian measures that, as in the case of Mogadishu, draw the attention of international  human rights organizations.

And this is the third pattern we see in Mogadishu – the use of force and violence as a primary mechanism of urban redevelopment. The threat and actual use of force, which Amnesty documents in their study of recent evictions there, are central to how city governments and the networks to which they belong, govern, regardless of the formal political system to which they claim allegiance. Redevelopment is a very intentional and disruptive process that requires great effort. It is a far cry from the natural changes or cycles cities go through that we often hear about – in relation to gentrification in the US, for example. Violence as governance is by no means unique to cities in the process of redevelopment, but in these cases violence can attach itself to otherwise noble aims and, at times, escape the scrutiny and denunciation it would otherwise draw. Security, and crime in particular, have been extremely useful in this regard, as narratives that present violence against the poor as in the interests of the broader (urban, national, global) community.

We are, I think, entering a period when urban residents are more explicitly naming, condemning and resisting this governance strategy, and where their voices and actions are drawing more attention. But we would do well to remember that the process is already decades old and in many cities has already accomplished the aims of its handlers. Still, analyses that can link stop and frisk policies in New York City to policing the internally displaced peoples in Mogadishu – without losing site of the considerable differences in the two places of course – marks an important advance by social movements and in the direction of more effective urban mobilizations against forced evictions and a global political economy that makes them necessary.

Tony Roshan Samara, Sept. 17 2013.