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“We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun.” So begins the most lyrical bitching about city life in the last half-century, Ivan Chtcheglov’s rant that became a foundation tract for the Situationist Internationale. Debatably anarchists in the classical sense, the French avant-gardists were violently opposed to the city’s progression toward being a zone of control, unavailable to free play. This is the complaint, offered more prosaically, by young criminology prof Jeff Ferrell. In Tearing Down the Streets, he serializes ways in which urban life is organized for state and private interests, and how it marginalizes and criminalizes folks who fail to take their part in the parade of spiffy civic images and general profitability.
Unsurprisingly, the Sits are crucial to Ferrell’s declared tradition of resistance to “contemporary assaults on public life and public space.” They form a corner of his historical base, along with the IWW Wobblies and the Paris Commune of 1871 (from which Ferrell borrows the tag “festival of the oppressed”); Ferrell also leans heavily on a famous quote of the anarchist theoretician Bakunin, “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too.”
This isn’t a history, however, nor an abstract analysis. The book is organized by chapters given over to groups and individuals busy resisting urban control—avowed anarchists or not, they’re what Ferrell calls “edgeworkers,” living outside of, or refusing to play along with, power. Ferrell mostly commits his pages to actions he’s encountered personally, ignoring any number of events and pursuits beyond his immediate experience (Seattle 1999, for instance). So instead he writes mostly about the struggle against social control and the banalization of daily life in Denver, where he grew up, and in Arizona, where he now lives. There are chapters on punks, skaters, and homeless folks being criminalized off the streets to make way for shopping corridors; on graffiti writers and BASE jumpers (who parachute from atop fixed objects). A side trip to the Bay Area focuses on Critical Mass, the bike activists trying to undo not just the environmental depredations of automobilized existence but the concurrent social atomization. We also encounter low-wattage pirate radio operators, bent on retaking the airwaves for non-corporatized communications.
Ferrell’s commitment to lived experience fuels the book’s rhetorical fire: His passions about the specific issues he engages, like the collaborative joys of jamming on a street corner or supplanting the traffic on a rowdy bike ride, are palpable. Firsthand reporting and familiar characters also sugar the pill of fancy theory—for each mention of Michel Foucault or “symbolic economy,” he invokes more colloquial ideas of “Disneyfication” and introduces homey characters like Doc Gussow, a Vietnam vet prevented from flying a flag by the beautification covenants of his planned community. The blend of tones, intellectual and folksy, is a bit awkward—this ends up being somewhat endearing, an inclusive hope for a varied readership.
Ferrell may be an academic now, but he is at pains to depict himself also as a street musician, and refers to his “time in the Denver hip hop graffiti underground” by the book’s third sentence. Such self-reflexivity threatens to emphasize the author’s street cred over the struggle for the streets. Nonetheless, he’s at his best in recounting specifics: His post-broadcast ride through Berkeley with a DJ and bike activist named “The Twenty Inch Crank” makes a lovely vignette of the secret, ongoing life of the committed. “Gliding down the late-night residential streets, though, we do come upon a couple riding on a tandem bicycle. They recognize The Crank and report they’ve just finished listening to the show. So, in the middle of the night and in the middle of the street, The Crank gives them some Critical Mass fliers to put up while out on their ride. . . . ”
The secret world Ferrell engages has rather near horizons; as much as he invokes Wobblies, Communards, and destruction, his examples seem relatively pale. The phrase “festival of the oppressed,” which he renders repeatedly, might be better attached to someone more oppressed than the indubitably committed bikers. Ferrell’s exemplars are flattering to good-hearted and fierce middle-class activists, and worse things have happened. But it seems closer to libertarianism (without that unfortunate green gleam lighting the eyes of most libertarians); letting the bikers stand for radical resistance shows the limit of his anarchistic conception. His admiration for BASE jumpers is even odder—are yuppie commandos with chutes who huck themselves off big buildings really anarchist “edgeworkers”?
Maybe so, if one accepts Ferrell’s assumptions about freedom. He seems to suppose that the city was once something like a state of nature, but with architecture in place of trees. Into this we are all born with an equal supply of freedom, which is always being etched away by bad people with more power than us, except when we say “no” and do our own thing. Here a liberal might take up the argument: What about people with less power than us—should we consider their positions rather than follow our bliss, leaving behind a trail of Skateboarding Is Not a Crime stickers?
But even an anarchist might take issue with Ferrell, arguing that freedom isn’t an immanent gift but a social relation. It’s hard to imagine the clash between Old Glory hoister Doc Gussow and the local Committee on Cuteness as a Manichaean struggle between Freedom and Not-Freedom. It’s one ideology against another, nationalism vs. property valuistas. Ferrell’s conception of where freedom resides in this struggle collapses rather easily, with a simple test question. Suppose I want to burn Doc’s flag down because I find it bores me—am I on the side of the town burghers, or am I an anarchist?
By ignoring the more radical cases, Ferrell manages to gloss over the contemporary crisis in anarchism as it relates to social activism. Is violence against property a legitimate tactic, or the equivalent of violence against people, and thus anathema to an essentially pacifist movement? While the book may function as a kind of PR for the anarchist cause, it’s unfortunate that it ignores what is debatably most exciting or repugnant about the current scene: the liberatory moment of the riot, the music of smashing windows.
Ferrell’s version is less smashing. When he quotes biker Beth Verdekal’s description of Critical Mass, it might as well stand for his own version of resistance: a “perfect combination of do what you want to do but be a nice person.” This is a far cry from the Situationist celebration of looting as insurrection, “a natural response to the society of abundance” in the wake of the Watts riots; instead of breaking glass, we get a Nerf anarchy which keeps the stakes of everyday life troublingly low.