The Punitive Turn from Below: Grassroots Histories of the Carceral Era

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 5:30 PM - 6:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Legal and Constitutional; LGBTQ History and Queer Studies


A recent and growing body of historical scholarship has examined the origins of the American criminal justice system and studied how and why the carceral state has ballooned into its present-day form. The focus of this scholarship—by Elizabeth Hinton (2016), Heather Ann Thompson (2016), and many others—has concentrated on the federal level as the primary site where state officials produced the expansion of the carceral state. However, inspired by work from historians such as Dan Berger (2014), this panel seeks to shift the lens from federal policy to the local level and suggest the centrality of local actors to the history of the criminal justice system. The panelists all expose how the punitive turn in American life was not natural nor inevitable but the product of historically contingent political struggles, ones in which social movements at the local and state levels played a key role. A second, related way in which the panel investigates the history of the American carceral state “from the bottom up” is by incorporating marginalized historical actors whose perspectives typically do not find representation in historical narratives—most especially youth. As all of the panelists argue, youth, in different ways, played a central role in mounting resistance to criminalization. At the same time, the lives of many young people were fundamentally shaped by punitive policies and laws and their enforcement. We examine this history by focusing on two groups that experienced this punitive turn in specific ways: Black youth and LGBTQ people (including LGBTQ youth). In “Bad Queers,” Scott De Orio examines how, during the pivotal era of the long 1970s, LGBT activists, feminists, law enforcement officials, and many others redefined what types of gender and sexual conduct it was legitimate for sex crime law to criminalize, in the process creating a new, criminal underclass of “bad queers.” Michael Stauch’s paper, “Young Boys,” examines the criminalization of Black youth who turned to the informal economy during the leadership of Detroit’s first African-American mayor, Coleman A. Young. In “A Case for Local Histories of the High School Student Organizing Tradition and Its Responses to the Punitive Turn, 1968–1973,” Dara Walker offers a comparative study of Black youth’s resistance to the punitive turn, drawing on the experiences of high school student activists in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Mississippi. Austin McCoy’s paper, “Detroit Under STRESS,” illustrates how the killings of two black youths spurred the development of a campaign to confront the use of lethal force, critique liberal theories of crime and open up possibilities for reform. In sum, this panel offers an opportunity for urban historians and scholars of social movements to examine political struggles in local contexts that, we argue, were central to the development of the punitive turn in American governance and to the resistance thereof. In the process, it provides a forum in which to bring in youth as historical actors and consider the ways in which they shaped and were shaped by the carceral state.

Papers Presented

Detroit under STRESS: The Campaign to Stop Police Killings in the Early 1970s

This paper analyzes the campaign to stop police killings by the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) STRESS Unit during the early-1970s. Responsible for the killing of more than twenty Detroiters from 1971 to 1973, the DPD instituted the undercover unit in an attempt to halt what they believed was a surge in street robberies. Spurred by the murder of two black youths, this campaign against STRESS comprised a biracial coalition of liberals and radicals who challenged the unit in the courts, streets, and in public discourse. Members of this coalition engaged in various tactics in their quest to reform, then abolish, the unit, which included demonstrations, legal action, and discursive framing. The campaign to abolish STRESS illustrates how police killings brought liberals and radicals together at a moment when scholars argue that the Left had fractured. Yet, the left wing’s framing of the unit as a criminal enterprise in public discourse kept Detroit mayor Roman Gribbs and the city’s police commissioner John Nichols on the defensive. The campaign, and the radicals’ critique of state criminality, opened up opportunities in electoral politics for radicals such as lawyers Justin Ravitz and Kenneth Cockrel and liberals such as Coleman Young. This critique of the carceral state’s criminality also demonstrates how visions of radical criminology—a field of inquiry that began to take shape concurrently—emerged out of political organizing and campaigns in Detroit.

Presented By
Austin McCoy, Auburn University

Young Boys: A Cohort Biography of Detroit’s Informal Economy during the Carceral Era

This paper narrates a history of the carceral era from the perspective of black adolescent boys involved in Detroit’s informal heroin economy. The political economy of urban crisis excluded a generation of black youth from waged employment while at the same time criminalizing their participation in the informal economy. In Detroit, young people responded to these circumstances by developing an innovative approach to heroin sales utilizing juveniles, a development most closely associated with a group called Young Boys, Inc. These “young boys” posed a challenge to the administrations of the first generation of African American mayors in large American cities. Elected in the aftermath of urban insurrection, many had a mandate to implement wide-ranging police reforms. For Coleman Young, Detroit’s “young boys” created unforeseen difficulties in carrying out this political project. Rather than recognizing this emerging cohort of young people as a challenge to how capitalism structured economic inequality by race in urban spaces, and hence an attempt to redefine what counted as crime, the fabrication of order amid urban crisis criminalized that participation. This paper functions as a “cohort biography” of the young people involved in Detroit’s informal economy at this time, told through court records and vernacular texts that circulated in the city. By exploring the spatial, emotional, economic, and linguistic experiences of these “young boys” as they encountered the city’s penal institutions, this paper reveals the emergence of a new urban subject that posed a profound challenge to attempts to govern the nation’s cities during the carceral era.

Presented By
Michael Stauch Jr., University of Toledo

A Case for Local Histories of the High School Student Organizing Tradition and Its Responses to the Punitive Turn, 1968–1973

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, black high school youth led massive student walkouts and building take-overs in America’s cities to demand access to quality education. For their political activities, black teenagers met fierce repression, usually in the form of draconian disciplinary policies and the increased presence of police officers in public schools. Such policies shaped the criminalization of black youth activists and aided the rise of the punitive turn in public policy. Urban histories that have turned our attention to the role of federal policies and national actors in the making of the carceral state have created a path for new studies of the ways local communities, including the young people who were most affected by this process, experienced and responded to these developments. I argue that local histories of the punitive turn have the potential to reveal how political economies, racial geographies, and regional movement histories shaped the homegrown character of resistance to the carceral state—especially in public education. Using primary sources and secondary literature, I will make the case for more local histories of black teenagers’ responses to the punitive turn in public schooling. This paper examines Detroit, Los Angeles, and Mississippi, which, together, illuminate the role of black labor radicalism and multiracial coalitions in struggles against the overpolicing of schools, as well how black youth constructed alternative visions of public safety that sought to limit the powers of local law enforcement.

Presented By
Dara Walker, , Pennsylvania State University, African American studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies

Bad Queers: LGBT People and the Carceral State in Modern America

This presentation examines the history of what I call the war on sex offenders—an American campaign against sex crime that began in the 1930s—and the changing ways that war has produced and criminalized LGBT legal subjects. Particularly during the pivotal long 1970s, a groundswell of social movement activity transformed the war on sex offenders into a new and even more expansive phase by legalizing a category of “good” LGBT subjects while doubling down on many other “bad” ones. Even as LGBT activists managed to legalize a category of “good” gay sex between consenting adults in private, the architects of the war on sex offenders shifted gears by ramping up the criminalization of youth, sex involving HIV, trans and gender nonconforming people, and many other categories of “bad” queers. In making this argument, this paper extends key narratives in modern U.S. LGBT history, political and legal history, and nonhistorical queer theory. Whereas many LGBT historians have characterized the late twentieth century in terms of the consolidation of a legal hierarchy between homosexuality and heterosexuality, this presentation reframes that period as a time of the proliferation and hierarchal stratification of multiple categories of “good” and “bad” LGBT legal subjects. While from the perspective of “good” homosexuals, state interest in LGBT people tapered off and became weaker, from the perspective of “bad queers” the state regulation and criminalization of LGBT people became more intense, far reaching, and expansive. And while queer theorists such has Michael Warner have argued that the mainstream LGBT movement came to exclude “bad” queers from its political platform due to the sexual conservatism of movement leaders, this paper highlights the centrality of the rise of the child protection movement in the late 1970s to the movement’s retreat from a broader challenge to the criminalization of sexual “deviance.”

Presented By
Scott Anthony De Orio, Northwestern University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Dan Berger, University of Washington Bothell
Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell and affiliate associate professor of history at the University of Washington Seattle. He is the author or editor of six books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, winner of the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize, and his writings have appeared in Black Perspectives, Salon, and the Washington Post, among elsewhere. A scholar of social movements and the carceral state, Berger is a founding coordinator of the Washington Prison History Project, a digital archive of incarceration and activism in the Evergreen state.

Presenter: Scott Anthony De Orio, Northwestern University
Scott De Orio is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN). He received his Ph.D. in History and Women's Studies from the University of Michigan in 2017, and his research focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ history and the history of the carceral state. His first book project, "Bad Queers: LGBT People and the Carceral State in Modern America,” examines the changing ways in which what he calls the war on sex offenders has produced and criminalized LGBT legal subjects in the U.S. since World War II. His second project is a transatlantic study of the regulation of child sexuality from the Enlightenment to the present. His writing has or will appear in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, the edited collection The War on Sex, and Law & Social Inquiry.

Presenter: Austin McCoy, Auburn University
Austin McCoy is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University. He is an historian of African-American History and 20th Century U.S. politics and social movements. His current book project, entitled “The Quest for Democracy: Black Power, New Left, and Progressive Politics in the Post-Industrial Midwest,” analyzes movements against the criminal state and campaigns for participatory democracy in economics, foreign policy, and criminal justice after 1967. Austin is also a public historian and scholar, publishing current social criticism in numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, Nursing Clio, and Black Perspectives.

Presenter: Michael Stauch Jr., University of Toledo
Michael Stauch is an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Toledo. He is a historian of policing, politics, and social movements in the United States, with a particular interest in the categories of race, youth and labor. His research examines the emergence of the carceral state from below in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s, in a manuscript entitled, "Young Detroit: Policing the Community During the War on Crime." He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from Duke University in 2015.

Presenter: Dara Walker, , Pennsylvania State University, African American studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies
Dara Walker is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Richards Civil War Era Center and the Africana Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. She holds a PhD in History from Rutgers University. Her research and teaching interests include African American history, urban history, 20th century U.S. history, Public History, and the digital humanities. Dara is currently writing her book manuscript, which examines the role of the high school organizing tradition in the development of black radical politics of the Black Power era. Her research has been funded by the Ford Foundation’s Dissertation Fellowship and the Walter P. Reuther Library’s Albert Shanker Fellowship for Research in Education. She has presented her research at several national conferences, including the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the American Historical Association (AHA), and the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS). In addition to her research, teaching, and mentoring, Dara is a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, the blog site for the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).