Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dear Mr. Nevius: Sixth St. is a containment zone

I shouldn't write edifying letters to newspaper columnists. It's a waste of time and it annoys the columnists. This one is to C.W. Nevius, current occupant of the pseudo-Breslin chair at the San Francisco Chronicle. On second thought this would have been more fun to explain in terms of "Escape From New York" but oh, well.

Dear Mr. Nevius,

You're missing a whole world of urban/carceral theory when you talk about Sixth Street as merely "two blocks" in need of cleanup. I really suggest you read some of the work by Michel Foucault and his heirs. It just doesn't make logical sense to think of Sixth Street as a place that the city authorities treat like any other place but whose residents have just willfully chosen to be difficult -- and deep down I think you know better.

In fact, Sixth Street is a containment zone where the police (with help from landlords, neighborhood watch groups, etc.) push difficult people to go so they will not trouble quieter blocks. If you're sensing some resistance in the police department to creating a substation there, it's likely because, if Sixth Street were policed like other parts of the city, the police would have to go to the trouble of creating a new containment zone somewhere else to serve Sixth Street's function.

The purpose of a containment zone, as Foucault explains, I think primarily in Discipline and Punish, is first to serve the basic purpose of a forcibly created ghetto -- to segregate a social group viewed as bad. This doesn't only "protect" the rest of the world from "contamination." As writer Jane Elliott explains in the context of anti-protest "kettling", containment has the additional function of making forcibly ghettoized people docile by crushing them together and forcing them to focus on meeting basic needs:
"Inside the kettle, we might have operated as a community of a sort, but we were one robbed of basic rights, stripped of public services, and denied any collective voice. And, in this state, we could be allowed to be lawless simply because it didn’t matter what we did. To put it another way, a kettle offers a pretty good picture of what’s left of “society” once government has withdrawn all resources and legitimacy from it in the fashion neoliberalism desires."
That sounds a lot like Sixth Street, doesn't it?

An additional purpose of a containment zone is to function as a convenient barrel -- or, in your phrase, a "can of worms" -- whose occupants can be easily watched, and from which it is easy to pull out any given fish or worm who may be wanted for arrest or questioning. This is why, as the Chronicle has lately reported, police sometimes don't bother with frills like the Bill of Rights when they go pounding through the doors of rez hotels on Sixth Street or in parts of the Tenderloin. I think they view the whole containment zone as an extension of the county jail system, so the notion of its inmates having rights like regular people is just weird to them.

Mike Davis has done some helpful if fanciful writing about the similar "homeless containment zone" of Skid Row in downtown LA. It's worth a read.

But really, on the level, I think you know about the containment zone function. I think you're being naive on purpose for the suburbanites who don't know any better, who only visit Civic Center for the musical theater matinees.

Hey, as long as you're talking to the matinee-goers, you could do a public service by warning them off parking on the east side of Eighth Street just below Market. You wouldn't think so, but I swear that sidewalk opposite the Holiday Inn gets more broken car window glass than any other South of Market.


Martha Bridegam

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