City Under Siege

On June 13, I found New York City’s Washington Square Park swarming with police. It was a warm afternoon, and some were loitering in the shade, listening to an officer give instructions as plastic handcuffs were distributed from large cardboard boxes. Cops paired off and entered surrounding buildings, most of which belong to New York University and house university facilities. Perhaps, I thought, some awful crime had been committed. I asked two cops what was going on. Was a protest expected? It was possible, he said, but “we’re not sure if they’re going to show up.”

Whether any protestors arrived is immaterial. The police presence was not about preventing criminality or violence. Rather, the officers were there both as a show of force and to fulfill what has become the NYPD’s signal philosophy since 9/11: pre-emption. Pre-emption is among the most important philosophical and strategic underpinnings for counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, and after years of being honed in Fallujah and Kandahar, COIN has been imported to the West, where it compliments the growing militarization of law enforcement and the transformation of local police forces into hybrid paramilitary-intelligence organizations.

Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, a book published two years ago by Stephen Graham, a professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, may be the central text to understanding this new condition. It is not a perfect book. It is filled with jargon and academese, whereas this subject calls out for a populist discourse capable of radicalizing the masses. It also has too few examples and doesn’t provide the long arcs of narrative that would help sustain a reader’s attention through a book of this length. But Cities Under Siege is also spectacularly well researched, a great, angry synthesis of the past decade’s major research in urban studies, military technology, demography, counterinsurgency studies, and a host of related fields. It is a Shock Doctrine for the Occupy generation, a book that crystallizes a geopolitical moment and shows where it may be dangerously headed.

From Michel Foucault, Graham has drawn the book’s galvanizing concept: the boomerang effect. Graham quotes from Society Must Be Defended, a series of lectures Foucault gave in 1975 and 1976 in which he argued that Western imperialism didn’t merely force Western practices and institutions on imperial subjects. Rather, “a whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practise something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.” This boomerang effect has been resurgent over the past decade, when one can observe practices from the neocolonial frontiers of Baghdad, Kabul, and Hebron now being instituted in New York, Washington, D.C., and London. So-called green zones, security buffers, checkpoints, novel nonlethal weapons, drones, and CCTV—all have become indelible features of the West’s urban centers of political and financial power. Though they originate in the military campaigns prosecuted by Western forces and security contractors, these elements are largely facilitated by the police.

Like Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s expansion of Paris’s boulevards, which ensured that future revolutionaries would have difficulty barricading the streets, Western urban spaces have been reconstructed to circumscribe sites of protest and protect financial and political elites against potential threats. During globalization conferences, free speech or protest “zones” are set up, encircled in barbed wire and riot police. Lower Manhattan and other “financial cores” are now set apart in “security zones” that restrict automobile and foot traffic. Traditional urbanism gives way to “what Trevor Boddy has called ‘an architecture of disassurance’ as set-backs are increased, roads are closed, barriers and bollards are inserted around perimeters, and fountains and landscape features are designed to act as collapsable ‘tiger traps’ to intercept truck bombers.”

In New York, armed National Guardsmen patrol Grand Central Station and other transportation hubs. The NYPD—which has been turned into a full-fledged intelligence agency, with military-grade equipment, civilian analysts, overseas offices, and in-house CIA liaisons—maps and surveils Muslim enclaves, recalling Israeli practices in the West Bank, the ur-model for counterinsurgency, and raids “known” activist households before protests even take place. Taken together—and one must also cite the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice, which has grown immensely in the past 10 years—these policies reflect a stunning reconfiguration of policing and of how cities are secured against urban publics, which is to say, themselves.

This brings us to the second key feature of Graham’s thesis: a shift in the perception of cities in the eyes of policymakers, security officials, and financial elites. Graham seizes on Richard J. Norton’s term “feral cities,” defining them as “highly disorderly urban areas in the global South which are controlled by violent nonstate militias of various sorts.” Increasingly, the global North’s cities are also seen as feral, “intrinsically problematic spaces” that must be managed, regulated, and heavily securitized. And with “war [serving] as the dominant metaphor in describing the perpetual and boundless condition of urban societies”—a war on drugs, on poverty, on ­terror—we have a domestic culture that matches the perpetual, amorphous, and secretive wars we are prosecuting on colonial frontiers from Somalia to Pakistan to Yemen. Graham demonstrates that the police conduct counterinsurgency wars at home, too.

In insurgencies, the emphasis is on omniscience and pre-emption. Threats must be discovered in advance, and security forces must sift through the masses to separate otherwise indistinguishable targets from ordinary civilians. Police forces have been specifically drafted, trained, and equipped by their federal superiors to facilitate the prosecution of a war that transcends borders and jurisdictions. In the U.S., “fusion centers,” which bring together local, state, and federal entities to share intelligence, further occlude these boundaries.

“In the absence of a uniform-wearing enemy, urban publics themselves become the prime enemy,” writes Graham, though the reality is more complicated than that. Urban publics are certainly the prime enemy—­forever under scrutiny, with tacit guilt being the default—but they are also enlisted as accomplices in the securing and pacification of their own societies. On the subway, signs and recordings exhort us, if you see ­something, say something. Police officers hand out flyers requesting—as one recently distributed in New York did—that citizens help the nypd fight terrorism! Quoting James Hay and Marc Andrejevic, Graham offers, “everyone must be understood as both potential suspect and therefore, necessarily, proactive spy.”

The solutions to the perceived insecurity of Western cities is accordingly “deeply technophilic,” allowing “the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life”—implemented by police, countenanced by citizens and lawmakers. Military-style doctrines are adapted to an insecure homeland, a process made easier when defense contractors often sell versions of the same products to military and civilian clients.

We have long tolerated this kind of society in our airports. Now we are faced with “an extension of airport-style security and surveillance systems to encompass entire cities and societies utilizing, at its foundation, the high-tech means of consumption and mobility that are already established in Western cities.” Graham is referring to credit cards, CCTV, GPS, cell phones, IP addresses, E-ZPass—the whole networked circuitry of late-capitalist consumption. These data are continuously mined for patterns, subjected to algorithms that determine whether a person is worth tracking.

We begin to change who we are and what we do. In a Washington Post article about life in Gaza under Israeli drones, a man remarked that he skips his morning run when drones are plentiful in the sky. Others report changing their clothes so as not to be mistaken for militants. In a widely circulated New York Times op-ed about stop-and-frisk, Nicholas K. Peart, a 23-year-old college student, wrote that he doesn’t spend much time with friends outside in Harlem; he carries ID with him at all times; he dresses better if he goes to downtown Manhattan. Peart concludes, “I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head.”

Graham ends Cities Under Siege with a chapter about “countergeographies” that might be created to overturn this new military urbanism. The discussion comes a bit late in the game—on the order of telling a terminal cancer patient that she should eat more fruits and vegetables. What’s more is that while he’s shown that the language of critical theory and academia is useful in delineating this state of affairs—it has much in common with the euphemistic vernacular of military strategists and DARPA ­researchers—it’s far less effective in providing a blueprint for mass protest.

There is optimistic but rather ethereal talk about “locative or ambient media,” which seem like a pale response to megacities colonized by CCTV, drones, and biometric security procedures, or when Occupy activists are arrested when trying to close their Citibank accounts. Graham is on firmer ground when proposing that activists make use of “countersurveillance”—videotaping police treatment of demonstrators, legally employing DIY drones to surveil protests and monitor public spaces. He also deserves credit for proposing that we “map, visualize, and represent the hidden geographies of the new military urbanism.” He presents as examples maps of the deaths of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as maps of CIA rendition flights. Similarly, one could point to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s mapping of U.S. drone bases (there are dozens) as a way to hammer home the ways in which military urbanism infects even far-flung American communities.

Graham acknowledges the limitations of his prescriptions: “Virtually all of the initiatives explored here confine themselves to the circuits of artists and activists, and do not cohere into the kind of broader political coalitions necessary to the forging of concerted political challenges.” And the express purpose of this dense, haunting, essential book is to describe the contours of a problem, rather than its multivariable solutions. He is no demagogue, only a very effective diagnostician. But how to start a revolution when you’re already treated as if in revolt?