Excerpted From: Jaime Amparo Alves, Refusing to Be Governed: Urban Policing, Gang Violence, and the Politics of Evilness in an Afro-Colombian Shantytown, 42 PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 21 (May, 2019) (References) (6 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Two police officers passed by on a motorcycle, turned around, and stopped in front of the junkyard where Victor worked with other local youth as recycling dealers. They asked him for proof of identification. Victor refused to show his ID card but yelled at them, “You will not get into my business! Do you have a search warrant?” The officers pushed him aside and started searching the business, supposedly for a gun. The women playing cards at the bingo game in the sidewalk nearby ran to Victor's, crying out, “Morons, half-wits” to the police. Members of La Quinta, the local gang, joined other residents gathered in front of the junkyard and closed down the street. Everyone was shouting at the police meanwhile teenagers recorded their actions on their cellphones. When the cops were backed up against the wall, they called for help. Quickly, two more officers arrived on motorcycles and forced their way through the crowd. They rescued their fellow officers and all left under verbal cursing and a physical hail of rocks.
I had the opportunity both to witness and hear about several similar accounts of open confrontations between local residents and police officers in El Guayacán, a predominantly black neighborhood located in the densely populated and poverty-stricken borough of Aguablanca in Cali, Colombia. Accounts of retaliation against the police abound: an officer badly hit in the head by a rock while patrolling streets; a woman throwing a pot of urine on an officer while her son was aggressively frisked in front of his home; a child hitting an officer with a stick to help rescue his mother from being arrested, and the list goes on. The residents tell the stories as revenge against police brutality, whereas the police use them to justify their use of force against the ungovernable and uncivilized residents of El Guayacán. While the police are seen as the main face of the neglectful Colombian state in the impoverished neighborhood, there are several narratives about heroic acts of resistance by members of La Quinta protecting residents against rampant police violence and holding their ground against constant threats of rival gangs' invasion of the barrio (neighborhood).
Within this territorial contest, in which the state is experienced as both an overtly present, repressive force and an absent social provider, the work of policing acquires a much broader meaning than law enforcement. Policing is also about enforcing spatial-racial boundaries and administering social death. On the one hand, by targeting black bodies and black places as the problem of urban security, police provide a spatial fix (to borrow from critical geographers) to broad anxieties around crime in Cali. On the other hand, the discursive and material production of unruly bodies and ungovernable spaces justifies state disinvestment, social abandonment, and police aggression against the predominantly black eastside of the city. The functionality of such an intertwining strategy of control is well pronounced in the mixing roles of the police in facilitating gang violence, enforcing urban development, and creating conditions for further stigmatization of these marginal geographies. For instance, the city government is deploying the police to enforce the relocation of the homeless from downtown Cali to El Guayacán. Despite protests, the only green area in the barrio was developed into public housing projects to shelter the homeless who are unwelcome in the city's prime area. State disinvestment turns El Guayacán into a depressing urban geography that authorizes abandoned authoritarian urban planning and aggressive policing. This form of policing adds to a practice of “letting die” that residents experience through officers' deliberate withdrawal from their functions and support of rival gangs. As residents are dehumanized and the neighborhood is disinvested, gang violence is energized by police corruption and by local youth disputes over the infrastructure and material resources that the state is unable to provide. Specifically, various disputes between the two local gangs erupted over the use of the poorly equipped soccer field and the basketball court in the public park, which, as just noted, were shut down to become a housing project for the homeless.
As I elaborate below, such policing strategies are functional for producing orderly disorder, imagining civic communities and giving spatial coherence to civil society's economic and social anxieties around the black urban poor and other racialized bodies. When I first arrived in 2013, residents of the wealthy districts in the south of the city introduced me to the geography of fear and crime by discouraging me from going to the barrio de los negros matones (the district of the black killers). Patricia, a light-skinned woman in her thirties, was particularly incisive: “You're not going to get into the eastside. There it's hot.” She nostalgically compared the past when the city was “safer” and “cleaner” to the present “dirtiness” brought by “these people from Chocó and Nariño,” the Colombian states on the Pacific coast. Cesar, my next-door mestizo (neighbor), was more polite: “I know it may sound like prejudice, but look at Cali's bad reputation. Before Cali was clear and healthy, now [there's] poverty and crime.” Both Patricia and Cesar also blamed the residents of Aguablanca for the city's elite political corruption. Patricia lamented that Cali was losing ground to Bogotá and Medellín (the largest cities) due to a supposed lack of political consciousness of Aguablanca residents, who “exchange their votes for food,” and argued the district should be a municipality on its own. “They do not know how to vote, don't like to work .... What they like is the corrinche [to party].” In fact, almost two years after my first arrival, I continued to receive recommendations to avoid that particular part of the city “infested with malos [evil],” as the owner of a hostel advised me. When I told him I work in the district and have not seen this generalized criminality, he told me “rats do not eat rats,” referring to his belief that Aguablanca residents do not rob each other but rather come to steal in his part of the city. This racialized imagination had a profound impact on the lives of Aguablanca residents, not only for the obvious frontiers racism creates (and the legal entitlements and expectations of who has right to the city) but also for the ways it produces ungovernable spaces that justify state aggression.
How does one account for police violence when policing is not only the repressive branch of the state but also, in Michel Foucault's terms, “a project for governing territory”? In this article, I look at the broad discursive and economic practices that policing mobilizes to govern urban life. While I am mindful that bringing together an expansive understanding of policing (as multiple tactics of territorial governance and as officers' coercive practices) may raise objections from some readers, in this article I take both the work of the police and the rationality for governing that policing provides as objects of inquiry to understand how race is mobilized in what William Garriott has crafted as the police-as-governance-governance-as-police paradigm. How does a focus on race help to understand the broad political-economic work police do?
This question is particularly important within the Colombian transitional context--following the 2016 peace deal between the insurgent FARC guerrilla and the state--where the army has been deployed to “pacify” urban peripheries. Adding to the community policing approach called policia por cuadrante (policing by block), the city government and international donors have funded projects to integrate “trouble” youth in the city's service economy and educate them around notions of civic engagement and a “culture of peace.” Nevertheless, the same areas targeted by these soft projects are undergoing enduring forms of police violence and army occupation, which suggests a peculiar feature of state sovereignty in dealing with racialized bodies: brutal and raw violence that can be translated into abandonment, incarceration, and death. Thus, without denying other converging projects of urban governance, a focus on the police as a rationality of state-making may help to unveil its hidden work in racialized contexts where “power is experienced close to the skin”.
When considering “governing-through-police” as a hegemonic project of state control, it is possible to see police violence as functional in the making of urban life. As I argue, this is particularly true for Cali, where the police play an important role not only in giving spatial form to racist imaginaries of crime and order (and thus defining who belongs to the [il]legal city) but also for the ways racialized and/or outlawed populations respond to policing. That is to say, if in the Foucauldian framework police violence is more than “violence” itself (and a rationality of governance), it may be reasonable to argue that confrontations with the police are more than “confrontations” (and a refusal of being governed). I insistently ask then: What are the terms of engagement with the state in places where the state attempts to govern through an apparently counterintuitive approach of producing disordered spaces and unruly bodies? For instance, how might one make sense of the convergence between the police's investment in the rhetoric of El Guayacán residents as “uncivilized” (thus inviting bodily violence) and the rhetoric of legality and humanitarianism that accompany other state interventions? What are the meanings of everyday refusal to comply with policing in contexts where state governmentality operates not so much through discipline as through the state's decisiveness over life and death? I draw on intermittent fieldwork in El Guayacán--between January 2013 and June 2018--to argue that in Cali's racial order, local residents' refusal to comply with the police and their support of gang members' spatial claims of the neighborhood as a police-free zone are attempts to redefine black urban life; a life lived through everyday humiliation, spatial confinement, and (social) death.
[. . .]
At least twenty youth have been murdered in El Guayacán since my first arrival in 2013, and the targeted killings continue as I write this article. This depressing scenario calls into question the relevance and impact of scholarly work in response to the urgency of everyday life. In analyzing the challenges of an anthropology of policing, some colleagues have moved beyond “just” denouncing police violence to investigating the ideological work accomplished by policing, as well as how society may reclaim democratic control of the police. In this article, I join them to argue that street gangs can offer some important insights on the matter. A public anthropology of policing must be politically sensitive to the controversial political agency of those racialized subjects embracing ungovernability as a way to retain some control over their disgraced lives and demonized communities. In that sense, to move beyond the obvious explanations of gang's antagonism with the police (as a war between “bad guys” and officers) and gang territorial control over populations (as coercive power), scholars must consider the ontological and spatial locations of those ungovernable subjects in society. What are their terms of engagement with the state? Will they bring about a radical transformation in the structural conditions of black urban life? I am pessimistic. However, pessimism does not authorize one to ignore those who seek “to transport life from the state's dominion” , no matter how ephemeral it can be. Fleeting, indeed. With the killing of La Quinta members, residents have voiced concerns over the barrio possibly falling into the hands of neo-paramilitaries that are extending control over Cali's periphery. The gang is disappearing, and with it the precarious form of community that provided some territorial autonomy to El Guayacán. At the half-empty bingo parlor, Dona Julia started naming the ones killed while I was counting them with my fingers. “Don't count the dead. It brings misfortune,” as she slapped my hands. As sinister as it is, La Quinta's defeat restates the challenge in this article: Is there a possibility for reinventing black life outside the domains of the state?
Jaime Amparo Alves is assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York and associate researcher at the Centro de Estudios Afrodiaspóricos of Universidad Icesi/Colombia.