In the gym this morning I was drawn to a reality-tv offering called Neighbourhood Blues, a programme that, despite the patronising double-entendre of its title, possibly is really quite earnest in its attempt to explore the dynamics behind neighbourhood policing. Indeed there was some attempt to explore this double-entendre as the blues in uniform penetrated the decidedly dystopic neighbourhoods to draw out various examples of neoliberalized misery. ‘Bobbies on the beat’, the upbeat presenter explained, ‘are a welcome sight anywhere’, and nowhere are they more needed, we are told, than in the decaying urban landscape of Hull. The programme depicted cheerful members of the Humberside police entering homes framed by mould, unemployment, poverty and addiction. One particularly voyeuristic scene featured a violent encounter between one of the friendly ‘bobbies’ and a young man resisting police arrest probably because, as our bobby speculated, he was in the painful throes of some kind of withdrawal.
It was hard not to note the contrasts between the scenes in Neighbourhood Blues and the adjacent screen in the gym, featuring super-rich (incidentally, American) women sitting in a swimming pool discussing anti-aging techniques to preserve the bounce in their cheeks. The screen to the right, showing Sky News, switched part-way through the Neighbourhood Blues episode to scenes in Ferguson, Missouri, where protestors are clashing with police over the shooting of yet another unarmed black man. These three screens seemed to ominously be part of the same cultural continuum, featuring grotesque and ever-widening gaps between rich and poor. The final screen seemed to represent a stage where the mythology of the friendly policeman who, in UK neighbourhoods at least, does not routinely carry a gun, has been well and truly buried.
The frightening world of militarized policing has been part of the US landscape for decades now, arguably emerging with the so-called war on drugs declared in the 1970s. But the scenes in New Orleans immediately following Katrina exemplified the catastrophic consequences of the shift from neighbourhood to militarized policing – a shift that many African Americans were very familiar with long before the storm in 2005. After Katrina the humanitarian assistance programme took the form of a militarized response that criminalized the storm victims just as law enforcement has long criminalized the racialized poor. Many of the ‘boots on the ground’ in post-Katrina New Orleans were in fact mercenaries from private security firms like Blackwater and the Israeli firm, Instinctive Shooting International. These security forces held many of the disproportionately African American storm survivors at gunpoint during the evacuation, while white vigilantes were able to terrorize Algiers and beyond, shooting possibly hundreds of unarmed black men – crimes for which they have never been punished.
The immediate post-Katrina response vividly demonstrated the ways in which welfare and the penal arm of the state, usually perceived as separate, have increasingly merged in a neoliberal context, with the consequence that the former is de-emphasized and downsized, the latter upsized. Katrina’s ongoing social fallout continued to illustrate this merging as the Housing Authority of New Orleans used the storm as an excuse to push through its long-held goal of demolishing the city’s public housing projects, while simultaneously dramatically expanding its police force – in spite of the fact that a large part of HANO’s rationale for getting rid of public housing was that it would reduce crime. These post-Katrina measures were anticipated by the Clinton administration, which began the task of demolishing public housing while at the same time investing in a massive expansion of the nation’s prisons.
My research has been trying to explore the various ways in which this vicious social policy has foreclosed on a vision of the future that has long been claimed as part of a larger US mythology, formerly known as the American dream. And the ways in which various constituencies have tried to fight back. John Arena’s excellent book, Driven from New Orleans, is a sobering account of the ways in which parts of the movement to save public housing in New Orleans were coopted by non-profits that managed to channel opposition into consent; while those unwilling to be sponsored by such organizations often faced insurmountable financial obstacles.
Some are saying that the protests in Ferguson are beginning to look like a movement against not just police brutality but a much larger nexus of social forces including political and economic exclusion. While the police have done their best to crush what has on the whole been peaceful gatherings in Ferguson, their determining role in escalating the violence has paradoxically cemented the opposition: human rights lawyer Purvi Shah, after being tear gassed, tweeted: ‘To the police: you just organized a bunch of freedom fighters. Thanks.’
These freedom fighters have much to teach fans of Neighbourhood Blues. One of the most disturbing scenes of the episode I watched depicted police officers at a Humberside stadium, coaching supposedly disaffected teenagers in the dos and don’ts of riot policing. The message seemed to be that you need to catch them while they’re young: get them on the right side of the law. As the presenter told us, the stadium’s booking room for suspected criminals is nicely transformed into a classroom – another detail that sent me back to New Orleans and the increasingly militarized discipline of post-Katrina ‘no excuses’ charter schools, in which students are subjected to silent lunches, walk on yellow lines, and for which school authorities are exploring various technologies that will track eye movement to ensure that students are following lessons.
This is of course not the scene of Neighbourhood Blues. Britain’s school children have for too long been subjected to the damaging and dangerously short-sighted meddling of former education secretary Michael Gove, but schools in impoverished neighbourhoods here are not yet holding sites for a career in prison or the army. And undoubtedly, the police youth programme in Humberside is well-meant (though it should perhaps also be noted that UK police are no strangers when it comes to the harassment of protestors and racial minorities). But the bizarre idea that the police be tasked with addressing the ‘blues’ that arise in neighbourhoods rapidly abandoned by a retreating welfare state suggests that we may not be too far behind. And the fact that the UK’s most mainstream tv channel – BBC One – is busily conscripting its viewers to the cause of ‘law and order’, and the idea that the police might have the answer to the problems of social exclusion, suggests that we may already have silently consented.