Las Vegas: Mass Shootings And The 'Terrorism' Label

The carnage in Las Vegas is evil and tragic, but is it terrorism?

Police investigators in Las Vegas
Police investigators in Las Vegas
Aaron Blake
For the third time in four months, a tragedy on U.S. soil is dominating the country's attention. And for the third time in four months, we're about to have a debate about whether to label such an act — perpetrated by a man with no known ties to Muslim extremism — as "terrorism."

Shortly after the Las Vegas shooting that killed at least 50 people and injured more than 400 Sunday night, law enforcement indicated that it was not treating the tragedy as terrorism. "No, not at this point," Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said. "We don't know what his belief system was at this time."

To which plenty of people responded: What? How could the worst mass shooting in U.S. history not be terrorism?

The debate has been festering for a while, most notably since June, when a white man attacked congressional Republicans' baseball practice just outside Washington. It returned in August, when an alleged white supremacist ran into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some on the right wanted a man who targeted Republicans classified as a terrorist, while President Donald Trump's critics noted his failure to label the Charlottesville attack as such — despite Trump's emphasis on "radical Islamic terrorism." (The debate also raged back in mid-2015, when a white man with a demonstrated racist past opened fire at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As of Monday morning, "terrorism" was trending on Twitter, but most lawmakers were not using the t-word — with a few exceptions.

The Democratic National Committee quickly labeled it as "terror" — twice — in a statement from Chairman Tom Perez. "Our hearts are with the people of Las Vegas and all those affected by this despicable act of terror," Perez said. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., also called it an "act of terror." Reps. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., and Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., referenced the "terror" in Las Vegas but didn't specifically label the attack as such.

Some Republicans also used the word. Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York called the shooter, who has been identified as Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada, "a domestic terrorist." Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, called it a "despicable act of terror."

But those are the very few exceptions at this point. The vast majority of members of Congress have responded via tweets and statements without using that word. Perhaps they don't want to get ahead of the evidence, but some argue that this is giving the shooter the benefit of the doubt in a way that simply isn't afforded to Muslims who commit such acts.

Gleaming something from the fact that it was ruled out so quickly

Slate's Jamelle Bouie fingered racism as the cause for the police so quickly suggesting that it wasn't terrorism — but also clarified that it's too early to know for sure whether it was.

Bouie tweeted "That Las Vegas authorities have ruled out terrorism at this early stage is another example of how the idea has all but been racialized" and "To be clear, I am not saying it *is* terrorism. I am saying that we can gleam something from the fact that it was ruled out so quickly."

This may seem like a semantic debate. Lots of people are dead and wounded, and a word isn't going to change that. But that word does have all kinds of implications for how these episodes are treated both by the federal government and in our national discourse.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., noted the implications of the debate, tweeting "Now we're obsessing over whether the NV carnage was "terrorism". If we decide it is, we'll mobilize untold resources. If not, nothing."

A clear clash of civilizations

As for the technical definition of terrorism, it importantly deals with the motive rather than the size of the carnage. Federal law says terrorism is "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." In other words, whether 50 people are killed or a few people are hurt, what matters is what the attacker intended.

When Muslims commit terrorist attacks, it fits into a clear clash of civilizations that has been playing out for decades. It seems part of a broader war taking place not just in one country, but worldwide, and it aims to inflict — often successfully — fear of similar attacks in the future. Attacks like the ones on Charleston, Charlottesville and suburban Washington don't so easily fit into a large-scale conflict, and the motives of the shooters may be more complicated to ascertain.

But if an attacker is a white supremacist seeking to stoke a "race war" — as Charleston shooter Dylann Roof claimed to be — isn't that attempting to further a "political or social objective?" Roof was charged with hate crimes, but not domestic terrorism. Similarly, the alleged perpetrator of the attack in Charlottesville certainly had a political point of view on race issues and arguably was trying to instill fear in other would-be opponents of his movement. The shooter at the congressional GOP baseball practice asked whether the lawmakers present were Republicans before launching his attack, making it seem possible he had a political ax to grind — and a message to send.

It's all very complicated and open to interpretation, but that interpretation is often made rather quickly in the case of attacks by Muslims. Conversely, oftentimes the ruling out of terrorism in attacks like Las Vegas seems to be equated with the ruling out of international terrorism or Muslim extremism.

And the act in Las Vegas does seem to fit at least one definition of terrorism: the state of Nevada's. Nevada defines an act of terrorism as "any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to . . . cause great bodily harm or death to the general population."

That seems to clearly apply to this case; the federal definition is much more difficult to meet. But it's certainly a debate worth having.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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