On May 2, 2014, I took a walk in downtown Oakland with the three members of Demilit, Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers, and Javier Arbona in order to record a sonic examination of the rampant militarization of public space in Western cities. Demilit was founded in 2010 to develop a common research on the politics of production of urban space. Walks are one of the means to address such a production as it allows an inventory of the objects that populate public space, as well as the examination of the rationale behind their presence.
Our departure point was Oakland City Hall in front of which Occupy Oakland had set camp in late 2011. The lawn on which was organized the encampment remains the only space of the neighborhood that seems to slightly escape from the ubiquitous controlled minerality of its surroundings. The three founders of Demilit remember the noise and music produced by Occupy Oakland and they evoke the infinite echoes of them that this space might still host. Around it, the city hall in its neo-classical aspect proper to American institutional buildings find itself surrounded by the glass facades of the corporate office buildings, as well as the others, more opaque, of the local administrative buildings. Closed-Circuit Television cameras are plethora. Sometimes, they clearly appear in a dissuasion effort; some other times, they are hidden to serve an investigative agenda.
A bit further, a series of planters organizes the entrance of an administrative building. Vegetation is fully contained in these blocks of concrete that seem to accommodate only the view of the passerby as well as the cigarette break of the building’s employees. Finoki and Sowers explain the presence of microphones on top of traffic lights: they are here to allow the police to retrospectively reconstitute the ballistic of potential gunshots by coordinating several of these microphones together through the appreciation of their respective distance to the gun.
We continue our walk and stop in front of the District Court. A car of the Homeland Security Department is parked along the sidewalk. The small garden that separates the building from the street appears at first as affable and innocent. However, a more acute look at it makes us realize that the stairs, punctually framed by concrete planters, which lead from the sidewalk to the garden exist without doubt as a security means to avoid (bomb) cars to approach the building in any way. A similar logic can be observed next block where the piazza in front of an office building is protected both by stairs and heavy planters in which the saturated flowers attempt to justify an aesthetic effort, rather than a safety one. The militarization of the piazza is associated to its contribution to capitalism here as this public space seems to be only facilitating the movement of the people working in the building, as well as accommodating with chairs and tables exclusively the customers of the café situated in it. Everywhere, benches are regularly divided to allow only the seating position, in opposition to any other that would not embody the function determined for this object.
A few blocks further, the militarization of the space becomes more explicit. The Oakland Police Jail reveals an aesthetics that has a lot of similarities with one of a medieval castle. Near it, the Alameda County Superior Court and the Oakland Police Headquarters – all linked through elevated bridges – also present defensive architectural characteristics. The police building, in particular, does not count any window, thus only appearing through monumental opaque facades and its giant badge on top of a small entrance door.
Adjacent to the jail-court-police complex, the 880 and 980 elevated freeways is perceived as a wall that separates downtown from the Jack London district and Oakland’s port. Contemporaries cities are no longer surrounded by fortified walls like they use to be; however, infrastructures like highway often act as more or less deliberate separating axes within a given city. A paradigmatic example can be seen in Paris, where the “périphérique” (highway ring) surrounds the city, where former walls used to, and thus cut the city of middle and higher social classes from the suburban working class.
The instances of weaponized urbanity given here and examined during this walk with Demilit can all be observed in downtown Oakland. Despite the specificity of the city when it comes to political history – this is where the Black Panther Party was created in 1960s for instance – such militarized objects and architectures can be found in most cities of the United States, especially in the era that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. The particularity of these objects consists in their non-spectacular appearance. The aesthetics they embody expresses a notion of order but do not explicitly unfold the defensive strategy that they allow. Similarly, discourses arguing for more safety within cities explicitly name terrorism as potential threat, yet it appears that the control that is applied upon bodies through the militarization of public space, is not only directed to violent threats but, more generally, to all bodies that are not fully contributing to the function of capitalism. The threat to this function comes from homeless bodies, activist, flâneurs, and all other agents of idleness.