Under conditions of freedom, human communities do amazing things. In the Western nation-states, two countervailing trends have affected these conditions. Firstly, as superstition and custom are slowly shed in favor of enlightenment and empathy, social strictures and their legal counterparts have fallen away.
Thus, non-anglo-saxon europeans, then africans, then women, then asians, and now children moved with painful slowness into the category of “human” from that of “other.” As collective consciousness about their humanity struggled out of the mire of custom and into the light of reality, the related laws were also forced to change. The privileged classes had to begrudgingly free these categories of people from being the property of others, then allow them to own property, and finally had to allow them free self-expression, travel, and the other unalienable rights of human beings.
The increase in the number and variety of freed–or at least less categorically enslaved–people resulted in the phenomena we’ve witnessed in art, technology, entertainment and the like over the last hundred or so years in the west. Humans, allowed the native freedom to follow their consciences and express their personhood, have fashioned truly spectacular worlds to enhabit.
The reactionary instinct that expressed itself in the upholding of tradition in keeping large swaths of human beings under the control of their “betters,” had to change its skin. It’s moved from superstitious custom into “scientific social management.” Blacks aren’t slaves and aren’t segregated because of their biblically ordained inferiority–that would be silly. Instead, they are jailed for trading in forbidden items. Businesses on the margin are harassed, closed or seized for lack of appropriate paper-work or inability to comply with city codes. Art installations, work shops, light industry, and all the interesting diversity and creativity of organic society are threatened by ever increasing and militarized policing.
This has been the norm in most American cities for quite some time, though most places have pockets of creative and industrious people who manage–at least for awhile–to live their lives and create their worlds without being harassed to the point of extinction.
Example: Code Compliance in Austin, TX
Austin, TX is, or was, a rare example of an entire city where each individual was largely allowed to create, trade, share, live and love as he or she saw fit. For that reason, Austin at the end of the 20th century was an amazing amalgam of human creativity and productivity. Besides the live music that makes the city famous worldwide, places like the Enchanted Forest, the Cathedral of Junk, the Rhizome collective, yards turned into wildlife habitats, ubiquitous food trailers, entire districts of light industry turned into art studios, and clever ventures like the Electric Cabs of Austin really make Austin a stand-out metropolitan area in an increasingly grey and homogeneous America.
The list of such spectacles could, and probably does, fill a book; I mention them because they’ve all been shut down, or are facing constant threats of being so by an ever-increasing tide of city “management”.
In these cases, specifically, the reactionary branch of government is Austin’s Code Compliance Department. This department didn’t exist in the year 2000, hence the freedom that lead to Austin’s reputation as a haven for creators, eccentrics, artists and musicians–oh, and prosperity.
Following a well understood pattern, as prosperity increases, those that make a living by stealing (what they prefer to call “taxing”) from the productive find themselves awash with money to spend. In a bid, I suppose, to garner votes from the 10%
or so of residents who are willing to use force to instantiate their visions of an ideal society, Austin government used the extra money to build and empower a Code Compliance Department.
In doing so they are making a bid to kill the golden goose. In a city that recently laid off hundreds of school teachers due to budget shortfalls, Austin City Council still sees fit to spend 10 million dollars a year destroying the peaceful and beautiful fabric of the creative community. The anonymous reporting system used by the department has also turned neighbor against neighbor as petty feuds blow up into neighborhood-wide “floods of calls,” ultimately resulting, in the case of one South Austin neighborhood, in
violation notices to 76 homeowners in the neighborhood, telling them they must apply for permits for improvements such as garage conversions and carports.
Those who fail to correct the problem could be criminally charged and fined up to $2,000 per day or have their utilities disconnected, according to recent letters sent to homeowners that gave them a March 26 deadline to comply.
The situation is heartbreaking. For all the victims of Austin Code Compliance Department and all the additional victims of the general increase in policing of victimless crimes by the numerous, ever replicating, expanding, and tremendously expensive city bureaucracies, the situation is intolerable.
And make no mistake, all of Austin, at least those that constitute that which deserves to be called Austin, are collateral damage of these fights. We’re the ones who remember what Austin once was, and who must watch, powerless, as our money goes to the greying of this vibrant city, as our neighborhoods are homogenized, our neighbors fined, jailed, and brought into “compliance,” and our artists, inventors, and creators are driven out of their homes, studios, and communities, some never to return.