Urban Cleansing: Evictions, Insecurity, and Intolerance in Global Perspective

At a rally outside the offices of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, residents and activists protested the eviction and relocation of hundreds of families from their North Side homes, many of them refugees from the Hmong community. “We talk about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” activist Reverend Curtis Herron announced at the rally. “We are talking about urban cleansing in Minneapolis” (Furst 1999). Drawing a line from the experiences of these North Side Minneapolis families to distant geographies and unrelated conflicts, Reverend Herron’s use of the phrase urban cleansing underscores the violent character of residential evictions and highlights their often discriminatory logics.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has, meanwhile, invoked this phrase to describe these logics playing out in urban India in the early 1990s, during what he has described as a “nationwide campaign of violence against Muslims in which soil, space, and site came together in a politics of national sovereignty and integrity” (Appadurai 2000, 646). At that time, religious and ethnically motivated violence had erupted in many parts of India, both leading up to and immediately following the December 1992 demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya. Amid the interpersonal violence carried out in Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods across urban India, Bombay’s municipal government, controlled by a religious and ethnically chauvinistic political party, launched a campaign to evict unlicensed street vendors and unauthorized residents, disproportionately targeting those in Bombay’s Muslim communities. Pointing to the “macabre conjuncture” of ethnic conflict and urban renewal that he terms urban cleansing, Appadurai (2000: 649) explains that “the most horrendously poor, crowded and degraded areas of the city were turned battleground of the poor against the poor, with the figure of the Muslim providing the link between scarce housing, illegal commerce, and national geography writ urban.” While these links were particularly strong at that moment, Appadurai’s discussion points to a broader urban condition relevant outside of Bombay. Despite the seemingly impartial market logics that underlie urban renewal policies and development practices, they unfold in urban contexts rife with social rifts and religious, ethnic, and racial conflicts and cannot be understood in isolation from them.

These dynamics have been well documented and analyzed in the US context where the urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s were, even then, understood to be motivated by, or at least filtered through, the imperatives of “Negro removal”(Wilhelm and Powell 1964). Yet while historical and contemporary sociological studies of evictions and relocation (and particularly public housing construction, demolition, and transformation) in US cities have been grounded in analyses of race and conflict, the scholarship on housing in much of the world, particularly in cities in the Global South, have remained largely silent on these dynamics. Even in the Indian context where religious, ethnic, and caste conflicts are a well‐documented feature of urban life (see for example Varshney 2002), housing policies and social conflicts have typically been constructed as separate fields requiring distinct analytic frameworks (see Chatterjee 2009 for a similar critique of this analytic divide). Much of this silence can be attributed to the main perspectives used to examine housing policies and property development in these contexts, namely political economy approaches that have had more to say about flows of global capital and decisions of local elites, than they have about interpersonal conflict and religious and ethnic tolerance. Yet a fuller account of conditions of housing security and evictions requires that these political economies be situated in local and historically grounded accounts of social conflict.

A sociological understanding of urban cleansing requires the recognition that housing insecurity does not fall evenly across the population. This is particularly true in contexts where poverty intersects with illegality and where recent migrants and religious and ethnic minorities are more likely to construct or reside in unauthorized dwellings. Property development, land speculation, and gentrification tend to occur in spaces where claims to land and housing are most tenuous, often dispossessing minority residents living in conditions of illegality or quasi-­‐ legality. In the Sulukule neighborhood in Istanbul’s Fatih district, for example, nearly 3500 Romani residents were forced to sell their homes in what had been one of the world’s oldest permanent Roma settlements, in order to make way for Istanbul’s “urban regeneration” scheme. In less than a decade, homes are selling for nearly ten times the price paid to Sulukele’s former residents (Letsch 2011). In another widely documented case, upwards of 150,000 residents of Lagos’ coastal Makoko settlement were rendered homeless in July 2012 when a waterfront redevelopment scheme was launched in the Nigerian capital. Responding to criticism, the Commissioner for Waterfront Infrastructure Development stated that “Makoko residents are not indigenes of Lagos State. Therefore, they should return to their states of origin...demolishing their homes will force their exit from Lagos” (Sessou and Adingupu, 2012). This is not likely the case in Makoko, where many residents had lived in the Lagos settlement for generations. Yet it is often true that those with the most tenuous claims on space are refugees or internally displaced persons who have experienced a recurring series of evictions and are making homes in a state of permanent instability (Chatterjee 2009, Vélez-­‐ Torresa and Agergaarda 2014).

Underlying urban cleansing is state racism, or what in a Foucauldian framework is referred to as biopower, in which the institutions of the state are deployed to separate, order, and manage populations in and through space (Chari 2010). Yet while state actions, such as evictions and demolitions, can be fairly easily documented, attributing intentionality to these acts requires the disentangling of complex sets of economic, political, and cultural motivations. Rarely do government officials use language as explicit and incendiary as Lagos’ Waterfront Commissioner. More commonly, euphemisms like beautification, clean up, or restoration of law and order accompany evictions and demolition drives, such as in Zimbabwe’s 2005 “Operation Murambatsvina,” or “Operation Restore Order,” in which as many as 700,000 people were evicted from their homes in cities across the country (Tibaijuka n.d.). While it is often widely known which populations are being targeted, or cleaned up, in these demolition drives, mass evictions typically affect a much wider cross section of city residents.

The motivations associated with urban cleansing are clearest when biopower is deployed alongside of and intertwined with interpersonal conflict and violence. In the early 1990s Bombay described by Appadurai (2000), for example, the municipality’s resident and hawker evictions were reinforced by, and were at times indistinguishable from, the more entrepreneurial violence and property damage carried out by non‐state actors. Interpersonal violence and state racism came together in similar ways in the city of Ahmedabad in the early 2000s when the state and municipal governments both actively promoted communal violence and pursued an urban renewal program that disproportionately targeted Muslim neighborhoods (Chatterjee 2009). Yet while these cases are clear, at other times the discursive targeting of particular populations or “scapegoat” groups may be little more than a boogey man, conjured up build populist support for the government’s more impersonal urban renewal strategies. Since the early 2000s in Mumbai, for example, many slum clearance campaigns have been justified on the basis of the “Bihari Menace,” referring to the supposedly expanding population of migrants from the North Indian state of Bihar. Yet, as Awanish Kumar (2009: 126) has noted, this menace operates primarily as a metaphor “for everything which the Indian bourgeoisie, limited in its strength by its own historical specificity and class‐caste compromises, assumes itself to have transcended,” and refers only in a vague sense to a specific group of people. In these cases, the process of identifying and targeting the “other” uses the social conflict as a discursive frame for an otherwise economic set of motivations.

While the ethnic and racial character of urban renewal and residential evictions are complex and often difficult to discern, the concept of urban cleansing can help shed light on a set of dynamics that may be otherwise obscured. Global and domestic capital flows and the decisions of local elites are clearly critical for understanding the nature of housing insecurity and the consequences of urban development. But these political economies are situated in urban contexts in which social conflicts arise and are enacted by both citizens and states and should be analyzed alongside them.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. 2000. “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai,” Public Culture 12(3): 627‐651.

Chari, Sharad. 2010. “State Racism and Biopolitical Struggle: The Evasive Commons in Twentieth-­‐Century Durban, South Africa,” Radical History Review 2010(108): 73‐90.

Chatterjee, Ipsita. 2009. “Violent morphologies: Landscape, border and scale in Ahmedabad conflict,” Geoforum 40 (6): 1003‐ 1013.

Furst, Randy. 1999. “Dozens decry public-­‐housing relocation in protest outside Minneapolis agency,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), April 10, 1999.

Kumar, Awanish. 2009. “A Class Analysis of the ‘Bihari Menace’,” Economic and Political Weekly 44(28): 124-­‐127.

Letsch, Constanze. 2011. “Turkish Roma make way for property developers in historic Istanbul district,” The Guardian (London), November 9, 2011.

Sessou, Ebun and Charles Adingupu. 2012. “Makoko people abandoned in misery,” Vanguard (Lagos), July 28, 2012

Tibaijuka, Anna Kajumulo. n.d. “Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe.” United Nations Habitat. http://ww2.unhabitat.org/documents/ZimbabweReport.pdf

Varshney, Ashutosh. 2003. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Vélez-­‐Torresa, Irene and Jytte Agergaarda. 2014. “Political remittances, connectivity, and the trans-­‐local politics of place: An alternative approach to the dominant narratives on ‘displacement’ in Colombia,” Geoforum, 53: 116–125.

Willhelm, Sidney M. and Edwin H. Powell. 1964. “Who needs the Negro?” Trans-action, 1(6): 3‐ 6.

About the Author
Liza Weinstein is an assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.