"Reflections on displacement from the city of angels"

Ananya roy

We inevitably read and re-read books as present histories, relating them to times and places for which they were perhaps never intended.  This wonderful compilation of books, accompanied by thoughtful essays by the authors in response to questions posed by Nicholas Blomley and Sai Balakrishnan, enable me to grapple with an urgent question which is in the air everywhere here in Los Angeles: displacement. From fierce anti-gentrification struggles in Boyle Heights to persistent efforts to preserve the tents of Skid Row, urban social movements and community-based organizations in this global city are on the frontlines of displacement.  I turn to these books to consider the meaning of displacement, how we conceptualize it, and what might be at stake in the use of such a conceptual framework.  As I have argued often in previous work, it is especially useful to bring “Third World” perspectives to bear on the obscene inequalities so starkly spatialized in the cities of the global North.  For me, the books, and especially the author responses, foreground three issues.

First, displacement must be understood in relation to dispossession (as exploitation must be understood in relation to expropriation).  In Los Angeles, key social movements, such as Union de Vecinos, Defend Boyle Heights, the LA Community Action Network, and the LA Poverty Department, are insisting that we think about displacement as the forced removal of people of color and that we recognize that this is continuous with previous histories of settler-colonialism, land expropriation, and the dispossession of personhood.  In my own work on evictions in the United States, I have come to designate such processes as racial banishment.  Not surprisingly, several of the authors use both concepts, displacement and dispossession.  Lees thus points to how “expulsion, eviction and exclusion” are “forces working within these two terms.” As Hern argues, what is at stake is a “politics of land that calls to account the colonial accumulation that cities construct and reflect.”  I am in strong agreement with him that thinking about land is vitally important and that to do so requires thinking about the long history of dispossession, or more precisely expropriation and theft.

Second, displacement must be understood as a process of state violence.  The trouble with the language of gentrification is that it can be rather soft on this conceptual point.  Indeed, I will argue that some of the current work on evictions is similarly ambiguous, including Matthew Desmond’s important book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  The role of the state is not simply the smashing of squatter settlements or the erasure of homeless encampments. It is also present in less visible forms of violence, particularly in the criminalization of urban poverty.  As Ghertner shows, such practices of criminalization rely on the power to establish and uphold aesthetic norms or what he calls “rule by aesthetics.”  Ghertner’s research demonstrates how the authoritative and supposedly legitimate instruments of state power -- the law, the master plan – are based on “codes of appearance” that express the aesthetic preferences of propertied and empowered urban citizens. As Bhan notes, once we are able to discern how evictions are cast “as an act of public interest,” we can also ask questions about broader notions of the “public” and “the possibilities of citizenship.” 

There are important theoretical and methodological implications of understanding displacement and dispossession as state violence.  Let me foreground two.  The first is that evictions or other forms of displacement cannot be reduced to the effects of global capitalism.  Thus Ghertner states boldly that “the word ‘neoliberal’ is absent from the book’s index.”  The theorists of urban studies need to take note.  Second, aside from refusing to vest all explanatory power in a grand and singular thesis of neoliberalization, the work represented by these books deploys a sophisticated and complex methodology.  Ghertner, for example, reflects on how his research “follows the specific techniques and legal mechanisms by which displacement took place, noting how actors quite peripheral to these global theories—such as regional courts, middle-class homeowners, and low-level bureaucrats—were central to the consolidation of the world-class aesthetic.”  This, in turn, returns us to a broader question raised by Bhan: how do we study “the particular ways in which power exercises itself, the language it uses, the routes and institutions it chose (specifically for me: law), and how it legitimized itself.”  At the risk of a straw man argument, I would characterize quite a bit of scholarship in urban studies as prone to identifying familiar forms and embodiments of power, much of it shaped by Western Marxian thought.  Expanding the canon would help us better understand colonial and postcolonial instantiations of power, and in turn the struggles that contest them. 

Third, the struggles against displacement are necessarily varied.  While the rallying cry of the “right to the city” is inspiring, it would be a mistake to identify the various means and forms of resistance to displacement as attempts to decommodify land or as collective action.  Take the case of what Weinstein calls the “right to stay put,” a “durability” which defies displacement but which does not always take the anticipated form of urban social movements or street protest.  As these books encourage us to see power where it is not always visible, so they guide us to understand contestation and struggle that might not be immediately apparent. 


Ananya Roy is Professor of Urban Planning, Social Welfare and Geography and inaugural Director of The Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. She holds The Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy.

Previously she was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where she founded and played a leadership role in several academic programs, centers, and divisions, including Urban Studies, Global Metropolitan Studies, International and Area Studies, Blum Center for Developing Economies, and Global Poverty and Practice. At UC Berkeley, Ananya held the Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice and prior to that, the Friesen Chair in Urban Studies. Ananya has a B.A. (1992) in Comparative Urban Studies from Mills College, a M.C.P. (1994) and a Ph.D. (1999) from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ananya’s scholarship has focused on urban transformations in the global South, with particular attention to the making of “world-class” cities and the dispossessions and displacements that are thus wrought. Her books on this topic include City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty and Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, the latter co-edited with Aihwa Ong. A separate line of inquiry has been concerned with new regimes of international development, especially those that seek to convert poverty into entrepreneurial capitalism and the economies of the poor into new markets for global finance. Her authored book on this subject, Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development, was the recipient of the 2011 Paul Davidoff award, which recognizes urban planning scholarship that advances social justice. A resident of Oakland, CA, for many years, her recent research uncovers how the U.S. “war on poverty” shaped that city and how also it became the terrain of militant politics as well as experiments with community development. This work appears in her new book, Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South, co-edited with Emma Shaw Crane. Ananya’s ongoing research examines what she calls the “urban land question”, in India, as well as in globally interconnected nodes across North and South. Her emphasis is on how poor people’s movements challenge evictions and foreclosures, thereby creating political openings for new legal and policy frameworks for the use and management of urban land.

Please visit Ananya’s full website at https://ananyaroy.org/ for links to articles and further information.