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write this introduction to the book forum on Micol Seigel’s Violence Work while COVID-19 is laying bare the deep inequalities and fatal consequences of racial capitalism. It is also one in which the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked sustained, global opposition to policing and demands for fundamental reckoning with anti-Black racism and settler colonialism. Violence Work did not predict this moment, but it is certainly of this moment. Its pages vibrate with historical material evidence of, and theoretical argumentation regarding, the inherent violence of policing. These threads are both being invoked in the streets to defend two increasingly resonant principles of revolutionary change. The first is police abolition rather than yet another round of reforms that only entrench and tenuously re-legitimize policing. The second is prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition as necessary to anti-capitalism and vice versa.
Seigel opens Violence Work with an homage to Stuart Hall and colleagues’ (1978) Policing the Crisis, a text that painstakingly traces how populists seized on and fomented a moral panic around mugging to lurch England to the political right. Criminalizing Black and immigrant communities created the conditions for implementing authoritarian austerity there, and elsewhere. Seigel places her text in this critical lineage (in contrast, she notes, to usual historiographies of the police) to situate the writing of Violence Work in a shared moment of extended global crisis over capitalism, decolonization, and state violence. While this crisis has manifested unevenly across the world, Seigel also makes clear that state violence — even under the prettified names of counter-insurgency, law-and-order, war on drugs, community policing — has been fundamental to the establishment and maintenance of state-market relations (a main theme of Violence Work).
The historical context we in this moment share with Policing the Crisis is spotlit by abolitionists’ commitment to study (Herzing, 2020), which we engage across community and academic spaces, as part of their steady organizing work of building abolition geographies (Gilmore, 2007; 2017). Over the past several decades, intellectual and political cross-fertilization among movement intellectuals, organizers, and activist-academics has been strong and growing (Berger, Kaba and Stein, 2017). The results of this movement-building work can be seen in the broadening reach (a topic in the nightly news and the presidential debate) across the country. The traction gained from concrete campaign wins and work devoted to shifting common sense has resulted in this moment when a future without police is not only possible but practical and irresistible, as Critical Resistance often phrases it (Dixon and Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2020; Radical History Review, 2020). In academic spaces, cross-currents of study have been interdisciplinary, especially among history, geography, American Studies, and gender and sexuality studies, and they have been public facing (in addition to those recounted in Seigel, 2018, some notable recent examples are Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics; Camp and Heatherton, 2016; Correia and Wall, 2018; LeBrón, 2019; Meiners, 2016; Schrader, 2019; Thuma, 2019).
Abolitionists and academics (not mutually exclusive) have been working to situate contemporary policing in historical context as an element of theorizing the PIC. Among the questions of debate and theorizing are the relationships among slavery, abolition, and democracy; Jim Crow terror and policing; the Black freedom dreams and movement strategy; and many more. These history lessons are not for knowledge alone, but to inform abolitionist tactics and strategy. When I write, then, that the pages of Violence Work resonate now it is because they emerge from precisely these interdisciplinary and movement-building circuits. Seigel’s research into the fiction of police as local and not international (one of the themes of the book) began while she was living in Los Angeles, organizing with Critical Resistance-LA. Her writing on then LAPD Chief William Bratton’s international consulting occurred amidst concerted organizing against his plans to “clean up” downtown LA’s Skid Row (Heatherton and Camp, 2011; Seigel, 2007). The radical necessity to theorize in support of abolitionist demands stems, too, from her active involvement in trying to stop jail expansion in her later hometown of Bloomington, Indiana (a campaign recounted by Schept, 2015). Violence Work is a fruit of, and gift to, those movements.
As the reviews gathered here detail, Violence Work is also a theoretical offering to geography. Lisa Bhungalia, Mat Coleman, and Geoff Boyce offered their thoughts in person at the AAG meeting in Washington, D.C. in 2019. The discussion continued off-site well into the night, after which point Rhys Machold also joined the reviewers. I won’t reprise their thoughts, but I do want to underscore the relevance of Micol’s text to geographic studies of violence and the state. One of the central tensions or paradoxes that Seigel and her reviewers discuss is the difficulty of not reifying violence work when the threat or application of violence remains a central feature of state apparatuses. The question of who constitutes the police, and hence the relationships among violence, coercion, and consent, can be a murky one, but it is centrally a boundary-drawing project, Seigel argues. It is also a consequential one as geographers studying humanitarianism, civilian-military entanglements, or NGOization are familiar. Feminist and queer theorists in particular have drawn attention to how policing extends beyond blue uniforms to delegitimize and end other forms of state violence, such as through the child welfare (or family regulation) system (Roberts, 2009), the confinement of disabled and mad people (Ben-Moshe, 2020), or employment of a variety of so-called alternatives to incarceration (Schenwar, Law and Kaba, 2020). The analytical acuity provided by the concepts of carceral feminism (Law, 2014) and carceral humanism (Kilgore, 2014) can help us discern whether shifts in policing represent meaningful curtailment of violence work or its repackaging under another name.
The wide spread of the call to abolish police does not spell an end either to theorizing or political struggle. Coleman asks fellow geographers to reflect on the complicity of critical work and our discipline in policing, an issue with which Brian Jefferson’s new book (2020) will be invaluable. Boyce asks us to attend to strategic possibilities of inter-jurisdictional slippages and state incoherence, a point underscored by Paik (2020). Machold and Bhungalia press on questions of settler colonialism, and how its logics may be different from the capitalist logics that Seigel examines. It is my hope that what readers of this review forum glean across the reviewers’ and Seigel’s texts is the tension between the search for theory that can link diverse sites of study while also allowing for historical and geographic contingency, and hence possibilities for less violent, safer, and freer futures.
Ben-Moshe L (2020) Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Berger D, Stein D and Kaba M (2017) What abolitionists do. Jacobin. Available at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/prison-abolition-reform-mass-incarceration (accessed 15 July 2020).
Camp JT and Heatherton C (eds) (2016) Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. New York: Verso Books.
Correia D and Wall T (2018) Police: A Field Guide. New York: Verso Books.
Dixon E and Piepzna-Samarasinha LL (eds) (2020) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. Oakland: AK Press.
Gilmore RW (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Oakland: University of California Press.
Gilmore RW (2017) Abolition geography and the problem of innocence. In Johnson, GT and Lubin A (eds). Futures of Black radicalism. New York: Verso Books, pp. 225-240.
Hall S, Critcher C, Jefferson T, Clarke J and Roberts B (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.
Heatherton C and Camp J (2011) Downtown Blues: A Skid Row Reader. Los Angeles: Southern California Library.
Herzing R (2020) Political education in a time of rebellion. Center for Political Education. Available at: https://politicaleducation.org/political-education-in-a-time-of-rebellion/?fbclid=IwAR3EmV1G89MPhxrdVhA--t0VZycnA6xDKX3ux22zlkfbY6-3jIkIoRi7i3k (accessed 15 July 2020).
Jefferson B (2020) Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kilgore J (2014) Repackaging mass incarceration. Counterpunch. Available at: https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/06/repackaging-mass-incarceration/ (accessed 15 July 2020).
Law V (2014) Against carceral feminism. Jacobin. Available at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/against-carceral-feminism/ (accessed 15 July 2020).
LeBrón M (2019) Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland: University of California Press.
Meiners ER (2016) For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Paik AN (2020) Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration for the Twenty-First Century. Oakland: University of California Press.
Radical History Review (2020) Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination. Issue 137.
Roberts D (2009) Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
Schenwar M, Law V and Kaba M (2020). Abolish policing, not just the police. Haymarket Books. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1008&v=qt-JDtL0OnE&feature=emb_logo (accessed 15 July 2020).
Schept J (2015) Progressive Punishment: Job Loss, Jail Growth, and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion. New York: New York University Press.
Schrader S (2019) Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. Oakland: University of California Press.
Seigel M (2007) William Bratton in the other L.A. in Without Fear… Claiming Safe Communities without Sacrificing Ourselves. Los Angeles: Southern California Library, pp. 54-62.
Seigel M (2018) Critical prison studies: Review of a field. American Quarterly. 70(1): 123-137.
Thuma EL (2019) All Our trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Jenna M. Loyd is associate professor of geography at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the co-author of Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States.