In Western bourgeois democracies the idealized concepts of both a “public sphere” and “public space” are celebrated. Public space was supposed to be space to be enjoyed and freely used by all people, not controlled by public or private restriction. Unfortunately, this idealization is no longer congruent with reality. Rather than being an expression of freedom, access, and community, the concept of public space has become a delimiting concept determining where certain people, or more accurately “types of people,” are tolerated in the modern city.
“Public space” and “free access” now entail limitations on perceived “unpleasant” and “different” people. In fact, the concept of public space is now preconditioned on the removal of “difference,” “unpleasantness,” and “scariness” from public view. Crime control policies like broken windows, zero tolerance, and crime hot spots have now become embedded in law. These laws seek to forbid any “nuisance” or “annoyance” in public spaces. And what is an “annoyance”? It’s a broad concept that includes playing music, protesting, wearing certain types of clothing, skateboarding, ball games, talking loudly, walking dogs, public drinking, etc. The rational is that these “nuisances” have a detrimental effect on the quality of life.
New laws, ordinances and regulations have wide-ranging powers from “stay out of the park orders” to “stay out of area orders,” which effectively ban citizens from entire geographic zones, to “trespass orders,” which make it a criminal act for a person to enter a store, a mall, a housing complex or even a public building.
The control of public space is a public act driven by private interests, such as businesses and realtors. The state and the corporation combine to restrict what we see, hear and experience. They criminalize protest, outlaw art and make garbage and refuse from a business private property. Suddenly, helping to remove garbage for personal use becomes theft. Protesting against Wal-Mart’s employment practices becomes illegal trespass. In fact, this state-business alliance criminalizes anything but consumption. If one is not shopping or traversing public space to get to a place to shop or consume, one is criminal. Technologies of control and patterns of enforcement combine to racialize and restrict public space, especially for the poor, immigrants, and the young.
But this neo-liberal policy of forced consumption is extended even further. City governments have increasingly entered into arrangements where public spaces, like parks, are jointly managed by the city and corporations or turned over entirely to private management. Public space has now been defined as land with private value and the potential for profit. Therefore, in keeping with neoliberal ideology, private management of public space is justified. And private management means the extraction of value.
The privatization of public space for private value extends into other areas as well. Local communities fight the establishment of homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, drug treatment centers and day-labor community centers with a remarkably twisted logic. Businesses and local residents demand the imposition of physical boundaries and the use of exclusionary zoning laws to both protect the victimized (i.e. battered women, the homeless, immigrants, drug users) while at the same time arguing that these victimized statuses victimize residents and businesses. It is in all ways the ultimate hypocrisy to recognize the needs of the oppressed while demanding protection from those same oppressed people. Exploited laborers caring for the lawns and bathrooms of privileged employers have to develop strategies to appear quiet, orderly, clean and unnoticed in order to enjoy the privilege of being exploited.
As opposed to controlling serious crime and social harm, the police and criminal justice system have become predominantly concerned with order maintenance and the minimization of risk. For example, in 2010, police in the United States made 13,122,110 arrests. Only 552,080 (4.2%) were for serious violent crimes and only 1,643,960 (12.5%) were for serious property crimes. In late modernity, order has come to be seen as more important than justice. In fact order has taken precedence over crime control. Order is seen as necessary for controlling the perceived threat that certain social groups pose to existing social order. The creation of criminal law, pervasive surveillance tactics, and racialized policing are the primary means by which order is achieved. Order maintenance has replaced crime control and is designed to protect the status quo and the flow of commerce, capital, and business interests. Furthermore, contemporary interpretations of the function of the police have also resulted in socially exclusive and marginalizing practices. Integral to these practices is the strict regulation of public space that discriminates on the basis of outward appearance and ethnicity. Thus, in an effort to maintain order, public space has increasingly become controlled, surveilled, and policed, often in a highly racialized manner. The control of public space is integral to controlling anyone who is deemed undesirable or a potential threat.
Xenophobia is the building block upon which the regulation of public space and mobility are premised. Racial intolerance and cultural fears of otherness largely dominate the social discussion as the boundaries of the public and private spheres are determined. This xenophobic discourse, in conjunction with the hegemonic ideology of the powerful, have ultimately resulted in a change in the way in which public space is both defined and policed; quality and safety are largely dependent on the exclusion of racialized bodies, the poor, and those who are deemed undesirable. Though universal access to public space has never been equally extended to all citizens, criteria for admission is more strictly regulated today than in the past, in that racial and economic criteria are used to dictate geographic boundaries and the provision of public services. Thus, the notion of an all inclusive public sphere is merely an ideological tool used to perpetuate an elitist hegemony that benefits the dominant class through a justification of their interests as representative of the common good and as supported by public opinion. Through law and order discourse and the “harm principle,” state intervention is legitimated and justified as undesirables and dangerous others are equated to social harm and decay. Essentially, then, these individuals are criminalized not for what they have done, but rather for what they may do and the risk that they are perceived to pose to both social order and public safety.
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University