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Micol Seigel’s Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police fills important empirical and conceptual gaps in our understanding of the history of policing and its evolutionary development over the course of the 20th century – both in the United States and abroad. Through her rich genealogical study of the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Public Safety (OPS), and of the agency’s aftermath, Seigel’s text probes at some of the fundamental mythologies that circulate around police work and that serve to normalize its violence. With the national and global explosion of protest for Black lives and against police violence, the contributions advanced by this text could not be more urgent or timely.
At its heart, Violence Work is about boundaries – those conceptual boundaries between state and market, public and private, civilian and military, local and federal, and domestic and foreign - that commonly circulate around the idea of policing and that allow us to imagine it as a meaningfully contained field of practice. Through each chapter, Seigel marshals a trove of oral histories and an original archive of historical documents to delve into and unravel these boundaries, revealing simultaneously their collective incoherence and their function as a convenient and generative fiction.
The Office of Public Safety serves as a useful foil for this kind of intervention. Initiated in 1962, OPS and its International Police Academy served for 12 years as a civilian complement to the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army School of the Americas, training foreign law enforcement in police tactics and methods of anti-Communist counter-insurgency. The countries where OPS had its greatest impact are telling, given the infamy of events that transpired in each: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam. Yet unlike the School of the Americas (which continues, in modified form), in 1974 the U.S. Congress closed OPS due to the implication of OPS personnel and students in murder, disappearance and torture in Latin America – part of the brief wave of national security reform in the mid-1970s bookended by the Pentagon Papers and the Church Committee.
Unlike other histories of OPS that conclude at the agency’s demise in 1974, Seigel continues the story, following former OPS employees as they take up jobs in the private sector as police officers, employees and investors in private security companies, consultants to foreign governments, and police educators and trainers. In fact, several former OPS personnel went on to found and staff the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, transitioning from foreign counter-insurgency work to the “professionalization” of U.S. police departments, precisely at a time when the latter were adopting the priorities, practices and disposition that led to the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration. Other former OPS personnel became protagonists in the growth of the Wackenhut corporation (today GEO Group), as the latter fed off of government largesse and private contracts for industrial security. Finally, still other former-OPS employees went into academia, fueling the explosive growth of criminology and criminal justice departments across the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. All the while, OPS alumni remained in contact with one another, generating their own monthly periodical (the “Public Safety Newsletter”); regularly circulating personal and professional updates; advising, recruiting and hiring one another; and generally championing a legacy many believed to have been unfairly represented and maligned. By tracing these institutional and professional trajectories, Seigel reveals former OPS personnel playing an outsized role in the cultivation of police power and carceral economies both domestically and abroad, allowing the reader to better situate the development of these phenomena within a 20th-century genealogy of foreign and domestic counter-insurgency.
The payoff of this work of historical intervention is considerable. As Seigel argues, rather than framing analysis or political demands around the “militarization” or “privatization” of law enforcement, if we look to the history of OPS and its genealogical relationship to police work we will then understand that policing has always been aligned with military practice, and has just as consistently involved actors in the private sector. Or, more to the point, Seigel’s work reminds us that throughout the history of policing, these categories of distinction repeatedly descend into incoherence. By recognizing this history, Seigel suggests that we might become better prepared to understand that the problem with policing is policing itself – e.g., the inclination to solve any number of social problems (including rampant social and structural inequality) through the mechanism of violence. It is this latter insight that provides the book its title. Asks Seigel: “[w]hat, then, is the core of police power?... it is the potential use of force… the actual application of which is in most cases unnecessary” (2018: 9). Such a diagnosis allows us to see with clarity that complaints about police brutality or excessive use of force commit the error of redundancy and fundamentally misapprehend that this use of force constitutes the very point of policing. Violence Work therefore provides an important contribution to an abolitionist project, helping us to hone our conceptual and vernacular tools to collectively address social problems via other means and institutions.
Seigel’s book sets up several areas of inquiry that merit additional exploration. One has to do with the aforementioned relationship between violence and inequality. Throughout the text, Seigel situates the growth of police work and its investments in counter-insurgency in the context of global wealth inequality, exacerbated in the current period via neoliberal hegemony – in other words, “capital destabilizes, requiring police” (Seigel, 2018: 182). Yet unaddressed in this analysis is the role that violence work plays in actually driving inequality. This involves the violence involved in routine forms of dispossession under the process Marxists describe as “primitive accumulation” (Midnight Notes, 1990; Singh, 2017). In the contemporary period, for example, we may consider Jackie Wang’s work on how cities have taken to pillaging Black and brown residents through traffic tickets, court fees and related petty charges, generating revenue in order to buttress the neoliberal decimation of municipal budgets (Wang, 2018). We could also consider how policing, incarceration and detention throw entire families and communities into crisis, resolved via the assumption of household austerity and other measures that diminish peoples’ everyday conditions of social reproduction (Conlon and Hiemstra, 2016). And of course, we might also consider the long-term impacts of the very counter-insurgency practices that OPS personnel were themselves involved in, aiming not just to arrest progressive change at home and abroad but to shatter communities and rend the social fabric to such a degree that this kind of change becomes almost inconceivable.
Meanwhile, despite the usefulness of disrupting the boundary work surrounding our conceptualizations of policing – a project that this text advances considerably – there remains a question of how such boundaries can be strategically useful for grassroots struggle. One set of examples are the struggles raging across the U.S. in states, counties, municipalities and universities to enact Sanctuary policies that would enforce concrete firewalls between local police and federal immigration authorities. As current events in Portland, Oregon - and in other cities throughout the United States - ought to render clear, the formal boundaries that exist across scale and between jurisdictions, and the degree to which police agencies at different levels cooperate operationally or share surveillance and other data, remain profoundly consequential. It remains our task to discern how we can practically manipulate these boundaries in order to minimize harm.
Finally, throughout the text Seigel pivots between describing the state as heterogeneous and incoherent, and arguing that policing and violence work ultimately cuts at its “essence.” Seigel writes, “[a] shadow more tangible than its source, an expression in flesh and blood of a concept impossible to pin down, policing shows us something much more abstract and harder to see: the nature of the state” (2018: 13). Without understating the critical role of violence in the articulation of state power, I also find it useful to take seriously the heterogeneity that Seigel acknowledges. This is for both strategic and ethical reasons; as Kristian Williams reminds us, “states comprise networks of institutions, and… these institutions have different, sometimes competing -- and even conflicting -- needs, functions, strategies, and agendas” (2016: n.p.; original emphasis). In addition to the police department, Williams goes on to discuss “the water bureau, state universities, and the public library” (2016) – and while each may be worthy of some form of critical intervention, the normative basis and the outcomes desirable for this intervention are likely to diverge considerably, requiring distinct political and conceptual tools. Nevertheless, the historical and theoretical insights that permeate Seigel’s text deserve to be part of this toolkit for scholars, students, activists, and really anybody else concerned with mitigating the harm cultivated through policing, counter-insurgency and U.S. foreign policy – demanding that if we wish to meaningfully oppose any one of these engines of violence we must understand their mutual imbrication.
Conlon D and Hiemstra N (2016). Introduction. In: Conlon D and Hiemstra N (eds) Intimate economies of immigration detention: Critical perspectives. New York: Routledge.
Midnight Notes Collective (1990) The new enclosures. Midnight Notes, 10: 1-9. Available at: http://www.midnightnotes.org/newenclos.html (accessed 1 August 2019).
Seigel M (2018) Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Singh NP (2017) On Race, Violence, and ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation.’ In: Johnson G T and Lubin A (eds) Futures of Black Radicalism New York: Verso.
Wang J (2018) Carceral Capitalism. South Pasadena, CA: semiotext(e).
Williams, K (2016) Anarchism’s Mid-Century Turn. Libcom.com 6 May 2016 Available at: https://libcom.org/library/anarchisms-mid-century-turn-kristian-williams (accessed 1 August 2019).
Geoff Boyce is Academic Director of the Earlham College Border Studies Program in Tucson, AZ. His research interests include the trans-border material intersections of migration, policing and household social reproduction across North America.