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n the United States, displacement and dispossession are nothing new. They are the founding and structuring logics of this settler colony and its imperial expansions. Yet the present historical moment requires renewed attention to, and analysis of, new forms of eviction and expropriation. This is the work that the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) has been meticulously doing in the Bay Area since 2013 and that it is now undertaking in other US cities, including Los Angeles. One striking aspect of the AEMP is the capacious imagination to make visible and hold together seemingly separate processes and histories. Counterpoints thus tells us about Ohlone geographies and Wall Street futures. It tells us about gentrification and military contracts. It tells us about tech capitalism and data-driven policing. Counterpoints sites narratives and practices of resistance, uprising, and dissent at such places of connection. Indeed, in creating and curating data and stories, the AEMP has itself generated key methodologies of resistance, from identifying evictors to building solidarity through pledge maps. These are vitally important counterpoints to the spatial hoarding of wealth and power.
Such work is also a counterpoint to normative practices of cartography, as McElroy et al. lay out in their introduction. The AEMP has from its very inception refused the extraction of data and the exploitation of stories. It has also insisted, as is evident in Counterpoints, on connecting data and stories. The abstractions of data can often masquerade as authoritative legal truths. We must remind ourselves that data is a set of stories, often told by the powerful. The stories of communities can often be silenced and suppressed. We must remind ourselves of the truths that lie in stories whose very singularities reveal worldwide patterns of oppression and resistance.
In An Atlas of the Difficult World, a collection of poems written between 1988 and 1991, Adrienne Rich traces “a map of our country,” of “the desert where missiles are planted like corms,” “the breadbasket of foreclosed farms,” “the cemetery of the poor who died for democracy,” “the suburbs of acquiescence” (Rich, 1991: 6). Counterpoints is an atlas of the difficult world, an atlas of our unequal, occupied, policed, colonized cities. Rich (1991: 6) writes:
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
then yes let it be these are small distinctions
where do we see it from is the question.
The maps and murals, data and stories, collected and curated by AEMP are ways of seeing the world. They also insist that we clarify our location in maps of power and privilege and that we contend with our lines of sight.
For organizers and scholars, movements and communities, artists and cartographers, concerned with housing justice, a lot is at stake in the Bay Area. About a decade ago, the University of California, Berkeley, my alma mater and first academic workplace, was ground zero of the violent restructuring of public higher education. Today violent displacement is rampant in the Bay Area, with working-class communities of color being pushed to the far edges of urban life and neighborhoods being turned into policed zones of residence and leisure for tech entrepreneurs. Entitled YIMBYs and liberal mayors have co-opted the language of affordability and inclusion and drafted legislative plans that promise trickle-down housing.
But the Bay Area has a rich history of poor people’s movements, Indigenous resistance, anti-colonial and black liberation struggle. In Oakland, the city I called home for many years, black power was established in the interstices of elite interventions and experiments, from the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program to Johnson’s Model Cities, and consolidated in structures of self-determination. Counterpoints is thus a cartography of power, as well as of resistance. But it also raises the question of the relationship between map-making and self-determination, between authorship and representation, between texts and social struggle.
Much of my own scholarship is concerned with postcolonial democracy, including in India, where I was born and grew up. I have often turned to the work of feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to make sense of postcolonial dispossession. In a book titled Imaginary Maps, Spivak translates three short stories by the fiery Bengali novelist Mahasweta Devi, each a stunning exposition of caste and gender violence (1995). A conversation between Devi and Spivak prefaces the stories. In it, they both agree that the “tribals have not been part of the decolonization of India” but have “paid the price for decolonization” (Devi, 1995: xi). Devi (1995: xi) asks American readers to think about what has been done to Native Americans in order to “understand what has been done to Indian tribals.”
But Spivak also asks Devi to reflect on her own role as a writer in the struggle of the tribals for recognition and rights. Devi talks about an obsession to listen, to learn, to expose, to report. She describes the incessant work of writing in academic journals, in the form of novels, in newspapers and magazines. She wonders: “What will I write next?” (1995: xvi). Spivak (Devi 1995: xxv) reflects on this engagement between the writer and the tribals on the “responsibility and accountability” that runs through such “ethical action.” This is also, Spivak (Devi 1995: xxv) argues, a relationship between the “literary text” and the “textile of activism.”
Counterpoints is both a literary text and the textile of activism. It makes real the possibility of writing, in the broadest sense of the term, as an imagination and practice of decolonization. This type of writing is always bound to the dispossession of those whose lives and labor have been the raw material for postcolonial development. It is therefore a form of ethical action in a difficult world.
Devi M (1995) Imaginary Maps, trans. G.C. Spivak. New York: Routledge.
Rich A (1991) An Atlas of the Difficult World, Poems 1988–1991. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Ananya Roy is Professor of Urban Planning, Social Welfare, and Geography and Director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She leads a global research network on Housing Justice in Unequal Cities. Her most recent work is with the After Echo Park Lake Research Collective in Los Angeles and is concerned with the racial banishment of unhoused communities.