Graffiti in Andalucia, Spain Photo courtesy Kilezz and wikicommons

George Zimmerman, Christopher Dorner, Oscar Grant and Beyond

Recently a few anthropologists, myself included, have commented on the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin. As well we should. This affair, like the Christopher Dorner episode and the Oscar Grant incident before it, has brought the issue of race, violence and injustice to the forefront of American public discussion and anthropologists have much to add to it. One dimension of that intervention involves noting the widespread and despicable racial disparities the incident brings to the fore—illustrating what kinds of bodies are imaginable as victims and what bodies as perpetrators of violence while contrasting that imaginary with lived realities—and tying those disparities to the larger social inequities of which the U.S. criminal justice system has been a significant engine. For example, pointing out the strikingly different ways Martin and Zimmerman are discussed in the public forum, linking that observation to the massive incarceration of African-Americans over the last 30 years and understanding the larger social effects of that injustice. To make these connections clear, and in doing so to illustrate the contemptible nature of our justice system, is surely the primary task, as is the duty to foster a desire to develop more ethical responses to the situation.

Graffiti in Andalucia Spain. Photo courtesy Kilezz and wikicommons

Graffiti in Andalucía, Spain. Photo courtesy Kilezz and wikicommons

Another dimension of anthropological intervention involves identifying themes—similarities and differences between the incidents, especially when understood in comparative context. When I do this, I notice what I think is an under-remarked dimension of the discussion: that at its core is a debate about the nature of police—what it should look like, who should participate in it, what should be its aims and tactics, whether its current form is capable of using force legitimately and, if not, what a more just police would look like. Even more, this conversation is not confined to the US. The depth and scope of a public fixation on police violence, especially across registers of difference, takes on a global scale if we widen our lens. Recall, for example, just a few examples from the past several years: that one of the enduring images emerging out of the rapidly expanding #Occupy movement was the “Pepper-spray cop” at UC Davis; that the initial impetus for the snowballing “Arab Spring” was a desperate response to police harassment; that the demonstrations emerging after the rape of a 23-year old medical student in India were largely framed as a failure by police; that the outrage in Istanbul’s Taksim Park was fanned by what was perceived as an overreach by police; that recent protests in Brazil were in large part about the disproportionate public means given to and divergent private ends of Brazil’s police force; that the most recently visible and deadly manifestation of capitalist divestment from South Africa took the form of clashes between police and unionizing miners; or that the French banlieue riots of 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2012 were instigated by specific encounters between police and so-called “immigrant communities.”

All of these events cry out for anthropological analysis and, to a heartening degree, anthropologists are recognizing that call. However, while issues of security and crime have taken an increasingly central role in the discipline, there remains an inadequate conceptual toolkit with which to simultaneously understand the particularity of these events as existential human encounters while noticing their one common, contentious theme: the nature and place of policing within collective life. As I have previously argued in a review of representations of police within urban ethnography, this lacuna is neither new nor incidental to the shape of US anthropology. Fortunately, there has recently developed a burgeoning body of research that what one might call an “anthropology of police.” I would like to outline several “fault lines”—that is, issues of productive tension and dissent—that the above incidents suggest and briefly discuss how such an anthropology might explore, learn from, and address them.

Fault Line #1: Violence, Legitimacy and Collectivities

Key to all the incidents and debates mentioned above is a concern with the nature of power, particularly (but not only) in its manifestation as physical violence within various forms of collective life. This tension emerges from the very foundation of how police is conceived, organized and practiced. One of the truisms of the broader field of police studies is that the police are the most empirically identifiable human community which claim the monopoly of legitimate violence over a given territory and that their claim to being such rests on their status as a group of trained experts in the use of that violence. An anthropology of police is particularly well positioned to attend to that violence in its quotidian practice, encompassing forms both spectacular and banal, in a way that maps the scope, mechanism and effects of its distribution across collective bodies. In the process, such studies can illuminate not only how specific practices of policing give shape to our daily interactions but also how they serve as an opportunity to participate in and to enact productive reflection upon the form of collective life. My own work, for example, tends to pose questions about how policing can serve as an open vector for thinking through social life itself.

Fault Line #2: Forms of Difference and Inequality

Adjacent to the problem of violence across the social body is the related problem of how to assess its legitimacy, a question which becomes particularly vexed, and takes on a special intensity, when it occurs across forms of difference situated within fields of inequality. Race is a key factor, as are the indices of class and histories of colonialism to which they are complexly tied, but those dimensions by no means exhaust the forms of politically salient difference. One of the requisite tasks of modern government is to understand what types of people and things circulate through the territory of particular nation-states and, in that sense, one of the key tasks of policing is the attribution of meaningful identifications and distinctions within that space. An anthropology of policing can help us gain purchase on the process through which these differences are produced, not only in the sense of the rationalities that animate them but in the sensual worlds which make them meaningful and real in people’s lives. The anthropological study of police can also be an especially useful vehicle with which to investigate and compare particular regimes of legitimation. This move can both denaturalize such regimes and tie them to larger historical structures, as is the case with studies of “postcolonial” policing.

Fault Line #3 Diffusions, Collisions and Transformations in Forms of Governance

The third fault line with potential for exploration by an anthropology of policing concerns the increasingly “global” nature of police itself. This emphasis on the global dimension of policing may entail a focus on the changing scope of how threats are imagined, the international security collaborations created to address them, their various effects on more local efforts, or the spread of police itself as a global form. For example, the practice of policing is increasingly directed by a kind of policing “star system,” mirroring those inhabited by corporate executives, led by former Chief of the NYPD, LAPD, and Boston PD (and, nearly, London Metropolitan Commissioner) Bill Bratton and his intellectual progeny. These security “experts” peddle claims that they have solved the core problems of police science and can offer translatable and universally applicable solutions to (what are imagined as) the shared problems of policing across contexts. By this they mean to offer a pre-assembled toolkit of techniques such as military style training and equipment, zero tolerance harassment and public relations lip service to community policing. These experts travel around the world in empirically observable ways and shape the practice of urban police to a degree that should not be underestimated. An anthropology of police has the potential here to offer critical distance from the claims of such experts. Nuanced ethnographic description can point to moments of friction, or failures of translation in the application of such global forms. Additionally, the wider frame of anthropology is particularly well positioned to attend to the slippery articulation of citizenship and police such formulations of police entail and can therefore best appreciate the underlying sense of the human to which they are tied and the political stakes of their implementation.

These fault lines are in no way meant to exhaust the potential set of topics emerging out of an anthropological interest in police, nor does it map out the only course of inquiry into the contexts anthropologists who are interested in such an object might find themselves engaged in. My goal has been, more simply, to provide a preliminary diagnostic—a way to help create and then begin exploring a conceptual field, the anthropology of police. My hope, and belief, is that such a field may help anthropologists better participate and inflect public conversations—such as the one currently occurring around Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman—in such a way that makes use of the tools and strengths anthropology can bring with it.

Kevin Karpiak is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. His work focuses on policing and is currently completing the manuscript entitled The Police Against Itself: Refiguring French Liberalism after the Social. He also maintains both a personal blog and a group blog on the Anthropology of Policing.

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