Assistant Professor of Sociology
In my work on San Francisco, I study public discourses and relationships between residents and institutional stakeholders. The redevelopment agency, real estate companies, corporations and the Navy all have a stake in the timely cleaning up of the environmentally toxic Hunters Point shipyard, redevelopment and the accompanying process of gentrification. Within public discourses around protest lie power struggles among neighborhood residents about how bodies negotiate dynamics in meetings over the future of their life in the neighborhood. I use public meetings to analyze the body as the central signifier of institutionalized social relations within a field of power (Adelman and Ruggi 2016:909[i], Foucault 1975[ii]).
For over the past 20 years’ residents of Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco have been fighting a long uphill battle for their right to breath clean air and not to be pushed out of their space. In particular, their battle has been with the the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure program and shipyard investors primarily around the thorough clean-up of an environmentally toxic Hunter’s Point shipyard. Labeled as a superfund[v] site, this shipyard brought what was thought to be a temporary African- American population to the city due to labor needed during WW2.Today, neighborhood residents are subject to the environmental racism of decades of delayed radiological clean-up and pollution from the shipyard as well as impending redevelopment.
The shipyard is attractive to investors and corporations who have aggressive plans of building condominiums and entertainment centers amidst the clean-up due to the fact that the shipyard is subject to a fast-tracked process[vi] which allows for both the clean-up and redevelopment to happen simultaneously. During my ethnographic study, I learned that as of 2010 and before, residents distrusted the plan and the process, especially since corruption and the unnecessary fastracking of the project has led to a less-thorough and false clean-up. As of fall of 2017, it has been revealed that despite proclaimed clean-up, over 97% of the Hunter’s Point shipyard’s soil was contaminated and remediation data falsified (Roberts 2018[vii]). Residents knew from the beginning that their bodies were being contaminated and displaced because they lacked the political will and social capital to be higher on the priority list of the growth machine (Jackson 2010[viii]).
We are used to protest outside of City hall or in the streets of the neighborhood, but I analyzed micro-forms of protest within meetings between residents and institutional representatives. "Bodies themselves cannot talk, but we invite our bodies to move, make noise and act in certain ways to demand or incite someone to speak up for them and put their concerns first" (Kroll-Smith and Floyd 1997: 7). Given that middle to upper class Blacks are invited to formal channels for discussion on quality of life issues and redevelopment, while the poor are not, the latter residents use their bodies in public meetings to demand that their perspective be valued, since they perceive no one to be sticking up for them. Residents would lengthen public comment, ask honest and revealing questions out of order about profit and motive off the agenda in order to protect their lives and be a part of the decision-making process. A joint community and institutional board that the residents trusted called the Restoration Advisory board was promptly shut down claiming that residents did not follow proper meeting protocol with their bodies and voices. The larger question was: was the Restoration Advisory Board shut down because residents were not being obedient and asking too many honest questions?
Why does this matter? Embodying desires to stay in the neighborhood, be part of the decision-making structure or painting a different kind of future represents a threat to political and economic agendas. Lower or working class bodies act on the front lines of their neighborhoods---the public meeting is one of their few places to make sense, heal and be invested in future redevelopment. Focusing on the body allows us to see a power struggle to create obedient bodies to meet project deadlines. Given the recent revealed case of eco-fraud at the Hunters Point shipyard, their literal bodies have been devalued and in combination with the desires they embody, residents perceive this a larger process of sanitizing the neighborhood.
This conversation has broader implications for how we define a protest or a riot within cities due to the kinds of bodies participating. In 2018, after both the Philadelphia Eagles won the Superbowl and Black Lives Matter protests swarmed across American cities, public discourse arose over what counts as a riot and what counts as a celebration[ix]. Eagles fans damaged much private and public property, injured law enforcement as well as conducted other grotesque acts in the city of Philadelphia due to a sports victory. Some minor property was damaged in occasional Black Lives Matter protests, but yet this has been heavily condemned by media as violent and unnecessary. The larger picture here is that the race and class of the bodies matter in terms of classifying what is “inappropriate” behavior in city public spaces. Bringing the body back to how we study urban spaces, dissent, protest and riot will allow us to think more deeply about the landscape of power these bodies exist in and how it defines what are appropriate, useful and celebratory acts. This study will be forthcoming in my co-edited volume entitled Embodied Difference: Divergent Bodies in Public Discourse by Lexington Inc in spring of 2019.
[i] Adelman, Mariam and Lennita Ruggi. 2016. “The Sociology of the Body.” Current Sociology Review 64 (6), 907-930.
[ii] Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.
[iii] hooks, bell. 1997. “Selling hot pussy: representations of black female sexuality in the cultural marketplace.” In Conboy k, Medina N and Stanbury S eds, Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, pp 113-128.
[iv] The cultural attack on the embodiment of black womanhood historically illustrates how our cultural representations doubly-other them therefore identifying mainstream definitions of appropriate behavior for being a black person and a woman. Roberts. Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
[v] As determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, a superfund site is a list of the nation’s most environmentally toxic places that pose a significant risk to human and societal health.
[vi] Described by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1993, fast tracking is a process of rapidly cleaning up identified parts of a toxic site for immediate reuse (https://www.epa.gov/fedfac/fast-track-cleanup-process-initiative-and-guidance).
[vii] Roberts, Chris. 2018. “Faked Clean-Up at Hunter’s Point Shipyard much worse then Navy estimates.” Curbed San Francisco. April 10, 2018. https://sf.curbed.com/2018/4/10/17219434/hunters-point-shipyard-navy-cleanup-san-francisco-faked.
[viii] Jackson, Christina. 2010. “Black Flight from San Francisco: How Race, Community and Politics Shape Urban Policy.” Master’s thesis. University of California, Santa Barbara.
[ix] Da Silva, Chantal. 2018. “Black Lives Matter: Philadelphia Super Bowl Riot Reaction ‘Glaring Example of White Privilege.” US Newsweek. February 5, 2018. (http://www.newsweek.com/philadelphia-chaos-reveals-racial-double-standard-over-riots-critics-say-799421)
About the author: Christina R. Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stockton University. Her research and teaching areas include urban sociology, inequality, intersectionality, embodiment, redevelopment and gentrification. She is the co-author of forthcoming book, Black In America: What It Means To Be A Problem with Polity Inc and Embodied Difference: Divergent Bodies in Public Discourse with Lexington Inc. She has authored articles in books such as Black California Dreamin’: The Crises of California’s African American Communities, The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies and journals such as Sociology Compass and the Journal of Urban Affairs. She is also a community arts and cultural facilitator based in Philadelphia.