By Ananya Roy
Los Angeles is on the brink of one of the largest mass displacements in the history of the region. As eviction courts reopen, nearly half a million renter households, concentrated in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, are at risk of expulsion through unlawful detainers, or eviction filings—UD Day is here. In a deal struck with the landlord and banker lobbies, the California legislature has put forward tenant protections that postpone some evictions, keeping tenants in a state of permanent displaceability. In a cruel hoax, such protections convert unpaid rent into debt, turning the small-claims court into yet another arena of violence against working-class communities of color. Los Angeles is the paradigm, not the exception.
Writing from Los Angeles, I interpret the present conjuncture as emergency urbanism—the suturing of the ongoing “state of emergency” that is global racial capitalism with the declaration of emergency by the postcolonial state under the sign of public health. The most obvious manifestation of a public-health emergency is the COVID-19 pandemic and its racialized maps of infection and death that make visible the disposability of Black, Brown, and Indigenous life. But COVID-19 is conjoined with other takings of life. Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, explains the state of emergency thus: “That black folks across the country and the globe are systematically targeted, and that our lives are on the line on a daily basis, and, that, ultimately, this is a life and death issue for us.”1
The state of emergency has always been here. In Los Angeles, as well as in other US cities, working-class communities of color are subject to what I call “racial banishment,” the enactment of their expulsion and disappearance from urban life.2 It would be a mistake to understand such processes as gentrification or eviction, in other words, as market-driven displacement, for they are part of the through line of the forced removals of people of color. Racial banishment is state-organized violence, instituted through regimes of racialized policing, such as gang injunctions, nuisance abatement, and place-based surveillance.3 Taking place in the name of the state’s police power to protect the “free use of property” and ensure the “comfortable enjoyment of life and property,” such forms of policing secure dispossession and enable formations of settler urbanism.
The Black Lives Matter uprising seeks to make such racialized policing and the dispossession of life untenable. Alongside such uprising in the streets, a reconfiguration of the social and spatial arrangements that make up urban life is also underway. In particular, property has become the insurgent ground of emergency urbanism, a site of rebellion against global racial capitalism and its protocols of rent and debt. The question at hand is whether such emergency presents the opportunity for a radical reconfiguration of the relationships among sovereignty, life, and property that are so central to American liberal democracy.