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Don Mitchell’s _The Right to the City_

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The conundrum of public space, both spatially geographically and as an idea, is that it serves as an opportunity for the manifestation of either culture or anarchy. It is within this spectrum of possibilities that Don Mitchell, in his work _The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space_, explores the question of who has the right to occupy and use public spaces and how, in turn, these rights are legally determined and enforced. For Mitchell, the matter boils down to restriction of behaviors which do not fit within societal norms. This is especially true, according to Mitchell, for two groups, which serve as exemplars of highly visible deviants of the social order: protestors and homeless people. Each group does not exhibit what some, such as George Will or Matthew Arnold, would consider proper conduct for a “civilized society.” In this conceptualization of civilized society, protestors are viewed as presumptuous agitators; the act of protesting, whether peaceful or not, is automatically assumed to be indicative of disorder. As for the homeless, behaviors such as pan handling are often construed to be the result of poor personal choices rather than viewed as direct evidence of a nation’s poverty or social problems. As Mitchell notes, for someone such as Will, Arnold, or Rudy Giuliani, the most rational response to such conduct, whether it be protests or panhandling, is to enforce stronger restrictions over public space. These restrictions of public space are, according to Mitchell’s work, can be a product of both fear-based politics and economic rationalities rather than a matter of true social concern, for example, the “broken window” policy, is only enacted in poorer neighborhoods and the removal of the homeless from the streets are often done in the name of promoting economic renewal.

Despite Mitchell’s deep skepticism about the economic and political motivations of those who create and pass resolutions and ordinances for public space, he does NOT, in fact, advocate for anarchy or physically violent actions. For Mitchell, it is necessary in a democratic society to accommodate “disorder” in the form of allowing multiple and dissenting voices to coexist in a public space. This type of disorder, argues Mitchell, is generally the only option for marginalized groups to voice their concerns in public because otherwise, these individuals will be silenced or banished from public space in the name of “order”. For Mitchell the crux of the matter is that Americans, as a collective, tend to shy away from thinking about inequalities as a social condition. Many find it far more safe and reasonable to think about such matters in the abstract or regard its physical manifestations (i.e. poverty, homelessness) as the product of poor personal choices. He attributes this collective blind spot not to a dearth of intellectual capability or even so much to lack of compassion, but rather to the entwined nature of capitalism, American politics, law enforcement and jurisprudence. While Mitchell makes a compelling case for the need for democratic “disorder” as a preventative against a type of “order” which quashes dissent and democratic ideals, he elides the prominence of race within his otherwise sharp-edged discussion of the ways in which order is enacted and accepted in public.

Serene Artino
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014


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