Ethnographies offer the tools to look into the everyday policing practices among vulnerable communities, as a lot of the mechanics of this phenomenon builds up within structural violence frames. While studying this social and political phenomenon, scholars have reached different definitions of this process and have identified varied and intricate practices that reach far beyond enforcing the law to keep the city safe. In this article I will explore the vast universe of policing the urban poor in Bucharest, as an informal strategy aimed at obtaining the much-acclaimed modernization of the city. Based on the narrative of the “we want a country like outside”, in the last two decades the mayors of Bucharest have endorsed development projects that promote the beautification of the city. The policing practices are often presented as useful tools to produce a city aligned with high standards of civilisation. Within this article, policing is not aimed at reducing crime, in terms of physical security. Policing here represents a myriad of formal and informal practices resulting in deepening the vulnerability of the urban poor. The urban landscape here works as a “difference machine” a place of separation between the well-behaved citizens, people belonging and deserving the city, as opposed to citizens spoiling and threatening the city with their mere existence.
What are the governance challenges imposed by the politics of the daily life of the urban poor? Who are the actors that trigger and that implement the policing practices within Bucharest? What are the effects of implementing formal and informal policing practices on the urban poor? These are questions that cannot be answered otherwise but through ethnographic work, among informal settlements and squatting families. Often depicted as communities that could impede economic growth (Stone, 2006) or “cast aside”, these practices of living without legal forms are presented in Bucharest by both politicians and mainstream media that portray these people as performing “illegal activities”. Bearing in mind the public support for whatever action that would lead to the development of the city, with no critical reflection on who are the people excluded from these processes, policing the urban poor is now a common practice in Bucharest.
In 2021, the Local Police in Bucharest proudly presented their activity report that included some staggering figures. More than 75% of the fines applied in 2021 were for appealing to public mercy. When confronted with the hypothesis of symbolic violence against vulnerable groups, the institutions claimed that their mission is to defend the city from whatever form of illegal doing and appeal to public mercy is described as such in national legislation. In 2023, Local Police in Brașov promoted the idea of changing national legislation to such an extent that homeless people could be taken against their will from the public domain during the day. This idea seems to have emerged from pure frustration of not having the legal means to randomly pick up homeless people from the streets (a Romanian transcript of the meeting is available here).
Bordering practices, seen as urban geographies of isolating and, eventually, expelling the urban poor (Christen, Albrecht, 2020) within big cities in Romania are presented to taxpayers as well-deserved beautification processes while regaining the city from under the people who spoil it. But there is little close to no public evidence of to what extent the vulnerable communities are affected by these visions of order making within the city.
In order to identify these effects, I have visited three informal settlements and I have discussed with other 10 families living in squats in Bucharest (reaching 20 families along the process) for eight months (during 2022). Beside observing the daily life and practices within these informal communities, I have conducted in-depth interviews with people living in extreme housing conditions. I have visited these places alongside a social worker with more than 20 years of social care practice, from Parada Foundation. Bearing in mind my background as a human right activist, I have complemented the fieldwork with petitioning and meeting with local decision makers to discuss the situation of these communities. I did so as I consider that engaged anthropology could be one suitable response to the intricate ethics of doing research in vulnerable communities.
During my fieldwork I observed several dynamics at play within the formal and informal practices of policing the urban poor. The end result seems to be what I would call the local clandestine, the urban poor who fear that their mere existence in the public space might be sanctionable by authorities and law enforcement bodies. A lifetime existence in fear of both local police and social care departments lead to a sort of voluntary invisibility, hiding their everyday practices as much as possible from the public eye. Over the years, public authorities succeeded in identifying their main fears and, according to my interviewees, some of the authorities are now instrumentalizing these fears to force self eviction from houses that need to be quietly evicted.
The local clandestine existence begins with vulnerable people’s right to identity under question. The Romanian ID issuing system is fully dependable on the physical residency of the applicant, in his or her capacity as an owner, co-owner or as an occupant granted by the owner of the residency. Most of the people I have encountered did not have an ID, but only temporary identity cards with no address issued on their documents. This is the official statement of disbelonging within the community, despite that most of them were living in Bucharest for tens of years or were born here. I consider this practice as part of policing practice as it leads to violent practices from both public and private institutions, based on stereotypes associated with homeless people.
Lacking ID’s and secure tenure seems to justify another common policing practice. People living in one informal community are frequently visited by the police in routine checks, in order to identify them and collect information about other potential new residents. The violent procedure has no consideration for the children living within these community:
Lidia: They come with police officers wearing masks [mascați], pushing the doors with their feet. They did not come because something happened, but they just came to count us. They come often so that they check who is living here. This is how they do their statistics, in the middle of the night, tearing down our doors. I had to wake the kids up so that the police could take photos of them.
Paradoxically, among the institutions engaged in policing practices are the social care departments within the city. Despite their official purpose, they have become agents of urban tidiness and are active forces in determining the urban poor to self-evict from the homes in which they are living. A lot of the families that I have discussed with mentioned their fear of having their children displaced from the family. Some of them mentioned to have been explicitly threatened, some others project this potential risk despite having no prior interaction with the institution, but only based on the reputation of social care departments. All in all, social care departments and their legal power to extract children from families who live in improper conditions because of the acute lack of social housing (Zamfirescu, 2015) is among the main reasons for which vulnerable families decide to self-evict.
Social care departments’ involvement into these practices has yet another effect, far more insidious than the simple encounter and threats against the families. Vulnerable families are reluctant in defending or claiming their rights as they are convinced that the scope of these institutions is to harm them and their families or, at best, are indifferent to their needs. This could only result in the moral bankruptcy of any social politics aimed at the most vulnerable people in the city.
Ioan: Until now we have asked nothing from any public institutions. We are afraid because this would lead to a social inquiry and we risk to have our children taken away.
Dorina: If someone comes now and tells us to leave, we leave tonight. Because we know that they could come with the social care department and take our kids away.
The power that social care departments exerts on families living in informal communities was highly evident during a visit performed by one of the seven social care departments in Bucharest within one informal settlement that I have studied. Bearing in mind the families need of ID’s and a domestic waste collecting system, the social care department agreed to visit them. As a sign of benevolence towards this community, they were not accompanied by police. Despite this, in our presence (the Foundation representative and I), the community was blamed for the situations in which they lived in and they were asked to present available documents. With little to no resistance, people complied and received the admonishment with little strength to claim their rights. It seemed as if local police were not needed to perform policing practices, as social care representatives themselves unfolded a violent display of force towards the community.
The exercise of violence is far more evident in the case of local police, in both physical and symbolical dimensions. Along the years, the local community in Bucharest has been informed that local police officers are dedicated to fight against the small crime performed by vulnerable groups, but the main problem in enforcing this local policy is that vulnerable people “do not pay the fines”, therefore there are little close to no other options to fight their “bad habits”, such as selling flowers at the traffic lights, living in abandoned homes or disturbing the public order. This is an oversimplified and populist version of the effect that the fines have on these families. The fines have deep social effects not only for the sanctioned adults, but also for their children.
The fines are the main reason for which vulnerable people refuse to work formally, with legal forms (meaning that they have no health insurance and that they are often exposed to possible abuses from their employers). This is because a formal contract would automatically lead to a debt recovery procedure from the declared revenues, substantially reducing the already low income. Dana, a single mother of three children, needed the contract, as she has a condition requiring expensive medication. She decided to work legally, but she had to complete her income by collecting scrapping metal and plastic and sell it so that she could feed her children:
Maria: I have a part time contract, cleaning some blocks. I earn 600 lei, but they withhold 200 per month. This is a disaster. We survive from trash, madam. I am routing in order to find plastic. So that I could sell it and have some food for my kids.
Adding insult to injury, some people told me the story of local police officers tricking them into signing the fines by lying regarding the content of the papers, taking advantage of the fact that they cannot read. Therefore, they did not have the possibility of asking for the annulment of the fines (in the few cases of people who would have the support of such a complicated juridical endeavour). Two women, both mothers and victims of several evictions along the years (neither of them could tell me the number of homes that they lived in) told me that they found out about the fines while trying to access social benefits:
Ana: I have 10.000 lei fines [2.000 euros]. This is because I sell flowers in traffic. They lied to me that is just a warning. I cannot read and I signed all those fines.
Ioana: I had a fine. But they did not tell me on the spot that they issued one nor did I receive it by mail. Therefore, I found out from public fiscal administration that I have a fine. I couldn’t even contest it. So, I had to pay it, otherwise I could not complete my request for social housing.
Another subtle, yet efficient form of policing through social care services is the practice of conditioning social benefits by paying one’s public debts (fines are considered as such). This directly affects the access to education for children living in extreme poverty as part of the public financial support to prevent children from abandoning school is conditioned by their parents not having debts to the state or local budget. Incrimination of poverty is therefore a process that aims the children directly, through processes of transferring the blame of being poor from their parents onto them:
Sara: I have 1.200 [240 euro] in fines, but I don’t know why. I searched on the internet to find out the reason, but I could not understand how come that I have fines. I wanted to take the money available for school supplies for my girl, but I couldn’t because of these fines.
Another significant part of the fines is issued based on their collecting plastics in order to sell it (a rather hard work, which is paid extremely low). This is the main source of income for most of the single mothers that I have met during this research. And also, the most frequent cause for getting a fine. A woman tried to explain what was written on the fines and she explained to me that she was accused of stealing public property, as this plastic should be financially exploited by local municipalities. Despite incriminating the main source of income for these women, they persist in doing this work, as it is among the few options they have available for a living. Yet, they have to do it discreetly, performing something that they know now is an illegal deed, building up on their status of local clandestine:
Maria: With these plastics they said that I am causing financial loss to the state. They told us that we are thieves.
Me: And now what do you do to earn some money?
Maria: I am stealthy doing the same thing. Here and there, without them [Local Police] seeing me.
Another effect of policing the poor communities is the silent childhood imposed on the children living in squats. Based on the interviews, one of the factors that triggers local police coming to their door is the decibels made by the children in the yards. As the adults seem to come to peace with the fact that they should avoid being noticed, their children cause the noise that alarms the neighbours of their squat and, therefore, they complain to the police. Playing seems to be assimilated with an illegal conduct, triggering local community reactions:
Dan: Children make noise in the yard and neighbours find out that we are here. And they call the police.
Dan also told me that they were visited by the police as a consequence of their neighbour’s false claim that he and his family are eating pigeons:
Dan: A lady filled in a complaint saying that we are killing pigeons. She said that there are fewer since we moved in and that we kill them in order to eat them. Not her birds, she doesn’t have pigeons. Free birds, from the sky. And the police actually came to inspect this!
Policing poverty in Bucharest is a process both formal and informal. The current legislation allows fining vulnerable people for things that keep them in survival mode, such as finding housing in abandoned buildings, selling flowers in traffic or collecting plastic. The politicians’ disinterest in the social housing policies enables informal practices such as threats of institutionalising children, as they live in improper housing conditions. What is more, the public discourse regarding the vulnerable communities depicts people who make futile the effort of development within the city, as people living in squats are often associated with laziness and depreciation of the historical buildings in which they live. People who I interviewed feel abandoned and, what is more, feel that their existence must be discrete. With little control over their lives, they are navigating a plethora of restrictions that are targeting them. They end up avoiding reaching out to social care services or entering the formal work market. It could seem that they chose to live their lives in silence, up to the point that their children should live their childhood in constant hiding. Public authorities frequently communicate that this is how vulnerable people chose to lead their lives. But the ethnographic work within these communities depicts this apparently voluntary invisibility as a direct consequence of structural violence. Being a local clandestine is not a choice, but is the result of constant incrimination of every aspect of their concealed lives.