Seigel: A Field-Changing Special Issue for a Swiftly-Changing Field

July 30, 2015

seigelMicol Seigel is associate professor of American Studies and History at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she teaches and studies policing, prisons, and race in the Americas. Her work has appeared in Social Text, Transition, Radical History Review, Hispanic American Historical Review, and elsewhere; her Uneven Encounters: Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States (Duke, 2009) received a finalist mention for the Lora Romero first book prize of the American Studies Association. Micol’s research has been supported by FLAS, Fulbright, the ACLS, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Cornell Society for the Humanities, and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Micol is a longtime member of Critical Resistance, a founding and active member of Decarcerate Monroe County, reconvener of the Critical Prison Studies Caucus of the ASA, and an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program instructor.

Her article “Objects of Police History” appears in the Journal of American History’s June 2015 special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.”

The JAH’s decision to produce this wonderful special issue confirms the intense contemporary interest in prison-related scholarship. This interest comes not only from the simple recognition that incarceration is a profoundly consequential historical and social phenomenon, but also because people from the communities that lose the most members to hyperpolicing, differential prosecution, and the devastations of caged life have ably and vocally resisted these injustices for years. The JAH special issue is a sign of the success of reiterated, cumulative anti-racist and anti-prison activism and critique. The editors and authors in this collection owe our lifework to a movement. We are a part of something larger than ourselves.

The field of prison-related scholarship, including the scholars willing to call their work “critical prison studies,” a pointedly politicized label chosen to emphasize radical or abolitionist critique of the existing prison system rather than reformist intent (and doubly to refuse the myth of the scholar’s neutral or objective stance), is, generally, younger than the protest that inspires it. It is emergent, as this vibrant issue shows so beautifully. My relationship to my own work reflects this swiftly-moving current: I would write this piece slightly differently if I were composing it now. In the months since I finished this essay, I have nearly completed the manuscript I reference in it, still tentatively entitled Beyond the Beat: Cold War Cops and the Nature of State Power, and have thought more fully through the conceptual framework that sustains the whole. I think this is interesting both in terms of process—how intellectual work happens—and content—what I believe happened to U.S. policing in the 1970s. I’ll write very briefly about each, and I hope this will encourage the audience of this blog to read this and one other book.

When a topic is young, it is infinitely open. It could branch this way or that, and scholars take it in one direction or another as they get to know the field and in conversation with their peers. Ultimately, though, my own individual process requires writing: I don’t completely figure out what I think until I get it down on paper (or “paper,” I guess). I’ve only fully articulated the arguments Beyond the Beat will make in the months since editing of this piece was fully complete. Hopefully this is an index of honest intellectual process: openness to the possibility that the thesis with which you begin will not be the one that subtends the final product.

Substantively, what I would say differently now involves the concept of militarization. In my JAH piece I still used the concept. I understood that civilian and military were not analytically distinct but I wasn’t ready to discard them completely as I support the political goals of activists who have used the concept of militarization to protest the post-1950s rise in police lethality. Now, while I do think there was a change in policing in the 1970s that has to do with military weaponry, I don’t see it as one that could be described as “militarization.” The change was not a simple question of warstuff coming home. Much weaponry was developed within a domestic industry built upon previous rounds of repression at home and abroad. So what we see in the 1970s, as today, is a constant cycle of domestic and foreign exchange. Policing became more deadly in the 1970s, I think, but this is less a sign of militarization—policing was always (para)military—than a simple rise in lethality due to technological change. Foreign wars became more deadly, too, in this classic imperial pattern.

Militarization is now out of Beyond the Beat, which argues instead that the military/civilian distinction is one of the tripartite borders of policing, along with the geographic bounds of foreign/domestic territory and of scale and the state/market divide. All three, the book suggests, are tools in the legitimation of rule. That is, the preservation of these borders sustains ideological bedrock notions such as the state’s independence from the market, the benevolence of the police, and the small scale at which the state operates, as if citizens could therefore have control over their lives.

In contrast, my JAH article is less interested in these borders and their theoretical relationship to the state, and more focused on the story of how weapons and strategy developed for foreign wars returned to influence U.S. policing. Happily, someone else is writing that book, the detailed history of counterinsurgency coming home to domestic police practice: Stuart Schrader. Look out for Stuart’s forthcoming book, based on his dissertation, “American Streets, Foreign Territory: How Counterinsurgent Knowledge Militarized Policing and Criminalized Color” (NYU, June 2015). Hopefully some of you will also still want to read Beyond the Beat!

I’m grateful to the committed, rigorous anti-prison scholars who are my colleagues. I deeply appreciate Kelly, Khalil, Heather, Ed, and the rest of the JAH crew for the vision to put this issue together. Most of all, I send a grateful shout out to the millions of people diminished by the devastations of criminal injustice who refuse to accept our current condition. Time for us all to tear down the walls.