Category Archives: justice

Book review: Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, by Eyal Weizman, founder of Forensic Architecture, founding member of the architectural collective DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine, Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a Global Scholar at Princeton University.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Zone Books and distributor by The MIT Press say: In recent years, the group Forensic Architecture began using novel research methods to undertake a series of investigations into human rights abuses. Today, the group provides crucial evidence for international courts and works with a wide range of activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the UN. Forensic Architecture has not only shed new light on human rights violations and state crimes across the globe, but has also created a new form of investigative practice that bears its name.

The group uses architecture as an optical device to investigate armed conflicts and environmental destruction, as well as to cross-reference a variety of evidence sources, such as new media, remote sensing, material analysis, witness testimony, and crowd-sourcing.

In Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, the group’s founder, provides, for the first time, an in-depth introduction to the history, practice, assumptions, potentials, and double binds of this practice.


Forensic Architecture, Guatemala: Operación Sofia (The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011. Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman)


Forensic Architecture, White Phosphorus

Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary research agency composed of artists, filmmakers, writers and architectural researchers who use architectural methods and repurpose new sensing technologies to investigate and expose state or corporate violence, especially when it bears upon the territory.

The group analyzes WW1 aerial photographs, inspects satellite images, deploys kites for land surveys, investigates material traces left on the ground, builds 3D models to re-create atrocities, creates interactive cartography and countercartography, collects testimonies of survivors, scrutinizes user-generated media made by citizens on the ground and uploaded on the internet, etc. Forensic Architecture uses any mean and media necessary to reconstruct evidences of violence that are inscribed onto the land and built environment. Their meticulous work is then turned into evidence that can be used in legal settings to challenge the official narrative of critical events. Sometimes, some form of justice is eventually reached. Other times, miscarriages of justice or even complete absence of justice prevail.

The case studies detailed in the book involve the reconstruction of a contested shooting in the West Bank, the architectural recreation of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of its survivors, an investigation into the environmental violence and climate change in Guatemala, the 3D modelling of bomb clouds that are then used as fingerprints for locating Israeli strikes on the Gaza dense urban environment, patterns of Western drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.

Along the pages, you get to learn a lot about the challenges that the members of Forensic Architecture encounter in their work: satellite imagery is more affordable than ever but its photographic resolution is degraded for privacy and secrecy reasons, at least when it comes to the ones available to the public (as Weizman notes, high resolution is used for killing and low resolution for investigating the killing); a commitment to helping the victims leaves the group exposed to criticisms, even though their method is rigorously scientific; legal system itself can be part of a state’s mechanism of domination and denial; evidence from sources derived from new media video analysis, interactive cartography, or animation almost always encounter objection in court because they are too new, etc.

Saydnaya: inside a Syrian torture prison, a commission by Amnesty International


Rafah: Black Friday. Report on the war operations of 1-4 August 2014, in Rafah, Gaza. Image complex: Forensic Architecture


Forensic Architecture, Drone Strikes (Digital reconstruction of the scene of a drone strike in a 3D-mode. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013)

The book is fascinating. It is dense in information, images, maps and documentation that record the way the organization is re-appropriating and re-purposing a broad number of skills and technologies in the context of activism and justice. Their method is characterized by a remarkable amount of scientific accuracy, but also by a surprisingly high percentage of flexibility, empathy and creativity.

The book is often disheartening too. State-sponsored violence makes for very uncomfortable read: tales of ruthless dispossession, of Bedouin villages bulldozed time and time again, brutal colonization of landscape, destruction of life-sustaining resources, arbitrary killings made acceptable by the cultural and legal system, erasure of culture, etc.

Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability is a publication i’d recommend to anyone interested in human rights, activism, geopolitics, urban planning, architecture, and in the creative and social-engaged uses of technologies.

13th. Repackaging slavery

13TH | Official Trailer

A couple of days ago, film director Lucy Walker published a short list of documentaries to unleash the activist in you. I thought i’d make my way through the list. Starting with the one that looked the most interesting to me: 13th, a film by Ava DuVernay, that argues that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery except as “punishment for crime,” has not outlawed the practice of slavery. It has merely repackaged it into a ruthlessly efficient system of mass incarceration.

The film uses archival footage and interviews with historians, activists and other experts to expose how the subjugation of black people has evolved into a system designed to get black men into jails, grind them and them spit them out with little chance to re-build their life.

As the film reminds us, the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2014, over 2 million people were incarcerated (a 500% increase over the last 40 years) and 40% of them are African-American men.

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Academic and civil rights activist Angela Davis interviewed in 13TH. Still from the film

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Still from the film 13th

I watched 13th yesterday. It’s on on netflix. It’s a shocking, harrowing movie. Yet you don’t doubt for a moment that it tells the truth. Not when you read that a (black) man spent 31 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, then was given a pitiful $75 as a compensation for decades unjustly spent behind bars. Not when so many police officers walk free after having murdered people. Most of them black men and women. Not when people are so afraid to be harassed and killed under spurious pretexts that they feel the need to remind society that they have the right to live too.

The moment that upset me the most? This one:

An extract from 13TH

Releasing the film on Netflix is a smart move. It gives the message more chances to reach people who might otherwise feel totally unconcerned by the issue.

Please, drop whatever you’re doing right now and watch this documentary!

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Still from the film 13th

The 13th
Interview with Van Jones, an author, activist and co-founder of several organizations including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights which focuses on police brutality and youth prisons

Related story: Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter and A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements.

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton.

On amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Verso writes: Combining firsthand accounts from activists with the research of scholars and reflections from artists, Policing the Planet traces the global spread of the broken-windows policing strategy, first established in New York City under Police Commissioner William Bratton. It’s a doctrine that has vastly broadened police power the world over—to deadly effect.

With contributions from #BlackLivesMatter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, Ferguson activist and Law Professor Justin Hansford, Director of New York–based Communities United for Police Reform Joo-Hyun Kang, poet Martín Espada, and journalist Anjali Kamat, as well as articles from leading scholars Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin D. G. Kelley, Naomi Murakawa, Vijay Prashad, and more, Policing the Planet describes ongoing struggles from New York to Baltimore to Los Angeles, London, San Juan, San Salvador, and beyond.

A SWAT robot, a remote-controlled small tank-like vehicle with a shield for officers, is demonstrated for the media in Sanford, Maine on Thursday, April 18, 2013. Howe & Howe Technologies, a Waterboro, Maine company, says their device keeps SWAT teams and other first responders safe in standoffs and while confronting armed suspects. Police now typically use hand-held shields when storming a building. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
A SWAT robot, a remote-controlled small tank-like vehicle with a shield for officers, is demonstrated for the media in Sanford, Maine on April 18, 2013. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty via Business Insider

The backdrop of Policing the Planet is the Ferguson protests, the Black Lives Matter movement and the way police around the world -but mostly in the U.S.– are killing civilians. However the book is less about premature loss of life by the hands of law enforcement and more about the way that some people, vulnerable because of their poverty and/or the colour of their skin, are monitored and marginalized throughout their entire life. It’s also about how police, prison and other forms of state violence are seen as the only way to deal with people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness or drug addiction.

In a nutshell, what the authors of the book want to challenge is routine policing, not just the ‘exceptional abuses’ of policing.

It seems that everything started with the best intentions back in the 1990s when the “community-minded” broken windows theory was adopted by the police. It was an easy and logical idea: nipping any form of anti social behaviour in the bud would naturally curb down urban disorder and vandalism in neighbourhoods.

Unfortunately, the broken windows policing often led to increased militarization of the police, school-to-prison pipeline, residential segregation, mass incarceration, mass surveillance and mass criminalization of the black working class, of Native Americans and more generally of poor people.

The authors of the book are social movement organizers, scholar-activists, journalists and artists. Together, they challenge the role and legitimacy of the police, reflect on alternatives to the most aggressive forms of policing and denounce the over-funding of the police force to the detriment of the social security net, job creation, rent control programs, basic public services like health care and transportation, etc.

Each of the essay or interview in the book explores a different case study: ‘anti-Indianism’ in New Mexico, influence of Israeli policing structures on the LAPD, New York city’s strategy to rely more on invasive policing than on mass incarceration, LA Skid Row as a testing ground for police practices that will be exported to the world, links between criminalization of poverty and real estate speculation, state violence and gentrification in El Salvador, etc.

Broken store windows remain as members of the Anne Arundel County Police guard the intersection of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Schools reopened across the city and tensions seemed to ease Wednesday after Baltimore made it through the first night of its curfew without the widespread violence many had feared. People in Baltimore have been angry over the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Broken store windows remain as members of the Anne Arundel County Police guard the intersection of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, on April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Patrick Semansky—AP, via Time

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Advocacy groups are calling for a reduction in the use of police officers in schools. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images, via The AP

Policing the Planet is a powerful book. I often found it hard to believe what i was reading. Surely people cannot face that much discrimination just because they are poor, black or Muslim? Surely, the police is here to protect us? But my incredulity can be explained by the fact that i’m white, living in a nice, quiet area of a mid-sized city and spending a lot of time with Harry Hole, D.I. John Rebus or Sergeant Logan McRae. Some of my friend back home are Arabs, Latinos or otherwise not very Belgian-looking and they often told me how they are routinely stopped, searched and threatened by the police under the most flimsy pretexts.

And don’t go thinking that Policing the Planet is ‘just’ about police in the U.S. because, as we all know, the American model often ends up being exported to other countries.

I’d recommend Policing the Planet to pretty much everyone. I learnt a lot from this book. Others (less naive and ignorant than i am), will appreciate the importance of exchanging these stories, experiences and lessons learnt.

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Police officers try to disperse a crowd Monday in Ferguson, Missouri. Via Business Insider

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 11: Police force protestors from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on August 11, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as residents and their supporters protested the shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown who was killed Saturday in this suburban St. Louis community. Yesterday 32 arrests were made after protests turned into rioting and looting in Ferguson.   Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP
Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP, via the Tico Times


The Clash, Guns Of Brixton