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arch 13, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s killing by Louisville Metro Police. We now know that the storming of her home with a battering ram, the unrestrained volley of gunfire, the willful abandonment of Ms. Taylor as she, herself an emergency room technician, lay dying without medical attention, was part of a massive police operation called Place-Based Investigations. As indicated in the court documents filed by Breonna Taylor’s lawyers, the no-knock search warrant issued for her home was linked to a property 10 miles away, 2424 Elliott Avenue, home of her alleged former boyfriend. Sitting at the center of a neighborhood criminalized by the city, it was described by Ms. Taylor’s lawyers as one of the "primary roadblocks to the development project,” namely the multi-million dollar Vision Russell development plan, which is in the words of the reporters who broke the story, an urban development plan that is “a major gentrification makeover.” Ms. Taylor’s lawyers thus assert: "When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
In a meticulous analysis, Jessica Bellamy and Joshua Poe of the Root Cause Research Center in Louisville lay out how swiftly this clearing out proceeded in the wake of Ms. Taylor’s killing. By March 17, Louisville Metro Government had declared 2424 Elliott Avenue to be a public nuisance and by March 21, tenants at the property had received a notice to vacate from the owner. The police continued surveillance and arrests at the property and by June 19, the city had succeeded in acquiring the property. The Louisville Courier Journal reports: “The property's deed — signed June 5, which would have been Taylor's 27th birthday — shows Louisville and Jefferson County Landbank Authority bought the home for $1.”
As demonstrated by the Root Cause Research Center, the Landbank Authority serves to transfer property to developers, facilitating the transformation of neighborhoods such as Elliott Avenue. The nuisance ordinances are the means of what I have termed racial banishment, a form of dispossession that ensures expulsion and enacts civil and social death, and often actual death. As Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network reminds us, “displacement is when you have somewhere else to go. Banishment is when there is nowhere else to go. Places for you to go are jail or death.” But the point is that banishment, as the theft of life, facilitates the theft of land. Thus, Breonna Taylor’s killing by police must be understood as collateral for the transmutation of property.
It is from this place and time – the long arc of banishment and the swiftness of land grabs – from the specificity of 2424 Elliott Avenue and its familiar resonance in many other cities, that I put forward an argument about gender-property logics. The argument is two-fold. First, if feminist struggle is about “undoing gender,” then in the settler-slaveholder democracy that is the United States of Empire, such struggle must entail “undoing property.” Second, if we understand, following Cheryl Harris, whiteness as property, then the undoing of property is also a divestment from whiteness; one that must take place not only in our cities but also in the institution that is the university and in the intimate spaces of our truth-making disciplines.
Gender-Property Logics and the Disinheritance of Whiteness
Judith Butler (1988: 520) has famously asked us to think about gender as “a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo,” “instituted through the stylization of the body.” She writes: “the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance itself” (Butler, 1988: 527). “Undoing gender,” as goes the title of her well-known text (Butler, 2004:227) is to question the gendered subject.” To question the subject is to put at risk what we know, and to do it not for the thrill of the risk, but because we have already been put into question as subjects.” We can think about property in similar terms. If, as Nicholas Blomley (2003) reminds us, property must be understood as material and discursive enactments, then Butler’s conceptualization of gender usefully reveals the logics of such enactment. Property is indeed a performative accomplishment, instituted through the stylization of land. Butler’s (1988: 522) line about gender works well for property as well: “Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.” We can restate this as, “Property is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.” Our truth-making disciplines – urban planning, architecture, economics – play a significant role in the normalization of property, in the concealment of its genesis. We ensure the enactments of property through land-use rationalizations, factor market theories, aesthetic judgment, and more.
But the issue at hand is not an analogy between gender and property. It is something much more, and for this it is necessary to keep two essays by Cheryl I. Harris in simultaneous view. In the landmark Harvard law Review essay, “Whiteness as Property,” Harris (1993: 1709, 1714) traces how, in the U.S., “racially contingent forms of property and property rights” were created through slavery and conquest, and how, over time, whiteness came to be protected in law as a type of “status property,” a proprietary prerogative that, like property, entails “a right to exclude.” Equally important is Harris’s 1996 essay on race, gender, and the institution of property, “Finding Sojourner’s Truth.” In it, she reminds us that slavery, as a regime of property, “configured and structured social and legal boundaries of both race and gender.” Harris (1996: 311) writes, “slavery was the primordial site of the production of racial patriarchy.”
Especially significant for our consideration of gender-property logics is Harris’s (1996: 343) argument that “property operated as a framework of similarity and difference between Black and white women.” Black women, as a form of property, had to reproduce property. White women “gave birth to those who controlled property” (Harris, 1996: 339). Sabine Broeck (2018: 38, 39) has thus argued that “as a discursive construct…modern gender served the differentiation of white human from black property”; “the splitting of white propertied and sovereign humanity from thingified black flesh” is the very basis of transatlantic modernity.
To undertake feminist struggle is to confront Harris’s (1996: 352) verdict that advancement for white women came by accepting “the rules of existing property regimes including slavery.” The improvement of their legal status was in effect about gaining a bit more ground within the inheritance of racial patriarchy. It is useful to read Harris’s argument about white womanhood and property alongside a 2002 triptych by Kerry James Marshall.
Titled Heirlooms & Accessories, it displays the faces of three women, framed in lockets, each from a different generation. As one gets closer one sees faint outlines in the background. The outlines trace the scene of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.
I read Heirlooms and Accessories as an argument about whiteness, gender, and property. In an interview, Marshall explains: “The standard model is that white supremacy is only the guys in white sheets… The title Heirlooms and Accessories has multiple implications. An heirloom is a thing that’s handed down. Accessories are add-ons or adornments that enhance the spectacle, or yourself. Everyone who’s present at that event is an ‘accessory’ to the crime.” The lynching photograph on which Heirlooms and Accessories is based was itself an heirloom. As Leigh Raiford (2009: 115) notes, between 1882 and 1930, lynching swept the United States and photography emerged as integral to the lynching spectacle. “For those not close enough to the scene, or for those not lucky enough to obtain clothing or body parts, photographs proved the next best things.” Marshall, she argues, redirects our attention away from the spectacle of the lynched body to the violence of whiteness. Raiford (2009: 129) interprets the necklaces as heirlooms and accessories that mark wealth but also as “the chains that bind [these women] to white supremacy.”
Feminist struggle requires the disinheritance of whiteness. This in turn requires the undoing of property. Sabine Broeck (2018: 12) thus emphasizes that Black feminism must be understood as a radical critique of transatlantic modernity from the “enforced location” of being propertized. This critique, she notes, insists on the abolition of property.
The abolition of property and the abolition of police go hand in hand. For after all what is police but an apparatus for maintaining whiteness as property? Nikhil Pal Singh (2014: 1091) calls this the “whiteness of police,” the police as a crucial method “for regulating an unequal ordering of property relations.” In a preview of the just-published pamphlet, On Property, Rinaldo Walcott thus states: “Black people will not be fully able to breathe — a word I do not use lightly — until property itself is abolished.” What is at stake in the undoing of gender-property logics is freedom? In the forthcoming The Long Emancipation: Moving Toward Black Freedom, Walcott argues that freedom is “beyond the logic of emancipation.” Walcott notes “that we are still in the time of emancipation,” or the “continuation of the juridical and legislative status of Black nonbeing.” It is freedom that animates the time of abolition. The antonym of racial banishment is not inclusion. It is not even emplacement. It is freedom. That is what the Los Angeles Community Action Network, rooted in Skid Row as a Black place, teaches me: #LetsGetFree.
However, the relationship between feminism and freedom is a fraught one, mediated through the propertization of Black womanhood and the emancipation of white womanhood. Postcolonial democracy will not resolve this question of freedom. Not here in the United States of Empire, and not in India where I first learned to think about feminist struggle. There too the articulation of property and gender consolidates caste-class domination. In a stunning short story, Douloti the Bountiful, translated and analyzed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Bengali writer, Mahasweta Devi (1995), shows how the bodies of bonded women laborers become a traffic in wealth, inheriting the debt of their landless fathers, a debt that can never be fulfilled, not even through death. Spivak (1993: 92) writes of this calculus of super-exploitation: “Woman’s body is thus the last instance in a system whose general regulator is still the loan.” She is the ultimate bond-slave. In the short story, Mahasweta Devi (1995: 59-60) describes property/gender and body/land thus, through the poetry of kamiya women, bonded laborers:
The boss has turned them into land
He plows and plows their land and raises the crop…
They are all some people’s maat…
They don’t say kamiya, they are called maat.
Such transmutation can only be understood in relation to how power operates in a postcolonial democracy. The kamiya women sing (Devi, 1995: 22):
He has become the government by lending money
And we have become kamiyas
We will never be free.
The story of Douloti ends with her death. Coughing up blood, she lays down to die in the clay courtyard of a village school, filling a map of India that has been drawn for Independence Day celebrations. Mahasweta Devi’s (1995: 93) closing lines are that this displaced body has left no room for hoisting the national flag. In her death, “Douloti is all over India.”
The undoing of gender-property logics takes place amidst the urgency of death. And yet, whether it be Breonna Taylor or Douloti, we cannot wait for the endless repetition of death to be enlisted in such work. It must be the possibility of life, not the inevitability of death, that mobilizes us. Put another way, the time of abolition is, as Dylan Rodriguez (2021: 3-4) has shown, the time of “white reconstruction,” “the long emergence of a hemispheric and global white supremacist modernity.” But as Rodriguez (2021: 215) notes, the time of white reconstruction demands “abolitionist imperatives.” The time of abolition, Chua (2020: S127) writes, is when “what seemed impossible has suddenly become possible.”
Institutionality and Necessary Refusal
The making of the impossible, the undoing of gender-property logics, will have to unfold, for many of us, within institutions. For me, that institution is the university. I use the term “within” with deliberate care. In seeming contradiction to the title of her book, Outside in the Teaching Machine, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1993: 316) pinpoints this insideness thus: the “impossible ‘no’ to a structure which one critiques, yet inhabits intimately. One way of thinking about this intimate inhabitation – of the university and its truth-making disciplines, is through presence. In explaining the stakes of his art, Kerry James Marshall insists on Blackness as an “indispensable presence”: a “presence in the narrative that’s not negotiable, that’s undeniable.” As declared in this 1995 piece by him, one titled Campfire Girls, “Here I am.”
But, if “we” – feminists, abolitionists, postcolonial critics, decolonial freedom fighters -- are an indispensable presence in the university, then perhaps we are unbearable. Years ago, at Berkeley, when I was an Assistant Professor trapped in a violently misogynistic department, my self-appointed mentor, a senior woman scholar, diagnosed the issue thus: “Ananya, you are such a castrating female; you make men feel so bad about themselves. If you stopped doing this, you would not be so unhappy at work.” It is a good thing that I was reading, and teaching, Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, at that time. I understood the significance of the witch-hunt as the means of suppressing revolt and securing the conditions of capital accumulation . Those that my self-appointed mentor at Berkeley was seeking to protect from my nasty feminist ways were of course white men, knitted together in a cabal of self-congratulation and self-citation. She was heirloom and accessory in this structure of racial patriarchy. I was unbearable presence.
The making of Black, Brown, and Indigenous presence in the university, the making of spaces of feminist study, Black study, decolonial thought, postcolonial critique, has taken place amidst what Grace Hong (2008: 103) calls “regimes of racial management.” Today’s ever-expanding bureaucracy of diversity, equity, and inclusion affirms minoritized forms of difference but upholds whiteness as property. Here once again I think with Rinaldo Walcott (2019: 398-399) who reminds us that to think that “we can diversify, achieve equity, indigenize, or decolonize without taking on the social, cultural, political, and economic arrangements of whiteness is to enter the terrain of lies.” One example of that terrain of lies is that universities mine and harvest radical scholarship, especially of faculty of color, but also discipline, and even criminalize, the political solidarities that such work necessarily entails. Dr. Cornel West comes to mind but there are many others. Sara Ahmed (2009: 41) thus writes, “If we are the colour, then we are what gets added on. Whiteness: the world as it coheres around certain bodies. We symbolise the hope or promise that whiteness is being undone.” Ahmed’s words reminds me of an extraordinary poem by Claudia Rankine, Sound and Fury, written in 2016: “But white can’t strike its own structure. White can’t oust its own system.”
Presence will not suffice. Not for the undoing of gender and property logics. Not in the racial patriarchy of the university. What is needed is the disinheritance of whiteness. Let’s call this abolition. But what is the university in the time of abolition? Abolition is neither of nor for the university. Abolition isn’t a grand challenge that universities will solve. University research offices will not issue a patent for a police-free world. No provost’s task force, no special advisor to the Chancellor, will figure out abolition. Abolition is struggle, “constant struggle,” as Chua (2020) reminds us, and that struggle requires constant refusal within the university. My use of the term refusal pays homage to what Sarah Haley (2016: 198) calls “Black radical feminist refusal” and to the Practicing Refusal Collaborative convened by Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman (Campt, 2019).
Refusing to be the “diversity worker” – Sara Ahmed’s (2012: 76) felicitous phrase – in what Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (2014) have called the “imperial university.
Refusing to be a “citationary alibi” – that nod to feminist or postcolonial or Black thought while keeping intact structures of white theory (Roy, 2020: 19)
Refusing the “white spatial imaginary” – George Lipsitz’s (2007) description of the “hidden architecture of landscape” – and as employed by Lisa Bates and colleagues (2018) in Planning Otherwise.
Refusing the “unbearable whiteness” of our truth-making disciplines, Derickson’s (2016: 7) powerful term for the knowledge regimes of our universities.
The University as Policed-Propertied Order
The June uprisings of 2020 engulfed universities, renewing long-standing demands for defunding campus police. As the call for #CopsOffCampus has gained momentum, so it has become clear that what is at stake is an undoing of the university as policed-propertied order. This is a capacious struggle, one that entails challenging the very ontology of our universities, from the property entitlements of land-grab universities to the extra-territorial policing that sustains ever-expanding university borders (Baldwin, 2021) to academic complicity in racial capitalist violence through research and knowledge production. I share with you here a glimpse of such struggle from amidst the DIVEST/INVEST UCLA Faculty Collective of which I am a founding member.
On June 1, 2020, at the height of the national uprisings protesting George Floyd’s killing, UCLA administration gave permission to the LA Police Department to use the university’s baseball stadium, named after Jackie Robinson, as a field jail, to detain protesters. Arrested in different parts of the city for curfew violations, hundreds were brought on buses to the parking lots of the campus stadium where they were held through the night, without access to restrooms, food, water, information, or medical attention. The incident led to the formation of the DIVEST/INVEST UCLA Faculty Collective and the No UCPD student coalition, now aligned with the statewide movement for Cops Off Campus. Fed up with empty gestures of racial justice, including the continued expansion of the diversity bureaucracy and the liberal ploy of police reforms, we demanded, and continue to demand, abolition, including the dismantling of university police forces and the severing of contracts between the university and external police forces and security agencies. Acutely aware that UCLA administration had made no redress for its facilitation of the detention and criminalization of Black Lives Matter protesters, faculty and students, together with racial justice and spatial justice movements, gathered at Jackie Robinson Stadium on November 1, 2020, five months after the field jail, to honor detainees, hear their testimony, and situate their detention in the broader context of racialized dispossession in Los Angeles.
Our gathering was a collective remembrance of stolen lives and stolen land, from Joseph Reyes, homeless Angeleno, who died shortly after his belongings were destroyed in a sanitation sweep in Koreatown, to Andres Guardado gunned down by LA Sheriff’s deputies.
As scholars – of race, space, law, gender, empire – we were keenly aware that the site of detention, the stadium, manifests a very particular property regime, specifically the theft of land. Jackie Robinson Stadium sits on land gifted to the federal government in 1888 for the purpose of being “a national home for disabled volunteer soldiers.” But by the time of the Vietnam War, the VA abandoned such a mandate, eventually leasing chunks of the 387-acre property to various entities including UCLA. The Tongva people remain unrecognized and unnamed in the lease, their stewardship of the land also erased by the 1888 deed.
Today, the vacant buildings and deserted community gardens of the vast VA campus stand in stark contrast to the rising numbers of homeless veterans in Los Angeles and the growing encampment of homeless veterans at its fence. Recent reporting by Knock-LA exposes the “corrupt” property deals between the VA and UCLA that continue to unfold here, under the guise of the land lease. When the VA was sued in 2011 by homeless veterans for the misuse of this property, and the courts ruled that UCLA’s lease of the Jackie Robinson Stadium was illegal, UCLA intervened in the case, arguing that the loss of the stadium would mean that its baseball team would become homeless. It then named every athletic facility in sight after Jackie Robinson. A trespasser on twice-stolen land, the university is proficient at demonstrating its loyalty to racial justice.
Policing is both the precondition and effect of stolen land. Together the VA and UCLA collaborate in choreographed over-policing, with multiple police forces asserting jurisdiction, including to harass Black homeless veterans seeking treatment at the VA medical facility. Indeed, the territorialized ambiguity created by leases and plans creates an excess of sovereign power that facilitates such policing. In my urban theoretical scholarship, I have designated such spaces as the postcolony. It is from within this space that the Divest/Invest UCLA Faculty Collective has sought to enact the abolitionist praxis that “we keep each other safe.”
One can read this Abolition Reel as the insistence that we, not the police, keep each other safe. One can read it as the recognition that emancipation is not freedom. And one can read it as the policed-propertied order of the university. Our truth-making disciplines are fully implicated in such structures of property and police.
Thus, a few days after our collective remembrance at Jackie Robinson Stadium, I and other members of our faculty collective, received communication from the UCLA-VA Liaison, a Professor of Geography, wishing to clear our “misunderstanding…about the jurisdictional issues defined by the [stadium’s] lease.” The Professor of Geography wasn’t simply mansplaining a lease to me. After all, as I made clear to him and the UCLA administration, I, scholar of urban planning, knew that damn lease. I knew every parcel of land it covered. I knew all lawsuits and settlements pertaining to it. I had read every audit of the land use that falls under this lease. I knew every line of the 1888 land deed that this lease both reifies and violates. The Professor of Geography was issuing a threat on behalf of UCLA and the VA. Accusing our presence at the stadium of being “unauthorized entry,” he warned that such activities “do not fit under the lease” and “is under the jurisdiction of the VAPD and the federal court system.”
The Professor of Geography, upholding property and police, is not alone. The Professor of Anthropology writes the algorithms of predictive policing that form the racist foundations of place-based investigations. The Professor of Social Welfare writes the report lauding community policing, thus enabling the formation of a new bureau of the LA Police Department, the Community Safety Partnership Bureau, with an iron grip on public housing residents.
Such is our role, the title-holding professoriate, in the concealment of the genesis of property and its precondition and effect, the reproduction of policing. Our role in this concealment and reproduction is often rather precise. I like to pay attention to the details. In threatening us with police action and federal arrest, the Professor of Geography was in effect protecting a parking lot, where Black Lives Matter protesters had been detained in buses, and where we had staged our collective remembrance. The parking lot, where we had put down our tiles, is a site of jurisdictional ambiguity, an overflow of legal meaning.
In the recent expose of land collusion between UCLA and the VA by Knock-LA, a line caught my attention: “a negotiation made with UCLA to allow the new baseball field to be built in exchange for the VA regaining parking spaces for exclusive use, which the university had previously used for overflow parking at baseball games.” Douloti, whose story I had shared earlier, is a name that can be interpreted, as Spivak (1993:106) notes, as traffic in wealth. Here too is traffic, the exchange of parking lots and baseball fields that maintains propertied-policed order. In this case, it is simply called the lease.
To wage feminist struggle in the time of abolition is to refuse to fit under the lease. It is, in the settler present, in the postcolony, in the afterlife of slavery, to refuse to recognize the damn lease. With this in mind, I close this essay with the handcuff tiles, designed by Filomena Cruz, which we placed on the asphalt of the trafficked parking lots of the Jackie Robinson Stadium.
Here are some of the words penned on them by those that insist on gathering for abolition. Such gathering is the refusal of the propertied/policed order of the university and of the world.
 The term “maat” means land, or more specifically, playing field.
 What Federici (2004) shows in that brilliant book is the simultaneous making of gender and property, that the control of women’s bodies was part and parcel of the enclosure of the commons.
This essay is based on a talk that Ananya gave at the Harvard GSD on the occasion of International Womxn’s Week, 2021. Her work is rooted in organizing by the DIVEST/INVEST UCLA Faculty Collective, which takes place in acknowledgement of the Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Los Angeles, and is committed to the end of policing as the logic and procedure by which the University of California system responds to, and manages, interpersonal harm and the systemic crisis of capital.
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Ananya Roy is Professor of Urban Planning, Social Welfare, and Geography and The Meyer and Renee Luskin Chair in Inequality and Democracy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is inaugural Director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, which promotes research and scholarship concerned with displacement and dispossession in Los Angeles and and seeks to build power to make social change.