App-timism or the eyes of a killjoy?

(written for Hollaback! London magazine, Dec 2011)

Whilst sex offender treatment programmes, crime mapping, electronic tagging and prison time are all given due consideration in state praxis, there is nevertheless a passive acceptance within this approach that street violence can only be retroactively effected, recompensed, logged and dealt with in de facto institutional time, with all its necessary budget reviews, performance testing, statistical targets, and structural reports documented in annual publications.

If we want to argue for some other kind of action, one that would begin to recognise how these incidents occur within violent social structures, enabling actors to use their ability to ephemerally occupy parts of the city, we have to ask open questions: how can these things be prevented rather than responded to? what can we each individually do to propagate an attitude that would make a positive impact on various scenarios?

I was recently with my cousin who told me about a friend that had been pulled away from the group she was with, was pushed against a shop front and molested on an average weekday evening in London’s Soho. We were shocked and concerned that this could happen in that part of the city filled with tourists and wandering drinkers. My cousin told me that her friend had been really distressed by the incident, yet hadn’t contacted the police, she did not want to talk about the incident, nor did she no longer want to leave her house. Though my cousin was trying to do all she could to care for her friend, she worried about what kind of state it had left her in. No one had done anything at the time and it became just another incident where someone walks away without any repercussions.

In Training Day, Ethan Hawke’s cop character gets saved from having his face blown off by some of LA’s Hispanic gangsters, by virtue of having saved one of their nieces from being raped by two ‘crackheads’. At the scene, Hawke is told not to get involved by his partner, who watches him fight off the two guys whilst languidly leans on the car. In a display that has as much to do with reinforcing his street image as it does with performing street justice, his partner approaches once the two guys are restrained and threatens to shoot one of the potential rapists if he admits to calling him a liar. Hawke’s character is eventually rewarded with a beer and a pat on the back for his actions, “you did a good thing”.

By attempting to make streets safer from the dangers of violent speech and action, we have to consider what each of us bring with us when we enter into shared spaces. Whether it be a desire to eagerly get to our destination, to wander aimlessly, to browse scenes and drop in and out of pub, clubs, bars or cafés, or just being amongst something, it is necessary to agree that we enter into a certain relation to those people and things that pass us by, so that we might recognize what might be at stake in an emerging incident. This requires us to recalibrate our immediate environment, meaning that what goes on over there is not separated by distance, only by an ability to make the connection with a duty to act for the sake of another.

The urbanist Jane Jacobs has some important points that might help us think about what cities require when instilling street safety. Jacobs has two main points of relevance, that a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street, and that city streets must do most of the job of handling strangers. Jacobs provides many points through which to think about how these uses a made and generally dispenses with the ideas that well-lit and tidy streets are inevitably safe, and disordered poorly lit parts of the city are undoubtedly dangerous. It is, for Jacobs, a question of how people keep their eyes on the ballet of the streets, what uses any particular part of the city are put to, and how demarcations between public and private space bleed into each other.

Sara Ahmed’s notion of the feminist killjoy is also useful in looking at the way that attempts are made to affect the refinement of cities through web platforms, locator apps, surveillance cameras, and crime mapping software. Whilst the technological optimism that these will be viable tools with which to participate in disparate neighborhoods with varied populations pursuing divergent interests in a highly differentiated city is questionably certain. Such a feminist killjoy might get in the way of other people’s techno-happiness, but an audacious wilfulness to name uncomfortable things helps us recognize that cities require an emphatic modality of care. Rather than doing away with presence, we require more eyes on the street, more bodies occupying shared spaces, and more voices willing to say something like no.


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