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Hollywood, the Police and the Poor

The white affluent and usually liberal audience for films such as Nightcrawler, experience no cognitive dissonance in such depictions of urban life.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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Urban spaces are racialized. In spite of the gentrification processes displacing the racialized poor and working classes, it has become very difficult to negate the continued disenfranchisement, incarceration, and killing of black and brown bodies.

In fact, gentrification processes likely exacerbated the economic and social tensions that existed prior to the ‘urban renewal’ trends present across the United States. Although the post-racial understanding of urban space has erased the relevance of race in both the popular imaginary and its embodied presence, these moments of social crisis serve as the physical and material manifestations of the tensions that processes such as gentrification aim to ignore.

The freeways constructed through urban spaces were originally meant to connect white suburban spaces to the financial and industrial enterprises located in the metropolis. However, as the gentrification processes increase, the freeway is used to connect young, white professionals living downtown or in recently renewed urban spaces, to their high-paying tech jobs or to weapons manufacturing sites located in isolated islands of wealth in the urban periphery, like San Diego’s La Jolla, and Sorrento Valley or the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.

Even though the city is imagined as post-racial, California’s freeways still play an essential role in dividing urban space along racial lines. In Los Angeles, the recently gentrified downtown area is divided from East Los Angeles by a river and five freeways. In San Diego, working-class immigrant City Heights is divided from gentrified queer and bohemian districts Hillcrest and North Park by the 805 Freeway; Barrio Logan is separated from the famous Gaslamp District in downtown by the 5 Freeway and Coronado Bridge. In the Bay Area, the black working-class neighborhood of West Oakland is encircled by the 80, 880, and 580 Freeways, which separate it from the gentrifying East Oakland on the border of Berkeley.

Although these freeways are finally beginning to fail as barriers to gentrification, they still serve as some of the last clearly understood markers of an ‘us and them’ in post-racial urban space.
– Jael Vizcarra and Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis

Tiny particles of air pollution contain more hazardous ingredients in nonwhite and low-income communities than in affluent white ones, a new study shows. The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds, such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc, are in the mix of fine particles they breathe.

Latinos had the highest exposures to the largest number of these ingredients, while whites generally had the lowest . . . ‘Numerous studies indicate that some particles are more harmful than others,’ said lead author Michelle Bell, a professor of environmental health at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The particles people breathe include a variety of metals and chemicals, depending on their source. For instance, people living near refineries are exposed to more nickel and vanadium, while those near coal-fired power plants breathe particles with higher sulfate content. Neighborhoods along busy roads have more nitrates from vehicle exhaust.
– Cheryl Katz, Environmental News

The new military urbanism feeds on experiments with styles of targeting and technology in colonial war zones such as Gaza or Baghdad, or security operations at international sports events or political summits. These operations act as testing grounds for technology and techniques to be sold on through the world’s burgeoning homeland security markets.
– Stephen Graham

I recently watched the new Dan Gilroy film Nightcrawler. It’s a film getting hugely favorable reviews. I may not even disagree with these reviews, per se. Maybe what was unsettling was seeing it this particular week.

There is no more stark example of Hollywood and corporate media mystification than the presentation of American landscape in film and TV. This is true of both contemporary narratives, and of period pieces. And, really, of fantasy and futuristic stories. The vast majority of TV shows is set either in Los Angeles or New York. There are certainly exceptions, often Chicago is a stand in for New York, and San Francisco has long been a staple, but with only a handful of exceptions do cities such as Atlanta or Milwaukee or Philadelphia or Orlando or Cleveland become the backdrop for big-budget projects.

The point is that the consumer of Hollywood product is presented with an LA of the corporate mind (or NY). These film representations almost unintentionally intensify racial and class divides that actually exist. They also, of course, create fantasy relationships between real spaces and locales. “Ray Donovan,” on Showtime, is a perfect example of fantasy space presented as real. And freeways play a huge part in this.

As far back as the ’70s, Michel Foucault wrote of an internal colonization of the poor. Today, this has taken on an almost genocidal elimination of what is viewed as a troublesome surplus population.

As Kokinis and Vizcarra point out, freeways are the arteries for moving produce and material, and military equipment, while at the same time balkanizing various racial and class sectors of the population by erecting physical barriers. Anyone who has lived in Los Angeles knows that no freeway was built running through such rich westside communities of Beverly Hills, Brentwood or Santa Monica, despite the obvious need. The “Santa Monica Freeway” should better be called the north Watts Freeway.

Freeways run through ghetto and barrio, and not through white elite neighborhoods because freeways are huge ugly concrete barriers, and they reduce real estate value and add pollution. In TV and film, the freeway is only a fantasy. In Nightcrawler, – an attempt to create an ironic and cynical look at media – among its greatest dishonesties is the way driving is seen as congestion-free, and apparently free of traffic policing. One cannot arrive at a shooting ahead of the police, not by 20 minutes anyway; but more, one cannot drive at 110 mph through Brentwood or Bel Air or even rich parts of the San Fernando Valley without attracting police attention. Pretending surveillance doesn’t exist can be useful for screenwriters. The real scenario played out on the streets of El Lay is far more nightmarish than such soft film satire allows. Where were those private security cops one sees in every affluent neighborhood in the United States?

The protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are bringing home images of urban decay along with the other more direct messages. Much as Israeli space is bisected by highway/barrier, and by default, creating barren scorched earth space in between centers of approved living (for Israelis, not Arabs), so the US freeway and highways system has evolved into class divisions and escape routes for rich, white-collar workers to move between gated home communities and urban business spaces or industrial parks.

The far suburbs of Los Angeles tend to reflect the same sense of driving between outposts of safety and through denuded hostile concrete roads and walls. The strip mall is the signature architectural expression of 21st century western America. But even in more vertical eastern cities, the roads and bridges now serve as containment sites. The highway or freeway is now the conduit for both literal and commercial product, but also symbolically it is a concrete leviathan, the sign of carbon excess and of a new siege mentality of the militarized police.

There are other sorts of selective omissions in Hollywood narratives. Rarely is anyone exhausted after work. Rarely does anyone suffer traffic congestion, which is another mentally debilitating aspect of travel to and from work. Rarely do those using public transportation in film suffer the heat, the crowdedness, and especially the policing that the underclass experience daily. The oppressive, intentionally intimidating, police presence and CCTV, if they appear at all, appear in the guise of welcome security. All this points up that the p.o.v. of Hollywood is the p.o.v. of Hollywood producers.

My experience with producers in Hollywood has been one in which, as a class, these are people willfully ignorant of the world around them if it is outside their very narrow familiar neighborhoods. In LA, that means Brentwood, Bel Air, Westwood, Santa Monica, maybe now Venice, and Holmby Hills, Rolling Hills, Coldwater Canyon, Mandeville Canyon, and then to some degree, Marina del Rey, Cheviot Hills (rich but not a Hollywood area necessarily), Hancock Park, Beverly Grove and Ladera Heights. The point of view in film and TV is that of someone who lunches in Beverly Hills or on Larchmont or in Westwood maybe. They take ski vacations, go to film festivals, like Sundance, and Aspen and Toronto maybe. Many go to Venice and Cannes. The point is that these are all areas for which certain corridors exist.

Nobody living in Coldwater Canyon works in Pico Rivera or Southgate. Nobody living in Holmby Hills or lower Bel Air drives to their work in Santa Fe Springs or Paramount or Bellflower. The stories of LA are not centered in Rosemead or Lennox or Whittier or Rowland Heights. People in fact do drive the other direction to work. From Pico Rivera to Beverly Hills, if you are a maid or gardener. But that is why almost every film out of Hollywood that attempts to tell a story about working-class life in the barrio or ghetto fails, feels curiously dislocated, and *sees* Southern California through a lens that is situated in the elite westside somewhere. The migratory traffic patterns of Los Angeles reflect a hierarchical system of labor.

In Boyle Heights, where the population is 90 percent Hispanic, the borders are all freeways. Five freeways surround this city in East Los Angeles. Additionally there are auto repair shops, chroming shops, auto glass and four rail yards. The commercial materials that reach downtown and Orange County mostly come through one of these freeways or through one of the rail yards.

Boyle Heights was once a leftist enclave of Jewish working-class emigres, but bank redlining and the building of freeways disrupted many families, as well as stalling bank loans. There was a distinct Native American population there as well. And some Armenians.

Boyle Heights was the area most emigres went to first when they arrived in LA. This was before WWII. But this is the fate of secondary areas just outside the urban center. LA was never quite like other cities, in that there was barely what might be called an urban core, but still, anything close to downtown LA was early on linked to finance and to the Chandler family and the Los Angeles Times.

The point here is that downtown today has been rebranded, gentrified and effectively cordoned off from poorer areas to the south, east and even north. Many living in, say, Boyle Heights, wake and drive west to work. Across the concrete LA river and into downtown, or onto one of those five freeways. There is no quick route heading west. There are only de facto road blocks, in essence. The city views are different. And they are not the views familiar to audiences of Hollywood film.

I can’t count the number of films (including Nightcrawler) where lead characters live on one of two streets in Echo Park, with steep inclines and a view of downtown. There must be 30, 40, maybe more, films that are shot from one of these streets, near or on Quintero St. This is a rapidly gentrifying area. The influx of film crews is, in fact, a less noted phenomenon in enforced gentrification.

In reality, the implied stability that is the starting point of most Hollywood product is actually effective containment and subjugation of the poor.

When I lived in what is now termed the loft district of downtown LA, there were only a couple former industrial sites that had been turned into artist lofts. Within six or seven years, there were 20, maybe more, and the intent was to get rid of poor artists, the better to turn those industrial spaces into luxury condo-like spaces and quadruple the rents.

Film crews would come in and shoot all night, with high-beam lights directed at your windows and lots of noise. One had to park a half-mile away from your own loft, even if you had a private parking space. God forbid one interrupt a crucial take of a new music video, or an episode of whatever was popular at the moment. As this area drove out artists, the rent in some cases went up 500 percent. The poor moved east and south to those areas, off Alameida Street, in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway, and on toward the industrial designate census area of Vernon. Or they went out toward the desert, to Redlands and San Bernadino.

There are still wide swatches of empty semi-industrial land that way, but its invisible to location scouts in Hollywood. Some of the most beautiful and historic architecture in Southern California is east of downtown, though East LA, Boyle Heights, Glassel Park or down all the way to Whittier, La Habra, Rosemead and farther still to Azuza or Downey. But these are working-class areas, polluted, with bad air, heavy congested traffic, and noise. They are Latino, and black, and Vietnamese and Belizean. They are not in those hip movies made by rich white guys who live in “prefered” zip codes.

The protests now following the rather obviously rigged grand jury system are, I think, taking on additional resonance because of the image circulation, courtesy of cellphones. There are a lot of images. A lot of them of people shutting down freeways. And often in areas of white privilege. The narratives of Hollywood are white supremacist. This is hardly open to debate anymore I don’t think. And they reinforce an image of the world that reflects their own world.

The desire in the white population for order is just a sublimated aggression toward the poor.

It is an LA of the mind, and a New York largely reflecting the overall gentrification of that city so that it’s hard to know how one might actually film Manhattan honestly today. There is a curious forced nostalgia at work in establishment film today. Whether it’s NY crime stories, or LA, or New Orleans, or even Chicago, and this nostalgia is expressed by the sound of accents that long ago ceased to exist. Nobody talks like Brooklyn circa 1945 anymore. Not unless you’re in an old folks home.

There has been a homogenizing of dialect and accent in the United States, just as there has been a homogenizing of face via cosmetic surgery. Today, one of the manufactured *effects* employed by corporate entertainment is to create a Disneyfication of place. People sound slightly (or a lot) exaggerated, and their accents fluctuate a good deal, but no matter, for in a strange way, the inserting of this effect to replace actual historical sound of place is another way of erasing those markers used in a mimetic navigation of narrative. Now, I suspect a lot of people will dismiss such stuff as exaggerated or unreal, but I think in fact that everyone deep down knows it true. The sound of spoken language has blurred into a kind of generalized mush, the same as digital pixils ends up as mush if looked at too closely.

The image coming from protests, as well as the occasional sound, is not meant for aesthetic contemplation, but it resonates because of a quality of heterogeneity that is largely missing in *entertainment*.

The poor are again seen as they were in Victorian England, as carriers of pestilence and disease.

I see the faces of people of color, women of color especially, and I see working-class faces of all colors, and these are faces largely erased today unless they are being criminalized. Also visible is the ugly face of a militarized police force. As far back as the ’70s, Michel Foucault wrote of an internal colonization of the poor. Today, this has taken on an almost genocidal elimination of what is viewed as a troublesome surplus population.

The new booming security industry has borrowed not just techniques but ideology from Israeli practices of control, and this extends to an intensified lethality in policing. Shoot to kill is now routine. There is an obvious racial cast to this for the most unwanted population is the one most criminalized in media – black youth. The depiction of crime in Hollywood is predicated on what I mentioned above; a white supremacist model. And this is, as Sally Howell and Andrew Shryock labled it, “inner city Orientalism.”

Even when villains are not black or Latino, they function as place holders for black and latino models. This is how ideology works. The public is treated to endless depictions of black and latino gang members threatening the stability of middle-class (white) life. When a villain is Russian or Serb, he or she is only filling in for an association of crime already established as primarily black and Latino. In reality, the implied stability that is the starting point of most Hollywood product is actually effective containment and subjugation of the poor. There is an internalized fear and anxiety in the affluent public today that anticipates disruption, after all they’ve seen it almost daily on TV and in film. This anticipation is racially designated.

White people *expect* black and brown to engage in disruption. The smallest step out of the prescribed model of normal is immediately perceived as criminal. Surveillance, however effective it is, or not, stands importantly as a symbol of a new inner vigilance on the part of the white population. The police view the poor in terms of expected threat, a sort of risk management model. At the bottom of this perception model is the protection of property, and more the protection of the movement of goods. This is now a culture of predictive policing, of surveillance, and of the elimination of those causing unrest.

The white affluent and usually liberal audience for films such as Nightcrawler, experience no cognitive dissonance in such depictions of urban life. The police policies now in place in urban areas of the US, akin to low-intensity warfare in places like Baghadad, are invisible in this film and largely in all Hollywood film. Yet for poor black and brown families the reality of police violence is lived with every minute of every day. As the Holiday season arrives the class divide is even more acutely experienced. The poor are not good consumers, hence security around up-market malls and shopping areas will be intensified. The long-term consequences are of no concern since the solution is always to just build more prisons.

Non-state security firms are hired exterminators, essentially.

One of the ways in which Hollywood influences perception is by reinforcing experience of space in the city. Borders are not just literal, but symbolic as well. There are gated areas even when you can’t see gates. The affluent white population *expects* boundaries. And in Hollywood product these boundaries are established by erasure. The desire in the white population for order is just a sublimated aggression toward to the poor. The ownership class’ inner nervousness is handed over to private security and the police, and their job is to eliminate any threat to disruption.

This means pre-emptive policing, and this is coupled to the shoot-to-kill policy of armies of occupation. There is another layer of meaning at work in this; a psychoanalytic one that is embedded in the very idea of gated community to begin with, but by extension is operative in all securitizing of space. And that is to disinfect.

The poor are again seen as they were in Victorian England, as carriers of pestilence and disease. This is felt more than thought, I suspect. The rich won’t take public transport not only because it’s slow and tedious, but because they would have to have contact with the poor. And that contact means germs and crime. But more even than that, it means exposure to contagion. What this contagion is exactly is unclear, but such irrational fears are reinforced through entertainment. In films and TV, these anxieties are erased. The rich are rational and successful. The suffering of the poor is invisible, too, and their anxiety of the police is of no consequence.

Only the anxiety of the rich matters, but it is usually an anxiety born of problems from within their gated world (my boyfriend left me, my boss passed me over, I don’t like my new office, etc). There is another tendency at work in Hollywood film and TV, and perhaps more in TV, and that is a normalizing of a new vision of the world (as Stephen Graham suggests), based on a feudal model. The new medievalism sees the poor, especially black and Latino, as literally a force for tearing down civilization – the poor are the embodiment of an unclean and animal-like pre-history. The disinfectant model overlaps with this, and it is expressed partly, too, in the new containment vision of the police apparatus.

Your cellphone video is not valid. What YOU see is not valid.

The poor are to be kept in bantustans, encampments, but out of sight. Police raids recently on homeless camps (most notably near Silicon Valley) suggest these camps were not far enough out of sight. There is no consideration given to where these people are supposed to go, for ideally they are to disappear. They represent a pre-civilizational past, a dark age of unchecked bestial urges, pitiless and heathen.

The non-state security business is employed by rich enclaves and by corporations. The poor don’t have their own security. These private firms are hired exterminators, essentially. The killing of Eric Garner stands as a quintessential moment in the control (or attempted control) of narrative by the society of domination. The fact that his murder was videotaped only proved that reality is what the authorities say it is. The blatant disregard for what is clear to see is only the logical end game for the new militarized surveillance state.

The irony is that surveillance is based on *seeing* crime, criminals and threat – yet only for those allowed to *see*. Only the new priest class of surveillance expert is allowed to make judgements on crime. Only the authority apparatus can deem that a crime took place, or is about to take place. Your cellphone video is not valid.

What YOU see is not valid. This is an entire scaffolding of erasure. Garner’s actual murder, on tape, is erased. In film and TV, whole large chunks of society are erased. What is most pernicious in Nightcrawler is its stated intention to be a critique. Liberals love this film because it offers proof of white awareness of itself. The film is beautifully photographed, well made and entertaining – and therefore all the more disturbing because of its obvious selectivity in depicting the industry that effectively produced it.

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