hen I began my training as a geographer I did not set out to study the police. Nor did I set out to study militarism, but both forms of state violence have threaded through my work. My offering to this forum reflects on this paradoxical experience--of (mostly) not directly studying “the police,” yet encountering policing in all of my work. I suggest that studying policing at tangents and via sectors not routinely thought of as the police has afforded me with insights into the ubiquity and boundary work of policing (cf. Seigel 2019) that have conceptual implications for research and political implications for abolitionist organizing.

While researching health activism in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, analyzed in Health Rights Are Civil Rights, I learned central lessons from women peace activists that “war is not healthy for children and other living things.” Many of these peace activists allied with the Black Freedom movement in opposing war abroad and the domestic use of police violence to repress political organizing, including in coalition with the Black Panther Party, which called police brutality “America’s greatest health problem” (Loyd, 2014: 135)[1]. Particularly for anti-racist activists, US state violence was not just uni-directional, as if the “war at home” on dissidents was “imported” from the battlefields in Southeast Asia, but rather colonial and imperial violence practiced on the “homefront” was persistent and created the conditions for US practices “abroad.”

Striving to understand and conceptualize the continuities (or intersections) of imperial and “domestic” war-making has been at the heart of much of my subsequent work. For example, in the midst of organizing that was taking place against the second Iraq War, the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006 filled the streets. I became interested in how the domestic-foreign framing of state power again structured understandings of the legitimacy of state violence. On the one side, the injunction to immigrants to just “follow the law” invoked the ostensible fairness of US state power to deflect critics’ charges of exclusionary white nationalism. On the other, mainstream immigrant rights organizations used the rhetoric of “we’re hard workers, not criminals” to oppose policies and discourses of criminalization. Ironically, this latter claim also assumes a race neutral state, sidestepping how criminalization and policing have been structured through anti-Black racism, to name one primary vector of antagonism (see Escobar’s “No One is Criminal”).  

One of the questions, then, that Matt Mitchelson, Andrew Burridge, and I were asking in Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis, was how to conceptualize the interlocking nature or intersection of the criminal legal and civil immigration systems. Another way of putting this is that we were trying to break down the idea that the so-called domestic and so-called foreign arms of the US state are discrete (we can see related concerns in Marisol LeBrón’s Policing Life and Death and Micol Seigel’s Violence Work). Challenging this geopolitical imagination of distinct state powers was important for us in part because it seemed that organizing around policing and prisons and around immigrant rights were largely discrete from one another. Illustrating connections and continuities across these sectors (or branches of law and jurisdictions) continues provides a more expansive understanding of the reach of the carceral state. Not only can one understand migration policing as an element of policing exercised transnationally, but one can also recognize how ending deportation and mobilizing for the return of family and community members can be a shared abolitionist vision and migrant justice demand.

The question of the geographic scale, or the scope of the carceral nation-state, is one that we grappled with in Beyond Walls and Cages, and it remains a pertinent scholarly and political issue. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dylan Rodríguez, David Gilbert, and Angela Y. Davis teach us that imperialism and warfare are the conceptual frameworks appropriate to understanding the global scope and violent core of policing and the carceral state. This perspective fundamentally shaped Alison Mountz and my book Boats, Borders, and Bases, which demonstrates the interconnections between U.S. state war-making capacity (in the form of military bases and personnel) and the infrastructures and practices of policing and criminalizing migration. The sheer amount and restructuring of US military capacity literally laid the groundwork for migration deterrence, which itself was rooted in Cold War ideological and geopolitical pursuits. Further, thinking about migration deterrence with militarism and with imperialism allows us to see how criminalization becomes a tool of imperialism and war-making and simultaneously a means of undercutting U.S. obligations to asylum under federal and international law. U.S. migration detention needs to be understood with “domestic” and “international” dynamics, categories that themselves blur and stretch in ways that require new conceptualizations.

Such feminist geopolitics questions about domestic and foreign geographic imaginaries and the embodiment of state policies became the core of the Geopolitics of Trauma project I am engaged with Patricia Ehrkamp and Anna Secor. This project, again, did not aim to study policing directly, but rather to examine the refugee resettlement process for Iraqis who have been resettled in the United States. We wanted to query a predominant narrative of refugee resettlement as a rapid, linear process of relocating people in harm’s way to a safer place where they can restart their lives. On closer inspection, the idea of an easy path from “refugee” to “citizen” begins to look much more like a narrow, bumpy trail that can abruptly end without reaching a destination. That is, embedded in, indeed legislated into, this idealized account of the refugee resettlement process is also an idealized citizen subject: one who has acquired sufficient English, one who has robust cognitive functioning, one who is emotionally stable, and one who is not criminal legal system-involved.

It is at this point that the dangerous consequences of the domestic-foreign conceit underlying common conceptions of police come into focus. The dominant geopolitical imaginary of the U.S. as a place of safety for refugees is one that figures U.S. municipal police forces on the side of rule-of-law and human rights, in sharp contrast to the places where refugees have fled. A commonly heard story about some refugees’ reticence about encountering police is often narrated as a misdirected fear or a cultural hangover from their country of origin. Yet this framing is at odds with the lived experiences of so many people in refugee and immigrant communities. Indeed, the narrative of police as upholders of rights erases well-documented processes of criminalization of immigrant communities. The post-9/11 surveillance and arrests of Arab and Muslim communities is one clear example (Jamal and Naber 2008; Nguyen 2019). One can also look to the experiences of Cambodian refugees. Eric Tang (2015) recounts how resettlement procedures created conditions for heightened contact with police because they were resettled into poor, and hence highly policed, neighborhoods in US cities. The mid-1990s passage of laws stipulating deportation consequences for non-citizens with some offenses, then, created the conditions for mass deportation. Following immigration attorney Anoop Prasad, the deportation crisis for Cambodians “started with carpet bombing and ignoring a genocide. It started with funding police but not schools. It started with DAs sending Black and Brown youth to prison.” This continuity of war, criminalization, and deportation has led to sustained organizing against deportations, critical knowledge for newly arriving refugees that is obscured through resettlement practices that continue to narrate policing through the American exceptionalist geopolitical framework.

To this point, I have reflected upon how the majority of the work that I have done on state violence has not focused on policing, yet how policing has been ubiquitous. The tensions I feel from this ubiquity is a sensation of everywhere-ness coupled with an anxiety that I do not have the detailed understanding necessary at any one of the “intersections” to undermine the totalizing crush of coherence I get from this seeming ubiquity. Methodologically, however, I see a value in being able to illustrate the variety of intersections of policing with different sectors (to use that conceptualization provisionally), while also seeing a value in the specificity and contingency of particular policies and practices. In my most tired moments, repeated research encounters with policing leave me feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge while recognizing that turning away is not an ethical option.

Methodologically, though, this apparent non-emphasis on policing has drawn my attention to how policing is conceptualized. A focus on ‘the police’ as the object of analysis can leave policing understood as a discrete project that can appear to “intersect” with other apparently discrete (state) sectors, such as health, migration policies, or refugee resettlement. As Mark Neocleous has demonstrated in his study of the history of policing as creating social order (2000) and as Micol Seigel (2019) argues, policing is about constituting boundaries between public and private, state and economy, and foreign and domestic. In the case of immigration and criminal legal policy, one popular the term for this intersection is crimmigration, but this term has the problem of imagining migration policy (and enforcement) as not already a form of policing. In the case of refugee resettlement, the narration of local police as non-antagonistic partners in the resettlement process is an example of what David Correia and Tyler Wall call “copspeak,” a discourse that divides the world into black and white, savagery versus civilization, chaos versus order, threat versus safety (2018: 2). Such a construction aligns both the US as a nation and the local police as an institution on the side of goodness, working to neutralize realities of imperialism, police violence, and critiques of the continuities of state violence across space and practice.  

If the lesson I’ve learned from indirectly studying policing has been to question the idea of the intersection of policing with other sectors, or how the boundary of policing is drawn, my work with the Transforming Justice (TJ) project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ongoing work with Anne Bonds offers different lessons. TJ is the only of my projects I consider to center directly on the police and experiences with the police. (This contradicts everything I just said I learned from indirectly studying policing: how policing is about the construction of ideological boundaries, is not exclusively local but a transnational civilian-military practice, and is not just a story of particular agencies, but also of criminalization as a diffuse approach to governance.) When I was at UW-Milwaukee, a number of faculty members from across campus came together to study imprisonment of city residents. The project began in 2014 in the midst of family-led organizing for justice following the police murder of Dontre Hamilton. Community leaders with whom we consulted did not want another research project, particularly another project on trauma; they wanted action. As a collective, we too felt our responsibility was to further action, so we chose to do so through hosting a series of weekend afternoon workshops to collectively and critically reflect on the histories, purposes, and alternatives to policing. We also saw a role for ourselves in documenting conversations that were taking place at the time and supporting a video collective through which a group of young Milwaukee residents could share their experiences of growing up and navigating policing in the city.

Creating and sharing these videos in select screenings have been among the most powerful elements of the Transforming Justice project. Yet, in the context of a heightened nationwide debate over policing and imprisonment, our direct focus on how policing shapes lives in Milwaukee has also been where we have gotten pushback of different kinds. This is a treacherous terrain that we know is guarded by police, city officials, and criminologists. It is also shaped by institutional review boards, which have institutional duties to safeguard vulnerable subjects, and colleagues who offer patronizing critiques. Being told that a paper on the history of the Weed and Seed program in Milwaukee was too “in the weeds” strengthened a more forthright feminist positioning of my and our work. The purpose of getting into the weeds was to push back against the tendency of policing to expand through reform and relentless promises of newness, progress, and improvement. The importance of asking how policing is enmeshed with housing or economic development policy is a feminist one because entanglements with other sectors of the state are often overlooked (in favor of attention to the most spectacular and most militarized) or seen as “soft” (an gendered, sexualized metaphor if there ever was one). Setting social reproduction aside from what “serious” scholarship on policing should pursue reifies rather than critiques an implicit policing geography (public spaces) and target (criminal).

In my view, it has precisely been the organizing work and research on those enmeshments—strongly informed by feminist and queer politics--that have been at the cutting edge of abolitionist organizing and critical scholarship. To name just two examples, a coalition of abolitionist and youth justice groups in Los Angeles County organized for over a decade to prevent the construction of what they called mental health jails run by the sheriff, and won! They sought to disentangle mental health services from the carceral state rather than allowing them to continue to become entwined. The second is the concept of carceral feminism, which refers to state claims to defend or save women through criminalizing, punitive, and coercive practices. This concept has provided a powerful framework for understanding the expansion of the carceral state in the US since the mid-1970s, and for challenging the state’s claims of protection (Bernstein, 2010; Richie, 2012; Thuma, 2019). Again, the point is that the police are not discrete from how society is currently organized to prevent violence, so the project of police abolition is also one of building up other capacities for creating safe and healthy communities (see Chen et al., 2011; Gilmore, 2017; Kim et al., 2018; Sered 2019; Kaba and Hassan, 2019; Dixon and Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2020).

From a different direction, some of the young people involved in making videos with the TJ project have told us that while the project was important for being able to talk about and with each other about policing, they do not want their experiences with policing to be the exclusive lens through which we understand their neighborhoods and city as a whole. This friendly criticism offers a more accurate analysis of policing: as not totalizing, as failing to definitively shape neighborhood life, as not extinguishing different political imagination. Their criticism gave me pause, asking me to pull back the frame of focus. Despite our desire to not do another trauma-based project, had we unwittingly created one, precisely through our focus on policing? But if we ignore routine encounters with police would we not also be complicit in not attempting to challenge the minimization of these experiences as non-intrusive and inconsequential? I do not have definitive answers to these questions, yet these criticisms also came at a pivotal moment in the project when we collectively were thinking about how to situate and visualize both their individual narratives and the city’s. They were expressing desire and political imagination, speaking to Katherine McKittrick’s injunction to “attend to human life” (2011: 954) and a Black sense of place. Thus, they also invited us to spend time thinking about the roles of creativity, importance of making shared spaces, and healing in this process ending police violence (Bley and Caldwell 2019).

Abolitionist futures depend on fostering abolitionist presents, or what Gilmore (2017) calls “abolition geography.” In drawing to conclusion, I would like to offer some thoughts on teaching and preparing students for their research and/or activism on state violence. As other contributors to this forum discuss, working on/against state violence is exhausting work. It takes a physical and emotional toll. Having taught courses on state violence for a number of years now, I have learned that the readings and discussions cannot solely be analytical, though I still struggle to put that knowledge into practice. There are other parts of ourselves that go into this work that we individually and collectively need for which we need to prepare and care. Some of the most impactful moments in classes I have taught on violence have come when students wear their artist or organizer hats to class and facilitate through creative or movement-based activities. Other times have been when students have asked of each other what personal and ethical commitments bring them to the work. We can also use classroom spaces to cultivate some tools/skills that are important for linking theory and practice, including building individual and collective capacities and relationships that can sustain the work of researching and organizing to end state and other forms of systemic violence.

So as I planned my most recent year’s classes on feminist political geographies and feminist methodologies, I aimed to have some of these conversations. I wanted to create space for, or a framework through which, students to explore their own strategies for care-full and accountable work. We might ask ourselves: who are the people who inspire and how do they continue their work? What are their daily or regular practices of community-building? How do they make boundaries around work and live loving, gratifying lives? Some of the texts that we used include Ann Russo’s Feminist Accountability on building accountable communities, Kathryn Gillespie and Patricia Lopez’s collection Vulnerable Witness, in which contributors reflect on working through painful emotions that arise during or as part of their research, and the special issue of Emotion, Space and Society on trauma edited by Kate Coddington and Jacque Micieli-Voutsinas. In terms of collective reading and movement building practices, I am inspired by edited collection, The Long Term and the study guide created with the input of an advisory board to accompany Andrea Ritchie’s book Invisible No More. I also think of the podcasts Fortification, How to Survive the End of the World, and Irresistible that each in their own way explore how healing, spirituality, embodied awareness, and relationships are, should be, and could be part of movements for ending violence and collective liberation.

Mariame Kaba teaches us:

“Incarceration causes trauma and injury. Healing demands acknowledgement that incarceration leaves a wound” (2018: 188).

For geographers studying policing, I anticipate that tracing the conceptual weeds of legislation and practices of policing will remain important elements of our work, guided by Gilmore’s thoughts on abstraction (2007: 6), which can help ground the objective of study in social change. The reflections I have offered about my long-time engagement with policing, at a number of tangents or interfaces, draws attention to how important boundary work is for rationalizing and legitimizing policing. Learning particularly from feminist and queer activists and theorists how entangled policing is with different state sectors not only offers a more robust conceptualization of policing than offered by dichotomizations between the police and welfare state, but it also provides an account of how reform has been working through enveloping institutions of social reproduction and becoming intimate parts of daily life. The bodily scale of an ankle monitor is a carceral space, as are the place-times spent waiting to pay a ticket or travel to visit an imprisoned loved one (Story 2019). Finally, how geographers will engage with questions and practices of collective healing that Kaba describes as a part of making abolition geographies is a compelling horizon.

[1] It is both stating the obvious that policing is a form of state violence, but also a statement that (at this moment) cannot be made as an accepted fact, without an argument and array of evidentiary support. In 2018, the American Public Health Association issued a statement on policing as a public health harm, a landmark statement that brings the Black Panther Party’s observation from 40 years prior into the policy realm. The statement is important in challenging the boundary work of policing, that is the idea that policing is not a harm that should be counted and prevented.


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Jenna M. Loyd is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the co-editor, with Matt Mitchelson and Andrew Burridge, of Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis (University of Georgia Press, 2012), author of Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978 (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), and co-author, with Alison Mountz, of Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention the United States (University of California Press, 2018).