Monthly Archives: November 2015

States of Emergency

In New York City on any given night, there are more than 59,000 people experiencing homelessness. That’s nearly three times the number of people who can fit into a sold out Madison Square Garden.

Madison Square Garden, NYC ©Diana Robinson 2014

Madison Square Garden, NYC ©Diana Robinson 2014

In Los Angeles, there are approximately 26,000 homeless people each day, larger than many small towns around the country.

Homelessness – as we know it now – emerged as a “crisis” in the United States in the 1980s when, for the first time, cities were beginning to see large quantities of people sleeping on street grates and park benches. Despite myriad approaches to address the situation, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. each year remains in the millions.

Now, communities are trying a new approach, declaring homelessness a “state of emergency.”

This all started in late September, when Mayor Eric Garcetti made Los Angeles the first city in the nation to make such a declaration.  In early October, Portland, Oregon followed suit. Two days later, the governor of Hawaii declared a state-wide state of emergency over homelessness. Then, on November 2, the mayor of Seattle and the county executive of the surrounding King County joined together to declare a civil emergency regarding homelessness there.

Declaring a state of emergency, an act generally reserved for natural disasters, has at least two important functions. First, it is an instrumental move. As Portland Mayor Charlie Hales explained, “We’ve tried slow-and-steady. We’ve tried by-the-book. It’s time to add to the tools we currently lack.” These “tools” include opening up access to additional funding streams, both local and federal. In Los Angeles, the emergency declaration appears to have freed up $113 million to help address homelessness. Another “tool” provided by the declaration is the ability to suspend zoning codes that prevent communities from building or converting properties into homeless shelters.

Secondly, and most relevant to this blog’s readers, is the symbolic function of an emergency declaration. Labeling homelessness an “emergency” marks it as a pressing need, an urgent concern. It also, in the sense of the root “emergent,” helps to bring homelessness out from concealment and into greater public visibility.

© Garry Knight 2014

© Garry Knight 2014

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray explained it this way: “We must get this issue back on the national agenda. The reality is, we are in a moment in our history where decades of service cuts, growing income inequality, and many untreated issues of mental health and drug addiction have finally resulted in a human crisis seldom seen in the history of our city.”

Homelessness is, indeed, urgent. Living without consistent shelter is life-threatening. It reduces one’s life expectancy and increases one’s vulnerability to violence, illness, and injury. But what’s interesting to me about the timing of these declarations of emergency is their tardiness.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an emergency as “the arising, sudden, or unexpected occurrence (of a state of things, an event, etc.).” Similarly, it says an emergency is “a juncture that arises or ‘turns up’; esp. a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action.”

At this point, homelessness is neither sudden, nor unexpected. It arose in shocking numbers starting in 1980, now 35 years ago. What, then, is the juncture that has prompted communities, just now, to seek additional resources for its amelioration? Why is it newly urgent? Murray says this has “finally resulted in a human crisis seldom seen” [emphasis mine], but it’s unclear what exactly has caused these community leaders to have reached a tipping point (or, in rhetorical parlance, a “kairotic moment”) for pursuing emergency measures.

Certainly homelessness is rising in these communities – Hawaii’s homeless population has risen 23% since 2013 – but the numbers of people living on the streets, in hotels, and in shelters in all of these communities was already in the thousands.

Maybe it’s rising death tolls. In King County, Washington, 66 people have died while homeless just this year.

Maybe it’s the elections. Increasingly, I’m seeing homelessness as a much-discussed voting issue in local politics. And with a national election on the horizon, there may be a hope that homelessness could become a more significant part of Congress and the president’s agendas.

Maybe it’s a cascade effect. Governments frequently look to other examples of what to do to address social and political problems. It certainly looks like that’s happening in this case.

Of course, it may matter little why these declarations are being made now if they succeed in persuading people that homelessness must be urgently addressed. As is typical of critics of rhetoric, some worry that “this is all simply words,” and advocates say they’re in a “wait-and-see mode” until “after the initial press coverage fades.” These folks’ emphasis on the instrumental function of states of emergency misses the opportunity of the symbolic.

Most of the measures these declarations make possible are temporary. For example, Seattle’s civil emergency opens up a one-time burst of $5.3 million, but offers no further guarantee of elevated funding levels. Even suspending zoning requirements is just that: a temporary suspension of a community’s typical approach to managing its space. But reminding people that homelessness is urgent and “demanding immediate action” has the potential to shift public attitudes about homeless people. If homelessness is an emergency, like a natural disaster, it may be harder to blame (and disregard) people who are experiencing it for their poverty. And even if it does not shift these attitudes, making homelessness an immediate priority may reduce the number of people subject to the demonization that often accompanies the condition.

Homelessness has long been an emergency for people experiencing it. Perhaps these new declarations from our governments will help more people perceive it at such.

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Spot the Africa: Trevor Noah and Representational Power

And…we’re back! Sorry for the long hiatus, but we’re excited to return with all new commentary on rhetoric and current events, starting with this post by Emily Sauter.


Replacing the incredibly popular John Stewart, new host of the Daily Show Trevor Noah has some big shoes to fill. Adjusting to the new host audiences must not only get used to a new face, but a host with a new accent and a wildly different background. Former host John Stewart is Jewish by birth and a native New Yorker, an identity that he used to great effect, whether for comedy or solidarity. Readers might remember Stewart’s emotional opening monologue after 9/11, where he said, “The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of, of American ingenuity and strength, and labor and imagination and commerce and it’s gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

In that moment Stewart’s identity as an American was paramount and provided audiences with an anchor point of empathy. Trevor Noah has no such point of connection. Instead, he must use his background as a South African as a chance to build new comedic opportunities, to stand outside the American institution and comment on it. As a correspondent Noah made his debut in December of 2015 with a short segment titled “Spot the Africa.” In the segment Noah talks about life in Africa versus life in America, and in what might be a surprise to some viewers, the comparison does not work out in America’s favor. In one joke he says, “Africa’s worried about you guys. You know what African mothers tell their children? ‘Be grateful for what you have, because there are fat children starving in Mississippi.’” He then presents Stewart with a jar full of pennies and a song, “Feed America.”

During the segment Noah switches back and forth between referring to South Africa specifically, and Africa at large. Considering American audiences have little to no knowledge about Africa or the differences between nations, the conflation is concerning. This trend continues in one of his newest segments as host of the show, where he compares Donald Trump to an “African President,” using clips of Jacob Zuma (president of South Africa), Yahya Jammeh (president of Gambia), Rob Mugabe (president of Zimbabwe), Idi Amin (former president of Uganda), and Muammar Gaddafi (former leader of Libya). Throughout the segment an image of Trump is decked out in increasingly ludicrous faux-military medals and sashes. The ensemble is then topped with a pair of black shades—the perfect African President.

The segment is funny, no doubt about it. And there are indeed some eerie rhetorical similarities between Trump and Africa’s most notorious dictators. For example, both Trump and President Zuma of South Africa claim “most” immigrants are criminals, though not all—a rhetorical choice that Noah labels “light xenophobia with just a dash of diplomacy.” The President of Gambia claims he can cure AIDS using bananas, and Trump claims vaccinations cause autism. In perhaps the most amusing comparison of the segment, Noah links Trump’s bragging about his money and his brain to Uganda’s Idi Amin, who is shown in a series of clips to be making the same claims to wealth, popularity, and intellect.

However, Noah’s attempt to use his African heritage as a prop to mock the American presidential candidate does more harm to America’s understanding of Africa than it does to Donald Trump. At best Trump looks absurd, maybe delusional; at worst he looks crazy.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Muammar Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi


Let’s look more deeply at the comparisons Noah used shall we? Muammar Gaddafi was condemned internationally for his egregious violations of human rights against his own people, suspected of ordering the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 where almost 300 people died, and considered AIDs as a “peaceful virus.” Idi Amin’s rule was characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement. International observers and human rights groups estimate that 10,000-50,000 people were killed under his regime. Robert Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe since 1980, and between 1982 and 1985 at least 20,000 people died in ethnic cleansing and were buried in mass graves. Yahya Jammeh has been “elected” several times under suspicious conditions, has introduced legislation that would result in beheading for any LGBTQ citizens, has had students and journalists killed, has reportedly “disappeared” or indefinitely detained those who oppose him, and has instigated a literal witch hunt that has killed hundreds. Jacob Zuma, Noah’s own president, is certainly not considered the cleanest of presidents. He has been charged with corruption, rape, and has been  involved in a number of scandals.

Noah has unprecedented access to the American public and a true chance to help educate us on the many differences between African nations in general and the reality of a place like South Africa specifically. What audiences encountered during this segment was not a funny insightful joke about Trump’s more dictatorial theatrics, but the enforcement of harmful western narratives—that “Africa” is violent, dictatorial, and unable to maintain any sort of true democratic government. I admit, as someone who studies South Africa I was incredibly excited to see Noah step into the role as host of the Daily Show, hoping to see a representative of South Africa who could bring more understanding to an audience woefully lacking information on the country. If this is the caliber of comedy that I can expect from Noah though, I think I’ll take a pass on future episodes.

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