A Clean Sweep

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"Slum clearance" often means attacks on the poor

The world's dark forces seem obsessed with urban hygiene these days. France's minister for truncheons and teargas, Nicolas Sarkozy, denounced the 'scum' (racaille) in Paris's suburban ghettoes and promised to use a big hose 'to clean them out'. While bloated bodies were still floating in the flooded streets of New Orleans' black neighbourhoods, a Republican congressman thanked god for 'finally cleaning out the housing projects'.

Rio de Janeiro's public prosecutor, supported by the tourist industry and broad sections of the middle class, promised in October to 'beautify' the city by expelling the residents of 14 favelas. In Zimbabwe, meanwhile, 700,000 people have recently been evicted by President Mugabe's ruthless 'Operation Murambasvina' or 'Drive Out the Trash'.

'Urban beautification', of course, has always been an Orwellian euphemism. In the urban Third World poor people dread high-profile international events - conferences, dignitary visits, sporting events, beauty contests and international festivals - that prompt authorities to launch crusades to clean up the city. Slum dwellers know that they are the 'dirt' or 'blight' that their governments prefer the world not to see.

An infamous example was the quincentenary of Columbus in Santo Domingo in 1992. As president upon a throne originally built by US Marines in 1965, the Dominican Republic's Juan Balaguer was long notorious as 'the Great Evictor'. Returning to power in 1986, the elderly autocrat used the celebrations as a pretext to destroy traditional hearths of working class resistance to conservative rule, ultimately bulldozing 40 barrios and evicting 180,000 residents.

The Olympic Games have also provided opportunities to push the poor towards the periphery. In preparation for the 1936 Olympics, for example, the Nazis purged homeless people and slum dwellers from areas of Berlin likely to be seen by international visitors. While subsequent Olympics - including those in Mexico City, Athens and Barcelona - were also accompanied by urban renewal and evictions, the 1988 Seoul games were truly unprecedented in the scale of the official crackdown on poor homeowners, squatters and tenants. As many as 720,000 people were relocated in Seoul and Injon, leading a Catholic NGO to claim that South Korea vied with South Africa as 'the country in which eviction by force is most brutal and inhuman'.

Beijing seems to be following the Seoul precedent in its preparations for the 2008 games, with stadium construction alone supposedly requiring the resettlement of 350,000 people. Anne-Marie Broudehoux, in her brilliant book The Making and Selling of Post-Mao Beijing, predicts that Olympic planning will repeat the traumatic (and, for the working classes, darkly ironic) experience of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Chinese Revolution, with its 'diverse beautification campaigns initiated to camouflage the city's social and physical blight. Hundreds of houses had been demolished, thousands of people expelled, and billions of taxpayers' yuans spent to build a facade of order and progress.'

The most totalitarian 'urban beautification' programme in Asia in recent times, however, was undoubtedly the preparations for 'Visit Myanmar Year 1996' undertaken by the heroin-financed Burmese military dictatorship in Rangoon and Mandalay. One and a half million residents - an incredible 16 percent of the total urban population - were removed from their homes (frequently by state-sponsored arson) between 1989 and 1994 and shipped out to hastily constructed bamboo and thatch huts in the urban periphery, now creepily renamed the 'New Fields'. Urban neighbourhoods were replaced by projects like the new Rangoon Golf Course, aimed at Western tourists and Japanese businessmen. In the 'New Fields,' former urban residents squat in the mud and muck and watch their children die of dysentery.

It has become commonplace for governments everywhere to justify slum clearance as an indispensable means of fighting crime. Slums, moreover, are frequently seen as threats simply because they are invisible to state surveillance and, effectively, 'off Panopticon'.

Colonial-era law is frequently used to justify expulsions. Kuala Lumpur, in pursuit of its goal of becoming 'slum free' by 2005, has used police powers derived from the 'emergency' of the 1950s, when the British bulldozed Chinese squatter communities alleged to be Communist strongholds.

Large-scale slum clearance is frequently coordinated with the repression of street vendors and informal workers. General Sutiyoso, the powerful governor of Jakarta, is probably second only to the Burmese generals in his abuse of the human rights of the poor in Asia. Notorious for his persecution of dissent under the Suharto dictatorship, Sutiyoso has since 2001 'made it his personal crusade to clear Jakarta of informal kampungs (villages), as well as its vendors, street musicians, homeless people and pedicabs'. With support from big business, the governor has evicted more than 50,000 slum dwellers, thrown 34,000 pedicab drivers out of work, demolished the stalls of 21,000 street vendors, and arrested hundreds of street musicians. His ostensible aim is to make Jakarta (population 12 million) into a 'second Singapore'. But grassroots opponents, such as the Urban Poor Consortium, have charged that he is simply clearing slums for future development by his influential backers and political cronies.

If some slum dwellers commit the 'crime' of being in the path of progress, others err by daring to practise democracy. In the aftermath of the corruption-tainted 2005 Zimbabwe elections, Mugabe turned his wrath against the street markets and shantytowns of Harare and Bulawayo, where the poor had voted for the opposition. One police official reportedly urged his men, 'From tomorrow, I need reports on my desk saying that we have shot people. The president has given his full support for this operation so there is nothing to fear. You should treat this as a war.'

Indeed, war is an apt metaphor. The increasing tempo of evictions and urban 'cleansings' across the world is the latest stage of the ancient conflict between rich and poor over the 'right to the city'. But as the red glow on the horizon of Paris warns, the slums are fighting back.