New York’s overnight trash ritual is familiar: large black garbage bags pile up on the sidewalk in the evening, and by the time that the sun rises, they have disappeared. But what if the trash didn’t go away? What if it simply accumulated, leaving whole neighborhoods to fester?
For an idea of what that could look like, consider the modern trash revolts in Dakar, Senegal. Over the past 25 years, the city’s trash workers and ordinary citizens have united to protest the nation’s austerity politics. Workers have gone on strike and citizens have thrown their refuse onto the street, forcing the government to choose between a garbage-infested capital and a compromise with labor.
NYU Gallatin Associate Professor Rosalind Fredericks has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Dakar, and her recent book, Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal, explores the city’s recent revolts. To learn more about the politics of trash, NYU News spoke with Fredericks about labor organization, urban protest, and how people everywhere can render themselves non-disposable.
What’s going on in Dakar, Senegal?
Garbage Citizenship is a study of the municipal trash workers—so the actual paid-by-the-state garbage workers—in Dakar over 20, 25 years, as one of the most important, visible, and savvy social movements in Senegal. I first got tipped off when I was there doing some other research, and there were these intense trash revolts, where ordinary citizens were throwing their trash in the street. This happens all around the world—has happened in New York a number of times, as well as in Naples, Oaxaca, Beirut. There are all these places that people have studied trash politics. But why was it happening in Dakar? I set out to explore the underpinnings of that and chronicle this very savvy social movement over that period of time.
What did you find?
In Senegal, I chronicled a government approach to managing the city in times of intense austerity and very minimal budgets—what I call this pattern of governing through disposability. Basically, a very strategic distribution of benefits in the city [ends up meaning] distribution of disposability, with poor public services and poor infrastructure in certain parts of the city, while other parts of the city are spiffed up and made to look incredibly fancy. So you get this real, growing disparity between the rich neighborhoods and the poor neighborhoods.
You also saw during this time and still see a real squeezing of the municipal sector. The urban labor force of municipal employees was rendered disposable over time, through different politics that basically gave them fewer and fewer labor rights, and less and less of a living wage and protections. In the wake of that process, you see this germinal social movement that happens in the late ’80s. It’s a reaction by youth in the city to those conditions of austerity and the way that they rendered certain people disposable—certain neighborhoods disposable—that then transitioned and turned into the trash workers union. Since 2005, this social movement has been able to force the state to reckon with flexibilization of labor, and start to reverse it. So you actually see the garbage sector at the forefront of what I think is a kind of new urban politics.
How have regular citizens become involved in the movement?
The trash revolts that I talked about were interesting, because those were ordinary residents, many of whom were young men and young women. They were actually throwing the trash in the street, which is a very rebellious thing to do in a place that is incredibly orderly, in a social fabric that is very conservative, and especially in a context where cleanliness—and its opposite, dirtiness—are not just politicized but also relevant in religious terms. This is a majority-Muslim country, where cleanliness is incredibly important. So the fact that people were actually throwing their own garbage in the street—externalizing this public secret of waste, as scholars have called it, into the public sphere for everyone to see—was actually a really big deal.
Were these ordinary citizens coordinated with the trash workers?
It turns out that they were in solidarity with the striking municipal workers. They had trash building up in their homes because the garbage workers were on strike, and they didn’t know what to do with it, but they took that particular approach because they wanted to make a big statement to the government. And they were very clear that it was in solidarity with the workers, not in opposition to them.
Do you think there’s a reason why this social movement arose in the waste management sector in particular?
I think the materiality of waste played into this history quite a lot. So as opposed to a water or electricity infrastructure, I think waste became politicized above the rest partly because it is so nefarious to have a degrading, dysfunctional waste management system. It’s really devastating for people to live with. Whereas of course it’s devastating to live without electricity, [in this case] people were living with the rotting fish guts of their lunch—and this was all happening during the hot months. That’s a piece of it, but then I think that the political import of waste out of place, of waste as a tool of rebellion, made it much more powerful than other kinds of urban rebellion might be. It really caught the attention of the authorities quite quickly, and it made household members really incensed and got them involved.
You mentioned the savviness of the movement—how did that manifest itself?
These moments of striking always happen around some important event that’s happening in the city, because the union knows that the state is going to react if they’ve got some big international conference happening, for instance. One of these big strikes happened right before this big international meeting of heads of state from Muslim nations was about to convene on Dakar, so [the workers] strategically picked that as a moment. You can cut off water to certain neighborhoods, but trash—because it’s so aesthetic, and in multiple senses a really catchy, fleshy, messy object—really irritates the state.
What are the takeaways from what’s going on in Dakar, in terms of labor organization and social movements in urban settings?
One of them would be that the trash sector is an important and highly politicized sector, and innovative and experimental rebellious social movements can be spearheaded within it. We know that in New York City, we know that in a lot of places.
But another thing that I found was that the spiritual import of cleaning and dirtying was actually a key shaper of this movement in Senegal. The municipal trash workers in Dakar conceive of their work as an act of piety. Because it is cleaning. And that discursive turn in a sector that has always been highly stigmatized, as it is around the world, was a major reason why this social movement was able to take off and garner the buy-in of the state to sign this collective bargaining agreement. I guess the broader takeaway message there is that the cultural affinities that drive our practices of sociality in the urban space—who we collectively organize with, and how we do that, and the moral compass behind these sorts of activities—are important and can drive social movements.