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’m writing as the nation ignites with protests against police brutality—again. This time the loss is a man named George Floyd. Rest in peace, George Floyd. I cannot fathom the mind of the person who took your life as he did. There is something obscene to me about trying to write formal academic prose in the wake of your killing. I am tongue-tied, paralyzed by the sense that it is indecent to write, to think, as a reaction to what happened to you. I want to write because, well, that’s what I have to offer, yet it seems wrong. Wrong to write rather than burn shit down and even more wrong for me, an academic, to write. Useless, too. What can I say that hasn’t been said, that won’t be redundant, repetitive, stagnant? Which is all the more devastating because I wrote Violence Work for precisely this moment, in the hopes that it would offer activists and outraged people a handle on just this kind of thing.
A friend reminded me of the Invisible Committee’s conclusion in its 2014 manifesto To Our Friends. It insists, “every revolutionary force [must] progress on [three] planes simultaneously”:
To remain stuck on the offensive plane is eventually to run out of cogent ideas and to make the abundance of means insipid. To stop moving theoretically is a sure way of being caught off guard by the movements of capital and of losing the ability to apprehend life as it’s lived where we are. To give up on constructing worlds with our hands is to resign oneself to a ghostly existence. (Invisible Committee, 2014: 118
I take solace in this. There are moments when we attack. This is one of them. Yet even as uprisings take center stage, we must still keep thinking. We must figure out what to demand, how to speak to the present, what in particular we want at this juncture. And even as we fight and think, we also keep tending our gardens, caring for each other’s children, incubating chicks, sharing donated expired groceries, hammering in the floor joists at our community centers—building the capacity to live as we dream, in communal luxury and social intimacy, if physically distanced.
With this in mind, I feel ready—and fortunate to be able—to turn to these reviews of Violence Work. It is beautiful to see how much generous goodwill the critics brought to this forum. It is also a privilege to live at the moment when radical scholarship in some field we might call “Critical Prison Studies” can bring like-minded scholar-activists together to push each other’s thinking and then, with such fertility, cross it with the insights of the moment’s intense push to action. It is a tribute to the discipline of geography, furthermore, that such a congregation can happen under its aegis.
Or is it? Matt Coleman opens his contribution to this forum by thinking about the disciplines, responding to Violence Work’s critical engagements with criminology and history. Coleman asks whether geography has been any better than history in considering the police and decides that no, alas; geography, like history, has been content to leave policing to criminology. Agreeing that criminology is profoundly complicit in the institutions of state violence it dissects, Coleman leans on Patrick Wolfe. Criminology is to the criminal justice system as anthropology (per Wolfe) is to settler colonialism, Coleman suggests, indicting even critical criminology for the semblance of debate it lends the field as a whole, legitimizing the broader, deeply conservative enterprise. That might be the role radical scholarship in geography plays as well.
What a depressing way to think about the work we are all trying to do! I guess I would respond that, yes, the disciplines are essentially conservative; they undergird the epistemological dimensions of hegemony. It is still, however, relevant to think of the different fields as magnetic: like migration pulls and pushes, conservatives gravitate towards some poles and radicals concentrate at others. Geography is so vital and exciting right now in part because geography is vital and exciting—the more its reputation spreads, the more people seeking common cause will flock there together. Let’s not discount the power we can have at those critical junctures. I hope that calling what some of us are doing “Critical Prison Studies” will serve a similar magnetic function.
Substantively, Coleman turns to one of the historical landmarks that Violence Work charts in the history of policing: the Katzenbach Commission. Recalling the Commission’s famous 1967 Report, Coleman marvels at its recognition of the importance of discretion in policing. “It is rare,” he explains, “especially outside the bounds of critical research on the police, much less as articulated by a government-appointed body, to see such a straightforward dismissal of the liberal trope of police as law-bound enforcers of law, and hence law-abiding rather than law-making.”
I think of it as something of an open secret, this question of discretion. Over and over, people “discover” that police have discretion, even though discretion has been the better part of definitions of the police since the sixteenth century. Anyway, Coleman is right to note this explicit acknowledgement that police do not enforce impartial, unmediated law—that they are, as he glosses, makers, not followers, of law.
In his kind treatment of Violence Work’s chapter on police education, Coleman takes the discussion of police education forward a few theoretical notches and up to the present. Police and criminologists are such close collaborators, he muses, that we should think of them as inhabiting a shared workplace. As the streets teem this week, that workplace is on all our minds and TV screens; this metaphor makes abundant sense indeed.
Turning in a different direction, Geoff Boyce delves into the largest questions underlying Violence Work. Boyce calls for a more direct exploration of “the role that violence work plays in actually driving inequality,” pointing to the ways policing rends the social fabric, further impoverishing the poor and marginalizing the marginalized. Violence Work raises and acknowledges this dynamic, but it is indeed not its primary focus; work centering such processes would be welcome.
Boyce worries that some of the borders I hope Violence Work will challenge have activist potential. That is true. It has certainly been true for the civilian-military boundary, and many of my interlocutors have argued that its utility is not exhausted. We agree to disagree about that, generally, as my sense is that the political valence of the insistence on its integrity is no longer worth the loss in terms of legitimizing state violence. Activists working on sanctuary, Boyce’s example here, will have to carefully parse whether the gains made from insisting on firewalls between police and immigration officers are worth the ideological fodder to the categories of state violence. These boundaries, I suspect, comprise a species of “what we cannot not want,” as Naomi Paik discusses so beautifully regarding rights (borrowing a formulation original to Gayatri Spivak). We are always wrestling with such conundra as theory follows action.
Boyce’s most careful critique, in my view, concerns my focal shift from insisting on the heterogeneity of the state(-market), its incoherence, its assemblage, to insisting that there is a there there. It’s true, as he writes, that I “pivot” from “describing the state as heterogeneous and incoherent, and arguing that policing and violence work somehow cuts at its ‘essence.’”
This is similar to a point Rhys Machold and Lisa Bhungalia make about the focus on violence. Machold and Bhungalia worry that framing police labor as violence work crowds out the other roles that police power plays. “To commit to the idea of violence as the basis of police power fails to consider other accounts which capture the wider range of roles that police power serve,” they point out. “In so doing, Violence Work may unwittingly forward a deterministic conception of state power.” Machold and Bhungalia contrast Violence Work with Beatrice Jauregui’s Provisional Authority (2016), which traces the ways police power in India “is co-constituted with configurations of moral right and instrumental exchange” (citing Jauregui).
This critique gets to the heart (again—always) of the problem of understanding the state, a body that is at once an abstraction and incarnated by actual people. A group of people will never be a monolith. They will never be internally consistent in motives, thoughts, and actions. Any subsection of the state, including police, will have this enigma about it. If we forefront the micro-level distinction, we can see certain important things, but it makes it much more difficult to grasp the overarching role of the institution. We risk suggesting that the larger institution can have no overarching role—a deeply reactionary suggestion when the body in question is the state(-market) or the police.
The way I talk about this in Violence Work is as a paradox formed at the juncture of the concept and the lived experience of policing: that policing both overflows the borders of violence work (police do lots of things that do not need recourse to threats of violence) and fail to fill the category (many other kinds of people are also doing work subtended by the right to inflict violence, such as soldiers).
Still, I deserve this critique, because I do absolutely “commit to the idea of violence as the basis of police power.” Several times, in Violence Work, I write that violence is the essence of both police and state power. Yet I think there is a subtlety to draw out here. I don’t suggest that police power works through violence, exactly. Critically, I insist, it works through the threat of violence, which is all the more potent when police are not violent because that means people have ceded the point. If police don’t have to be violent, it’s because the people they are policing have granted them legitimacy. That happens not through force, but through hegemony, which I think I convey in Violence Work, but perhaps insufficiently. In any case I therefore completely agree that police power “is co-constituted with configurations of moral right and instrumental exchange.” That’s a perfectly good description of the process of producing hegemony.
So while I don’t think I fail to consider “the range of roles that police power serve,” I see how Boyce, Machold and Bhungalia might be right anyway. The concept of “violence work” may be too powerfully suggestive of one small part of the complex of state(-market) power, encouraging readings that don’t take into account the subtleties I try to tease out. I hope people who take this idea forward into thought and action will keep in mind the understanding of how much work police do that isn’t and doesn’t need to be subtended by violence, so that that work can be taken up other kinds of actors, and how central discretion is to police work, so that we cannot fool ourselves that police are following the letter of the law or that they are a monolith.
As an aside, this is an impatience I have with the affirmation “ACAB,” while I recognize its organizing force and gladly rally alongside folks who yell and chalk or spray it: it suggests the problem with police is personal, as if every person who becomes a cop has a particular personality flaw. They’re just all jerks. That doesn’t seem useful to me in understanding why police exercise such a tremendously negative influence on collective life.
Bhungalia and Machold then turn in a really interesting direction, towards Timothy Mitchell’s call to center violence on its own, rather than derivative of something else. I found their points convincing, particularly the examples of instances of settler colonialism in which economics were not primary, conspicuously Palestine and North America. I do sometimes tend to oversimplify in the hopes of landing an argument.
To all four reviewers—Coleman, Boyce, Machold and Bhungalia—and to Jenna Loyd, who organized this forum, and Charmaine Chua, the Review and Open Site Editor for EPD, whose inexhaustible patience I truly abused, and to all the people who marched with me in Indiana and across the nation this week, thank you so much. How lucky we are to be able to carve out these spaces together.