Barry Weisberg on urban violence

August 24, 2010

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Car bombs explode in Paris riots protesting Sarcozy's election in 2007.

Barry Weisberg, our global cities contributor, reports as part of our continuing series, “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.” Today, Barry looks at violence in urban areas beyond just crime and homicide rates.

Everyday violence is the common currency of the modern city. More than one billion people live in urban slums and face a permanent state of violence. In the boardroom and bedroom, schoolroom and dining room, violence is also a permanent condition of modern life, but the extent of the violence varies greatly by city. The challenge is to understand the full complexity of endemic political, economic, social, cultural or environmental violence, beyond official crime or homicide rates.

Ubiquitous urban violence results from at least three factors. First, is globalization; from the colonial oppression of the past to the planetary footprint of the most powerful countries and corporations today, a global “Culture of Violence” has been created. The transnational flows of capital and consumerism have profoundly alienated human relationships and our connection to the environment. We are loosing the ability to distinguish violence from love. As R. D. Laing remarked, “We are effectively destroying ourselves with violence masquerading as love.” Thus, globalization is itself a “Culture of Violence” and an enabler of violence, such as the drug cartels or the various groups of armed young men around the world.

The proliferation of technology has greatly increased the varieties of social control and violence. Global warming can also be correlated with violence. The “heat hypothesis” suggests that there is a correlation between rising temperatures and human tendencies to violence, that every 1% degree Celsius temperature increase could produce a 7.7% increase in assault and murder. The basis for insecurity and violence has never been greater.

Second, the modern city, and particularly large cities, are inherently spaces of violence. This was vividly captured by the Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, when he visited New York in 1929 and he said, “The two elements the traveler first captures in the big city are extra human architecture and furious rhythm. Geometry and aguish.” The unprecedented growth of urbanization has created regimes of scale, speed, and size that can transform human relationships into empty mechanical routines, easily subject to manipulation. Forced migration from the countryside into cities, and the unchecked growth of slums and poverty, create the soil for intra-personal, inter-personal and institutional violence.

The third motor of urban violence is the particular policies of governments at the macro and micro scale. According to The Measure of America, American Human Development Report (2008-2009), the United States has systematically disinvested in human development, declining from ranking #2 in 1980 to #12 in 2005.

One micro-example is the adverse impact of the Chicago Global City strategy. More Chicagoans die of violence annually than all American deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Upwards of 30% of Chicago children live in chronic poverty. The prison as ghetto has supplemented the racial ghetto. Loic Wacquant has described this as “punitive containment.” While gangs are often blamed as the source of urban violence, Chicago scholar John Hagedorn demonstrates how police abuse and violence, the history of racism in the city and the ongoing corruption of machine politics has produced the persistent violent conflict between police and gangs.

Violence is as complex as the city. A future commentary will describe what might be required to break the inter-generation transmission of violence in the most violent communities worldwide.

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.