Austin Zeiderman, Endangered City: The Politics of Security and Risk in Bogotá, Duke University Press, 2016, 290 pp., $26 (paper) $95 (cloth), ISBN 9780822361626
On the night of May 27, 2016 the recently-positioned mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, gave the order to evict 3,000 homeless men, women, and children from El Bronx, a cluster of street crime and micro drug trafficking thought of as one of the most dangerous and “convulsive” zones of the capital city (El Tiempo, 2016). The operation, that involved a massive display of force, including army deployment and 2,000 police sweep (SWAT) operators, was consistent with the administration’s policies of “public space recovery” (Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 2016). El Bronx was formed after the destruction of El Cartucho, then the most dangerous zone of Bogotá, on August 8 of 2002 by Peñalosa himself, at that time mayor of the city. In both cases, slum clearance was carried out and legitimized in the name of security and the need to “take back public space” from street vendors, sex workers, drug users, and homeless people, under an openly neoliberal agenda of “urban renewal.”
These highly uneven geographies of security and privilege, and their materialization in urban spaces, have been an important object of study for urban geography and critical geopolitics (e.g. Alexander and Pain, 2012; Alves, 2013; Lippert and Walby, 2014; Peña, 2016; Samara, 2010). As it has been noted by such studies, hyper-vigilance and the mobilization of fear and police brutality are only some of the characteristic elements of discourses and practices of security that privilege some lives over others. But perhaps what is more interesting about El Bronx, and its predecessor El Cartucho, is how they evidence a double face of security: those who represent and embody risk are simultaneously produced as populations at risk. In these cases, attacks to marginalized groups are carried out both to stop them from (potentially) committing crimes and to protect them from (potential) harm. Marginalized peoples’ lives are rendered and made disposable precisely by the actions that are supposed to save them.
Endangered City delves precisely into this paradox. As it analyzes the politics of security and risk in Bogotá, it examines how security has become the lens through which current urban experience is read, and the complex (and sometimes surprising) ways in which it shapes the relationship between citizens and the state. Through the different chapters of the book, Zeiderman ably crafts a critical analysis of the often-contradictory processes that lie behind the imperative to protect life. Its ethnographic richness allows for an in-depth, situated understanding of what security and risk have come to be in Bogotá’s recent history. Through a genealogy of the multiple meanings, interests, and processes that conflate insecurity and risk, it illustrates the kinds of political actions and projects which are enabled by such imperatives, and which ones are closed.
One of the main theoretical contributions of the book comes directly from its title: endangerment refers to more than the experience or event of being under threat, to describe a condition and a locus of power. As Zeiderman points out, endangerment “is both a condition of everyday life and a terrain of political engagement in Bogotá. As such, it influences how the city is organized as a political community, how people become political subjects, and how urban citizens engage in political relationships with the state” (131). The focus on the permanent, unresolved tensions between actual and potential violence allows the author to pay attention to the concrete forms and situated effects of security and risk, in terms of how endangerment shapes politics in Bogotá, Colombia, and elsewhere. In that sense, the book addresses current cultures of fear and anxiety, and the multiple ways in which “violence indirectly conditions urban politics, governance, and everyday life” (30).
By tracing Colombia’s history since the latter half of the twentieth century, and avidly exploring the everyday practices of protecting life through the identification, zoning, and relocation of populations at risk in a marginalized neighborhood of Bogotá, Zeiderman shows the particular ways in which technologies of risk management end up configuring a new regime to govern spaces and people in the city. Within the sociospatial logics of this regime, for marginalized individuals and groups to be acknowledged and count as citizens “they have to engage the state as lives at risk” (141). As security structures the relationship between the state and its subjects, citizenship is subordinated to an arbitrary notion of security. And, as life comes to be understood and valued as a fragile and ever-exposed possession, citizenship and vulnerability become inevitably entangled.
To my view, one of the most interesting topics addressed by the book is how environmental risk becomes at times the only viable political language to interpolate the state and claim basic rights, even in cases where imminent risk has little to do with floods and landslides, but originates in the perverse dynamics of war and pacification in the country. In that sense, Zeiderman’s ethnographic perspective delineates the highly malleable character of risk and security, and delving into this elasticity—threats seem to come from quite everywhere—is one of the book’s bets. The argument does not shy away from the multiple meanings, narratives, practices, histories, and geographies that get conflated under security and risk. The multiple ways in which they are mobilized are precisely part of Zeiderman’s analysis. To be clear, Endangered City invites the reader, not to concentrate on the actual situations under which a large part of Bogota’s inhabitants live their lives under real threat, but to look at risk and security as a productive field of dispute, and to their results as a complex landscape that refuses to be simply categorized as either pro-capital or pro-poor.
A comprehensive book we have long owed Bogotá, Endangered City provides an interdisciplinary perspective that is historical, ethnographic, and spatially rich. Appealing to different audiences, including urban planners, risk experts, policy makers, students, and urban geographers, the book offers a de-centered view of urban theory and constitutes an important contribution to critical understandings of security. Moreover, I think this is a recommended reading in uncertain and frustrating times. As we try to make sense of the current political landscape (post-Brazil’s coup, post-Brexit, post-rejected peace accords in Colombia, post-Trump electoral triumph, among other global-scale advances of the Right) and gather force to make room for maneuver in a shrinking political space, Endangered City makes us think about the politics of fear, anxiety, and apocalypse. It fleshes out how threat and danger end up swallowing other ways of being in the city, of experiencing it, of governing it, and designing it. By tracing the history and trajectories of security and risk, it reminds us that we do not necessarily have to think about urban and political life in terms of threat. In that sense, the book signals the need to craft new ways to imagine, envision, and build other possible futures. As the author clearly contends, “[f]uture futures beyond the endangered city remain to be invented” (207).
Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá (2016) Peñalosa ha liderado 150 operativos para recuperar el espacio público en Bogotá.
Alexander C and Pain R (2012) Urban security: Whose security? Everyday responses to urban fears. In: Ceccato V (ed) The Urban Fabric of Crime and Fear. New York and London: Springer.
Alves J (2013) From necropolis to blackpolis: Necropolitical governance and black spatial praxis in São Paulo, Brazil. Antipode 46(2): 323-339.
El Tiempo (2016) Las autoridades se tomaron el Bronx.
Lippert R and Walby K (2013) Municipal corporate security and risk mitigation companies in Canadian cities: A new military urbanism? In: Lippert R and Walby K (eds) Policing Cities: Urban Securitization and Regulation in a 21st Century World. London and New York: Routledge.
Peña LB (2016) Defender la capital: el aseguramiento de espacio de dependencia de Bogotá durante el gobierno de Uribe Vélez. Cuadernos de Geografía: Revista Colombiana de Geografía 25(2): 251-275.
Samara T (2010) Policing development: Urban renewal as neo-liberal security strategy. Urban Studies 47(1): 197-214.