I’m also looking at whether the Black Lives Matter movement opens up a broader opportunity to explore what black liberation looks like in the United States. Can this movement that’s narrowly fixated on police brutality become a much broader interrogation of American society? —Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016)
The Black Lives Matter movement has declared an outright crisis of domestic life within the United States. Initiated through social media by Black queer women in response to a string of police murders on the streets of American cities, or in their back offices—American prisons—the movement has grown into a powerful and more organized form that faces extraordinary challenges but holds equally extraordinary potential. Black Lives Matter insists that racial violence is not an accident of police acting badly, but the purpose of police force since its genesis. The formation of public and private police has roots in racial and colonial violence that dates back to the containment and capture of enslaved people and the protection of colonial infrastructures (Collins et al, 2015: 19-20; Reichel, 1988; Turner et al, 2006). Ruthie Gilmore’s (2007: 28) widely cited definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” reminds us that the United States has always been a deadly force in the lives of Black people. For all the recent scholarly debate regarding the militarization of police, state and corporate surveillance, the “state of exception,” and perpetual war, these experiences are hardly new for Black people (Browne, 2015). Declarations of newness are thus fraught with positionality and privilege.
With this intervention we nevertheless suggest that there is newness in the operation of anti-Black violence in our present, but this newness does not lie in the fact of exceptional or militarized police force. We highlight shifts in the social order that policing actively supports, that are assembled through the geo-political economies of urban space. A vibrant body of work on race and urban space provides the broader ecology of our thoughts (Coates 2014; Cope and Latcham, 2009; Darden and Wyly, 2010; Dikec, 2006; McKittrick, 2006; Patillo, 2003; Shabazz 2015; D. Wilson, 2007; Wilson and Sternberg, 2012; W.J. Wilson, 1987; Wyly et al, 2009), yet we find particular insight in historical debates about “internal colonialism.” This literature explicitly locates the “Black ghetto” as a space of “colonial administration” within the domestic territory of U.S. empire, emphasizing at once the geo-politics and political economies of racial capitalism. These debates happened largely beyond the bounds of Geographic scholarship yet offer a valuable racial analysis of political space. We flag transformations in the domestic face of empire—shifting geographies of Black dispossession through gentrification and the subprime crisis—in order to bring more attention to the relationship between repression and accumulation in the urban homeland of U.S. imperialism. We write in solidarity with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s desire to see a “broader interrogation of American society” than a static focus on policing allows, yet we see anti-Black police violence as a fulcrum of empire from where such interrogation begins. Precisely this kind of interrogation seems to be increasingly explicit within Black Lives Matter’s spatial and coalitional practice.
Black Lives and ‘Internal Colonies’
The United States is not at war; the United States is war. –Han (2006)
In his recent sweeping and skillful Toni Morrison lectures, “Mike Brown’s Body: Meditations on War, Race and Democracy,” Robin Kelley (2015) draws an extraordinary conclusion. Kelley asserts that Michael Brown should be understood as “collateral damage in a perpetual war whose colonial roots are still alive.” He situates the police murder of the eighteen year old Black man in the suburban municipality of Ferguson in a much larger and longer history of imperial violence. In contrast to claims emerging out of security studies that locate unending warfare in the period post-2001, Kelley (2015) argues that the entire history of American racial oppression is a story of perpetual war. Kelley explicitly asserts that “coloniality and capitalism are inseparable,” and that the U.S. racial state must be understood historically and geographically as transnational imperial violence, simultaneously reliant on indigenous dispossession and enslaved labor. His approach to the problem of anti-black violence in America locates it firmly within settler colonialism, both mirroring and amplifying the exciting engagements underway between critical race theory and indigenous studies, feminist and queer theory (Jackson, 2014; King, 2014; Lawrence and Dua, 2005; Morgensen, 2012; Snelgrove et al, 2014; Tuck et al, 2014). “War,” he argues, “begins at the point of settlement with the shipment of kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic, the enslavement of indigenous people, with rape and pillage, forced removals, not to mention religious conversion and compulsory assimilation.” Kelley’s arguments question the distinction between “internal” and “external” organized violence, and so too the supposedly foundational separation underpinning the modern state system between police and military force. In its place, Kelley offers a profoundly important rethinking of space. The “domestic situation” becomes one site in a wider cartography of imperial violence that transformed, rather than expired with, emancipation.
Source: Maya Bankovic, cinematographer, “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes.” Directed by Brett Story. 2016.
While Kelley’s claims may be bold, they also build on a tradition in radical thought emerging out of transnational anti-colonial movements of the 1960s that analyses colonialism “internally.” Roderick Bush (2008) and Ramón A Gutiérrez (2004) trace the history of debates on “internal colonialism” within the United States in some detail, highlighting its heyday with the 1960s Black Power movement. Its circulation expanded following the publication of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (Bush, 2008: 138), and the concept was taken up centrally in the work of Harold Cruse (1962) and Kenneth Clark (1965). In 1967, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America theorized the notion of “colonial analogy.” Building on their work, Robert Allen (1969) sought to develop the question of colonialism at home—not as analogy, but as ontology. Lively debates on the distinct nature of domestic colonialism unfolded through the 1960s and 70s with key contributions from O’Dell (1967), Blauner (1969), Tabb (1970) and Bailey (1973). The use of the concept declined along with the Black Power movement in the late 1970s, though it has experienced revival more recently (Allen, 2005; Gutiérrez, 2004; Pinderhughes, 2011).
The concept of internal colonialism allows for a refiguring of national borders as tools of empire that enable its operation rather than bound its jurisdiction. If colonialism is no longer reserved for domination of a people beyond national borders—if it must be conceptualized as a phenomenon with an “internal” cartography as well—then it opens up the prospect of a domestic geography of perpetual war. For writers working in this tradition, the task was to analyze what makes colonial rule (and anti-colonial revolt) distinct when it is internal to a nation state at the center of empire. In other words, how does Empire oppress, exploit, discipline and dispossess populations internal to its territorial core? At the heart of their answer lay geography and especially the segregated cities of the United States. In fact, Pinderhughes (2011: 236) defines internal colonialism as a “geographically-based pattern of subordination of a differentiated population, located within the dominant power or country.” Gutiérrez (2004: 284) notes the urban basis for these debates, suggesting, “internal colonialism as a theory grew out of the brutal urban conditions minorities faced in the United States.”
Writers in this tradition understood the “Black ghetto” as a key space of discipline and extraction, and a terrain of police domination and violence. It was understood to be distinct among the various immigrant and ethnic enclaves that constituted the postwar American city because of its forced rather than voluntary nature (structured by racially exclusionary policies), its durability, and the fact that land ownership remained concentrated in the hands of outsiders. Perhaps most importantly, the aggressive nature of policing distinguished Black ghettos from other kinds. Police were understood as “key agents in the power equation” of the violent relations of imperialism, operating in the Black community “‘like an army of occupation’ protecting the interests of outside exploiters and maintaining the domination over the ghetto by the central metropolitan power structure” (Blauner, 1969: 404-5).
Crucial here is not only the police violence executed within already constituted “ghetto” spaces but the creation of these spaces by state policy. As many scholars have detailed, the “Black ghetto” was built by deliberate policies and practices of powerful actors outside Black communities. These zones were formed through the social, economic, physical, and epistemic violence of redlining, blockbusting, restrictive covenants, urban renewal, and white flight, designed and enforced by a public private partnership of the state, the banks, residents associations, and real estate firms (Boyles, 2015; Coates, 2014; Rothstein, 2014; Shabazz, 2015; Wacquant, 1997). The growing involvement of the federal government in financing housing development in the 1930s led to the deepening of segregation across the U.S. The more the government acted to finance, plan and manage housing development, the more segregated American cities became (Seitles, 1998).
Gentrification and the Suburbanization of the “Internal Colony”
A host of public and private policies excluded Black people from access to the vast majority of urban space, contained Black people in small overcrowded areas with poor housing stock in the inner city, withheld credit from Black communities leading to the rapid deterioration of housing stock, aggressively policed these zones, and frequently demolished them for the project of “urban renewal.” It is in this context that inner cities saw disinvestment which gave rise to what Neil Smith (1996: 67) termed the “rent gap.” The gap between actual and potential ground rent in American cities should be understood as a violent effect of internal colonialism, which in turn opened these communities to the violence of evictions fueled by gentrification.
If the political economies of the rent gap took shape through “geo-political economic” anti-Black state violence, operating at once through the force of policy and police, so too has the process of gentrification. Smith (2002) identified police violence in New York as a key marker of the increasingly aggressive gentrification at work there. He flagged anti-Black police violence in gentrifying areas highlighting the cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo—Black immigrant men violently attacked by NYPD, Diallo murdered, in cases that were shocking in their brutality. Kelley (2007: 66-67) also flags the active role of police force in gentrifying Harlem. He explains how Guiliani paved the way for gentrification when he, “employed the police to make way for big capital.” The same year the federal government provided $100 million in grants, $250 million worth of tax credits and designated Harlem an “empowerment zone,” Giuliani sent 400 police in riot gear to clean out street vendors from 125th street, and stepped up the local war on drugs (Kelley, 2007). Aggressive policing in urban areas undergoing gentrification has furthermore been linked with growing rates of incarceration, particularly for Black men. Evictions, on the other hand, impact Black women especially, compounding individual insecurity and community precarity (Desmond, 2012).
Aggressive policing is one of the more violent ways the state fosters gentrification, yet housing policy is a key terrain for crafting Black displacement and public housing redevelopment has been at the center of struggles over inner city space. The notorious HOPE VI program “demolished traditional public housing and ‘vouchered out’ most residents in order to make way for mixed-use, market rate developments,” (Wright and Bullard, 2007: 188). HOPE VI, and municipal models it inspired have resulted in the displacement of public housing residents from the inner city, transforming cities like Washington D.C. from a majority Black jurisdiction into one where—in 2011, for the first time in 50 years, the Black population dropped below 50% (Khalek, 2014).
Gentrification unfolds not only through a racialized political economy, but an imperial one. Smith (1996) famously highlights that the vocabulary of gentrification is anchored in a colonial imaginary with pervasive references to the frontier, but also the “Wild West,” pioneering, Cowboys and Indians, and terra nullius. He describes the systematic evictions enacted through municipal policy as an “effort to recolonize the city.” Indeed, while Black suburbanization, “might seem like mundane fact,” ULTRA (n/d) suggests that it, “actually haunts at a much more significant shift in the economic and racial geography of US metropolitan zones over the last 20 years.”
Black suburbanization emerges largely in response to gentrification of inner city neighborhoods and the displacement which ensues (Johnson, n/d). It is a striking feature of the geopolitical economies at work in a place like Ferguson, Missouri. Over the last two decades, Ferguson has become a majority Black suburb because of gentrification and displacement in St. Louis and surrounding areas—though this shift is not reflected in the political leadership and the police force, which remain almost entirely white. The transformation of local social geography has not only been dramatic, but rapid. From a population that was 85% white in 1980, Ferguson had become 69% Black by 2010 (Goldstein, 2014). Gentrification of the inner city furthermore means that “whites are now a solid majority in some neighborhoods [of St. Louis] for the first time in decades” (Rothstein, 2014). In a report outlining the public policies that created the conditions in Ferguson, Richard Rothstein (2014) notes, “Whereas 20th century segregation took the form of Black central cities surrounded by white suburbs, 21st century segregation is in transition—to whiter central cities with adjoining Black suburbs.”
For Smith, gentrification is a defining process of neoliberal urbanism, and one that he argued was “globalizing” decades ago (1996; see also Smith, 2002). The rent gap is not only a feature of local urban areas, but points, in turn, to a form a global uneven development that is increasingly contingent on the production of urban space. Gentrification is crucial to a mode of global accumulation that is increasingly anchored in the production of urban space. This is precisely what Lefebvre’s Urban Revolution (2003) suggests when he offers the provocative argument that urbanization has supplanted industrialization as the engine of capital accumulation on a world scale.
Dispossession and the Subprime Crisis
In many cases [landlords and real estate brokers] acquire their capital through a process of ‘primitive accumulation,’ that is, through deceptive manipulation of land titles of illiterate blacks, ‘legal’ seizures and outright theft. – Donald Harris (1972)
Alongside rapid displacement from inner city areas, the subprime crisis has unfolded with particularly violent impacts on Black homeowners. At times referred to as “reverse redlining,” subprime lending refers to high cost loans made to borrowers with impaired or limited credit histories or those who have higher ratio of debt to income (Hernandez, 2009). The “reversal” of redlining was far from coincidence in the wake of the fair housing act and the end of redlining the mortgage industry began to target racialized groups with extraordinarily exploitative loans (Fields, 2013). After decades of receiving little to no attention from traditional lenders, Black borrowers came to the center of attention of subprime institutions following legislation developed first under Reagan, and then deepened under Clinton (Lewis, forthcoming). Subprime lenders argued that they must charge higher fees to help protect them from higher risk borrowers defaulting on their loans. However, the effects were disastrous; it was precisely the onerous terms that led individual borrowers to default on their loans. Between 2007 and 2013 more than 12 million homeowners were evicted (Schwartz, 2014). By the end of 2013 the American housing market had lost approximately $3.6 trillion in home equity (Schwartz, 2014) leaving many with homes worth less than their mortgage debt. Sassen (2012) suggests that subprime lending “for modest-income households became a mechanism to extract those households’ small savings—a sort of primitive accumulation.”
The subprime crisis hit communities unevenly—impacting Black people with particular force (Rugh and Massey, 2010; Sassen, 2012; Wyly et al, 2009). It has exacted an astonishing dispossession of Black wealth, which some have conservatively estimated at $194 billion (Bocian et al, 2010). Today, half of Black homeowners in Ferguson have mortgage debt that exceeds the value of their homes, compared with the already high figure of 17% nationally (Goldstein, 2014). In the first half of 2015, Ferguson foreclosure filings increased by 15.79 percent (Pohlmann, 2015), and investment firms are buying up the town at highly discounted rates. Nearly a decade after the start of America’s worst housing crisis, some of the same corporations responsible for the crash are now purchasing distressed properties and mortgages in bulk. At least 25% of all sales in Ferguson are institutional investors. Most investor landlords are out of state and absentee, but even more insidious is the investor landlords that work to systematically gentrify neighborhoods and displace residents, even in the suburbs. Perhaps most outrageous, some residents in Ferguson (and elsewhere) now have to rent their own foreclosed homes back from firms that helped create the housing crisis to begin with. The growth of the rental market also presents a unique opportunity for Wall Street, as millions of new renters were produced through foreclosures. Since 2007, the number of single-family homes for rent has increased by more than two million (Fernald, 2013). While the rest of the economy went into a tailspin, Wall Street giant Blackstone Group was busy engineering a sophisticated product known as Rent Backed Securities, allowing them to profit again from the financial crisis. Blackstone Group alone has spent almost $10 billion to purchase over 50,000 single-family properties (Dezember, 2015).
Activists, the media, and even the Department of Justice are highlighting the ways in which policing has increasingly come to bolster a deeply neoliberal (sub)urban politics. The entrepreneurial racism of the Ferguson police was highlighted in a recent US Department of Justice report which highlights how a “focus on revenue generation” helped foster a culture where “many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” Indeed, Andrea Boyles’ research (2015), investigating the policing of Black suburbs in Missouri shatters the myth of suburban safety, suggesting that police violence can be even more severe because of the threat Black suburbanization is felt to pose to suburban spaces—so deeply associated with whiteness. What is distinct about this moment is clearly not that police violently oppresses Black people who are already imagined as either or both a threat to the social order or a resource for it. Rather a more precise but also much more diffuse set of transformations in the domestic violence of the state operates today through the financialization of municipal government and urban space (Harvey, 2007).
Empire today is profoundly financialized and anchored in the urban. That the subprime mortgage crisis erupted out of the predatory financing of mortgages in U.S. cities and unfolded into a global economic crisis supports the idea that the material processes of city building, achieved through financialization, are at the center of contemporary modes of accumulation. And suburban places like Ferguson play a critical role in the remaking of the “domestic space” of empire. After decades of neoliberal reform, the logics of suburban municipal government in places like Ferguson are increasingly difficult to distinguish from those of predatory finance companies. There are also connections to the longer term experimentation with neoliberal forms of government in precisely these sorts of suburban spaces where the politics of property ownership underpinned by profoundly racialized notions of risk gave rise to distinctly segregated landscapes organized through finance (McGirr, 2001).
Ferguson as Flashpoint of Empire at Home
Source: Deborah Cowen. Queer and Trans Community Defense, “No Pride in Gentrification” Community Forum, Toronto. April 7, 2016.
We opened this intervention with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s recent call for a “broader interrogation of American society” than a “fixation on police brutality” supports. We are also energized by the prospect of this broad interrogation and agree that it cannot be singularly or statically focused on the violence of the police. However we would suggest that this interrogation can and perhaps must begin there. An interrogation that starts with anti-Black police violence can also be diagnostic of so much more. Anti-Black police violence in Ferguson can tell the story of neoliberal (sub)urban governance arising through the displacements of gentrification and the dispossession of the subprime crisis. In the context of the global urban revolution, where gentrification and the financialization of urban land are key processes to a form of accumulation rooted in city building, anti-black police violence must then feature as a flashpoint in the operation of empire at home.
Building on long histories of anti-imperial struggle and translocal solidarity, Black Lives Matter is undertaking a kind of cartographic practice which connects Black struggles within the U.S. to those of other oppressed peoples at home and abroad, and which implicitly maps the entanglements of repression and dispossession in and through urban space. Frequent blockades of highways reference the history of federal Urban Renewal programs that fractured Black neighborhoods with such persistence, that James Baldwin rebranded “urban renewal” as “negro removal.” This mapping is also evident in BLM’s transnational coalition building. Recent solidarity initiatives with residents of Brazil’s informal communities highlights the transnational operation of anti-Black police violence. Already outrageous murder rates of Black people have spiked as part of transnational capital’s Olympic preparations in Rio. As social movements in so many host cities have told us, with the Games comes the social cleansing of targeted neighborhoods, and after the games comes gentrification. Ferguson activists specifically connect their struggles to those of others fighting the same violent Empire across security supply chains and financial circuits that connect seemingly disparate parts of the world. This is visible in solidarity acts and coalition efforts with Palestinian movements. In Ferguson, a “Palestine Contingent” emerged and includes a wide range of groups from local Black, Muslim, and anti-apartheid groups. Initiatives like “Block the Boat” in Oakland, California also make explicit the transnational circulations that underpin Empire. And indeed, BLM is not only building solidarity with Black communities transnationally, but is working with them to set up chapters. Writing from north of the border, it is impossible to ignore the organizing work of BLM—Toronto, in particular, the recent action at the city’s Pride march for instance.
BLM also offers an intimate mapping of the unevenness of transnational anti-Black violence on different bodies, with the an attentiveness to Black women’s lives, and queer and trans lives. They write:
When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that 500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence; the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence. And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.
These claims and practices highlight the circulation of security tactics and technologies, as well as the circulation of capital across empire, and help make the cartographies of the contemporary racial state and racial capitalism more palpable, material, and so more vulnerable to change. They also foreground the counter-cartographies these movements offer as they build Black geographies (cf McKittrick, 2006) of difference, care and social reproduction.
Acknowledgements. The authors are deeply grateful to Alissa Trotz, Natalie Oswin and Alex Vasudevan for their generous engagement with this text. A preliminary version was delivered as part of an AAG panel on ‘Police States’ organized by Maegan Miller and Mat Keel, and and we would like to acknowledge the generative dialogue with panelists Netta (ThisistheMovement), Rashad Shabazz, Caitlin Cahill, Laura Pulido, Nicholas Crane, and John Gibler. We remain fully responsible for any errors or omissions.
 A notable exception is Blaut J 1974 The Ghetto as an Internal Neo-Colony. Antipode 6(1): 37-41. However, Blaut’s analysis does not engage with the large body of anti-colonial thought we signal here.
 This includes the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, Organization for Black Struggle, U.S. Palestinian Community Network, Muslims for Ferguson, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Council on American Islamic Relations – St. Louis, Palestinian BDS National Committee, National Students for Justice in Palestine, Palestinian Youth Movement, American Muslims for Palestine and African Americans for Justice in the Middle East and North Africa.
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Deborah Cowen is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) and Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2008). She is a former co-editor and current editorial board member of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.
Nemoy Lewis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University, Canada.