The Future is Human: An Urban Anthropologist on Post-Election America

Expressions post-election in Union Square, New York City (Photo by Author, more information  here )

Expressions post-election in Union Square, New York City (Photo by Author, more information here)

Whether you were forced back into some semblance of a routine after the election or had the ability to hide under the covers with a bottle of merlot (or something stronger) - it seems as though it’s only recently some of us are able to respond to the reality we’re facing in the United States, myself included.

My heart was broken by the results, not because I didn’t have a grasp on the existing divides in this country, but because I was certain we would come out to vote and not overlook the threats to human rights and democracy so often touted by the now president-elect. But as we begin to take stock of our surroundings and the realities of what may come, we can begin to plan - and plan we must - because never before in our recent history has it been so important to advocate for equality and human rights as anthropologists, urbanists, or simply just humanists.

I am an "applied anthropologist" or a public anthropologist who works outside the confines of academic research and education. Beyond this, I proudly identify as an urban anthropologist. I don’t shy away from a strange title for fear of confusion but I use it as a launching point to talk about what it means to apply anthropology to urban environments. Through the lens of anthropology, we can apply our evolutionary history - both urban and pre-agricultural - as well as our behavior and physiology as animals, to our contemporary cities to make them happier and healthier for all of us. 

I choose to retain anthropology in my work because I hold that anthropology is essentially humanism at its core - studying our species with tolerance and scientific inquiry requires a respect and understanding that goes beyond politics, culture, and even time. And everything I do as an applied urban anthropologist is to this end - working to create better urban habitats for all people, especially in public spaces where we have the ability to meet those unlike us or simply be around our diverse fellow human beings. 

Every note an expression, posted in public (Photo by author)

Every note an expression, posted in public (Photo by author)

My fears now lie in the normalization of intolerance and assault fueled by the position of the president-elect who makes no effort to denounce these attacks. The protests we’re seeing in public spaces across the country and the outpouring of support towards targeted groups like women, immigrants, LGBTQIA, muslims, and people of color, are unprecedented following an election result, and a heartening show of solidarity with those who are at their most vulnerable. 

The protests are also an excellent example of our right to the city to express ourselves in a democratic way. I am, however, concerned about the future of these protests and our ability to occupy public space once this administration comes into power. The increase of defensible space due to the threat of terror attacks has reshaped our civic spaces through surveillance, policing, barriers, and even guard booths and blockades. We’re already seeing 5th Avenue here in New York City turned into a veritable fortress surrounding Trump Tower, and if members of the presidential household are to continue living in the city - considering the protests - then this is something we will be dealing with for years.

Whether our rights in cities more generally will be oppressed is yet to be seen. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find that our “being” in space will be compromised to some extent - more so for some than others - and future protests have the very real possibility of being violently shut down by the government. With the declarations of mayors to protect their citizens via “sanctuary city” status, and police forces uniting against the potential reinstatement of ineffective and racist stop and frisk policies, there is a real possibility that a local-federal conflict will materialize widening the urban-rural divide through a reduction or negation in federal funding to sanctuary cities.

My hope is that cities will come together not only through this sanctuary city status but also as havens of freedom of expression and tolerance as multicultural hubs. Our urban habitat is strange and unique and puts us in a position as humans that tests us but also allows for a sense of togetherness - especially in times of need. We are going to need that more than ever, even if it does mean bunkering down in our urban environments against the oppressive white nationalist leaders at the top.

New York City has been declared a sanctuary city, a diverse metropolis that will not bow to racist ideologies (Photo by author)

New York City has been declared a sanctuary city, a diverse metropolis that will not bow to racist ideologies (Photo by author)

The fact of the matter is this - it is impossible to be silent against grave injustices, either real or suggested. We must all be vigilant and remind ourselves constantly that this is not normal rhetoric. This is a time of absolute terror for some, and deprivation of the rights of many is very seriously as stake.

I will not, and cannot, as a humanist stand idly by and not speak up.

Jane Jacobs, an urbanist and de facto anthropologist in her own right, gave us a warning about the future in her final book Dark Age Ahead - predicting either the total collapse or the coming together of our species in a new “age of human capital”. But she also touted the strength of cities as progressive sanctuaries that are human-centric almost by default, saying, “perhaps it will be the city that reawakens our understanding and appreciation of nature, in all its teeming, unpredictable complexity.”

If we don’t restructure our systems around the guiding principle of humanism, then we are doomed to fail. At this point in our timeline as an urbanized species our explosion of growth has led us to the Anthropocene - an era of human impact far beyond anything we’ve ever seen in the past. For better or worse this means we have a responsibility to this place and our people - all people. If we are to ensure our collective existence on earth, in our fully globalized world, there is no alternative.

We are going to need to come together more than ever, as urbanists, as individuals who understand the value of living together with other humans in beautiful, messy harmony. Individual actions and local policy will be more important than ever, whether it's standing up for harassment or advocating for the human-scale initiatives that we have fought so hard for before. Making anthropology-related information accessible in science, culture, physiology, natural systems, recent history, and our collective evolution can have social benefits of understanding - and is also going to be even more important to make public in the post-election era

I will be moving actively in a direction of anthropological advocacy for all of the reasons above. I believe as anthropologists we are uniquely positioned to speak up and to fight against racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and general hatred towards others. We cannot afford to be silent as humanists if we are to hope for a more equal outcome, and as an urbanist and anthropologist I cannot give up hope that the future is human, even now. 

Love trumps hate - because it's the only thing we can believe in. (Photo by author)

Love trumps hate - because it's the only thing we can believe in. (Photo by author)

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman