Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Dispersal Policing as Borderwork in Barcelona



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5 Minutes

Guest post by David Moffette. David Moffette is Assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa (Canada). He is the author of Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour, and Security in Spain (UBC Press, 2018). This is the third post of the Border Criminologies’ themed series ‘The Changing Dynamics of Transnational Borders and Boundaries’, organised by Cristina Fernandez Bessa and Giulia Fabini.

Street vendors from the \
Since 2015, unauthorized street vending has become a political issue in Barcelona after conservative journalists, the police and some business people denounced the left wing municipal government for not tackling the issue. Some commentators estimated that there were about 400 street vendors in Barcelona at the time, a number that would double to 800 by the summer of 2016. While these numbers are contested, immigrant street vendors can regularly be seen selling fake luxury purses, Barça jerseys, brand sneakers, and other goods in the subway, the Rambla and other touristic areas. As a response to the criticism, elected officials devised a strategy aimed at dealing with what they saw as a problem of public order and public perception: a ‘tough-on-street-vending’ discourse backed by a crackdown on Barcelona’s vendors (or manteros, a nickname that comes from the blanket, manta, they use to display their goods). While officials maintain that these practices have nothing to do with immigration, the self-organized and autonomous Union of Barcelona’s Street Vendors has described these practices as manifestations of racial profiling, immigration control, and bordering.

This argument is convincing for various reasons. First, the presence of police officers waiting at the turnstiles of subway stations and stopping African men (many of them without proper immigration documents) carrying big white bags that they suspect is full of goods for sale as a deterrence strategy bears uncanny symbolic and material resemblance to border control. Indeed, officers in uniform holding check points to intercept unauthorized merchandise and verify identity documents as people on the move are funnelling out of a transit hub effectively turns subway stations into border points for unauthorized street vendors. Second, given that most people selling counterfeit garments are west African immigrants and most of those selling beer cans are from the Indian subcontinent, their identification and policing in the crowded city cannot but rely on various forms of profiling, including racial. Third, and perhaps most importantly, while street vending is governed by Barcelona’s municipal bylaws, manteros are governed through a mix of municipal, criminal and immigration law. There is much to be gained, analytically, conceptually, and politically, by studying this response to immigrant street vendors as a form of bordering , that is, “as an ongoing strategic effort to make a difference in space among the movement of people.” I cannot, in this blog post, provide a detailed empirical account of the fight against unauthorized street vending. Instead, I will argue that this case can teach us three lessons about how to study borderwork as it occurs in cities, but also more broadly.

A municipal police officer following a street vendor in the crowded street (Photo: Ricard Cugat)
The first lesson is about paying attention to the multiplicity of actors, practices and legal frameworks that partake in urban forms of borderwork. Indeed, Barcelona’s fight against manteros involves municipal police officers (Guàrdia Urbana) to apply bylaws against unauthorized street vending, Catalan police officers (Mossos d’Esquadra) to criminally prosecute the selling of counterfeit products, National police officers (Cuerpo Nacional de Policia) to apply the Alien Act and dismantle distribution networks upstream, and even the Port Police (Policia Portuària de Barcelona) to intervene when the selling happens on their territory. This suggests that to fully grasp the policing of immigrants and related coercive bordering practices, we cannot limit ourselves to accounts of criminalization or crimmigration. Criminal law and a range of techniques and logics traditionally associated with the criminal justice system do play a role, but the legal intersections cannot be reduced to the concept of criminalization. Instead, we need to pay attention to what Boaventura de Sousa Santos called interlegality, that is the unequal and asymmetric use of various legal technologies by a diversity of actors according to various logics. This pluralist lens can help us offer nuanced analyses of the ways that actors engage in games of jurisdiction and deploy various laws as tactics in the name of a number of different policing and policy agenda, which can result in pushing immigrants out of various spaces through municipal, criminal or immigration law.

The second lesson is about the importance of dispersal policing and forced mobility in everyday bordering practices. We often think of bordering practices as being about controlling movement and access, as strategies of immobilization. In many instances, this is the case. Border fences, identity check points, immigration detention, all work in that way. But, as Martina Tazzioli  has recently argued, bordering practices can also rely on strategies of forced mobility. This is not new: historically, deportation of immigrants, population displacement, transportation of convicts, and exile have been used to force people to move. This is also often how borders work in big cities like Barcelona. Since it is not possible to fully eliminate manteros as there is a demand for what they sell and a lack of other jobs for many of them, city officials adopted a strategy of dispersal policing with the hope of limiting big gathering and invisiblizing the practice as much as possible. A city official I interviewed as part of a research project on municipal forms of border control compared this policing strategy to squeezing a balloon. Indeed, officers put pressure on manteros in the subways so that they have to eventually disperse, and take some time before they resettle on the Rambla. Officers then pressure them there, and they end up going to the port. Eventually, he explained, they try to ‘saturate’ the space with officers so that there is nowhere to set up. Here, it is certainly a strategy of limiting access, but it is also premised on forcing manteros to be always on the move. This tactic of dispersal policing, traditionally used to police undesirable urban dwellers (such as homeless people), is being deployed here against immigrant street vendors.

An aerial view of products for sale (Photo: Ricard Cugat)
The third lesson is that there is always resistance to this type of spatial urban governance and that, at times, borders can even be a resource for migrants. For instance, when street vendors were pushed out of the Rambla by municipal police in 2016, they moved to the port area, a zone they knew falls under the jurisdiction of the Port authority and is patrolled by port police. They crossed the jurisdictional border located right at the bottom of the Rambla to continue their work. Of course, it was just a matter of time before the port police asked for the support of the Guàrdia Urbana and the Mossos d’Esquadra and they eventually were forced out by fines, criminal charges, immigration detention or the confiscation of their goods. Most recently, some created the Top Manta brand in an attempt to protect themselves from criminal prosecution tied to the selling of counterfeit brand products. All of this shows that the cat-and-mouse approach of dispersal policing is part of a broader contested politics of mobility  that includes coercive bordering practices, but also political organizing as well as everyday strategies of spatial evasion, avoidance, and negotiation.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Moffette, D. (2018) Dispersal Policing as Borderwork in Barcelona. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/06/dispersal (Accessed [date]).

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