Author: Nadya Syazsa, Mahasiswa Studi Wilayah dan Perkotaan di Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A


A discussion with Ian D. Wilson, author of numerous publications on street politics and “preman-ism” in Indonesia including The Politics of Protection Rackets in Post-New Order Indonesia, took place in the gallery of Rujak Center for Urban Studies on July 8th.

Wilson began the discussion with quoting a fellow expert in the field named Grant, and his theories of the militarization of the urban governments, with intelligence and technologies to build “smart” cities. He used the example of the War on Terror in the United States, declared after the attack in New York City on September 11th.

Consequently, the event also altered the policies on social issues to focus on counterterrorism. During this period, everyone lived in paranoia with the mentality that “anyone could be a source of terror” (Wilson). Therefore, the government actions at the time were based on the preemptive notions, also known as pre-crime analysis. This approach is based on the possibilities of terrorist activities rather than physical evidence. Consequently, prejudice and discrimination against particular groups associated with certain criminal acts, such as the Muslim in the U.S. after the 9/11 attack.

He also stated that the militarization of the police force in urban areas have affected its spatial planning as well. Police officers are traditionally the ones to enforce the law and order in society, in Wilson’s words “to protect and serve”. However, they now have grown to become as equals (having similar amount of infrastructure and firepower) as the military. In effect, this changes the way the police force engage with civilians in cities and the way urban space is organized – in some areas even to become a “fortress city”.

This is even more vivid in Jakarta, where the neighbourhoods used to be very heterogenous in terms of socioeconomic terms. However, there are now threats of gentrification morphed with this concept of urban militarization. From the urbanist perspective, they see gentrification and militarization of space share key features of segregation and desegregation of certain crimes and groups who are subjected to aggressive intervention means and crimes of social policy. Gentrification, surrounds the privatization of spaces, particularly in U.S. and Europe.

The idea of “containment” policies where certain areas or communities in the city that are associated with certain crimes must be ‘contained’, separated from the rest of the city. This is a prime example of how urban space is essentially controlled via urban militarization. This includes military-level advanced technologies, such as surveillance (e.g. widespread facial recognition in China), like the ones seen in the dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell, where society is completely controlled under a totalitarian regime.

In Jakarta’s case, the militarization can also be seen by the perpetual presence of premans. In the city itself, political violence in itself has become a major part that makes up the history of Jakarta. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, while the New Order regime was in power, the economic boomed in the nation, where new businesses and foreign investments increased throughout the city. Moreover, new figures were on the rise like Galih and Jagoan, premans who strongly bonded through their experience in prison, while also capitalizing on this new economic boom. For instance, newly-opened factories required security and certain policing of the area, which is where the premans came into play. However, this also leads to the extortion, petty robberies, and intimidation from premans to grow into a social issue that must be addressed by the government as they are part of a population considered disruptive to society.

The fear produced by acts of terrorism by these premans lead to the creation of a ‘fortress city’ where civilians must be protected in these spaces, particularly the elite group who can afford to pay for their own private resources (e.g. security) and this plays into the idea of ‘containing’ the populations who are considered ‘disruptive’ and ‘not productive’ to society and as well as the movement to transform the city for solely to elite transactions.

Another issue that was highlighted during this discussion, the people who are occupying spaces, particularly public spaces, including the more vulnerable populations (e.g. urban poor), are often considered part of this ‘disruptive’ group. They are often pushed away by the police (supported by the middle and upper-class population in Jakarta) in efforts to ‘tidy up’ the city. Therefore, rather than fighting the criminal behaviours occurring in the city, this leads to targeting more vulnerable groups in the streets, who mostly work in the street/informal economy with violent and aggressive approaches.

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