Tag Archives: urban sociology

Gaza Strip

A desolate look at a people living occupation. The film is shocking in many ways. First, if there is a main character, it is a young, but “aged”, boy who talks as if any day will be his last and how he is willing to martyr himself if need be. Second, the lack of any identifiable “figureheads”—unlike many documentaries that have famous-y people in them, this one gets closest when characters discuss Israel politician Ariel Sharon. Third, the daily humiliations that Palestinians must put up with—such as the closing of a major road—are responded to moments of dignified resistance and determination: they walk and drive on the sandy coastline instead, they march in protests (in a land where demonstrations are illegal), and, yes, they throw rocks at heavily armored tanks. Gaza Strip is a clarion call aimed at Americans (one that surely affected me), demanding that we recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people and respect their demands for self-determination and an Israeli withdrawal from their lands. Since the US is Israel’s largest political and economic ally, we can all help them in this cause.

Topics: economic sociology, urban sociology, political sociology

Trouble the Water

The dramatic natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina was shown to most Americans via their TV sets. Trouble the Water, however, shows a ground-level view of the catastrophe as it was filmed real-time by a New Orleans married couple. They filmed their pre-Katrina neighborhood, all throughout the hurricane’s landfall, their escape from the city, and the aftermath of the flooding. While sometimes amateurish and shaky-handed, the footage is truly impressive and shocking. Kimberly and Scott Roberts serve as focal characters in the story—two poor African-Americans trying to come to terms with the Katrina and its long-term effect on their family and community.

While not as intellectual or magisterial (or long) as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, we are given more compelling characters and personal stories to follow. The Roberts’ amateur footage is combined with the director’s as they follow the displaced family in exile and then back to their old neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. We meet an intoxicated older man who she encourages to get indoors; he moves along, but later his body is discovered, trapped in an abandoned house after the waters recede. The family is forced to travel far distances and stay with relatives, while attempting to coax the federal bureaucracy into financially supporting their return to their home.

One comment shows the clear racialized and classed differences in the repair efforts in New Orleans; while walking through his neighborhood Scott remarks “the hood is always the last place” government helps out. This cynical and realist analysis can be contrasted against a city spokesperson and booster: she gushes enthusiastically on camera about all the wonderful things happening in post-Katrina New Orleans—all of which pertain to tourism. Then, she shows the film crew a fairly cheesy promotional video her department made before Katrina, and she dances along to the music. Her segment shows the huge gulf of awareness and conscience between the city’s bureaucrats and coordinator class, and New Orleans’ sizable population of truly disadvantaged residents. Instead of redirecting city resources and using its power to help the Roberts and others transition back into their communities, the French Quarter is cleaned-up.

Ironically, I first saw Trouble the Water in an audience that included a former National Guardsman who was sent to New Orleans after Katrina. He said their assigned missions there were very disorganized and that they lacked resources to do their job—but still said they had far more resources than poor citizens did. He even compared New Orleans’ devastation to being in Somalia, the principal difference he said was that New Orleans “was a cesspool” at the time. Not exactly a stellar endorsement of the federal government’s response.

One of the things that stuck out most clearly was the Roberts’ attitudes about and relations with those in power. While expressing strong and sophisticated criticism throughout, they were usually deferential to authority. They were very polite when face-to-face with National Guardsman who were occupying their city; upon walking away from the Guard, they became very critical. They clearly accepted the respect that American society demands of soldiers, even while they saw the institutional flaws of the military and their ill-equipped mission. Elsewhere, they make comparisons of New Orleans to Iraq (which the US was actively occupying at the time), arguing that the Guard should be in the US not overseas. Then, despite all the incredibly bad and unfortunate things that have befallen them—as one might expect for poor people of color in a racist, capitalist society—Kimberly still has faith that god will make a better life for her. While her optimism first appears inspiring, one can’t help but wonder where the evidence is that her prayers and faith are rewarded? It ends up as a illustrative, although surely unintended, depiction of religious cognitive dissonance. It’s the American Dream mythology, wrapped in Messianic faith.

Trouble the Water ends up as a representative depiction of the many hardships, heartbreak, and Greek-caliber tragedy that people of the Mississippi Delta faced during and after Hurricane Katrina. It also convincingly shows how and why the social tragedy occurred to New Orleans’ poor, Black residents, and presents many examples of the US government’s bureaucratic indifference to that tragedy.

Topics: race/ethnicity, urban sociology, environment, political

Requiem for Detroit

As far as historical, urban films goes, Requiem for Detroit is amongst the more unique. Instead of showing a linear development, the film begins by showing Detroit’s earlier days, but then also the long arc of the city’s slow, gradual devolution. For the unaware, Detroit is a major American city that has long been on the decline and is going down hard. Detroit is a wonderful, yet scary metaphor for the US in general and American industrialization in specific. Requiem takes audiences through the city’s history as a private playground for automobile barons, showing the dramatic labor clashes that formed the United Auto Workers, and the pivotal racial rebellions in the 1960s. After that point, however, the city becomes a shell of its former self, leaching its population—especially whites—to the suburbs. The largely Black population that is left behind faced capital flight, diminished social services, political neglect, increased crime and violence, and a spiral into neighborhood chaos and destruction.

As an artsy film, Requiem has many strong points. Detroit’s high point of economic and cultural supremacy in the US—represented by General Motors and Motown, respectively—are contrasted with a cornucopia of landscapes and panoramas featuring decrepit buildings. In fact, the film-makers even feature an “urban explorer” who specializes in industrial trivia and knows his way around the city’s many collapsed factory sites. The “great” apocalypse footage, however, borders on what might best be described as “devastation porn”; incredible eye-candy that stimulates our sense of desperation and awe, but is mainly empty fluff. The real human story of Detroit’s collapse is instead told, partially, by a variety of interviewees. While there are some amazing characters featured—former White Panther John Sinclair and the always-amazing Grace Lee Boggs stand-out—there is something strangely amiss. Most interviewees are whites, mainly those who fled for the suburbs. Thus, we’re left with sad stories about why their families “had to leave” the city, as opposed to sad stories about why Black families “had to stay”, likely for different and crucial reasons. This is a major problem for a film about a city with one of the US’s largest Black populations. Also, far too many of the whites are current or former auto company executives. While this may be appropriate for part of the story, it misses other dimensions. A good stylistic element of the interviews that stands out (which may or may not have been intentional) is how most of the white interviewees are filmed driving their cars around the abandoned city, while the people of color interviewees are filmed in their neighborhoods, in front of their houses.

I was hoping to see more about how Detroit contributed to some of the US’s most radical social movements—especially the 1936 sit-down strikers and the Black power-era Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Also, we don’t get any indication that Detroit served as the cultural kitchen for some of the US’s most innovative music. Motown is represented, but the proto-punk of the MC5 and Stooges could have been showcased, as well as rap (although the white Eminem is featured), and the 1990s’ radical techno scene.

Thankfully the film ends with a “pro-active” segment, that shows how Detroiters are not only coping, but perhaps evolving (or strategically devolving or smart shrinking) the city. While this segment is a bit too short, it shows a fascinating “into the abyss” perspective, including activists who are turning Detroit into what is likely the US’s largest urban farming experiment. This ending helps to raise important questions about what happens when cities reach certain limits, or urban sprawl empties-out those cities, or (more generalizably) when peak oil hits and society has to become less auto-reliant and more locally focused. Because, of course, it all happened to Detroit first. While there’s a lot to scare audiences in Requiem, there’s also ample provocation for us to learn lessons from Detroit, too.

Topics: urban sociology, community, social change, economic sociology, social movements

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

Everything that most people “know” about gangs from mass media and from “common sense” is tested by former skateboarder-turned-director Stacy Peralta’s excellent film “Crips and Bloods: Made in America”. Instead of taking the typical, easy routes for treating gangs—either presenting them as vicious, mindless thugs or glamorizing their violence—the film takes a much more challenging, but authentic route, showing the complex social conditions out of which Los Angeles gangs arose, in the midst of impoverishment, racial segregation, police brutality, and government suppression of movements for progressive social change. Crucially, LA streets gangs must be understood in relation to the dramatic events in which they were part, especially the 1965 Watts Uprising and the 1992 LA Uprising. Prior to Watts, black immigrants to LA faced racist housing covenants and residential segregation, and then increasing unemployment as they fell victim to the first waves of deindustrialization in the 1960s. Thus, “Crips and Bloods” employs a serious and critical sociological imagination as it analyzes the structural forces that created the conditions from which gangs emerged.

Modern street gangs are descendants derived from generations worth of politically-repressed black communities. Whenever successful gains seemed imminent, a White supremacist system reimposed itself upon them. For example, gang violence reaches an all-time low during the Black Power era of the late-1960s, as blacks join community-based organizations like the Black Panther Party that aim to achieve neighborhood autonomy and black empowerment through “survival programs”. In response, the LAPD—with decisive assistance and guidance from the FBI—destroyed these organizations and the broader movement. As former Slauson gang member Kumasi puts it, “They hunted them down, they murdered everyone who did good, and made everybody else go into exile or they locked them up in the penitentiary. And when all that was over with, a new element rose up called the Crips. Ya see? Then the shit started again.” Claiming what many criminologists have previously discovered in research, gangs fulfill certain neighborhood-stabilizing functions, providing order in the absence of other structures, narratives, and authority systems. In other words, the Panthers could have provided that social order, but thanks for government suppression, gangs now provide that order (regardless of how chaotic it may seem on the surface).

“Crips and Bloods” should be praised for not doing what many lazier documentaries on gangs do: interview criminologists and law enforcement specialists. Instead, director Peralta sees the best way to understand gangs and member’s motivations is to talk to participants directly. The vast majority of the film’s interviewees are either current gang members or former members, both Bloods and Crips. Interestingly, during the film’s credits it is revealed that that nearly all of these people are now current-day gang-interventionists, who works to reduce gang violence through peace-making and community development efforts. What makes these characters so compelling is that they have gone through various transitions in their lives and can reflect upon their true motivations for joining a gang and what that participation felt like, as well as their reasons for leaving the gang and their informed conclusions about what needs to be done instead. The film makes clear—especially during its final minutes—that the most promising way to successfully reduce gang violence is by local community members (including former gang members) who can articulate better modes of social organization, and not through strategies of further criminalization.

There are numerous moments of sociological note throughout the film, but one sure to attract attention is the subtle attribution of responsibility for gangs placed upon female-headed households and the lack of youth supervision. This comes off a bit as “blaming the victims” and seems to suggest that if only black males (presumably fathers) were in such households that youth would not stray into the orbit of gangs. Surely mothers—who shoulder the burden of raising children regardless of racial group or neighborhood residence—transmit certain values to their children. But, the film veers away from such a conservative and moralizing argument by hinting at a variety of reasons why these mothers were so busy and were not as able to “show love” for their children, such as their long work hours in lowly paid jobs. “Crips and Bloods” also adopts part of the “prison abolitionist” perspective on gangs, by asserting that criminalization and hyper-incarceration has itself destabilized neighborhoods and disrupted potentially-functional families that could include male parents.

Quite a few well-known individuals appear in “Crips and Bloods”, including football-star-turned-activist Jim Brown, New Leftist and state senator Tom Hayden, author of Do or Die Leon Bing, and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Ron Wilkins (as well as a number of sociologists!). Combined with stellar design and great music throughout, the most important contribution of “Crips and Bloods” is to show individual gang members as sane actors in insane conditions. Instead of appearing as monsters, the film allows them to explain their own violent behaviors—and we learn about the array of social pressures, needs for protection, and masculinity that contributes to such behaviors. This may be the most critical and sociological film treatment of gangs available.

Topics: crime, deviance, race and crime, race/ethnicity, urban sociology.