Stories from the Research Sites
The anti-Trump protester in Miami
By Thijs Jeursen
[Miami, November, 2016] I took this picture of a man upholding his sign one more time right before the main anti-Trump demonstration in Miami would come to an end. It was around 10pm and hundreds of protesters had just walked several miles across a closed-off highway, blocking traffic in the downtown area and preventing cars crossing the bridge to Miami Beach. Local police motorcycles, cars, and helicopters redirected traffic and followed us along the way, illuminating the dark sky and concrete infrastructure with their red and blue alarm lights. Many protesters indicated it was a spontaneous, but nonetheless successful and peaceful event.
Miami has not exactly been known for its political engagement: unlike other major metropolitans in the US, there has been an absence of major anti-police or government protests in the city in the past two decades. It was therefore surprising to me when I found out this was happening and taking place just a couple blocks from where I was at the time. None of the main activists groups had announced it beforehand, but luckily a nearby Uber-taxi took me quickly to the scene. Three days after the 2016 elections, Miami’s residents collectively and publicly voiced their opinions, frustrations, and concerns.
Although the elections were not necessarily a crucial part of my fieldwork, voting is still considered to be an important aspect of the experience of citizenship. Earlier that day, I took a picture of a man who had crafted his own ballot, using carton and the front-page of the Miami Herald, the local newspaper, displaying the faces of both presidential candidates. Only one was circled. He stood outside a voting station, showing those who waited in line that he would have voted for Hillary Clinton if he had the required paperwork to enter the station and vote. Documented or undocumented, lawful or not, he felt the need to make his beliefs and values visible to others.
Over the course of my fieldwork in Miami, nearing 10 months in total now, I have begun to formulate a concept that I refer to as vigilant citizenship. In short, citizenship in general concerns the relationships and interactions between citizens, the idea of a state and nation, private companies and governmental representatives, such as the police. At the heart of these relationships are the distribution of rights and responsibility, in- and exclusivity, as well as the notion of collectivity.
When meanings of citizenship become increasingly framed in normative, universal, and legal terms, complications and contradictions come to the fore in everyday life. This brings me back to the man upholding the sign claiming that Trump does not represent American values, contesting normative ideas of what is good and what is bad. But what does ‘good citizenship’ mean in practice? Is protesting your newly elected president an example of this, or is it not? Are police officers, who perhaps voted for Trump, present to challenge or to protect the protesters? With the concept of vigilant citizenship I lay bare such struggles and negotiations between dominant perspectives and the practical realities of modern urban citizenship. If Trump does not represent ‘American values’, who or what does, and how are these values defined? And how do they play out during different occasions, including protests?
Find a Cop When He’s Alone
By Tessa Diphoorn
[Nairobi, May, 2015] I drove into the parking lot of a police station based in Nairobi’s affluent western neighborhoods, ready to join the police and a private security company on one of their nightly joint-patrols. I was punctual and exactly on time, but Paulus, my contact person and the supervisor of the private security company in question, had just send me an sms, telling me that he would be there in about half an hour. I decided to get out of the car and wait for him in the station.
As I was about to step out of my car, a police officer tapped on my window and asked me to wind it down. After I did so, he asked me what I was doing there: I explained that I am a researcher who had made plans with Paulus to join them on their night patrol. I was expecting a frown, a confused look, suspicion, or outright hostility, as this had been the most common reaction from police officers. Yet the complete opposite occurred: he smiled, eagerly shook my hand, introduced himself to me as Nick, and said, “You are most welcome”.
He then motioned for me to get out of the car and we walked towards the entrance of the station. On a small patio by the front door, he gestured at me to sit in one of the four half-broken chairs. I chose the one that looked the sturdiest and Nick sat in the other chair right next to me, leaving only a few centimeters between us. He told me that he was alone at the station, because the other two officers were elsewhere to transport a prisoner. I mentioned that I didn’t want to disturb him, but he said that he was happy he had someone to talk to, and that is exactly what he did.
For the next hour or so, while I waited for Paulus, Nick did nothing but talk. He told me about his childhood, why he wanted to become a police officer, his history in the police and movement between different units, his different levels and types of training, what it takes to be a good police officer, his perspective on private security and community-policing initiatives, and all other things that are on the topic list I use when interviewing police officers. Throughout the entire time, I asked maybe four or five questions, but primarily I just listened, nodded, and laughed at his jokes. When Paulus finally showed up, I was rather disappointed to end this conversation, especially when I heard that Nick had station duty and would not be joining us. When I said goodbye to Nick, he grabbed my hand and said, “Please come again, you are always welcome”.
A few days later, an ex-police officer and very helpful informant, phoned me and said he had disappointing news. During our last interview, he had promised to get me in touch with at least one, but he was hoping two, higher-ranking police officers for me to interview. But he “had failed”, he said, and “no cop was keen for an interview”. After repeatedly apologizing, he then said, “Best thing Tess – go to a station at night and find a cop when he’s alone. Then they’ll talk”. Nick’s smiley face appeared in my mind, and I smiled and thought – Yes, find a cop when he’s alone.
Baseballbatman: a Story of Miami’s Vigilant Citizens
By Thijs Jeursen
[Miami, April, 2015] According to the Neighborhood-O-Meter of Miami-Dade County, I live on the border between what is categorized as an orange and yellow neighborhood. Based upon information from governmental agencies, public and open source data, as well as additional research and community feedback, the map is “showing from the best areas to the places to avoid”. The category where I live in suggests that my area scores relatively low in terms of safety, poverty, and amenities. As a result, my neighborhood largely consists of mostly “bad areas that are considered unsafe”.
In my daily routines, which involve walking, biking, and driving during various times of the day and night, I have found the neighborhood relatively calm, or even extremely quiet compared to the center of Amsterdam where I live. It is a predominantly residential area with mostly single-family houses with gardens, sometimes with fences, and no high-rises. Although some neighbors mingle, and hangout at each other’s front yard, the majority of residents is only outside when they have to walk to their car. My roommate, born and raised in Miami, knows some of the residents in our street by name, but we seldom talk to them in addition to exchanging formalities. In the two months that I have lived here, I have not experienced anything out of the ordinary that seems to characterize my direct surroundings.
The only exception so far has been the event of Baseballbatman, which is the alias my roommate currently uses when he refers to our next-door neighbor, Tyrone. Recently, Tyrone was walking around with a baseball bat around the house right in front us. The house, which belongs to Mr. Richardson, does not have a fence and Tyrone was making a lap around the house and he inspected windows and doors. We almost always have the blinds down in front of our windows, but this time they were up as we watch Tyrone from our living room. We are unsure what to do and hesitate to call the police. Before we decide to do anything however, Tyrone notices us and walks back to pick up some palm leafs from the ground and throws them next to the garbage container. He approaches us and explains that he saw somebody else around the house before, and that he is checking if nobody was breaking in. Apparently, somebody has also messed with the electricity wires at the back of Mr. Richardson’s house, further supporting his story.
His explanation of why he was walking around with a baseball bat illustrates a larger paradigm in which citizens are encouraged to be vigilant. Police officers have to cover a large area in relative little time, while residents can function as the eyes and ears of the police the whole day. As a result, they are more familiar with regularities and certain patterns and characteristics of their neighbors. Although no organization or law enforcement agency obviously encourages anyone to walk around with a baseball bat, Tyrone’s excuse is illustrative of the idea that it is legit to look out for any suspicious behavior and events that appear out of the ordinary, or anyone that does not belong in the area.
Not much later, another neighbor comes up to us who we call Cheeky for a reason I do not know. Cheeky is a police officer and also witnessed Tyrone walking around as well as followed our short interaction with him. Based on his observations, experience as an officer, and the criminal records he looked into, he provides a different interpretation. Tyrone is on house arrest and walks around with an ankle bracelet, which means he cannot go beyond a certain distance from his house. According to Cheeky, Tyrone was walking around to look if he could break in himself because he has little to no money right now. Moreover, Cheeky warns us that some of our houses is going to get broken into sooner or later, which he already experienced three times in the past years. He also ensures us that he will shoot Tyrone if he comes onto his property. When he leaves, the landlady calls. She lived here before us and knows both neighbors. “Cheeky is just paranoid”, she says, “don’t believe everything he tells you”.
I believe the short story shows the dilemma of who to believe and how to act in light of omnipresent information. It does so by discussing the local dynamics in which three actors, my roommate and myself, Tyrone, and Cheeky, all appear as a vigilant citizen. This has manifested itself in different ways: we have three security cameras and a live feed on our cell phones, Tyrone has a baseball bat, and Cheeky has weapons and access to certain statistical information. It shows how we all three negotiate and interpret our rights, for example property rights and stand-your-ground law, and responsibilities of what constitutes a ‘good neighbor’. The example also addresses the larger question of how different forms of knowledge, in terms of crime maps, police reports, rumors, interacts and affects our perceptions of the same neighborhood.
In the end, I believe that the individual is increasingly held responsible for gathering this ‘knowledge’ and making him or herself familiar with the dangers and appropriate responses she or he could face. This might further fuel a desire to make the unknown known, and identify any ‘strangers’ around us, which could strengthen our believes of who does and does not belong in a neighborhood, as well as how one is supposed to act in them.
*All names have been altered for privacy concerns.