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  • Writer's pictureSam Needleman

Cities in the Trump Era

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Ananya Roy's cutting-edge urban theory.

By Sam Needleman

On February 25, Ananya Roy, Professor of Urban Planning and Social Welfare and Director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, will deliver a lecture, “At the Threshold of Empire: Sanctuary Cities in the Age of Trumpism,” at GSAPP. Though Dr. Roy is, first and foremost, a student of cities, her work encompasses a broad array of fields, from international development and public policy to economics and education. She is known not only for her groundbreaking research and teaching, but also for her activism, which often centers on her own universities. In advance of her visit to Columbia, Dr. Roy spoke on the phone with Sam Needleman, a staff writer, about some of the myriad intersecting issues fueling her in 2019.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


The Blue and White: I’ve been a fan of yours since I saw you in At Berkeley—you know, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the university—and The New Yorker described you as one of Berkeley’s star teachers. But now you’re at UCLA. Will you tell me a little bit about the transition and what you’re working on now?

Ananya Roy: Yes. I think what’ll give you a sense of the work I’ve been doing at UCLA and the reason why I moved to UCLA is the institute that I direct. It’s called the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, and it’s a new institute which I had the opportunity to establish. It’s based in the Luskin School of Public Affairs, but we see our work as encompassing many different disciplines, and that work has been the work of tackling some of the key displacements and dispossessions of our time, thinking about what we call the urban color lines that structure our cities. Quite a bit of our work is in global Los Angeles, but we also work in sync with cities in different parts of the world, especially in India, Brazil, South Africa, and Spain. The name of the institute is rather ambitious; I did not give it its name, I inherited that name, but I had the opportunity to establish its research and public scholarship agenda. In many ways, our approach to the institute has been to think about the ways in which socio-spatial inequality is reproduced and persists within liberal democracy, and how we might imagine radical ways of being and knowing that challenge inequality. So that work is very much in solidarity with social movements. I think what makes us unusual as an institution on inequality is our global approach and the fact that we have a radical orientation to questions of inequality, as well as to those of justice, very much shaped by postcolonial thought, by black liberation struggle, by abolition democracy. So we see our work as that which is in keeping with longstanding freedom struggles. Also, as I’m sure you know, the collaborations between powerful universities and radical social movements and community-based organizing is never an easy one, but it is work that we are committed to doing, and that has been our methodology from our start.

Illustration by Sahra Denner

In all of the work of the institute, including in the housing justice work, we not only analyze inequality, but we also fund research and support research that builds powers to challenge inequality—be it for housing justice work, be it work that we do on debt and predatory financialization, be it work on incarceration. Each of these are very interested in how knowledge builds power, and how that terrain of creating knowledge is both at the university but also in social movements.

B&W: How does this embrace of radical theories and practices that you’re describing manifest day to day in the projects that you’re working on?

AR: Part of this has to do with our methodology. You’ll see that a theme that structures all of our work is what we call decolonizing the university. You know, I was just working on my Columbia talk this morning, and I’m most likely going to start with some of these questions—that if we are located in these very powerful universities that are global universities, imperial universities, from that positionality, how then do we fight for social change and social justice? So the task of decolonizing the university for us at UCLA has been partly turning the university inside out, by which we mean foregrounding experiences, voices, forms of knowledge that are often suppressed or subordinated at our universities.

B&W: You mention the complicated relationship between the university as a center of knowledge and power and the activist. How are you reconciling that in the Trump era, given your history of activism?

AR: You know, there is no easy way around this, and you know, as I head to Columbia, this is very much on my mind. I mean, these are powerful universities that are powerful landlords that have a direct impact on communities around them, that have often had an extractive and exploitative relationship with those communities, be it through real estate exploitation or resource extraction. To think about the ethical grounds on which powerful universities are in solidarity with social movements or communities facing displacement requires tremendous work. I don’t know if there’s resolution there, but for us there’s a commitment to make this work, and for us it means seeing community-based organizations and movements as a sort of partners in research but also as those who hold us accountable. And that question of accountability is really crucial.

B&W: Will you tell me a little bit about accountability structures in the UC system as you’ve encountered them?

AR: What might make us different from universities like Columbia, but maybe not so, is that we are, of course, a public university system. But, you know, I have been very interested, both at Berkeley—you know, this came up in Wiseman’s documentary—but also now at UCLA, by what that means, and what that “public” in the public university therefore mandates. And some of that has to do with, I think, the extraordinary student body we have, many of whom come from the experiences of displacement and dispossession that, say, the Institute on Inequality in Democracy tackles. So our students carry these experiences with them, and we really hope that we can turn the public university into a space where these students get to act from that place of experience and build power and make change. That, I think, remains somewhat distinction about public universities, though, of course, the question of access, of equity, inclusion, I think remains still very problematic. But what I’ve been very interested in, along with many others from the UC system, is what is our relationship, as I noted earlier, to communities that are our neighbors, be it spatially proximate communities or communities that are at a distance, and to whom we should have accountability but often don’t.

And there are some other straightforward questions. At UCLA, we often start our events and our classes with an acknowledgement that we are on occupied, stolen, colonized land, from the land of the Tongva people, who are not even recognized as the keepers of the land. And that acknowledgement is fine, but we need much more than that acknowledgement. In universities around the country, as you know, there’s been a reckoning with some of these histories, and the histories of settler colonialism and slavery. I don’t believe we’ve done a particularly good job of that in the UC system—the reckoning with whose land we are on, for example, and what that means today for the knowledge we produce and the work we do. But I take my cues here from universities in South Africa and Brazil. At the launch of the institute, we had this big thing on decolonizing the university, and we brought in student leaders of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa. We had colleagues from Brazil who really had turned public universities into key spaces of the democratization in Brazil during the long struggle against military dictatorship. So I think there are other parts of the world that are very instructive here, and we continue to therefore try to build towards this more expansive public university, and part of that is accountability to communities that are neighbors, but part of that is accountability to critical thinking and political dissent, and that, for me, is what academic freedom is about in difficult times, including what I’m calling the age of Trump.

B&W: Your discussion of spatial accountability is, I think, particularly potent at Columbia. As I’m sure you know, the University just expanded into Harlem with the Manhattanville campus.

AR: I know, yes.

B&W: I wonder if this at all is going to be a component of your visit here.

AR: It’s not going to be a component of my visit. I’m just going to talk broadly about disciplines like urban planning and a bit about architecture in the age of Trumpism. And I’m going to take my cues from work that our students did on what they’re calling abolitionist planning, and what it means for us to be in the citizens’ struggle for freedom and in the struggles against white power and white supremacy. But I think, inevitably, this raises this question of what is the role of our universities, and that is always on my mind. As I said, if I were giving that talk at UCLA, I would start with rooting myself in that history of stolen, occupied, colonized land. But if I were a faculty member at Columbia University, I would give an honest thought to Columbia’s role as a very powerful real estate developer in New York. I don’t think there’s any way around that. I don’t think we can talk about socially just urban planning and architecture and what it means to teach about social justice or abolition democracy in the departments of Columbia without thinking about the very real practice of the university, in which we are all then inevitably implicated.

B&W: Now the subject of your lecture is sanctuary cities. Could you define “sanctuary city” in urban planning terms?

AR: I’m going to sort of talk broadly about sanctuary cities. Part of the argument, you will see, is that urban planning really has been on the sidelines of many of these freedom struggles. I’m interested in thinking about the ways in which, with the election of Trump, the city per se was reactivated as a terrain or a space of resistance, and some of that effort took the form of sanctuary cities. Of course, sanctuary cities pre-date Trumpism, but there is sort of a new round of legal battles and social struggle between various cities—progressive cities, be it San Francisco, Chicago, Boston—and the Trump administration. And that struggle tells us quite a bit about what I call liberal inclusion: the terms on which liberal democracies include and integrate and protect racial others and racial outsiders. So I’m going to talk about sanctuary cities, but I’m also going to talk about how limited they are, and I’m then going to move across the Atlantic to think about European traditions of cities of refuge and in what ways cities can become spaces of refuge for the outsider, the foreigner, the other. And all of that, I think, will set the stage for thinking about abolition democracy. I’m very interested in how we might return to a longstanding tradition of abolitionist practice in the United States, how we might return to what has been called “Black Reconstruction,” and how we might find in those templates, if you will, for reconstructing democracy today.

B&W: You mention the progressive resistance taking form through cities, but as I understand it, appropriating—sort of ironically—the right-wing, local-, state-based political resistance to policies at the national level.

AR: Yes, absolutely, Sam—very perceptive. So, this is the spoiler alert, right? I’m going to argue that the problem with the sanctuary city strategy is that it rests on an assertion of local sovereignty, which in turn rests on an assertion of local police power. But there are moments in the history of the United States where that has been key, and partly what I’ve been studying, but I don’t think I’m going to talk about it in the Columbia lecture—there just won’t be enough time, but I have an article coming up in a few months on this—is the legal battles around sanctuary city status, and the threats by the Trump Administration to withhold funds, and the lawsuits by cities like San Francisco and Chicago, rest on states’ rights. And much of that legal battle mirrors a set of struggles in the Antebellum period over the fugitive slave laws, which, again, was a struggle between local power—in this case, between states—and federal government. So there are several historical precedents for this sort of struggle, and the ways in which cities or states seek to articulate a different legal framework, or argue, in fact, that their legal frameworks are in keeping with constitutional provisions rather than those of the federal government.

B&W: And I know you referenced the fact that sanctuary cities existed, of course, before the age of Trump. But I wonder, given the potency that the topic has taken on after Trump’s election, and given your lecture on the subject and your new interest in the subject, how much or to what extent is Trump influencing your research and that of your colleagues at the Institute?

AR: After Trump got elected, I think the institute sort of made a commitment to think about the institutionalization of white supremacy—and, of course, Trumpism is not the first substantiation of that in the United States—but to think about this present moment and the sort of work that that then requires. For me personally, as a scholar, what it meant was to immerse myself into things as thinking about sanctuary and abolition. I will also argue in the talk that the older moment of sanctuary cities in the United States—or the sanctuary movement, I should say, in the 1980s, as it starts up in Tucson and San Francisco, and the focus there was on asylum seekers from Central America—was in fact a much more expansive and, I would say, a much more radical understanding of sanctuary. A great deal of it was about recognizing the role of American imperialism introducing violence in Central America, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which then was leading to large numbers of people fleeing those countries and seeking asylum in the United States. So, again, this goes back to questions of responsibility and accountability. That sanctuary movement was about Americans taking responsibility for the actions of their own government, which is a different approach to sanctuary than what, for the most part, we have in the mainstream sanctuary approach today.

B&W: Now, zooming out beyond the immediacy of the lecture coming up, I know your name is sort of inextricably linked, as I understand it, to this concept of urban informality. Will you define that term for me and tell me if it’s changed, or if its applications have changed at all, since you originally wrote that paper on it back in 2005?

AR: I’m smiling because it’s a concept that I still work with, but as you can imagine, I have just decided I will not write any more pieces on urban informality!

B&W: I’m sorry to beat a dead horse!

AR: No, no, no, it’s a good question, Sam. I just think it’s work that other scholars have to do. My interest in urban informality is actually very linked to my interest in sanctuary, abolition, white supremacy—and the connection is that I’m interested in the role of the state. I’m interested in what I would call state violence. So a lot of the current work I’m doing in Los Angeles is to shift understandings of urban displacement from our theories of gentrification to what I call a racial banishment—in other words, that we’re seeing processes of resegregation. And I argue that these can’t just be understood as market-driven displacement; they really take instituted processes of violence against targeted bodies and communities, and that includes such things as the role of policing, and so forth, and carcerality. So you see that all the interest in urban informality—there what I was interested in was the role of the state in illegalizing certain kinds of spaces and certain communities while legalizing others. So, you know, I’ve argued repeatedly in my work that we’ve got to pay attention to elite informalities and elite illegalities that are often not just tolerated by the state but even produced by planning and regularized and legalized by planning, while the illegalities of the poor or of the racialized other continue to be illegalized. So what matters here is why certain kinds of spatial uses get illegalized and often criminalized, and others get folded into the plan and are validated and formalized. And that is a process that’s played out not just in India, but it’s played out in so many ways in the United States as well. And that illegalization of certain bodies and communities continues to be of great interest to me, and, of course, that is what we’re seeing in the age of Trumpism—be it with the Muslim ban, or be it with the targeting of particular immigrant groups, or the targeting of LGBTQ communities. It’s the constant criminalization, illegalization, and othering of particular social groups and spaces.

B&W: Will you explain the stakes of the phrase “racial banishment” as opposed to gentrification?

AR: Yes, so the racial banishment work is something that was first on my mind when I was doing research on the South Side of Chicago with a movement called the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and then that work, I think, has continued and expanded in Los Angeles as I work with movements here in downtown Los Angeles, particularly in Skid Row and South Central LA—movements like the LA Community Action Network. Many of these movements also use the language of banishment, or they’ll use the language of racial or ethnic cleansing to talk about displacement, and I think key to that is understanding, as I said, that these processes of displacement are not just market-driven displacement. So if you think about evictions, yes, of course, you have landlords raising rent and people unable to pay and therefore getting evicted. But a lot of what I’m studying is the role of public policy in producing these forms of displacement—currently, with some of my graduate students at UCLA, but also with community lawyers and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. We are looking at nuisance ordinances, and the ways in which those ordinances are used by the municipal government to criminalize what would otherwise be innocent behavior—for example, be it living in your car or playing your music too loudly in your apartment—and how those forms of criminalization that are often very targeted and therefore seemingly arbitrary, meaning they are mapped onto the bodies of the houseless or mapped onto the bodies of those living in Section 8 housing, how those produce systematic forms of displacement and really transform entire neighborhoods.

B&W: Now, before I let you go, a lighter question. You’re such a California urbanist, first in the Bay Area and now in Los Angeles. What part of New York are you most looking forward to seeing when you get here—or, if you are not a fan of New York, what are you least looking forward to?

AR: Well, of course, one is always a fan of New York. We just did a very interesting experiment at the institute—and for me, as a teacher, such an interesting experiment. One of our activists and residents is someone called Micah White, who was key in Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and Micah and I co-taught a class as part of a national endeavor he has called Activist Graduate School, which is a fascinating online school. But the class was taught at UCLA and then recorded and will be turned into Activist Graduate School. And we taught a class on housing justice activism. We started with the struggles of rent control and the various rent strikes and tenants’ unions that have formed in California recently. But to think about what is happening in California today, we really started with readings that had to do with New York in the early twentieth century, and that incredible history of tenant activism and organizing and rent strikes and rent control. So, you know, New York has an astounding history of organizing around housing justice issues and around many other issues. At the same time, Manhattan in particular, but other parts of New York, today manifest some of the most extreme forms of socio-spatial inequality we can imagine. So for me, visiting New York, and particularly visiting Manhattan nowadays, I feel that Manhattan’s sort of become a theme park. It is truly the playground now of the wealthy, and the wealthy who might not even reside in Manhattan anymore. So it’s not that I show up in New York and I’m looking for the real city, but I’m very interested, then, in learning from my colleagues in New York about what the current moment of struggle might be in an urban setting that has been so dramatically transformed by global finance and by global real estate.


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