We are delighted to share the complete Luskin Lecture: David Simon on “The Audacity of Despair” that was part of the Institute’s inauguration on Friday, February 5, 2016 at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater.
We are delighted to share the complete Luskin Lecture: David Simon on “The Audacity of Despair” that was part of the Institute’s inauguration on Friday, February 5, 2016 at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater.
By Stan Paul and George Foulsham
In one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago, an African-American mother and her children face eviction amid a patchwork landscape of foreclosed and empty dwellings.
Across the globe and in another hemisphere, South African shack dwellers face the constant fear of eviction, violence and police brutality in the post-Apartheid era.
In Delhi, India, where more than 75 percent of inhabitants reside in “unplanned” and, therefore, “spatially illegal” dwellings, basic necessities such as water are denied.
And, south of the United States, the poor in countries such as Brazil experience a familiar scenario: eviction and being pushed out to the favelas, at the periphery of the urban center.
These are the “dispossessions of our times,” and the “enduring color-lines” of the 21st century, say founders and collaborators of the new Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. The launch of the new center at UCLA brought together scholars from various disciplines as well as those on the front lines of grassroots efforts fighting eviction and social injustice worldwide.
“The theme of Urban Color-Lines is especially important for us today in Los Angeles, a city and region marked by its own historic struggles for equality and justice,” Lois Takahashi, Interim Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and professor of Urban Planning, said in her opening remarks.
The two-day event, held at UCLA and Los Angeles venues, included not only scholars and activists but artists, performers and a movie screening to give expression to these global and ongoing problems, to highlight these issues and to bring to the fore emerging efforts to fight eviction, displacement and discrimination.
“The scope and purpose of the Institute have been shaped in conversation with movements such as the L.A. Community Action Network and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign,” said Ananya Roy, founding director of the new center. “You will see how we strive to learn from these movements, their ideas and practices,” which create openings for social change, added Roy, who is also a professor of Social Welfare and Urban Planning at Luskin.
“We are launching the Institute on Inequality and Democracy this week with an ambitious mandate: to advance radical democracy in the world through research, critical thought and alliances with social movements and racial justice activism,” Roy said. “In doing so, we recognize that democracy is not an antidote to inequality; that, in fact, democracy is constituted through inequality.”
Markets, Race, and the Aftermath of Slavery
Providing context for day one was UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris, a recognized leader in civil rights education and critical race theory. The author of “Whiteness as Property,” an important and influential law review treatise, discussed how slavery was not a pre-capitalist system, but quintessential in the system of trade and finance and “central to the development of capitalism itself.”
“The market is not a neutral field,” said Harris, outlining the role that race continues to play in the making of exclusion as well as profit. For example, she noted that the high and disproportionate rate of minority incarceration in America provides cost savings in the form of labor as well as a market for products of prison labor. Harris added that the incarcerated themselves are also forced to be consumers of goods and services related to their incarceration.
The Right to the City: From South to North
Harris’ keynote presentation led into contributions by scholars and activists representing ongoing worldwide struggles against eviction, banishment and spatial injustice from Chicago and Brazil to South Africa and India.
Toussaint Losier, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, shared his experiences from the front lines of anti-eviction action, including eviction blockades, inspired by work being done in South Africa. “Why aren’t you doing this in the U.S.?” was the take-away question from a trip to South Africa by Losier, who said that this connection became the model for action in Chicago.
Raquel Rolnik, professor, architect and urban planner from Brazil, and former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing at the United Nations, spoke about a global pattern of evictions and land grabs fueled by financialization. She described this as a “permanent transitory” state for the urban poor.
“The language of liberalism and the markets is inadequate to describe the world we are living in,” said Richard Pithouse, a scholar at Rhodes University in South Africa. Pithouse said that a “proper name” does not yet exist in academia. “Maybe it is in the struggle but not in the university,” said Pithouse, asking where the locus of academic work should be. “It’s a messy space, but it is the space if you are serious about struggle.”
Gautam Bhan, who teaches urban politics, planning and development at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, also looked inward at institutions such as universities to talk about the problem of inequality.
“Institutions have become predictable. We’ve lost the ability to fight with anyone that thinks another way … some of our thinking has to be about practice,” said the Berkeley-trained scholar (and former student of Ananya Roy), who has focused on the politics of poverty in India including urban displacement and affordable housing. Bhan described India’s contemporary politics of “you shouldn’t be here” to explain the predicament of the overwhelming majority of people who are unrecognized as residents and do not have a “right to the city.”
Black, Brown and Banished: Ending Urban Displacement in 21st Century Democracies
The first day of the institute’s inauguration concluded with an evening gathering at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles. It included a series of dramatic arts performances, and ended with a panel discussion on eviction/action featuring testimony of those who have both lived through and fought back against eviction.
The performances included a reading, Nonfiction Eviction Depiction: Excerpts from Oral History Transcripts, featuring Bernard Brown, Dorothy Dubrule and Robert Een; and a dance performance, “Champion,” featuring Valerie Braaten, Leanna Bremond, Timna Naim, Silvia Park, Raphael Smith and Bernard Brown, who also wrote and directed the performance.
The anti-eviction discussion included dramatic testimony from Ashraf Cassiem, of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa; Willie “JR” Fleming, with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign; Patricia Hill, also with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign; and Pete White, with the LA Community Action Network, who wore a t-shirt that said “This Is a Movement, Not a Moment.”
Fleming talked about his group’s campaign in Chicago, calling what was happening there an “urban and economic cleansing.” He proudly pointed out that the members of the anti-eviction campaign “broke the law to change the law.”
And Hill, a retired police officer and public school teacher, recounted how banks twice arbitrarily increased her mortgage payments on a house she had owned for years, almost forcing her and her children to move out, until the anti-eviction campaign stepped in and helped her save the home in 2011. “I’m still there,” she said to loud applause.
“This is about our responsibility to leave a world that’s better for our women and children,” Fleming said.
Debtors’ Prisons and Debtors’ Unions: Direct Action in Finance Capitalism
Hannah Appel is a UCLA scholar who describes herself as an economic anthropologist and an activist who looks at the daily life of finance capitalism and debt through different lenses: as “racialized social control” and as a “potential platform for collective action.” Appel, who also works with ongoing Occupy Wall Street projects such as Debt Collective, said her viewpoints are grounded and informed by her work as an organizer, thinker, critic and dreamer in this “particular moment in finance capitalism.”
“I want to talk about how capitalism shape shifts, about how attention to the everyday life of finance and its inverse, debt, offers unexpected opportunities for financial disobedience, rupture and transformation,” said Appel. She pointed out that while the debt financing of everything has rewarded the creditor class from the time of colonial plunder and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, today it has left the overwhelming majority of U.S. households with consumer debt. This debt includes college, health care, housing, “and even our own human caging, or incarceration,” said Appel. She also discussed the more virulent forms of debt like pay day loans — so-called high-interest, sub-prime world of “ghetto loans” to modern debtors prisons as described in U.S. cities such as Ferguson.
“In sum, questions of debt, colonialism and sovereignty within and beyond the U.S. are everywhere still with us,” she said.
But, Appel said, using the “economic imagination” envisions possibilities for radical action within and against finance capitalism, including disrupting the way debt is thought about, as shameful or moral failure. “In this terrain of mass indebtedness … what might economic disobedience look like?” she asked, pointing to the collective leverage of debt, which can be powerful, and which she said is taking hold in America.
“You get inspiration in the weirdest places,” said Appel, citing J.P. Getty: “If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.” Extending this to the more than $1.3 trillion in student debt, Appel said “Together, arguably, in different moments and different configurations, we can be the bank’s problem.”
Decolonizing the University
An international group of scholars and activists examined the role that the university plays now and can play in the future, not only as an outside, objective observer, but from within the institution.
Gaye Theresa Johnson, an associate professor of African American Studies and Chicano Studies at UCLA, has been active with the Los Angeles Community Action Network’s efforts for housing and civil rights in L.A.’s skid row area. The author of a book on “spatial entitlement “ in Los Angeles described the university as a site of invention and of contestation.
“We have to rethink the nature of knowledge itself. We have to do a psychic overhaul, really, of the perception of the work that we do,” said Johnson.
Camalita Naicker is a Ph.D. candidate from Rhodes University in South Africa, where she is studying the practice of popular politics in that country. She is also a student activist in the Black Student Movement at Rhodes, writing about urban land occupations and popular movements in South Africa. Her presentation questioned what an African university today should look like, what it should teach and being a black student in colonial space.
“Who teaches and what they teach matter,” said Naicker, asking what an affordable education in South Africa might look like in a decolonized university.
“Dominant knowledge produces and reproduces coloniality of knowledge and power,” said Carlos Vainer, an economist and sociologist at the Institute of Urban and Regional Planning and Research and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Hoping to put some “fingers in the wounds,” he included both universities and scholars as part of this dynamic in which “coloniality is co-essential to modernity, to capitalism.”
Vainer said that while the necessity of decolonizing the university is clear, how this is possible is not, pointing to both “new relations with non-academic knowledge” in the north and south as well as reciprocity of scholarship. “You must read us,” he said, citing the lack of translated scholarly works in his own country to use in mainstream academia.
Marques Vestal, a doctoral student in history at UCLA, grew up in Los Angeles, which provided him with an up-close view of black housing politics, culture and residential segregation. And, as a student, his interest is in the implications of private student debt, “a material relationship contrary to social justice,” which produces a mass of indebted students, he said.
“Indebtedness restricts movement,” and “makes commitments to social justice precarious,” said Vestal, describing what it is like for students whose education is “a commodity that must be purchased.”
The Audacity of Despair
David Simon, the journalist, screenwriter and producer of the award-winning HBO series “The Wire,” provided the exclamation point for the two-day inauguration of the institute. His appearance, part of the Luskin Lecture Series, entertained and informed the crowd at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater.
“As Mr. Simon’s creative and journalistic contributions indicate, the university is not the sole producer of knowledge,” Roy said as she introduced Simon. “It is not the sole mover of debates. But it has a role. And it has a responsibility.
“It is the role and responsibility of the university, among other actors, to challenge policies, to contest the willful separation of two separate societies, and, perhaps, to acknowledge how we might also be complicit in producing and perpetuating those policies,” Roy added.
After a screening of an episode of “Show Me A Hero,” another Simon series on HBO, he spoke passionately about, among other things:
The war on drugs: “It was a war about dangerous narcotics, but in truth it was a war on the poor.”
Democracy: “Democracy itself is centrist and incremental. If you’re doing the right things, it gets a little better every day. If you’re doing the wrong things, it gets a little worse every day. Freedom is never won entirely.”
And what can be done: “The only solution for bad government or a weak democracy is better government and a stronger democracy — to have a democracy start to engage democratic ideals, representative ideals and to represent the entire society. It’s all hard work. There’s no singular moment. Let’s start by getting rid of the drug war. That’s job one.”
Finally, Simon gave a heartfelt blessing and endorsement to the new Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin.
“I’m very enamored of the idea of this institute being here,” Simon said. “I can’t think of anything that a university can do that would be more important than to address these issues and to argue these issues.”
By George Foulsham
Fractured. Rigged. Tragic.
David Simon uses those words often as he describes what’s become of America, or, as he puts it, our “two Americas.”
Simon, a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun who left the paper and became a successful television screenwriter and producer, was the capstone of the two-day inauguration of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. His keynote address at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater was part of the Luskin Lecture Series.
The event also featured a screening of one episode of the Simon-penned HBO series “Show Me a Hero.” Simon is perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed series on HBO, “The Wire.”
“‘The Wire’ showed us that the court of law, the police station, the city bureaucracy are as much a part of the game as the street,” said Ananya Roy, director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, who introduced Simon. “And the game, as the line in ‘The Wire’ goes, is rigged.”
Simon’s themes and messages, conveyed through his writing and television shows, reflect in many ways the mission of the new institute.
“How do we do a better job of living together?” Roy asked. “This is a question that animates David Simon’s work. How do we live together in the context that David Simon has described as two separate Americas? Simon’s artistic and journalistic work reminds us that the creation of these two separate societies is by will. It’s by policy, by plan.”
Simon’s lecture was titled “The Audacity of Despair,” which also happens to be the name of his blog, a self-described collection of “prose, links and occasional venting from David Simon.”
During his Luskin Lecture, Simon covered a broad range of topics, from politics to activism to police. And, yes, he did a little venting.
“Nothing quite works in this very complicated and tragic and rigged system, if you believe that one singular ideology gets you out of every problem,” Simon said. “I think that one of the great plagues of our age is that right now there are any number of people — and I think we are witnessing it in this election cycle — who think they can explain what ails us and why we are so fractured, in a single paragraph.
“If you have an ideology that works in every set of circumstances,” he added, “you’re probably about to say something stupid. Or do something stupid.”
His experience as a newspaper journalist informed his screenwriting, and his views about policing, as well as the war on drugs.
“I know a lot of good cops who will tell you that the drug war destroyed us,” Simon said. “They sold us this drug war, and we committed our resources to it, and we bought it.
“When we are talking about the drug war, law enforcement issues and mass incarceration, I ask the question of whether or not poor communities are over-policed or under-policed,” he added. “The consensus was over-policed. It’s complicated. It’s in the complications that we lose ourselves.
“I’ve heard in the activism that we don’t need the police. I’ve heard that we don’t need the prisons,” Simon said. “The answer is these communities are brutally over-policed to the point of consigning hundreds of thousands to criminal histories. And yet these communities are utterly under-policed, for the things they desperately need.”
Simon also reflected on his experiences while covering the police in his hometown, Baltimore, and how not much has changed.
“I don’t believe in community policing,” he said. “If you want social work, hire a social worker. A good police department does one thing to make a city better. It figures out the right guy to arrest, and it takes him off the corner. If you get killed in Baltimore, you will not be avenged, and your family will not be avenged. But, more than that, the guy who killed people will still be standing on the corner with a gun. And he’ll do it again.”
Simon, who also wrote the television series “Treme,” which aired for four seasons on HBO, put a lens on democracy, and how it’s changed.
“(Winston) Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government, until you consider every alternative,” Simon said. “I think my critique would be, what’s fallen by the wayside, what we’ve permitted to become a shell of democratic ideal, because we’ve been able to construct these two Americas where the rules can be applied differently. That has to be deconstructed.”
Simon closed by issuing a challenge to all attending the lecture, saying that a simple act of civil disobedience would help bring an end to the war on drugs.
“If you are asked to be on a jury, on nonviolent drug use, and they ask you to send another human being to prison because of this disaster of a drug policy, acquit. No matter what the evidence is, acquit,” Simon said. “Search your conscience. Is my country really going to get better for putting another person in prison for nonviolent drug use? Does that make America stronger or weaker?”
The Luskin Lecture Series
The UCLA Luskin Lecture Series enhances public discourse on topics relevant to the betterment of society. The series features renowned public intellectuals, bringing scholars as well as national and local leaders to address society’s most pressing problems. Lectures encourage interactive, lively discourse across traditional divides between the worlds of research, policy and practice. The series demonstrates UCLA Luskin’s commitment to encouraging innovative breakthroughs and creative solutions to formidable policy challenges.
In 2014, the Chicago Housing Authority opened its public housing waitlist for the first time since 2010, and its housing voucher waitlist for the first time since 2008. More than a quarter of Chicago households applied. Meanwhile, more than 55,000 homes sat vacant in Chicago and the surrounding county.
The Luskin School of Public Affairs will launch an interdisciplinary institute Thursday that aims to address social inequality issues by promoting social justice and democratic ideas.
A new kind of Institute has come to UCLA. Led by Ananya Roy, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs professor and center director, the newly established Institute on Inequality and Democracy will launch on Feb. 4–5 with two days of events at UCLA and the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.
By Stan Paul
On day one of teaching her first UCLA undergraduate course, “Democracy and Inequality,” award-winning scholar, author and teacher Ananya Roy wasted no time getting right to a key point. Roy wanted to convey to students that “unprecedented forms of income inequality currently afoot in the United States have been produced through policies,” including taxation.
Roy describes her course, open to undergrads and grad students, as “taking up the case of persistent inequality in liberal democracies,” as well as covering key frameworks and methodologies for understanding and analyzing poverty and inequality. In doing so, she says that the already very popular course examines forms of action — from the role of government to social movements — that seek to intervene in such problems.
“It is important for us to recognize that various forms of inequality, be it income inequality or racial inequality, have been constructed and maintained,” said Roy, who joined UCLA in 2015 after many years on the faculty at UC Berkeley. And, her own discipline is not free of culpability, according to Roy. Urban planning, she said, is also “complicit in the production of racial inequality,” citing redlining and other forms of spatial segregation as examples.
But, Roy said, “The good news is these forms of inequality can also be challenged and tackled.”
At UC Berkeley, Roy held the Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice. Her course on global poverty regularly drew hundreds of undergrads each year, and, in 2010, The New Yorker called the advocate of public higher education “one of Berkeley’s star teachers.” The dynamic instructor, who also uses social media to encourage her students to think about their participation in public debate, also earned the Distinguished Teaching Award, the university’s highest faculty teaching honor, and the Distinguished Faculty Mentorship Award.
Roy is also a prolific author. Her book “Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development” won the 2011 Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, given for books that promote participatory planning and positive social change. Other titles include “City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty” and, most recently, “Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South.”
Roy recently joined an international group of scholars as the co-editor of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR), published by Wiley-Blackwell.
Launch of New Center on Inequality and Democracy
In addition to teaching as a professor of Urban Planning and Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Roy will serve as the inaugural director of the new Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. The center will be launched with two days of events, Feb. 4-5.
Roy has an ambitious — and still developing — task at UCLA, Luskin and the wider community. At the new institute, based within the Luskin School, she will oversee a multifaceted program of research, training and public scholarship concerned with both the current moment of inequality as well long histories of oppression and marginalization. With research interests ranging from social theory to comparative urban studies, Roy has dedicated much of her scholarship to understanding and analyzing persistent poverty in a prosperous but unequal world.
“The institute’s work is just getting started,” said Roy, but it will be quite different from similar centers and institutes at other universities. Key themes of the institute will be racial justice — and not only in economic terms — and thinking across the global north and south as opposed to focusing only on the U.S. or other countries. And, while the center will seek to “move the policy needle,” Roy said social movements will provide a guide as to how such change can take place.
“We recognize social change happens through the hard work of organizing and mobilizing. We also recognize social movements as producing key ideas, frameworks and approaches for diagnosing the public problems of our times.”
Another goal of the center is to create a space for debate. “I think the point we want to make is that it is necessary to have an intellectual space for debate within the left, within progressive and radical thought and action,” Roy said. “We hope the institute will be such a space. And Los Angeles is the ideal setting for such ambitions.
“It is a great privilege to be able to establish and direct this institute, to do so with a clear mandate for social justice, to do so at one of the world’s great public universities, and in a city that manifests enduring inequalities but is also home to inspiring forms of activism and mobilization.”
To learn more about the new Institute please visit the website at: http://challengeinequality.luskin.ucla.edu/
More about Ananya Roy
Born in Calcutta, India, Ananya Roy earned her bachelor’s degree at Mills College in Oakland, California, and her master’s and doctoral degrees at UC Berkeley. At UCLA Luskin, Roy holds the Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy and faculty appointments in Urban Planning and Social Welfare.
For a look at Professor Roy’s work in critical poverty studies, see #GlobalPOV: http://blumcenter.berkeley.edu/GlobalPov/