Friday, March 30, 2012

Gated Community Mentality

So much has been written in the last few days about Trayvon Martin's death, that everything I might add seems superfluous. But this New York Times piece by Rich Benjamin is really worth a read.

I remember interviewing for an academic position at an excellent academic institution located in an area where gated communities proliferated. As part of my interview, I had a chance to talk to the local grad students for an hour. One of them asked me, "what don't you like about the campus so far?" I replied that I'd strolled around campus in the morning and didn't see a single living person in the streets. "Oh, there are no streets," the students said. "Everyone lives behind gates."

Here's Benjamin's experience:

From 2007 to 2009, I traveled 27,000 miles, living in predominantly white gated communities across this country to research a book. I threw myself into these communities with gusto — no Howard Johnson or Motel 6 for me. I borrowed or rented residents’ homes. From the red-rock canyons of southern Utah to the Waffle-House-pocked exurbs of north Georgia, I lived in gated communities as a black man, with a youthful style and face, to interview and observe residents.

The perverse, pervasive real-estate speak I heard in these communities champions a bunker mentality. Residents often expressed a fear of crime that was exaggerated beyond the actual criminal threat, as documented by their police department’s statistics. Since you can say “gated community” only so many times, developers hatched an array of Orwellian euphemisms to appease residents’ anxieties: “master-planned community,” “landscaped resort community,” “secluded intimate neighborhood.”

No matter the label, the product is the same: self-contained, conservative and overzealous in its demands for “safety.” Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders. These bunker communities remind me of those Matryoshka wooden dolls. A similar-object-within-a-similar-object serves as shelter; from community to subdivision to house, each unit relies on staggered forms of security and comfort, including town authorities, zoning practices, private security systems and personal firearms.

Residents’ palpable satisfaction with their communities’ virtue and their evident readiness to trumpet alarm at any given “threat” create a peculiar atmosphere — an unholy alliance of smugness and insecurity. In this us-versus-them mental landscape, them refers to new immigrants, blacks, young people, renters, non-property-owners and people perceived to be poor.

Benjamin goes on to discuss how this real-estate mentality translates itself to criminal justice concepts, where the increased privatized justice system touches public criminal doctrine:

“Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” laws like Florida’s expand the so-called castle doctrine, which permits the use of deadly force for self-defense in one’s home, as long as the homeowner can prove deadly force was reasonable. Thirty-two states now permit expanded rights to self-defense.

In essence, laws nationwide sanction reckless vigilantism in the form of self-defense claims. A bunker mentality is codified by law.

Those reducing this tragedy to racism miss a more accurate and painful picture. Why is a child dead? The rise of “secure,” gated communities, private cops, private roads, private parks, private schools, private playgrounds — private, private, private —exacerbates biased treatment against the young, the colored and the presumably poor.

This is true, but there's more to it. I think the gated regime of locking oneself in, and the "my home is my castle" mentality, harms the white and affluent as well as the poor, minority "outsiders," albeit not to the same extent. This atomistic, non-organic way of interacting with one's surroundings is bound to suffocate and limit one's human experiences in ways whose intangible price we pay not only with Trayvon Martin's life, but in public discourse, partisanism, intellectual property and social boredom.

Finally, the perception that gated communities are safer, or have less crime, than cities is problematic when one considers the proper definition of crime. Think about sexual assault, domestic violence, drug abuse in the privacy of one's home, and the countless ways in which people who know each other, and often live with each other, can abuse each other behind closed doors, guaranteeing not only a lower rate of detection but also underreporting by victims. A quote from Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind:

["]It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

"You horrify me!"

"But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

Thinking of this in the context of Benjamin's piece is sobering and disturbing.

Props to Amir Paz-Fuchs for the link.

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