By Thomas Raymen, Durham University
Cultural and critical criminology have long been interested in the back and forth tussle over cultural meaning; manifested in the subversive methods of détournement, symbol co-option, and the hijacking of forms of subversive behaviour for the purposes of dominant culture and leisure industries. The Situationists were among the first to see the possibilities for cultural subversion through mediated meanings, searching for ways in which they could “‘seize the familiar and turn it into the other’, [and] if they could ‘turn the words of [their] enemies back on themselves’” (Marcus, 1989: 178-179 cited in Ferrell et al, 2008: 152). As evidenced by the range of topics covered by the contributors to this research network, the landscape of crime and deviance is one of swirling and inconsistent meaning across time, space, and cultures.
Parkour is an activity entangled in détournement. Freerunners often use the stuff of situational crime prevention—various rails, bushes, walls, fences and window bars—to enhance, rather than inhibit their practice. However more recently, détournement is being employed in the world of parkour and freerunning in ways the Situationists might not have approved. In a bizarre twist with one professional Parkour and Freerunning Company, the actual method of détournement has been co-opted from the less powerful and employed against them, albeit with their active and willing participation. A company called Parkour Generations now offer their services to private companies, warehouses, universities, or any other owners of private property to ‘security test’ or ‘penetration test’ their properties. Freerunners, using their abilities of parkour and freerunning to access hard-to-reach areas and move over and across the urban environment smoothly, attempt to infiltrate the client’s property in order to identify security weaknesses and offer advice on how to fortify them.
It is a strange turn of events in which parkour is being used as an active tool for situational crime prevention; assisting the very methods, private companies, and land developers which intend to secure private and public property as exclusionary sanitised spaces (Hayward, 2012). To quote from their website:
“A facility is only as secure as its physical barriers are impenetrable. Whether it be looking to keep people in or prevent people from gaining access, security measures are often inadequate for the task and do not take into account the physical capabilities of individuals committed to either escaping or gaining access.”
Such words sound almost like they’ve been plucked from Clarke’s (1980) ‘situational crime prevention’ article, or Newman’s (1972) Creating Defensible Space.
Furthermore, they also offer parkour training to police services and the armed forces. Such training will enable these services to “mobilise and deploy efficiently within any terrain; access critical areas or positions; operate effective pursuits…[and] overcome any physical obstacle impeding the progress of an operation” (Parkour Generations). More concerning, it is becoming popular, too. One of my own research participants who is also a reserve in the armed forces has experienced elements of parkour within their Basic Training. Another research participant who is a North-East regional consultant for Parkour Generations has been involved in training officers in parkour’s various climbing and vaulting techniques in order to effectively pursue and apprehend suspects in any environment.
These developments seem to be taking commodified deviant leisure to the logical conclusion of deviant crime control; much in the same way in which ‘street artists’ are commissioned by property owners or city councils to create more aesthetically acceptable murals to prevent tagging. A question that must be emphasised is how and why these actors are de-politicised to the extent that they’re willing to engage in these legitimised opportunities despite the inevitable negative impact upon the rest of the parkour or graffiti communities. Is this indicative of the competitive individualism that pervades Western society and culture (Hall, 2012)? Is the attitude a self-interested one: If you can’t beat them, join them?