The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


'People Before Profit': what do forced evictions look like?

Witness' new short documentary People Before Profit portrays glimpses of forced evictions around the world, expressing the trauma that citizens feel when their homes and possessions are violently taken from them.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Mumbai, Phnom Penh, Chicago, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Cairo, Port Harcourt, Durban, Belgrade

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, Homelessness, The global urban agenda, Foreign investment

Bulldozers tearing down homes in a scene from the Witness documentary People Before Profit.
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As part of our dedication to enforcing the human rights to housing and livelihood throughout the world's cities, today we break from our usual editorial practices to share a short film released last week by Witness, and previewed at their event at the World Urban Forum, which powerfully captures the violence and impunity with which governments around the world, in rich countries as well as poor, deny these rights to their citizens in the name of selective economic development.

Within the film, entitled People Before Profit, there are distressing scenes of citizens howling in terror as bulldozers recklessly claw through whole houses in one swipe, and others where they are dragged out of their homes or chased down streets and battered by police in full riot gear. Often the violence comes with so little warning that people clear out of their homes only moments before the machines arrive, or end up losing their life's possessions inside. But there are also encouraging moments where citizens understand their rights and are able to challenge their evictors face-to-face, deflating their rhetoric and their sense of authority, and on some occasions going beyond resistance to propose real alternatives to displacement.

"To me it's like a war zone. It's like somebody just dropped a bomb here and just boom - dispersed everybody." -- A victim of forced evictions in the US

We believe it is important for our readers to see these scenes, partly because within the global media, violence against housing is one of the least visible human rights abuses. We are very familiar with images of political violence, illegal detention, the abuses of war, the devastations of famine and disease, but not quite so familiar with what it looks like when companies and governments conspire to destroy homes and belongings in order to build office blocks, shopping malls, and luxury residences. It is important for viewers to see and to feel that the experience of losing one's house or workplace can be just as traumatising, unjust, and unacceptable to global society.

Witness does not individually label the footage used to make the film, hoping to demonstrate that this is a ubiquitous, global problem, but it is worth noting that it includes scenes from Chicago and New Orleans, cities rarely thought of as hotspots of human rights abuse. As one speaker says, 'there are communities that are not aware that their situation is not theirs alone or specific to their region.'

It is important for the geopolitical community to understand the nature of the problem and the nature of abuses as well. In the words of another speaker, 'you have South Korean companies investing in India. You have Indian companies investing in South Africa. If the nature of that transaction and finance and the people causing these evictions are international in nature, then the campaigns ought to be international in nature. We are in a globalised world, and we ought to have campaigns that are global. We have no choice.'


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