Worried about NATO protests in the Chicago suburbs? Look for graffiti, flyers

I know there is a lot of preparation going on for the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago but should this really include warning people in the suburbs? Here is what was printed in the May 2012 edition of our community’s newsletter:

While the G8 Summit has been moved to Camp David, the NATO Summit is still planned for the City of Chicago from May 19 through May 21, 2012. At this time, it is unknown what impact that Summit will have on the City. [Our] Police and Fire Departments are well aware of the upcoming event, and have been involved in pre-event strategy meetings and preparations. Please be assured that there is no anticipation, or information at this point, that any significant incident(s) will occur within the City, and [our] residents may expect the same level of security they have come to know and trust.

Being part of the community, residents and business owners have the unique opportunity to be observant and are encouraged to report suspicious activity, especially graffiti. It is one of the most basic indicators that certain extremist groups are making an appearance. Flyers advocating direct actions against government, businesses, or other institutions are another indicator of suspicious activity. For more information…

One could argue that there is already graffiti in the suburbs; was this done by extremist groups? And flyers about direct action – are we expecting anarchists or violent groups at the local strip mall or subdivision? Additionally, these sound like gross generalizations.

On one hand, perhaps it is good that our local government is trying reassure people about the protests that will get a lot of attention in the media. See all the coverage yesterday about the small May Day protests in Chicago. Even if much doesn’t happen during the NATO Summit, residents of Chicagoland will certainly be aware of the possibilities.  On the other hand, I’m disturbed that suburbanites may think that these protests will affect their suburban paradises more than 15 miles from the Loop…

Lost in the Trayvon Martin story: the mindset behind gated communities

Lost in the Trayvon Martin story is the location where this all occurred: a gated community. While these are common in some places, particularly in Florida, one author explains the unique mindset in gated communities and how this might have contributed to the situation:

From 2007 to 2009, I traveled 27,000 miles, living in predominantly white gated communities across this country to research a book. I threw myself into these communities with gusto — no Howard Johnson or Motel 6 for me. I borrowed or rented residents’ homes. From the red-rock canyons of southern Utah to the Waffle-House-pocked exurbs of north Georgia, I lived in gated communities as a black man, with a youthful style and face, to interview and observe residents.

The perverse, pervasive real-estate speak I heard in these communities champions a bunker mentality. Residents often expressed a fear of crime that was exaggerated beyond the actual criminal threat, as documented by their police department’s statistics. Since you can say “gated community” only so many times, developers hatched an array of Orwellian euphemisms to appease residents’ anxieties: “master-planned community,” “landscaped resort community,” “secluded intimate neighborhood.”

No matter the label, the product is the same: self-contained, conservative and overzealous in its demands for “safety.” Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders. These bunker communities remind me of those Matryoshka wooden dolls.  A similar-object-within-a-similar-object serves as shelter; from community to subdivision to house, each unit relies on staggered forms of security and comfort, including town authorities, zoning practices, private security systems and personal firearms.

Residents’ palpable satisfaction with their communities’ virtue and their evident readiness to trumpet alarm at any given “threat” create a peculiar atmosphere — an unholy alliance of smugness and insecurity. In this us-versus-them mental landscape, them refers to new immigrants, blacks, young people, renters, non-property-owners and people perceived to be poor.

This account lines up with academic research on the topic: gated communities are intended to be safe places. They are generally in the suburbs and residents move there to feel more secure. While not stated explicitly, these communities are meant to help keep issues like poverty, race, social class, and crime outside the walls and fences.

Here are the three best works I know on the subject:

1. McKenzie, Evan. 1994. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  

2. Blakely, Edward and Mary Gail Snyder. 1999. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

3. Low, Setha M. 2003. Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. New York: Routledge.

One of the ironies revealed in these works is that these gated communities are rarely completely sealed off from the outside world. The ones that are tend to be the province of the wealthy and have very controlled entry points. For many gated communities, while there might be fences or walls, not all communities have manned gates and there are often multiple entrances into a neighborhood. So the gated nature of the community is more about a feeling of security than an actual sense that no unwanted outsider can get in.

In the end, gated communities do not necessarily lead to more violent action against outsiders. At the same time, the mindset in these communities is explicitly about safety and protection from the outside world.

Sociologist/college president speaks about the American “culture of fear”

Sociologist and college president Barry Glassner discusses his recent thoughts on the Culture of Fear in America:

Glassner, formerly the executive vice provost at the University of Southern California [and now president of Lewis & Clark College], has earned a reputation as a rational critic of dire news — whether it arises in media, political or popular circles. He says three out of four Americans report that they’re more afraid now than they were 20 years ago, and he’s kept track of how those fears have ebbed and flowed…

[Glassner speaking] We need to be careful to distinguish how people respond to fear mongering and who is spreading the fears. If we ask why so many of us are losing sleep over dangers that are very small or unlikely, it’s almost always because someone or some group is profiting or trying to profit by either selling us a product, scaring us into voting for them or against their opponent or enticing us to watch their TV program.

But to understand why we have so many fears, we need to focus on who is promoting the fears…

If I can point to one thing, it’s this: Ask yourself if an isolated incident is being treated as a trend. Ask if something that has happened once or twice is “out of control” or “an epidemic.” Just asking yourself that question can be very calming. The second (suggestion) is, think about the person who is trying to convey the scary message. How are they trying to benefit, what do they want you to buy, who do they want you to vote for? That (question) can help a lot.

The updated version of Glassner’s book has a great subtitle: “Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage & So Much More.”

Glassner’s advice seem to be this: be skeptical when you hear someone trying to suggest that you should be fearful. This is good advice in a lot of circumstances as you don’t want to blindly believe what you hear but you don’t want to immediately reject everything either. The trick is that it requires one to actively think about what they hear, not just passively take it in, and also to have some knowledge about how to evaluate the information they hear. This process requires some skill and practice. I wonder if Glassner talks about who is best suited to help people – perhaps colleges?

Additionally, I would be interested to hear what Glassner says we should be scared about besides people who want us to be fearful.

Debunking the myth of poisoned candy

Amidst an argument about how the supervision of Halloween activities due to fear has spread to other arenas, sociologist Joel Best is mentioned as an expert who every year tries to remind people that poisoned candy is not a threat to children:

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

There is little or no evidence for this problem – and yet the stories continue. This might be considered an “invented social problem,” a situation where people fear something that doesn’t really exist. In contrast, many people are trying to get people to recognize valid social problems, like poverty or fighting certain kinds of cancer.

I wonder if this fear about candy is linked to general fears that suburbanites have about their neighbors and outside forces that might affect them.