Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America

Roy Coleman on the politics of fear and finance driving the police crackdowns on 'undesirables'

June 10, 2010

Banished asks why US cities are increasingly resorting to exclusionary and punitive policing strategies that define and delineate boundaries between "respectable" and "disorderly" persons. Presenting a case study of Seattle, Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert take us through the processes underpinning this "new social control", starting with the neoliberal economics that have caused cutbacks in local governments' social support, particularly in the provision of affordable housing. This has been coupled with a reallocation of resources towards re-imaging downtown areas as upmarket retail and tourist destinations.

These processes have increased levels of poverty and its visibility, and engendered a more punitive crime-control discourse (the "broken windows theory") and a crackdown on low-level disorder intended to remove "undesirables" from these reconstructed public realms. As the authors of Banished argue, police surveillance and coercive power has been extended as a result of these overlapping shifts, making them more difficult to challenge through legal avenues. These changes unquestionably mark a move away from socially inclusive responses to urban poverty.

From the evidence presented, we see how "civility codes" have become the preferred mode of injunction against the signs of urban poverty, spearheading the criminalisation of behaviours such as street drinking. These measures have been extended by loitering laws, admonishment/off-limits orders and park exclusions applied to increasing numbers of the downtrodden. Exclusion orders are carried out by extending police discretion over persons deemed to have no legitimate reason to be in a designated area. The breaking of such orders becomes a criminal act based not on one's conduct but one's status.

Inevitably, the practice of banishment falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable - particularly the homeless, visible minorities and particularly Native Americans. It is also spatially concentrated in retail, tourist and high-income residential zones. The "popularity" of banishment techniques stems from the dominance of particular political alliances, including businesses and local development agencies, the authors note, "rather than the will of the majority". This comes at a high cost in fiscal terms - not only in the resourcing of policing, surveillance and punishment, but also in terms of socially harming those targeted.

In giving a voice to the excluded, this book challenges the supporters of banishment. By interviewing the targets of banishment, the authors argue that banishment represents a failure to understand and respond to deep-seated socio-economic problems. First, most interviewees did not comply with their exclusion orders because the areas in which these applied were "essential to their physical and mental well-being". Second, the interview data show how exclusion works as a form of social harm, buttressing the stigmatisation of "out-groups" among the wider community, and forcing street people into more dangerous situations. Furthermore, banishment merely moves problems around, leading to more zero-tolerance practices in previously untouched areas.

Banishment presents a quick- fix strategy but is ultimately self-defeating and enacted in the name of a limited notion of middle-class "security". In this cogent critique, criminal justice "solutions" are ultimately individualising and misrecognise the roots of contemporary urban problems. The authors call for a recognition of the structural dynamics of poverty "that extend beyond the local denizen of the street". Only then will it be possible to institute a wider and more inclusive debate regarding the "right to the city" that will take us beyond the penalisation of poverty and a politics based on fear.

Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America

By Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert

Oxford University Press, 216pp, £19.99

ISBN 9780195395174

Published 26 November 2009

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