Where Ordinary Activities Lead to War

Street Politics in Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood

How to Cite

Raney, V. (2006). Where Ordinary Activities Lead to War: Street Politics in Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood. M/C Journal, 9(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2626
Vol. 9 No. 3 (2006): 'street'
Published 2006-07-01

“The cop in our head represses us better than any police force. Through generations of conditioning, the system has created people who have a very hard time coming together to create resistance.” – Seth Tobocman, War in the Neighborhood (1999)

Even when creators of autobiographically-based comics claim to depict real events, their works nonetheless inspire confrontations as a result of ideological contestations which position them, on the one hand, as popular culture, and, on the other hand, as potentially subversive material for adults. In Seth Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood (1999), the street politics in which Tobocman took part extends the graphic novel narrative to address personal experiences as seen through a social lens both political and fragmented by the politics of relationships.

Unlike Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), War in the Neighborhood is situated locally and with broader frames of reference, but, like Maus, resonates globally across cultures. Because Tobocman figures the street as the primary site of struggle, John Street’s historiographically-oriented paper, “Political Culture – From Civic Culture to Mass Culture”, presents a framework for understanding

not that symbols determine action, any more than material or other objective conditions do, but rather that there is a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation which is important to the way actors view their predicament and formulate their intentions. (107-108)

Though Street’s main focus is on the politicization of choices involving institutional structures, his observation offers a useful context to examining Tobocman’s memoir of protest in New York City. Tobocman’s identity as an artist, however, leads him to caution his readers:

Yes, it [War in the Neighborhood] is based on real situations and events, just as a landscape by Van Gogh may be based on a real landscape. But we would not hire Van Gogh as a surveyor on the basis of those paintings. (From the “Disclaimer” on the copyright page.)

This speaks to the reality that all art, no matter how innocuously expressed, reflect interpretations refracted from the artists’ angles. It also calls attention to the individual artist’s intent. For Tobocman, “I ask that these stories be judged not on how accurately they depict particular events, but on what they contain of the human spirit” (from the “Disclaimer” on the copyright page).

War in the Neighborhood, drawn in what appears to be pencil and marker, alternates primarily between solidly-inked black generic shapes placed against predominantly white backgrounds (chapters 1-3, 5, 7-9, and 11) and depth-focused drawing-quality images framed against mostly black backgrounds (chapters 4 and 6); chapter 10 represents an anomaly because it features typewritten text and photographs that reify the legitimacy of the events portrayed even when “intended to be a work of art” (from the “Disclaimer” on the copyright page).

According to Luc Sante’s “Introduction”, “the high-contrast images here are descended from the graphic vocabulary of Masereel and Lynn Ward, an efficient and effective means of representing the war of body and soul” (n.p.). This is especially evident in the last page of War in the Neighborhood, where Tobocman bleeds himself through four panels, the left side of his body dressed in skin with black spaces for bone and the right side of his body skeletonized against his black frame (panels 5-6: 328). For Tobocman, “the war of body and soul” reifies the struggle against the state, through which its representatives define people as capital rather than as members of a social contract.

Before the second chapter, however, Tobocman introduces New York squatter, philosopher and teacher Raphael Bueno’s tepee-embedded white-texted poem, “‘Nine-Tenths of the Law’” (29). Bueno’s words eloquently express the heart behind War in the Neighborhood, but could easily be dismissed because they take up only one page. The poem’s position is significant, however. It reflects the struggles between agency and class, between power and oppression, and between capitalism and egalitarianism.

Tobocman includes a similar white-texted tepee in Chapter 4, though the words are not justified and the spacing between the words and the edges of the tepee are larger. In this chapter, Tobocman focuses on the increasing media attention given to the Thompson Square Park homeless, who first organize as “the Homeless Clients Advisory Board” (panel 7: 86). The white-texted tepee reads:

They [Tent City members] got along well with the Chinese students, participated in free China rallys, learned to say ‘Down with Deng Xiao ping’ in Chinese. It was becoming clear to Tent City that their homelessness meant some thing on a world stage. (panel 6: 103)

The OED Online cites 1973 as the first use of gentrification, which appeared in “Times 26 Sept. 19/3.” It also lists uses in 1977, 1982 and 1985. While the examples provided point to business-specific interests associated with gentrification, it is now defined as “the process by which an (urban) area is rendered middle-class.” While gentrification, thus, infers the displacement of minority members for the benefits of white privilege, it is also complicated by issues of eminent domain. For the disenfranchised who lack access to TV, radio and other venues of public expression (i.e., billboards), “taking it to the streets” means trafficking ideas, grievances and/or evangelisms. In places like NYC, the nexus for civic engagement is the street.

The main thrust of Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood, however, centers on the relationships between (1) the squatters, against whom Reagan-era economics destabilized, (2) the police, whose roles changed as local policies shifted to accommodate urban planning, (3) the politicians, who “began to campaign to destroy innercity neighborhoods” (20), and (4) the media, which served elitist interests. By chapter 3, Tobocman intrudes himself into the narrative to personalize the story of squatters and their resistance of an agenda that worked to exclude them. In chapter 4, he intersects the interests of squatters with the homeless. With chapter 5, Tobocman, already involved, becomes a squatter, too; however, he also maintains his apartment, making him both an insider and an outsider.

The meta-discourses include feminism, sexism and racism, entwined concepts usually expressed in opposition. Fran is a feminist who demands not only equality for women, but also respect. Most of the men share traditional values of manhood. Racism, while recognized at a societal level, creeps into the choices concerning the dismissal or acceptance of blacks and whites at ABC House on 13th Street, where Tobocman resided. As if speaking to an interviewer, a black woman explains,

as a white male, his humanity had a full range of expression. But to be a black person and still having that full range of expression, you were punished for it. ... It was very clear that there were two ways of handling people who were brought to the building. (full-page panel: 259)

Above the right side of her head is a yin yang symbol, whose pattern contrasts with the woman’s face, which also shows shading on the right side. The yin yang represents equanimity between two seemingly opposing forces, yet they cannot exist without the other; it means harmony, but also relation. This suggests balance, as well as a shared resistance for which both sides of the yin yang maintain their identities while assuming community within the other. However, as Luc Sante explains in his “Introduction” to War in the Neighborhood,

the word “community” gets thrown around with such abandon these days it’s difficult to remember that it has ever meant anything other than a cluster of lobbyists. ... A community is in actuality a bunch of people whose intimate lives rub against one another’s on a daily basis, who possess a common purpose not unmarred by conflict of all sizes, who are thus forced to negotiate their way across every substantial decision. (n.p., italics added)

The homeless organized among themselves to secure spaces like Tent House. The anarchists lobbied the law to protect their squats. The residents of ABC House created rules to govern their behaviors toward each other. In all these cases, they eventually found dissent among themselves. Turning to a sequence on the mayoral transition from Koch to Dinkins, Tobocman likens “this inauguration day” as a wedding “to join this man: David Dinkins…”, “with the governmental, business and real estate interests of New York City” (panel 1: 215). Similarly, ABC House, borrowing from the previous, tried to join with the homeless, squatters and activist organizations, but, as many lobbyists vying for the same privilege, contestations within and outside ABC splintered the goal of unification.

Yet the street remains the focal point of War in the Neighborhood. Here, protests and confrontations with the police, who acted as intermediary agents for the politicians, make the L.E.S. (Lower East Side) a site of struggle where ordinary activities lead to war. Though the word war might otherwise seem like an exaggeration, Tobocman’s inclusion of a rarely seen masked figure says otherwise. This “t-shirt”-hooded (panel 1: 132) wo/man, one of “the gargoyles, the defenders of the buildings” (panel 3: 132), first appears in panel 3 on page 81 as part of this sequence:

319 E. 8th Street is now a vacant lot. (panel 12: 80)
319 taught the squatters to lock their doors, (panel 1: 81)
always keep a fire extinguisher handy, (panel 2: 81)
to stay up nights watching for the arsonist. (panel 3: 81)
Never to trust courts cops, politicians (panel 4: 81)
Recognize a state of war! (panel 5: 81)

He or she reappears again on pages 132 and 325. In Fernando Calzadilla’s “Performing the Political: Encapuchados in Venezuela”, the same masked figures can be seen in the photographs included with his article. “Encapuchados,” translates Calzadilla, “means ‘hooded ones,’ so named because of the way the demonstrators wrap their T-shirts around their faces so only their eyes show, making it impossible for authorities to identify them” (105). While the Encapuchados are not the only group to dress as such, Tobocman’s reference to that style of dress in War in the Neighborhood points to the dynamics of transculturation and the influence of student movements on the local scene.

Student movements, too, have traditionally used the street to challenge authority and to disrupt its market economy. More important, as Di Wang argues in his book Street Culture in Chengdu: Public Space, Urban Commoners, and Local Politics, 1870-1930,

in the process of social transformation, street culture was not only the basis for commoners’ shared identity but also a weapon through which they simultaneously resisted the invasion of elite culture and adapted to its new social, economic, and political structures. (247)

While focusing on the “transformation that resulted in the reconstruction of urban public space, re-creation of people’s public roles, and re-definition of the relationship among ordinary people, local elites and the state” (2), Wang looks at street culture much more broadly than Tobocman. Though Wang also connects the 1911 Revolution as a response to ethnic divisions, he examines in greater detail the everyday conflicts concerning local identities, prostitutes in a period marked by increasing feminisms, beggars who organized for services and food, and the role of tea houses as loci of contested meanings. Political organization, too, assumes a key role in his text.

Similarly to Wang, what Tobocman addresses in War in the Neighborhood is the voice of the subaltern, whose street culture is marked by both social and economic dimensions. Like the poor in New York City, the squatters in Iran, according to Asef Bayat in his article “Un-Civil Society: The Politics of the ‘Informal People’”, “between 1976 and the early 1990s” (53) “got together and demanded electricity and running water: when they were refused or encountered delays, they resorted to do-it-yourself mechanisms of acquiring them illegally” (54).

The men and women in Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood, in contrast, faced barricaded lines of policemen on the streets, who struggled to keep them from getting into their squats, and also resorted to drastic measures to keep their buildings from being destroyed after the court system failed them. Should one question the events in Tobocman’s comics, however, he or she would need to go no further than Hans Pruijt’s article, “Is the Institutionalization of Urban Movements Inevitable? A Comparison of the Opportunities for Sustained Squatting in New York City and Amsterdam”:

In the history of organized squatting on the Lower East Side, squatters of nine buildings or clusters of buildings took action to avert threat of eviction. Some of the tactics in the repertoire were:

    • Legal action;
    • Street protest or lock-down action targeting a (non-profit) property developer;
    • Disruption of meetings;
    • Non-violent resistance (e.g. placing oneself in the way of a demolition ball, lining up in front of the building);
    • Fortification of the building(s);
    • Building barricades in the street;
    • Throwing substances at policemen approaching the building;
    • Re-squatting the building after eviction. (149)

The last chapter in Tobocman’s War in the Neighborhood, chapter 11: “Conclusion,” not only plays on the yin and yang concept with “War in the Neighborhood” in large print spanning two panels, with “War in the” in white text against a black background and “Neighborhood” in black text against a white background (panels 3-4: 322), but it also shows concretely how our wars against each other break us apart rather than allow us to move forward to share in the social contract. The street, thus, assumes a meta-narrative of its own: as a symbol of the pathways that can lead us in many directions, but through which we as “the people united” (full-page panel: 28) can forge a common path so that all of us benefit, not just the elites.

Beyond that, Tobocman’s graphic novel travels through a world of activism and around the encounters of dramas between people with different goals and relationships to themselves. Part autobiography, part documentary and part commentary, his graphic novel collection of his comics takes the streets and turns them into a site for struggle and dislocation to ask at the end, “How else could we come to know each other?” (panel 6: 328).

Tobocman also shapes responses to the text that mirror the travesty of protest, which brings discord to a world that still privileges order over chaos. Through this reconceptualization of a past that still lingers in the present, War in the Neighborhood demands a response from those who would choose “to take up the struggle against oppression” (panel 3: 328). In our turn, we need to recognize that the divisions between us are shards of the same glass.

Author Biography

Vanessa Raney