The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Istanbul and Rio protests show that "cities matter", but urbanists shouldn't be too triumphant

It's too easy to overlay an urbanist narrative onto the past month's protests in Turkish and Brazilian cities. It's more important to see how the protests contradict even some pro-urban discourses such as "the prosperity of cities", and even more important to reform the world's police forces to make protests more effective democratic instruments, and less tragic, as Kerwin Datu argues.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Ankara, Istanbul

Topics: New cities and special projects, City politics, Participatory governance, Crime and security, Social conflict, Global cities

The past month's protests in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, and other Turkish and Brazilian cities have propelled the writing of thousands of column inches across the web, and within our own global urban corner of the media thousands more have been written racing to identify "the urban dimension" of the protests, or "what it means for cities".

It seems too easy to search amongst the causes of the protests for nothing more than confirmation of one's own pet interests. Those who rally for participation and democracy will be delighted to see Istanbulites and Cariocas rallying for the same causes. Those who see major sporting and commercial projects as sources of gentrification and displacement will be glad to see them become sources of civil outrage as well. And those who lead the charge for public transport and open spaces will be relieved to see them defended by their users. Et cetera, et cetera. Some urbanists, surrounded by sceptics still living in the "urban bias" era of the late twentieth century, are simply happy for some proof that for once cities really do "matter" enough to capture the entire global consciousness. These are all important issues of course, but what new do these protests have to teach us about how cities are governed and developed?

First, it is fair to say that the global urban media have reason to enjoy a moment of triumphalism. These two movements have vindicated our view that urban issues are just as important as national or geopolitical issues, indeed that they are usually the same thing, as well as demonstrating that our various pet interests "matter" to the people we purport to be working for, not simply to our own funders and paycheques.

But more specifically these two movements have been touched off by one particular aspect of cities which is enjoying a resurgence, namely public services. Whereas many previous generations of protests — say, those against housing foreclosures or an earlier generation's labour strikes in declining industrial and mining cities — had their own urban dimensions, these two movements (as well as the anti-austerity protests in Europe) have been sparked by threats to the consumption of urban public goods. Apart from being concerned with the productive or residential dimensions of cities, people are now reacting against declines in their ability to consume the city — its public services, its public spaces, its public infrastructure. (In the case of anti-austerity protests, it is the ability to consume health services, education services, community services, etc.)

This teaches us how much people's consumption of the public goods of cities is fundamental to their wellbeing such that it can be felt at the global scale, and it is worth noting that this is somewhat at odds with the "prosperity of cities" discourse that circulates within many global urban organisations. In these discourses it is imperative to invest in cities and their public services ultimately as a means to improve the productivity of their businesses and workforce; the protests show that we should invest in public services as a desirable and necessary end in itself.

The people v. the police

But what else can we say, apart from the fact that we witness people fighting for the very things we have believed they should always be fighting for? Here we should rein in our triumphalism and ask: why is the fight not won? Why is the fight so difficult?

Apart from the macroeconomic barriers that urbanists cannot contend with but as part of wider society, one aspect of the fight too frequently overlooked in my opinion is the institution that does the fighting back.

The police forces that watch over the world's cities are each trained to respond to protests in set ways, usually with techniques that run counter to the principles of democracy they are employed to uphold. Tear gas in Istanbul, pepper spray in Davis, kettling in London: each force decides when and how it may violate the people under its protection who engage in protests and other acts of civil disobedience and trains itself accordingly. (How well it trains itself is another matter.)

As Istanbul proves, the policy decisions police forces set in place for times of civil unrest are fundamental to how democratic voice is upheld or denied in cities around the world, yet they are almost never scrutinised by we urbanists who rally for participatory governance.

Police brutality is often criticised in nebulous terms as part of the oppressive nature of this or that state apparatus, but there is always an identifiable "policing philosophy" to their handling of civil disobedience that should be unpacked, especially so that it can be put back together more democratically.

As William Smith, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, describes, it is generally assumed that the police response to civil disobedience must be a philosophy either of "management" or "prevention". In their place he advocates a philosophy of "negotiated accommodation" in which police recognise (or are made to recognise) the importance of civil disobedience for the complete exercise of democracy, and negotiate with protesters before and during events on how best to strategically "under-enforce" the laws that protesters intend to break (and indeed when to step in and arrest or restrain) to balance the protesters' need for extreme forms of democratic expression with the police and wider public's need for order and safety. A line will still be drawn between conscientious protesters and criminal opportunists, but drawing that line becomes a transparent process, less contingent on the whims and prejudices of different elements within the force.

The ideas behind this philosophy are challenging, but the alternative is usually increasing tension and violence between police and protesters as we see far too often.

These are not niceties of policy that get blown away in the heat of the moment, except where another phenomenon has been allowed to occur. That is, police are perfectly capable of maintaining a strategy based on communication and coordination with protesters (they are certainly capable of communicating and coordinating amongst themselves), except where a discourse has developed within the force that debases and dehumanises specific segments of the population, very easily the same segments who rely on protest as one of the few means available to them for raising their political voices.

Other lessons are rapidly emerging from the events of the past weeks, but this is one I feel strongly about. That we must be watchful of how policing policies are developed in times of calm and of when police men and women are being encouraged by internal or external elements to dehumanise their fellow citizens is something democratic activists have known for decades. Istanbul, Ankara, Rio and São Paulo demand that urbanists apply the same lesson, and not be tempted to simply stand around applauding the protesters.

is editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist.

The editors note that Datu writes here in his personal capacity as an urban geographer, and that they remain open to all viewpoints on the past month's protests, including those diametrically opposed to those outlined here.