Scientists find out: gentrification is bad for you

At a time when we hail creativity as an urban panacea from New York to Toronto, from Berlin to Shanghai, those who research the downside of gentrification, and expose social exclusion and marginalization will not go silently into the urban night.

Gentrification is bad for you. How bad? Just ask a group of German researchers who find themselves accused of belonging to a “terrorist organization,” largely because they published on the subject. Their work on gentrification (among other things) can allegedly be linked through textual analysis to the communiqués of a so-called 'militant group' suspected of political extremism. In turn, three persons, who are charged with trying to set fire to three army vehicles outside of Berlin on July 31, 2007, are suspected by the police to be members of that group. In this cycle of suspicions, the ends don't quite meet.

However, in the eyes of the German police writing texts is not the only crime committed. The researchers are also accused of having “contacts,” mostly resulting from their long participation in neighborhood groups and anti-war movements, to people seen as a being a part of Berlin's radical left-wing scene. Ideas and contacts are mixed by the prosecution into a cocktail of “terrorist activities.”

Gentrification plays a critical part in this story. People in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and other Canadian cities have learned in recent years that a seemingly unstoppable process is changing their cities. Gentrification is the name of the game. It replaces the local corner store with a Starbucks and a low-rent apartment with a luxury condo. It evaporates the jobs that allow people to make ends meet.

Scholars have studied this process, which takes its name from the root of the word, gentry, used for the English landed aristocracy, since the 1960s. Since the mid-1980s, it has spread as a worldwide phenomenon and has changed the face of our cities. While many urban development agencies and municipal governments actively promote gentrification as a strategy of urban renewal, critical researchers everywhere decry the catastrophic consequences for local communities, poor people and the social diversity of cities.

This kind of research has now gotten some academics into trouble. In a bizarre series of developments, the German Federal Prosecutor has accused a sociologist, a political scientist, as well as a student and a social movement activist of “terrorism.” One prominent scholar, Dr. Andrej Holm, was in solitary confinement in a Berlin jail for almost a month and came out only on bail, with charges still standing; another one, Dr. Matthias B. has had his apartment raided, his computer confiscated and is under investigation for belonging to a terrorist association.

All accused have been charged under a section of German criminal law, 129a, which was passed in 1976 at the height of the tense period of West German history, when the government pulled out all the stops to defeat the terrorist threat of the Baader-Meinhof group, also known as the Red Army Faction. It is directed in particular at exposing and destroying links between the 'doers' and the 'thinkers' in movements. From its inception, it has been criticized for allowing the state to criminalize both activists and researchers by claiming that together they form a terrorist association. It seems that 31 years after it saw the light of day, the law has finally created its perfect storm.

We have gotten used to a fair degree of government panic and overreaction since the unfortunate events of 9/11 but the German developments signal yet another step into the wrong direction. Although there is no established link at all between the critical scholarly writings of the accused—some as long ago as 1998—and the attempted burning of the army vehicles, the connection is nonetheless made. Nor has it been established that the three arrested for alleged arson are members of the elusive “militant group,” an association the accused have denied.

The wider consequences of this development are alarming beyond Berlin. The question on the mind of many critical social scientists everywhere is now: which aspects of their work may lead to their criminalization down the road? If they can do this in Germany, should we be surprised that people are arrested and tortured for their views as it has happened to Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh and fellow academics recently in Iran, who are accused of pro-American propaganda. Tajbaksh and his colleagues have been arrested three months ago and have been detained since. Those arrested in Tehran are in jail for doing work interpreted as threatening by the government there. Have we arrived at the point where thinking critically has become a dangerous activity in the West, too?

Both cases have exposed the vulnerability of critical social science research. But they have also led to an unprecedented wave of immediate protest and reaction among the academic and intellectual communities worldwide. In the German case, a flood of letters from individuals and declarations from major social science associations from around the world arrived on the desk of the German authorities. And while this international outcry certainly does not have any direct impact on the case, those that work closely with Andrej H. say that this worldwide protest had put enough pressure on the German authorities in order to get Andrej H. out of jail on bail, but without having any charges dropped. Also, all the other accusations against all parties in regards to terrorist activities are still standing and the three activists are still in solitary confinement.

It seems a line has been crossed. At a time when we hail creativity as an urban panacea from New York to Toronto, from Berlin to Shanghai, those who research the downside of gentrification, and expose social exclusion and marginalization will not go silently into the urban night. Critical social science is indispensable for a healthy democratic society. Standing up for free speech and academic freedom must concern us all. When those who are persecuted for their critical academic work are in danger, it is up to all of us to step up to the plate to defend their and our freedoms.

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