Architectures of Vigilantism

September 13, 2021

Introduction by Germane Barnes and Shawhin Roudbari


One need only search “Key Fob Kelly,” “BBQ Becky,” or “Permit Patty” to find alarming patterns of the vigilante policing of space. The frequency and intensity of such interactions spark a needed examination of vigilantism and its role in architecture and urbanism.

Cities across the US have been deeply impacted by harmful covenants and policies that not only restrict space, but cause dangerous reverb from which marginalized communities rarely recover. Our built environment is a battleground of homogeneity, inequity, and exclusion. Ultimately, that our desire for conformity and familiarity manifests as racialized encounters in public and private space should come as no surprise.

Ironically, we celebrate the vigilante in popular culture. Batman, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman are self-appointed figures who hoist the responsibility of civility, safety, and wellness on their shoulders. Naturally, our more overzealous and indoctrinated neighbors routinely attempt superhero cosplay, wearing the mask of vigilance with pride. Through carefully curated personas, citizens have been seduced by the legacy of heroism, deputizing themselves as protectors of the spaces we share.

This often results in a white figure creating unsafe racialized encounters. Historically, we have seen incidents such as these result in the bearing of strange fruit, the cop calls, the accosting, and the blocking of entryways today are no different. Whiteness has and will ever be reproduced through vigilantism. While many of the contemporary examples of architectural vigilantism result in public ridicule and in some instances unemployment, historically the most extreme examples end in death. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from the South Side of Chicago was accused of whistling at a white woman near a local convenience store. This was seen as an act of bravado and arrogance which ended in the brutal torture of an innocent child. Emmett’s story would be one that many young Black males were forced to learn as any similar spatial occupation in non-familiar territory could result in their death. Till is a tragic and iconic victim of the brutal force of this white vigilantism. Till’s presence in a white-owned grocery store, his violation of the racialized thresholds of space and conduct on an August day in 1955, and the display of his mutilated body in an open casket in Chicago all have profound lessons to offer us.

The architectures of vigilantism here span the scale of the neighborhood, the store, the street, and the home where Emmet Till’s presence signified disruption, agitation, and destruction. Aggression, resistance, and witnessing in their competing interpretations in this history, are visceral and traumatic, as well as creative and powerful. We find ourselves conflicted as we try to frame our understanding of the open casket—the visibility, confrontation, reckoning, and demand for justice it signifies.

Our initial interrogations of these incidents revealed three prominent and recurring manifestations of the vigilante: the Aggressor, the Resistor, and the Witness. Aggressors utilize prejudice and social majority affiliations to restrict access to space. Resistors use their politicized bodies, spatial positioning, and other means to assert their claim to the right to use space. Witnesses use spatial tactics and their relationship to confrontation to assert their role in interpreting and disseminating documentation.

Aggressors, resistors, and witnesses operate spatially and institutionally. Contentions over space, as architecture and as geography, play out in regulatory, bureaucratic, aesthetic, and material spaces. Collectively, the contributions of the featured guests bring insights into the ways architectural elements such as threshold, circulation, hierarchy, and access condition vigilantism.

In this issue of MAS Context, a motley range of perspectives frame new ways of conceptualizing vigilance and the architectures of vigilantism. Atelier Mey, Chat Travieso, A.L. Hu, Ashley Bigham, Emanuel Admassu, and Galo Canizares uncover racialized aggression in the form of civil infrastructure, activism, suburban planning, housing, and the right to destroy. Sean Canty, Sekou Cooke, Demar Matthews, Andrew Santa Lucia, and Krystina François tell stories of resistance. Domesticity, pedagogy, the occupation of spaces not intended for us, the occupation of institutions not intended for us, and the occupation of territories not intended for us exemplify the politics of resistance that these contributors guide us through in their essays. Finally, Jennifer Newsom, Joseph Altschuler, Zack Morrison, Jennifer Bonner, Laida Aguirre, Gary Riichirō Fox, Jia Yi Gu, Cyrus Penarroyo, and Katherine McKittrick offer new forms of witnessing. Through documentation, choreography, reflection, whistle-blowing, and epistemological innovation, they reject a passive notion of what it means to witness. Under their guidance, we learn to see the act of witnessing as an emancipatory politics that transcends the reactionary politics of aggression and resistance.

The perspectives offered by this issue’s contributors span a range of territories across design and space-making fields. As guest editors, we challenge your conceptions of spatial practice and offer this issue as an entry point and incomplete understanding of racialized encounters within the architected environment. For some, this text will be a mirror to reconcile explicit and implicit realities of discrimination. For others, this text will act as a field guide to further the continued efforts of dismantling white supremacy.