Don Mitchell. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press, 2003. ix + 270 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57230-847-3.
Reviewed by Adrienne Burk (Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University)
Published on H-Urban (March, 2005)
Afflicting the Comfortable
"To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" is advice Don Mitchell takes wholly to heart in this passionate book, directed especially to scholars who eschew "rights talk" and juridical analysis as somehow removed from the project of progressive research and the making of more just societies. Mitchell takes as a point of departure Henri Lefebvre's "right to the city as a cry and demand;" that is, a right not only to inhabit urban spaces but also to participate in a city as an ongoing work of creation, production, and negotiation. Choosing to focus on those excluded from such work (and the mechanisms that exclude them), Mitchell opens with a theory of social justice and urban space drawn from Raymond Williams's assessment of Matthew Arnold's reaction to the Hyde Park riots of 1866. Mitchell articulates a tension between legal decisions supporting (so-called) "public order" over "rights;" this tension is revisited throughout all subsequent chapters. Using case studies such as the Berkeley Free Speech movement and People's Park and close analysis of several arguments and dissents within case law focusing on labor, anti-abortion protests, the public forum doctrine, and anti-homeless laws, Mitchell offers a sustained and comprehensive assault on those who use the discourse of order to deny others the right to the city.
Of the book's eight chapters, five contain information that has appeared elsewhere, but the re-workings are impressive. The addition of considerable historical-geographic detail on the Berkeley Free Speech movement makes a gripping account of the politics of spatiality during that movement. In another essay, Mitchell provocatively contends that "new" public virtual spaces have enhanced publicity for certain causes but, importantly, have not supplanted the importance of physical occupations and negotiations of public space. Also, throughout, Mitchell's discussions of the intersection of rights, social justice, and urban space across several chapters offer significantly more empirical detail and conceptual insight than previous iterations.
The book has many strengths. Particularly helpful is the admirable integration of dissents within case law and scholarship by an impressive array of geographers, sociologists, cultural theorists, legal scholars, activists, and politicians. Mitchell uses this range of material to map thematically both historical and contemporary debates of public space and free speech. Anchoring his arguments and observations in a number of empirical examples helps clarify even quite arcane legal reasoning. Mitchell's meticulous critique of Robert Ellickson's proposed zoning of three "types" of public space as a portent of emerging legal directives is also superb. Overall, in its broad reach and comprehensiveness, the book makes a powerful contribution to the literatures on cities, on critical social science, on legal reasoning, on public space, and on the issues of homelessness.
Mitchell is particularly engaged with the legal circumscriptions governing homeless people as those who "are needed [as a byproduct of capitalism], but are not wanted" (p. 174). He details a distressingly large list of the discourses, policies, bylaws, and legal decisions that disenfranchise the homeless in whatever ways serve local political circumstances. Though Mitchell himself characterizes homelessness with compassion and regard (and is careful to acknowledge the rationale behind his own essentializing of "the" homeless--see p. 158), his book makes clear that the assault on the homeless is just the most tangible manifestation of the libertarian paradise of an all-privatized social order.
Indeed, a central concern of the book is to show the myriad elements which join to create and sustain the construction of "public order." Mitchell's contention is that wealthy cities are being refashioned due to global neo-liberal restructuring, leading not to an "annihilation of space by time," but rather a collapse of public space itself through the "constant production and reproduction of certain kinds of places", that is, locations that uphold the "disneyfication" of public space, allowing unencumbered passage for social elites but criminalizing and/or eradicating the homeless (p. 165, original emphasis). For those whose interests parallel Mitchell's, it is possible to follow his arguments and stylistic redundancies (distracting but perhaps inevitable in a book featuring several free-standing chapters). For those unfamiliar with the theoretical literature Mitchell so fluently uses, the book may border on the daunting. Readers are initiated into close arguments on theories of justice, positive and negative rights, characteristics of citizenship, the historical relations of democracy and public space, legal decisions regarding the intersection of speech and action and, increasingly, location, and on the taking and producing of public space via Lefebvre's representational spaces and spaces of representation. Mitchell also ruminates on the constructions of landscape, the intersection of markets and justice, public versus open space, use/exchange value, cyberspace, broken window theory, and traditional discourses on the homeless. Fortunately, an excellent table of contents clearly identifies the trajectory of each chapter and can help the reader avoid confusion and manage the abundance of so many discussions.
With respect, I offer two conceptual criticisms. First, while clearly the immense and engaged scholarship evident in this book had to stop somewhere, I found it odd that there was not much analysis of why the United States has contributed such detail to legal reasoning. Is it that the mixture of commerce and politics that Mitchell claims is part of public space is particularly volatile and calibrated in U.S. culture? Is it the cultural tendency towards litigation? The unfettered regard for capital? I would have appreciated Mitchell's observations on this point, given his erudition on the topic, as well as at least an initial discussion of the legal decisions regarding public space in other modern states.
More problematic for me, however, is Mitchell's implied but not quite coherent linkage of historical battles fought about rights with the contemporary situation of the homeless. Mitchell argues throughout his book that predisposition to distributive justice and "rights talk" is necessary but not sufficient to foster more just societies; i.e., that material spaces need to be won, produced, contested, taken, negotiated, occupied, and inhabited as a way of provoking and grounding legal decisions. He offers as examples the civil rights, women's, and labor movements. Yet he claims these battles were fought on a different notion of citizenship than the one governing debates about homelessness: "[A]nti-homeless laws reflect a changing conception of citizenship which, contrary to the hard-won inclusions in the public sphere that marked the civil rights, women's and labor movements in past decades, now seeks to reestablish exclusionary citizenship as just and good" (pp. 181-182). This is a powerful statement, but I find that it inadvertently mischaracterizes the extreme violence, racism, and structures of denial which confronted those previous struggles. The earlier struggles around labor and civil rights, for example, also faced assumptions of exclusionary citizenship. However, they (and women's movements) possessed powerful ideological and logistical organizational tools: large, relatively geographically-concentrated constituencies, shared traditions of rhetoric and analysis of solidarity and faith, pivotal spokespersons, access to sites possessing organizational resources, and tactically useful geographies (workplaces, churches, restaurants, homes, universities). The constituencies of these earlier movements also shared appreciation for strategic collective corporeal discipline and self-regulation (consider the marches, boycotts, and sit-ins), and often the status of waged workers. All of these provided incalculable contributions to the visibility of these movements and for their advocates to argue the "rights talk." Yet these characteristics are not part of the lives of most homeless people today. The disenfranchisement amongst the homeless is compounded by the unprecedented demographic realities of who and where they are. Though clearly not homogeneous, by any measure the homeless "body politic" is not only geographically dispersed, but also riddled with a high incidence of mental illness, addiction, social disaffiliation, racism, violence and often pronounced disinclination to acquiesce to authority. It is a constituency fractured by multiple deprivations, deprivations which can be exploited by the "exclusionary citizenship" rhetoric, but not entirely explained by it. I thus found the emphasis on the citizenship argument, coupled with the silence about the organizing realities of the various earlier social movements Mitchell cites as "successful," both puzzling and surprising. Noting these differences explicitly would have strengthened, rather than diluted, his argument.
It is not for the homeless alone to win in the streets and in the courts; it is for the rest of us, those who are housed and can afford to be contemplative, those who venture beyond our private thresholds under conditions of our own choosing, to recognize that the cry and the demand for a right to the city must be inclusive. This recognition is not an act of charity for "them," but rather a common goal based on a belief that exclusive and sanitized cities, far from uplifting humanity, instead erode our collective social repertoires and allow the rise of brittle, fearful and unimaginative spaces, citizens, and societies.
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Adrienne Burk. Review of Mitchell, Don, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.
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