Ceasing Fire and Seizing Time

LA Gang Tours and the White Control of Mobility

in Transfers


LA Gang Tours went on its inaugural ride through Los Angeles in 2010. Black and Latino former gang members from South Los Angeles lead the bus tours, sharing personal stories of gang life with mostly white tourists. A popular critique of the tour is that it facilitates a tourist gaze. However, we argue that to focus on the tourist gaze misses a more pressing opportunity to examine the production of whiteness. We shift the focus to consider the bus’s movement and the power it exerts in transforming the spatial and temporal dynamics of South Los Angeles. Based on participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and discourse analysis of materials surrounding the tours, we found that the tour lays the figurative foundations for gentrification and reconfirms a white control of mobility in the neighborhood. This white control of mobility extends beyond Los Angeles to impact the lives of people of color throughout the United States.

It is a regular summer day in July 2012 in the Pueblo del Rio Housing Projects in South Los Angeles the first time Armond, a heavily tattooed former Bloods gang member, takes a drive through the neighborhood. Pueblo del Rio is home to the 52 Pueblo Bishop Bloods and E/S Oriental Boyz gangs. The housing project was designed in the 1940s under the auspices of the “g arden city” template. The projects consist of two-story housing units that open onto grassy spaces meant for children to play on. The population is diverse, composed of African Americans, Latinos, and a recent influx of Cambodian immigrants. Approximately 50 percent of the residents are children and teenagers. But there are no young children playing at this moment. As Armond drives by in his rental car, windows rolled down, he spots a group of young black men who are all dressed in red and lounging on the swing sets and playground equipment. He understands exactly how to drive by without drawing negative attention to himself: he does not nod, stare, gesture, or emote. The men, however, stare at him intently as he drives by.

Later that July, Armond passes through Pueblo del Rio again. This time he is on an air-conditioned tour bus with tinted windows and a busload of white tourists from the United States and abroad. Armond is participating in a LA Gang Tour—a tour where interested parties pay 65 dollars a head for a “safe trip” through various gang territories to see what “LA gangster life is really like.” The composition of the Pueblos looks radically different during the scheduled times of the tour. The grassy spaces and parks are full of women and children; many residents are sitting outside on their stoops and balconies. In the distance, Armond recognizes a similar group of men from his first excursion. They are huddled closely together at the entrance of one of the housing units just barely out of view of the bus. As the bus gets closer some of them give a faint wave before they quickly scatter in various directions, soon completely out of sight.

LA Gang Tours went on its inaugural ride through the streets of Los Angeles in 2010. Alfred Lomas is the tour’s founder and a former member of Florencia 13, one of the major Latino gangs in South Los Angeles. Lomas is the main voice on the tour but he is also accompanied by a handful of other black and Latino former gang members who hail from the geographic region of the tour. Together they share personal narratives of gang life in South Los Angeles with thirty to forty tourists sitting in their comfortable seats. Overhead on the televisions Crips and Bloods: Made in America plays on high volume. The documentary details the emergence of the two most recognizable black gangs in South Los Angeles.

The average tour bus is similar to a commercial bus: air-conditioned with tinted windows, leather front-facing reclining seats, a television, and a lavatory in the back. The tour bus is designed to ensure the physical comfort of the tourist yet there is also a level of political comfort that gets reestablished on the tour. The viability of the LA Gang Tours depends upon the implementation of the Safe Passage Clause, a three-hour-long ceasefire that has been brokered between four major rival gangs in South Los Angeles. The Safe Passage Clause requires that the tourists refrain from taking pictures, exiting the bus without permission, or taunting the residents in any way.

A popular critique of LA Gang Tours is that they are exploitative, a safari ride through the ghetto for white tourists to view black people in their “natural habitat.”1 While there are definitely elements of the tourist gaze,2 we argue that to merely focus on the tourist gaze misses a more pressing opportunity to engage with the production of race as it is tied to mobility in the United States. We shift the focus, then, to consider not the exploitative tourist gaze but the moment of the bus’s arrival in the neighborhood and the power it exerts in transforming the spatial and temporal dynamics of the neighborhood. The gang members who are not on the tour bus do not make themselves available for view. There are no re-enactments of gang life or simulations of life in the hood, quite the opposite in fact. As the bus makes its way through the neighborhoods, the South Los Angeles residents who are most visible during the tour are suddenly women and children of color—the black, Cambodian, and Latino/a residents. They are not outside performing for the bus. Rather they are enjoying the period of ceasefire enabled by the tour. By the end of the tour the most frequent topic of conversation among all those present centers on the hopeful sense of “what the neighborhood could become.” The tours invoke a sense of a better life in South Los Angeles. The gaze of the white mobile subject who enters this space of the Other is future-oriented and aspirational. This power to alter the organization of the life of others through mobility is endemic, we argue, of a culture governed by the white control of mobility.

Mobility is central to the political ontologies of race in the United States. One’s racial identity has an always-already mobile element. In simple terms, it is one of the mechanisms by which people are raced in the United States. In the case of LA Gang Tours, we want to focus on whiteness and the objective practices of mobility that form white subjectivities as they are tied to the control of the mobility of others. The control of movement, we argue, is what makes whiteness: first, through autonomous mobility, and second, by controlling the movement of others. While whiteness is largely studied in terms of privilege garnered by movement,3 we argue it must be further thought of as structured by movement itself.4 To be white assumes a material relationship to autonomous movement while simultaneously controlling the movement of Others.

Although motivated by the notion that it can lead to self-realization and autonomy for the residents of the community, we found that the tour instead lays the figurative foundations for gentrification and thus reconfirms the white control of mobility in the neighborhood. We came to these conclusions based on participant observation; interviews with the tour guides, tourists, and residents; as well as discourse analysis of the popular media, advertisement, and promotional materials surrounding the tours. The white control of mobility does not require the constant presence of whiteness. The absence of white residents does not preclude the existence of white power, but rather reveals that whiteness structures mobility for everyone in powerful and alltoo-often violent ways. What makes the tour so complex and confounding is that the Safe Passage created for white tourists produces freedom of mobility for the residents in ways they otherwise would not experience in their own neighborhood.

The LA Gang Tour and the three-hour ceasefire that accompanies it provide an opportunity to think and dwell at the intersection of two traditions of critical thought: critical race and mobility studies. The tour reflects a pivotal moment of transformation in South Los Angeles. The question for Lomas and other activists in the neighborhood becomes: how might a safe passage exist for the residents of South Los Angeles apart from the white control of mobility? We suggest such a passage is not possible without recognition of the programmatic nature of the white control of mobility or the inexorable link between mobility and racial violence. This also depends on recognition of how intrinsic mobility is to the production of race.

Before focusing on the bus tour, we begin with what we see as the necessary theoretical work of undoing the disarticulation of race and mobility as separate spheres of life. Throughout the paper we suggest that attempts at ending white supremacy become increasingly difficult if we are not able to see the mobile terms and conditions of structural racism. Thus we conclude by examining how white supremacist violence is often able to hide its racism by framing confrontations in the terms of mobility rather than race.

Mobile Race

While the relationship between mobility and white privilege has been well-theorized, we suggest more work is needed to outline a political ontology of whiteness—one that we consider fundamental to understanding white mobility.5 Frank Wilderson refers to political ontology as violence that first situates the black body as an antagonistic “nonbeing” in necessary contrast to Western conceptions of “humanity,” a binary opposition most evident in Hegelianism.6 For Wilderson, chattel slavery is the political violence that gave birth to “the Human,” “but not before it murdered the Black, forging a symbiosis between the political ontology of Humanity and the social death of Blacks.”7 While whiteness is central to black political ontology,8 less attention is given to a political ontology of whiteness. Our position that mobility is of political ontological importance to whiteness sits firmly between the traditions of critical race studies and mobility studies but seeks to extend both areas of inquiry toward new intermingled territory.9

From colonialism to transatlantic slavery to contemporary tourist culture, certain people become white based on their autonomous mobility and the assumed right to move Others. This differential mobility has created a world in which white people have historically imagined they are civilizing safe presences that aid others by implementing their cultural, political, and economic values. For example, Charles Mills argues that spaces outside Europe, where Europeans have yet to move, have been classified as “blank,” signifying “not merely that Europeans have not arrived but that these spaces have not arrived, a blankness of the inhabitants themselves.”10 Mills notes that European colonization (literally Europeans forcefully moving into space) structures the boundaries of whiteness and non-whiteness in material ways. Similarly, Steve Martinot argues that the commonality between the Gulf War of the 1990s and the invasion of Mexico during the mid-nineteenth century is the in-movement of white people as a supposed civilizing force on people of color, an in-movement that situates whiteness as saving the Other.11 While these examples speak to race as producing the Other, they brush over the importance of material movements for structuring what race means in terms of producing whiteness itself.

Critical race studies addresses questions of mobility in relation to race but tends to privilege the circulation of cultural texts over bodies. In Wilderson’s theorizing of “absurd mobility,” white mobility is productive of the subject, ensuring black and Native American mobility is an absurdity that exists only for whiteness. Wilderson reaches this conclusion by comparing and contrasting the movie Thelma & Louise, where two white women find their subjectivities on the freeway, with Smoke Signals, where two Native American women reify their abnormal, inhumanity by driving backwards.12 In a far more material way, Gaye Johnson notes that racially restrictive housing covenants and racist policing have made Los Angeles a city of black and Latino/a immobility. As a response, black and Latino/a residents resort to what Johnson terms “audiomobility,” or metaphorical movements from their restrictive black and Latino/a immobile spaces via the circulation of their music, literature, and other art forms.13 Similarly, Katherine McKittrick argues that black mobility can be a radical act, what she calls “black geographies.” Black geographies are contested spaces where black subjectivity emerges in spite of marginality; however, much of McKittrick’s examples of black creation of space are reliant on examples derived from novels and short stories.14 Lastly, Sarah Cervenak argues whiteness emerges from the movements allotted to Europeans: “a key feature and privilege of post-Enlightenment subjectivity is (exterior) kinesis, the illusion of a normative body that enjoys and regulates his or her own ‘autonomous, self-motivated, endless, spectacular movement.’”15 Cervenak’s theorization of mobility and race begins with interpretations of sculpture and literature.

Turning to mobility studies, one finds an opportunity to engage with the materiality of mobility and race beyond cultural texts. In particular, Doreen Massey’s critique of the generalized white male protagonist assumed in the discourse around “time-space compression” reveals that fears of “dislocation” and the loss of control over space and time reveal not so much a universal condition, but new white male anxieties related to mobility and uneven globalization.16 Massey’s work makes necessary an acknowledgment of differential mobility as it relates to both race and gender and with implications to a host of other identity categories that are produced through mobility. The works of both Caren Kaplan and Tim Cresswell, for example, have been significant to understanding the materiality of racialization as it also relates to women and the politics of mobility.17

Similarly, in her discussion of Caribbean tourism, Mimi Sheller argues that white tourists are allotted movement through certain spaces based on restrictions placed on mostly black natives. Sheller posits that Caribbean natives have a different form of mobility based on “the complex character of mobility systems [that] stems from the multiple fixities or moorings often on a substantial physical scale that enable other things to be fluid.”18 The Caribbean native moves in places that are unknown to the average tourists; sometimes as laborers or as locals at hangout spots only they know about. This is not an immaterial movement, but a mobile relation that remakes what constitutes native space. In The Tourist Gaze, John Urry talks about assumptions of how services should be rendered to tourists. Urry notes the average Western tourist expects a raced, classed, and gendered “social composition of the producers,” “at least those [producers] who are serving in the front line,” because this is “what is in fact ‘sold’ to the customer.”19 While mobility studies focuses on materiality in relation to race, subjectivity, and differential mobility, it has a harder time theorizing the mobile element of blackness as it relates to white mobility, or what critical race studies understands as the violence against the Other necessary for white subjectivity. Put differently, how the “mobile subject” in the United States assumes violence against black bodies is given little emphasis in critical mobility studies. This is not to say that there is no consideration of objecthood or the relationality of mobility and race. The new mobilities paradigm takes relationality as a starting point and considers human and non-human entities.20 But while mobility studies addresses how seemingly neutral discussions of mobility assume white subjectivity,21 what needs to be examined further is the relationship between this white subject and racist violence, a violence that creates the object necessary to produce white subjectivity. Where mobility studies falls short is in its assumption of (white) subjectivity, more specifically, the silence around blackness as a central defining relationship of Western conceptions of subjectivity.

Safe Passage and the White Control of Mobility in Los Angeles

The tour travels by twelve preselected locations beginning in Echo Park at the Dream Center, a Christian church that gave Alfred his first start when he was released from prison in the 1990s. The bus then moves downtown past the Los Angeles County Jail, the city’s Financial District, and Skid Row. After Skid Row the bus passes by the old Rampart Police Station, an infamous and now derelict icon of police brutality. South Los Angeles is the final location. Once there, the bus drives by Blood, Crip, and Florencia 13 territories, including Pueblo Del Rio. The second to last stop is the Watts Tower Arts Center and the famous Watts Towers, built by Italian-American artist Sabato Rodia in the 1950s. The Towers are in rival gang territory, which speaks to the graffiti sometimes painted on them. After Pico Union, the tourists are returned to Echo Park and the Dream Center.

The climax of the tour is definitely the Pueblos. As the bus pulls into the housing complex, Alfred is greeted with warm hugs and effusive thank yous from women expressing gratitude that because of the ceasefire their kids can play outside. While Armond witnessed this scene during his first tour experience, Lomas also indicates that this greeting is a regular occurrence on the tour. For Lomas, the other tour guides, and many of the residents, the bus’s arrival challenges the social and physical death of the ghetto. During an interview with a Compton resident named Reggie, he expressed, “the streets are as quiet and peaceful as I done seen.” Alfred expresses deep concern that both the gang violence and the police violence directed at the community make some residents “prisoners in their own homes.” Alfred is also proud of Safe Passage because it does allow residents to come outside of their homes: “I can’t tell you,” Alfred stated in the course of the second of our interviews, “during my years of working humanitarian efforts the amount of complaints I’ve got about being held hostage through violence. You know they’re held hostage.” As the tour bus moves through South Los Angeles, Alfred points out repeatedly that the Safe Passage provides a new ease of mobility for the residents to walk outside their homes and enter parks with their children in ways that are not usually possible.

While crime had actually been significantly reduced in the area prior to the 2010 inaugural tour, LA Gang Tours still champions Safe Passage as part of the area’s crime reduction.22 They proudly boast on the website that South Los Angeles has experienced a 27 percent decrease in criminal activity since the gang tours were first implemented. The LA Gang Tour website claims, “5–10% of the gang population is responsible for 65–70% of all gang violence. LA Gang Tours has access to the ‘5%,’ those who have their fingers on the triggers. The participating gangs in the established gun fire free safety zones [Safe Passage areas] have agreed to allow LA Gang Tours to operate in their areas.”23 Similarly, in a radio commercial spot for the tour, a female voiceover with Bob Marley’s “One Love” in the background notes that tourist movement is a protective force for South Los Angeles. Specifically, the ad states: “Together we can make a difference, create a lasting change, and bring hope back to the streets of Los Angeles. You no longer need to imagine. Saving lives, creating jobs, and rebuilding communities: LA Gang Tours.”24 The tourists are witness to the brief release of isolation and are told in so many words: without your movement the ghetto will have no ceasefire, you can help simply by taking the tour.

We want to leave aside the contestable claim that the neighborhood is actually made safer because of the LA Gang Tours and instead think about how the discourse of safety is used in a way that further legitimates the white control of mobility.25 Perhaps most significant is that all of this “safety” turns out to be quite disappointing for the tourist. The tourists constantly lament the lack of visual markers of “real” gang members. This expectation is largely informed by an uncritical consumption of mediated depictions of black criminality (read: The Wire and gangsta rap).26 The tourists moan: “I didn’t really get to see any real gang members,” or “I was hoping to see something.” None of them realize that there are gang members of other races in the neighborhood and that many of the children they see playing also have gang affiliations. The tour does not delve into this complexity but instead uses other means to create the black male gang member whom the tourists came to see.

The figure of the black male gang member thus occupies a special place in the tour. He is not found so much in the neighborhood but in their promotional materials and also in the popular cultural media responses to the tour. Out of the seventeen videos about the tour that circulate on television and on various websites, it is always Alfred interviewed with the same three black male tour guides.27 This is striking because, as another tourist, Sam, also notes of his own tour experience in 2011, “almost all the tour guides on the bus are brown.” This suggests that media depictions are crafting a very specific image of LA Gang Tours, one that continues to identify blackness with South Los Angeles. There is an overwhelming focus on black gangs in the neighborhoods promoted by the tour guides as well. There is no reference to the Asian gangs, the influx of Cambodian immigrants, or the other large Latino gangs that thrive in the area, although Florencia 13 is one Latino gang given significant emphasis on tour. South Los Angeles is hardly a black space but very much a brown space that runs the diverse gamut of what constitutes “brown.”

The normalization of white movement plays a role in racially categorizing and controlling South Los Angeles. South Los Angeles is understood to be “black” because of its centrality to whiteness. Inherent in the white control of mobility is classificatory power where whites can label a space as South Los Angeles, instead of South Central, or as “black” instead of “Latino/a,” regardless of the actual composition of the place.28 The determinations are fluid and subject to change but always related to defining whiteness.

But the role of the black gang member does not just work to maintain the classificatory power of racial identification. He has another important role. When the black gang member is made to appear, the tourists note that there is a level of “authenticity” restored to South Los Angeles—one that now exceeds what is available to them in their consumption of music or movies. One tourist, Tony, posted on the tour’s website: “Nice to hear the behind the scheme [sic] of Hollywood. To see the real event.”29 Another tourist posted: “There are so many places I’ve only read about. It was fascinating seeing them in person—and for real.”30 And Sam notes: “I think [the tour] definitely has some sort of legitimacy, and legitimacy about actually talking about the issues, some would say authenticity.” This assumed authenticity of South Los Angeles on the tour is ironically connected not to the actual residential population, but instead to the movement of the mostly white tourists. Put differently, the tourists imagine (and make) South Los Angeles’s authenticity. Sharon Zukin similarly notes that the in-movement of new white gentrifiers is important to the production of what they consider “authentic” black, yet safe, spaces. These spaces are authentic less in the sense of the longtime inhabitants, the black residents, and instead based on gentrifiers doing the displacing of these residents: “We can only see spaces as authentic from outside them. Mobility gives us the distance to see a neighborhood in terms of the way it looks, enables us to hold it to an absolute standard of urbanity or cosmopolitanism, and encourages us to judge its character apart from any personal history or intimate social relationships we have there.”31 Gentrification, as we will elaborate further in the next section, holds similar mobile implications similar to LA Gang Tours. The communities are ironically produced as racially authentic by white mobility or white safe movement produces the authenticity of the inner city space.

Safe Passage fosters and plays into the expectation that a space should transform in the presence of whiteness. There is disappointment over the lack of gang markers but in the very next breath the same tourists are found expressing self-congratulations for their role in protecting South Los Angeles and reducing gang life. One tourist notes right after bemoaning the lack of gang members, “It was so nice to see all those children getting to play outside.” The bus sweeps the “gang problem” from the community; the tourists imagine their mobility as protecting South Los Angeles from the gang members they so desperately want to see. The discourse around safety for the tourist and then safety for all in South Los Angeles reinforces a notion of an accessible world on offer. It is one of plethora and choice that can be governed at will and when it is not, when it fails to meet expectations, there is discontent. As we will discuss further below, this seemingly contradictory stance of being let down but also pleased with one’s impact on the community gets channeled even more productively by the end of the tour. The tourists leave the bus with the conclusion that the community could now be ready for development. Perhaps this is not at all a surprising response from a population that has always held the controls of mobility in Los Angeles.

Future Safe Passage “For Everyone”

Foreign travelers are pretty common on the gang tour but they often arrive en masse and in fully booked tours. Armond had the opportunity to take a private tour with a couple from Norway who had flown in to Los Angeles just for the tour. Earlier that week the scheduled tour with a group from Sweden had been canceled. Anna and Christian, fresh off their flight from Norway, explained how excited they were. The purpose of their trip to Los Angeles was to take the tour. They had attempted to take the tour the year before while they were on vacation in Los Angeles, but could not get tickets because it had sold out. This time Anna and Christian purchased tickets ahead of their vacation to make sure they could take the tour.

Anna is a journalist in Norway, and she planned to write about her experience on tour when she returned home, possibly to spark interest among fellow Norwegians. Christian is a self-proclaimed “businessman.” In the course of the interview between Armond and Anna and Christian it became quite evident that their positions on the tour were quite similar to the tour guides: that LA Gang Tours would end the gang violence in South Los Angeles. But their self-described “foreigner” or “outsider” perspective culminated in a different vision for the neighborhood than what Alfred had in mind. They were without a doubt largely focused on “the future” of the neighborhood but in terms of what it meant for white mobility. The three-hour-long interview of Anna and Christian conducted by Armond occurred in their rented beach house in Malibu, just a block away from the ocean.

Armond sat on the couch with the Pacific Ocean behind him, while Anna and Christian sat facing Armond and the beach. During the interview, the Norwegian couple spoke about their hope that South Los Angeles could eventually become more “open” for the movement of people like them, or for other white people. Christian, for example, suggests the gang tours should “extend” Lomas’s work from solely tourism to allowing “more businesses” to invest in the economic endeavors of LA Gang Tours and South Los Angeles as a whole. It is this investment that they see could simultaneously fulfill Alfred’s desire for change but also become a mutually beneficial transformation for multiple “people like them.” In fact, investment and physical mobility are conflated for Christian when he talks about the tour. Christian urged Armond:

Alfred should not be afraid to commercialize this [gang tour]. Because I think, and this is my personal thought, to experience things firsthand, don’t be afraid sort of that people will challenge your motivation or what’s behind it, because I think what’s most scary are the things we can talk about. Things we can experience, we can see, we can talk about, that’s so much better.

Armond asked Christian to expand on what he meant by “commercialize this?” Christian stated:

I mean, the more you’re able to open up these communities and allowing sort of outsiders to walk in and out, that’s probably the way to develop these communities, to make them safer, make them sort of more part of the … instead of the more isolated areas people talk about but never visit. And I think that’s what I mean by commercialization.

In addition to the “outsiders” who can walk in and out of South Los Angeles, it is not hard to imagine that this “commercialized” movement through South Los Angeles that will supposedly benefit the community is an overwhelmingly white movement. Two of the businesses Christian mentions that Alfred could get sponsorships from are white-owned businesses: Walmart and Kmart. Importantly, the role these big businesses can play in saving South Los Angeles is twofold: on the one hand, Walmart and Kmart save South Los Angeles by providing legal economic ventures for residents; on the other, increases in businesses like these can bring in different (i.e., white) people, businesses, and, police protections, and, thus, stunt the public potential of gang violence in these areas.

In his discussion of businesses and “outside” residents moving into South Los Angeles, what Christian speaks to without realizing it are the processes of gentrification already occurring in many Los Angeles communities of color.32

While some of the South Los Angeles communities the tour bus goes through are being gentrified, most are not.33 Still, like gentrification, the tour promotes the idea that South Los Angeles can be safer as more white people move in. In both Christian’s and Anna’s comments, and in the ideals of gentrification proponents, it is most often corporate businesses that lay the groundwork for the “redevelopment” of the inner city, which is then followed by the in-movement of white residents and white patrons, which Christian hopes is the ultimate outcome of these tours.34 Within this framework, the in-movement of white people (as tourists, residents, businesses, or capital) is central to “redeveloping” South Los Angeles and making it a safer community.35

But it is not just a corporation that provides protections for the neighborhood. It is also the white body that can protect the black body against anti-black violence. During Armond’s ride with Anna and Christian the privilege of safe movement for the white tourists was immediately evident at one of the most popular stops on the tour. Alfred and Armond noticed two police squad cars outside the stop near the Watts Towers. As they got out of the SUV, Alfred put his arm around Armond’s shoulder and assured him, “Don’t worry, homie, they won’t bother us with white people around.” Armond and Alfred both laughed, but Alfred was serious. Anna even noted this interaction,

You know like when we met the cops and [Alfred] was like, “yeah, we’re [Alfred and Armond] ok because we have two white people, and they would never shoot at us.” He’s joking but he also means it on some level. And I know he’s just being honest about like how he feels he’s being portrayed by like the government, media, the cops or whatever.

Anna states that, although she cannot fully understand this, Alfred is conscious that the police will treat him and Armond differently than they will treat her. This is of course a joke, but that is not the point. The bigger point is that all parties in this minor vignette realize that Anna, as a white tourist, is allowed a safe passage through South Los Angeles that the police state enforces. The Safe Passage Clause is an extension of what white movement has traditionally and imaginatively meant for non-white spaces: the movement of white people is the only way to create safety, civilization, and peace in non-white spaces, even as it perpetuates violence upon the same spaces and people it supposedly helps.

Armond’s black body, even as a tourist, can be reduced to the blackness associated with South Los Angeles. As a tourist, participating in the maintenance of whiteness, his safety is not secured through Anna’s whiteness off of the tour bus. It is Anna and her husband Christian who need protection by the state, and, by extension, they protect Alfred and Armond through gentrified mobility. In the turning over of South Los Angeles for tourist movement, Anna and Christian’s bodies assume protections that Armond’s black body is not usually privy to. The tours and Safe Passage reveal an institutional racial structure of Los Angeles—and the United States—long upheld by the police and the city, one where white bodies are allotted special protections that do not extend to all people.

Seizing Time

Safe Passage, then, is ultimately a redundancy for the tourists under the white control of mobility. It is an extension of the assumed protection that follows white bodies to begin with—a safety that essentially remakes spaces to allow for the white control of mobility. When it comes to the tourists, Safe Passage is an extension of their protected right to move. LA Gang Tours and the implementation of Safe Passage is one more way of facilitating a privileged mobility for white tourists—the ones who are considered worthy of protection in South Los Angeles and at the same time “protect” the area. Whether or not Safe Passage actually makes South Los Angeles safer does nothing to stunt the feeling the tourists are given that their movement matters. The “safety” provided by Safe Passage for the white tourist is a political act, one that produces South Los Angeles as dangerous for tourists’ pleasure. For three hours South Los Angeles becomes what LA Gang Tours makes of it: a dangerous space that is remade safe by white people’s movement, now full of women and children, happy and safe, rescued out of their homes for a few short hours of freedom. It could always be like this.

The civilizing missions of colonizers is well-documented and we can now add the LA Gang Tour to this list of historical pillaging, but we must still return to what the tours have produced for the community. The sentiment that it could always be like this is also found within the community by Lomas and the residents who have felt isolated and held hostage. Running alongside this future imaginary of this place something else emerges: a gendered window of opportunity wherein black men are not the only face of South Los Angeles. The altering of the scene by the arrival of the white tourists, the temporal and spatial suspension of the order of things, includes an entirely altered gendered composition of the neighborhood. During the ceasefire, different populations differently seize time, and the three hours reveal the otherwise invisible temporal relations in the neighborhood. The radical potential of the neighborhood is discovered incisively in this instant but it risks being lost if it is not freed from the white control of mobility. Women and children have equal claims to the community. In addition, there are at least some residents who think the gang tour really does help to prevent violence and they do take much solace in the three hours of reprieve. Regardless if the LA Gang Tours play up the effect of the ceasefire for the tourists, this capability of all residents to move around South Los Angeles unhindered is not the norm. Isolation is not uniform but is experienced differentially and it is an indisputable fact of life for many residents. But the narrative of isolation, even differential isolation, tethers the neighborhood to a discourse of immobility. Instead, moving toward autonomy rather than alleviating isolation could be key to Alfred Lomas’s aspirations for the neighborhood.

During the ceasefire, the seizing of time by the women and children gives particular insight into the layers of vulnerability, and the political economic gendered hierarchies within the neighborhood. These are vital to understanding what autonomy might mean locally. This altered gendered composition of the neighborhood during the tourist’s ceasefire is what first motivates the self-congratulations of the tourist but it very quickly falls out of view altogether when the future of the neighborhood for further white mobility is pursued. The appearance of women and children and the subsequent disappearance of the black gang member becomes a blank space upon which to launch future white corporate space where white people can move in and out without fear.

While the bus paves the way for further gentrification, it offers a crossroads for the tour’s founders and community activists. If there is going to be transformation in South Los Angeles it must not be done in the name of this white mobility but instead take into account the various power-geometries (Massey) and power-chronographies (Sharma)36 of South Los Angeles that have come to the surface in light of the bus’s roving. The influx of more white people into the neighborhood, more students from USC, for example, does not necessarily create autonomy for the multiple residents of a neighborhood like the Pueblos. For the tourists, developing the neighborhood seems justifiable because it does not immobilize the population, leave them stuck, or move them into a new spatial reality—whether segregated or displaced. Instead, it actually seems to make the residents potentially more useful to white economic power. One only wonders, who will staff the Walmarts and Kmarts of these “just” gentrification dreams? Now the residents become upwardly mobile within the white control of mobility. They are given safe passage if they maintain white economic power.

Conclusion: On Mobile Vulnerability

Mobility undergirds subjectivity. There is a mobile element to all forms of social difference. But mobility is also used to hide the violence of white supremacy. Under the white control of mobility, only some have the right to move freely, stop when they want, go where they want, park where they want, move when they want to, and to do so with abandon. If this seems untenable as a provocation, then one only has to ask who is “mobile vulnerable”? One only has to ask who knows the unspoken rules of the white control of mobility in order to begin a conversation about how central mobility and transportation are to the political ontologies of race in America. The scattering of black males in the Pueblo neighborhood, Armond and Alfred feeling protected by the white tourists off of the tour bus, and the Compton and Pueblo residents enjoying the ceasefire are all examples of populations who understand the unspoken rules of the white control of mobility. At different times and places in a given day, one’s race, gender, and class have differing, yet ever-present, implications for mobility. Under the white control of mobility, this racial production, our focus here, is vast and the rules are publicly unspoken, but personally acknowledged. Yet only some know what it feels like to be mobile vulnerable. And, has it ever been a horrific year for being mobile vulnerable.

This past year in North Carolina where we began writing this piece together, three Muslim students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were gunned down execution-style in their apartment by a middle-aged white man, Craig Hicks. Locally, nationally, and even internationally, a divisive discourse emerged over the motive of the deranged killer. There were those who saw this as a racially motivated hate crime. Others insisted it resulted from an ongoing argument over a parking spot and thus should not be made a “racial” issue. As captured by a lawyer for Craig Hicks’s now ex-wife: “It is a simple matter that has nothing to do with the religious faith of the victims … It is a mundane issue of this man being frustrated day in and day out, and unfortunately, these victims were there at the wrong time at the wrong place.”37 But to understand race in America one must learn to recognize and call to attention the concrete grounds upon which the white control of mobility is devised and implemented over and over again. These murders had everything to do with the parking spot and everything to do with racialized hate.

For Deah, Yusor, and Razon in Chapel Hill were guilty. They had committed crimes against the white control of mobility. They had parked their cars in Craig Hicks’s spot. For Trayvon Martin in Florida, he walked on the sidewalk with a hoodie too close to a gated community. Michael Brown was flaunting his disrespect for the white control of mobility when he was first encountered by Darren Wilson walking in the middle of the road and was told by Wilson to “get the fuck on the sidewalk.” Sandra Bland died in police custody after a “failure to signal.” And former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing allegedly “feared for his life” before he murdered Samuel Dubose over a missing license plate. If you work with a conception of race that is always-already tied to the politics of mobility, then these examples are not one-off instances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are not a series of unfortunate events. When race is fundamentally tied to mobility, these are not random events but examples of systemic racial violence against brown and black bodies that had committed offenses against the white control of mobility.

The parking spot, the road, and the sidewalk are extremely contested sites in a culture governed by the dictates of the white control over mobility. It is not just that these are the physical sites of the murders or because the ground is the backdrop upon which life unfolds. If they seem banal it is because the white control of mobility is exerted through automobiles, roads, sidewalks, gated communities, and parking lots—the everyday mechanisms of mobility. As we have argued, the control of mobility is central to exerting power and thus central to the re-creation of whiteness. In a culture governed by the white control over mobility, people of color are vulnerable when they park their cars, walk in the middle of the road, walk on the sidewalk, or just walk for that matter.

For the non-white subject a significant part of managing one’s day is spent figuring out how to move without disrupting male and white control of mobility. As we have discussed already, the women and children playing in the park as well as the black male gang members on the LA Gang Tour’s route understand this. They manage their ceasefire and non-ceasefire days accordingly. Days after the deaths of Yusor, Deah, and Razon in Chapel Hill, other Muslim-American female students started to speak out about how troubled they were. Local news reported that Muslim women were now feeling scared about being out in public. A closer look reveals that these mobile vulnerable women were now managing their mobility: sprinting to the car, avoiding grocery shopping at Walmart at night, or never being alone anywhere after dark.38 In particular, these women spoke up about how hard they try to present themselves as good and civil while donning their detrimental signifiers: hijabs. Shamira Lukomwa, head of the UNC Muslim Students Association quoted days after the murders: “Being someone who wears the hijab myself, I would say I felt this even before this incident happened. It’s something that ebbs and flows how I feel safety-wise.”39 There are ways to appear and better times to do so depending upon your skin color, gender, and quite often the current geopolitical climate. The mobile vulnerable have an easy algorithm to figure this out. In a culture governed by the white control of mobility, brown women in headscarves and black men are suspicious when they move. And yet, the only way to appear in public is to be mobile.


“!!$65 LA GANG TOUR (GHETTOTAINMENT)!!” ABC News, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_9HS4Nnr5E (7 March 2010, accessed 16 May 2013); Randall Archibold, “Next Stop, Gangland Los Angeles; Bus Tour by Ex-Members Gives Visitors Inside View of Notorious Street Life,” The International Herald Tribune (2010): 2; Mark Textor, “Poverty Tourism Offers No Solution,” C/T Group: Research, Strategies, Results, http://www.crosbytextor.com/news/poverty-tourism-offers-no-solution/ (2014, accessed 30 July 2015).


Konstantina. Zerva, “Crime and Tourism: Organizational Opportunities and Social Marketing in LA Gang Tours,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change no. 11, vols. 1–2 (2013): 92–108.


Euan Hague, “‘The Right to Enter Every Other State’—The Supreme Court and African American Mobility in the United States,” Mobilities no. 5, vol. 3 (2010): 331–347.


See the work of David Roediger on whiteness and class, particularly The Wages of Whiteness, as it makes a further distinction between class mobility as it relates to whiteness. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso Press, 2007).


Robert Bullard and Glenn Johnson. Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1997); Tim Cresswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (London: Routledge, 2006). Paul Gilroy, Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Hague, “‘The Right to Enter Every Other State.’”


Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), iBook.


Ibid., 63.


Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); and Wilderson, Red, White & Black. Transfers • Volume 6 Issue 1 • Spring 2016 • 41 Sarah Sharma


Critical race studies, as used here, is not critical race theory, which has roots in critical law studies. Instead, we use the term critical race studies to speak to various studies of race, with particular emphasis on blackness because of South LA’s history as the African-American section of Los Angeles.


Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997): 45.


Steve Martinot, The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).


Wilderson, Red, White & Black.


Gaye Johnson, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013).


Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).


Sarah Jane Cervenak, Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 5.


Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 59.


Tim Cresswell, “Embodiment, Power and the Politics of Mobility: The Case of Female Tramps and Hobos,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers no. 24, vol. 2 (1999): 175–192; and Caren Kaplan, “Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Orient: Cosmopolitan Travel and Global Feminist Subjects,” Meridians no. 2, vol. 1 (2001): 219–240.


Mimi Sheller, “The New Caribbean Complexity: Mobility Systems, Tourism and Spatial Rescaling,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography no. 30 (2009): 193.


John Urry, The Tourist Gaze (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), 61.


Sheller and Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A, 38, no. 2 (2006): 207–226.


Hague, “‘The Right to Enter Every Other State.’”


Alex Alonso, “Out of the Void: Street Gangs in Black Los Angeles,” in Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities, eds., Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramon (New York: New York University Press, 2010): 140–167.


“Safe Passage,” LA Gang Tours, http://lagangtours.com/safe-passage (2015, accessed 30 July 2015).


“Radio Commercial LA Gang Tours #1,” Ryan, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hghIwlLJrRY (2012, accessed 30 July 2015).


For a more nuanced and detailed discussion of how safety is a discourse used by the state and the police to control populations through automobility, see Jeremy Packer’s Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).


The Wire is an American crime television drama created by David Simon and broadcast on HBO. It was set in Baltimore, Maryland and aired for 5 seasons between 2002 and 2008. The Wire’s popularity was based largely on its “realistic” portrayal of life. It also provided a structural critique of the institutions that govern life in impoverished inner city communities.


“LA Gang Tours,” MidNightRider2001, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M81WtBGhO8 (2010, accessed July 30, 2015); NBC 2010); and “LA Gang Tours,” NBC Los Angeles, http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/LA_Gang_Tours_Los_Angeles.html (2010, accessed 24 May 2015).


South LA was once “South Central,” and the residents continue to call it South Central. The city, however, changed the name in the 1990s in an attempt to distance the community from the racial stigma associated with the name South Central. In response to the name change, Alfred Lomas says, “We will always be South Central.” For more information on the name change, see Paul Robinson, “Race, Space, and the Evolution of Black Los Angeles,” in Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities, eds., Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramon (New York: New York University Press, 2010): 21–59.


“Here’s What People are Saying about LA Gang Tours,” LA Gang Tours, http://lagangtours.com/about-us/heres-what-our-customers-are-saying/ (2015, accessed 30 July 2015).




Sharon Zukin, “Consuming Authenticity,” Cultural Studies no. 22, vol. 5 (2008): 728.


Bianca Barragan, “Mapping the Great LA Gentrification Wave of the 2000s,” Curbed LA, http://la.curbed.com/archives/2015/02/mapping_the_great_los_angeles_gentrification_wave_of_the_2000s.php (26 February 2015, accessed 21 May 2015); Rahel Gebreyes, “How Gang Injunctions Precipitate Gentrification in Los Angeles Communities,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/09/gang-injunction-gentrification-los-angeles_n_6446124.html (1 September 2015, accessed 15 December 2015); and Erin Kaplan, “Can Inglewood Survive the NFL and Gentrification?” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kaplan-inglewood-nfl-gentrification-20150113-story.html (12 January 2015, accessed 15 December 2015).


Barragan, “Mapping the Great LA Gentrification Wave of the 2000s.”


Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); and Zukin, “Consuming Authenticity.”


Similarly, inherent in Safe Passage is that fact that in order for South Central to become safer, an increase in white movement into and through the area is a necessary requirement. This is not new, but part of a long a narrative of gentrification proponents of a white reclamation and redefinition of inner-city spaces through violence. In a similar manner, Neil Smith articulates the safety required by new gentrifiers to what he calls “revanchism,” or the white attempts to take back the inner city from people of color by the use of systematic and physical violence. Here, “revanchism was explicitly justified in terms of making the city safe for gentrification. The new authoritarianism both quashes opposition and makes the streets safe for gentrification.” See Smith, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy” Antipode no 34, vol. 3 (2002): 442. White movement of gentrifiers is central to making safety, mostly for the new residents through the usage of racialized violence.


Sarah Sharma, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).


Doug Stanglin and Michael Winter, “Chapel Hill ‘Rocked’ by Killings of 3 Muslim Students,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/02/11/north-carolina-muslim-students-gunman-chapel-hill/23222317/ (12 February 2015, accessed 30 July 2015).


“Chapel Hill Shooting: Friends Want Tragedy to Change How America Sees Islam,” WRAL, http://www.wral.com/chapel-hill-shooting-friends-want-tragedy-to-change-how-america-sees-islam/14452731/ (17 February 2015, accessed 30 July 2015).


Matt Sledge, “Chapel Hill Shooting Stokes Climate of Fear for Muslims,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/19/chapel-hill-muslims-fear_n_6716106.html (19 February 2015, accessed 30 July 2015).

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Contributor Notes

Sarah Sharma is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology and on the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Her work centers on issues related to time, labor, technology, and social difference. She is the author of In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Duke University Press, 2014). E-mail: sarah.sharma@utoronto.ca

Armond R. Towns is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver. His research interests explore the intersections between black radicalism, media studies, cultural studies, and feminist and queer geographies. E-mail: armond.towns@du.edu