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Street Sovereigns

Street Sovereigns: Young Men and the Makeshift State in Urban Haiti

Chelsey L. Kivland
Copyright Date: 2020
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    Street Sovereigns
    Book Description:

    How do people improvise political communities in the face of state collapse-and at what cost?Street Sovereigns explores the risks and rewards taken by young men on the margins of urban Haiti who broker relations with politicians, state agents, and NGO workers in order secure representation, resources, and jobs for themselves and neighbors. Moving beyond mainstream analyses that understand these groups-known asbaz (base)-as apolitical, criminal gangs, Chelsey Kivland argues that they more accurately express a novel mode of street politics that has resulted from the nexus of liberalizing orders of governance and development with longstanding practices of militant organizing in Haiti.

    Kivland demonstrates how the baz exemplifies an innovative and effective platform for intervening in the contemporary political order, while at the same time reproducing gendered and generational hierarchies and precipitating contests of leadership that exacerbate neighborhood insecurity. Still, through the continual effort to reconstitute a state that responds to the needs of the urban poor, this story offers a poignant lesson for political thought: one that counters prevailing conceptualizations of the state as that which should be flouted, escaped, or dismantled. The baz project reminds us that in the stead of a vitiated government and public sector the state resurfaces as the aspirational bedrock of the good society. "We make the state," as baz leaders say.

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-4700-7
    Subjects: Anthropology, Urban Studies, Political Science, Latin American Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Acronyms and Organizations
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  2. Introduction: THE BAZ
    (pp. 1-29)

    In the fall of 2012, over two years after a 7.0 earthquake forced Frantzy to spend nearly a year sleeping under a blue tarp on Port-au-Prince’s Champs de Mars plaza, he received the best news of his life. “They gave me a job!” he yelled. “You hear that?” He repeated the question four times, desperately trying to overcome the poor connection between a VoIP line in Haiti and my cell phone in rural New England.

    “I do,” I said. “I’m so happy for you!”

    In an ecstatic burst, he told me he had been awarded a low-level post at PNCS,...

  3. 1 DEFENSE
    (pp. 30-56)

    In ostensibly familiar ethnographic fashion, I began this ethnography with cartography. 1 That map situated my field-site within the city of Port-au-Prince and the country of Haiti. Here I turn to a different kind of map—one that captures both the emplacement of the baz in the neighborhood and how the baz organizes sociality and security for Bel Air residents. Drawn for me by five members of Baz Zap Zap at the start of fieldwork in 2008, this map also serves as an artifact of residents’ initial efforts to render their neighborhood legible to

    In a neighborhood school, on a...

  4. 2 HISTORY
    (pp. 57-87)

    It was a quiet July morning at Baz Zap Zap. Dawn passed without any sleeprousing political debates among the old-timers at Kay Adam’s watering hole. No lively discussions animated a crew of four young men seated curbside. Everyone was recovering from the 2013 Carnaval des Fleurs, a summer festival inaugurated by the dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in the 1950s and recently revived by the current president, Michel Martelly, who many in Bel Air derided as one of the dictator’s long-lost tonton makout—the moniker for the dictator’s militiamen. With a cup of sweet coffee in hand, I joined the...

  5. 3 RESPECT
    (pp. 88-115)

    My tailor in Bel Air was Samuel. The father of a young son, who became my godson in 2010, Samuel ran a workshop on the second floor of an abandoned building that teeters on the steep, dirt hillside below Baz Zap Zap. Samuel, who learned to sew from his deceased father, specialized in deziyn (designing) fashionable hip-hop attire from imported secondhand clothes. He took his trade very seriously, working long hours on new designs that he hoped would make him a renowned urban fashion designer. One day, in August 2010, I visited his workshop. The earthquake had put large holes...

    (pp. 116-146)

    Yves was a difficult person to get to know, though he always seemed to be around. When I first started coming to Bel Air in 2008, he often stopped by Kal’s place as I ate lunch prepared by Sophie. He’d stand sideways in the open doorway, pulling the curtain to the side, and alternate between greeting people in the street and staring at me. After a while, he would ask something like “ Blan an remen diri, huh ?” (The blan likes rice?) or “ Blan an pale Kreyòl ?” (The blan speaks Creole)? “ Wi ,” I would reply....

    (pp. 147-179)

    On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, I was sitting in the courtyard of a restaurant that doubled as an office for the mayor’s Carnival committee. It was a mild yet sunny afternoon, almost 5 pm, in the center of Port-au-Prince. Kal was on his way to meet me. He wanted to make sure the Carnival bands, which use rara musicians like him, were forthcoming with payments this year. The first step was knowing how much the bands would be allocated by the Carnival committee.

    I ordered a Coke and struck up conversation with Kamal, a leader of a Bel Air baz...

  8. 6 GENDER
    (pp. 180-210)

    The afternoon sun of August 7, 2010, scorched the hilltops of Baz Zap Zap. A candy vendor joked that today Bel Air was literally earning its reputation as a cho, hot or dangerous zone. Six months had passed since the earthquake destroyed much of the neighborhood and surrounding city. Aside from rubble and curbside tents, the earthquake was palpable in the heightened activity among the male youth whose political aspirations and ventures I had been following for two years. That day, I had planned to attend a meeting about Bel Air residents’ participation in Cash-for-Work programs to clear debris and...

  9. Conclusion: THE SPIRAL
    (pp. 211-220)

    At the border of Bel Air, along a wide thoroughfare, where a high concrete wall cordoned off a prestigious high school from the uneasy streets of the neighborhood, stood a mural. It was a surrealist scene, depicting distorted faces encircled by red, yellow, and orange spirals. The fiery coils engulfed open mouths and burrow into skulls. The first impression was of embodied chaos, of senses arrested by the whirlwind of forces overwhelming them. In fact, residents’ most common interpretation of the mural was that it represented how difficult it was to think or act when your head was spinning from...