Social Control

Scene: me sitting on a stoop in a back alley parallel to Conti St., Iberville apartments, New Orleans, USA (the USA part is important).

Pigeons are pecking at the mud around the driveway while smaller birds dart among them. A young man washes his car a few doors down. Across from him a woman sits talking on her cellphone. It's bright and sunny. I'm leafing through a notebook waiting for a friend to arrive. My friend lives in Iberville, the city's last big traditional public housing development. We work together on housing rights and economic rights issues.

A police cruiser pulls up in front of me. The officer, slouched down comfortably in his seat removes his ray-ban glasses, looks out of the corner of his eyes and gives me a hand signal, his fingers barley curling back while his palm pulls toward his chin, like some Marlon Brando tough guy godfather beckoning "come here." I can hardly hear what he actually says, but it's something like "get over here."

"Good afternoon officer."

"What you doing back here?"

"Excuse me?"

"Where do you stay at? I don't recognize you. Why are you here?"

"I'm waiting on a friend."

"You're trespassing."

"Um, this is public property and I'm waiting on a friend. We have an appoint...."

"This is private property. You're trespassing. You have ID? Give it to me."

[I pull out my license and hand it to officer so-and-so who instantly begins running it.]

"You ever been to jail."


"For what? Drugs?"

"I don't do drugs. Do you do drugs?"

[Officer so-and-so don't like that one, he looks over at me square in the eyes.]

"You're trespassing. This is not public property. It's private property, HANO property. You understand that?"

"The Housing Authority is a public entity. This is federal land. I understand that there are restrictions, but I came back here to meet a friend who lives here. There's nothing illega...."

"You're trespassing. Look, I ain't ever seen you back here before. People who don't live back here only come back here for a few things, and they ain't good. How do you know this, er, your friend? What's their name?"

"We work together. Her name is _______"

[Officers so-and-so pulls down a big list from his sun visor and begins scanning it. Police who patrol New Orleans public housing developments have complete lists of the lease holders and other authorized residents. If you're not on the list or you don't know someone on the list, you'll be taken to jail for trespassing. He finds my friend's name and seems annoyed that I'm telling the truth, but still rolls the idea of arresting me over in his head a few times.]

"What do you mean you work together?"

"I'm an organizer. I work on housing rights issues. For example, last I checked this is the United States and we have a constitution, and it guarantees freedom of association. Some would say you riding around arbitrarily stopping people you don't recognize and running their IDs and telling them they're 'trespassing' is a violation of the freedom of association...."

"Look, you might have some fancy words for all this stuff, but you're trespassing and I don't arbitrarily enforce any rules. It applies all the same to everyone...."

"Okay, so do you cruise around Uptown pulling people over for being in certain neighborhoods, and do you ask them for ID and who they know who stays back there? Do your rules apply to people who live in those new fancy apartments they just built up off Tulane Ave.?"

"How'd you get here, you walk?"

"I rode my bike."

[His computer pops up my record which is clean as a whistle, thank goodness. He hands me back my ID.]

"I've been working back here twelve years. You have no idea the kind of stuff that happens back here. I see someone new, I'm going to stop them."

"I've been stopped by you all back here before. Each time it's the same. Maybe if there weren't so much energy put into making this place like a prison, and more put into keeping the grounds nice and providing good, affordable housing there'd be less crime, then you could take it easy...."

[Iberville swarms with police. The development is slated to have dozens of "crime cameras" installed soon. It's trespassing laws are only the tip of the iceberg so far as the social control mechanisms in place that make living it it very difficult. Other developments have even stricter rules banning music outside, drinking on your porch, banning guests after certain times, and holding residents responsible for litter on the grass in front of their buildings. My friend and I have actively campaigned for the repeal of these draconian laws. Residents can be evicted over things as simple as littler or a misdemeanor drug offense committed by a family member. Over in the Guste development I once met a woman who was afraid to change the head nozzle on her shower for fear that she would get in trouble during her inspection.]

"I don't know about that but it sounds like something you should fight in court. Out here the rules are the rules, the law is the law."

"I can imagine, that sounds fair enough. I appreciate you're concern and the work you do keeping residents safe from outsiders, but don't you think...."

"Look, watch yourself."

[Officer so-and-so drives off. Around the corner some young-dumb white boy with a scenesterish mustache is passed out shit-faced drunk in a gutter between two cars. He's wearing a tight fitting red dress, tennis shoes, and is drooling a mighty pool. Police cars and an ambulance are arriving to carry him off. Another tourist who wandered off Bourbon St. and across Rampart]

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