Reflections on the State in the Field of Urban Policing and Mass Incarceration

This is the first in a series on left scholarship on mass incarceration, urban policing, and crime politics. I kick things off. Next I’ll post a piece by Jason Lee, a Master’s student at Harvard Divinity School and a former organizer with the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, where I was lucky to share the stage with Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBron, Max Felker-Kantor, and Elizabeth Hinton. Despite our bizarre setting (a regular hotel room on the 14th floor of the Hyatt, one side a normal luxury suite and the other a traditional, if miniature, conference space, with stiff-backed chairs, a dais, and AV equipment), we got down to the core issues (as I see them) that will engage the field of urban policing and mass incarceration in the years to come. Thanks to an excellent question from audience-member and political scientist Michael Javen Fortner, we turned, at the end, to a prickly, ugly, but necessary concern: Is it ever legitimate for the state to use force? If not, how does that change our conception of the state (traditionally defined, via Max Weber, as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force)?

I reached out to Fortner over email after the conference. I wanted to know what motivated his question, the last of our session. Short on time, we as panelists never got the chance to engage the audience, least of all Fortner, on the matter in adequate depth. Without knowing Fortner’s motivation (he hasn’t responded yet), I think I can glean a possible angle from his published writing. In The Black Silent Majority, his New York Times op-ed, and his exchange with historian Donna Murch, Fortner foregrounds the interests of middle-class and working-class black residents of Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s who, he argues, were desperate for state-administered force—that is, the police—to come into their neighborhoods and remove “undesirables,” mostly drug dealers and users. As I understand him, Fortner was not trying to validate the embrace of “get-tough” but to understand, recover, and present sympathetically the reasons motivating those who adopted that political position.*

Today’s debates over zero-tolerance, Broken Windows, and stop-and-frisk policing—against the backdrop of mass incarceration and neoliberal austerity—obviously make these concerns timely. Raymond Kelly, New York City’s former police commissioner, and William Bratton, the current one, like to point to broad support for their policies among middle-class residents of color whenever they are accused of racism for using aggressive, intrusive strategies that (the facts show) disproportionately target black and Latino populations. They cite polls and community meetings which indicate, to them, that responsible people in the neighborhoods most affected by their policies (that have high crime rates) want an expanded not a diminished police presence.

This issue comes up all the time on the blog Cop in the Hood, run by Peter Moskos, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, former Baltimore police officer, and author of the eponymous book. Moskos often depicts academic criticism of the police as hypocritical and unrealistic. He gets annoyed with liberal critics of the police (especially academics who don’t study the police) who live in nice neighborhoods where they enjoy a comfortable life relatively untouched by the truly horrific criminal (often gang- or drug-related) violence on America’s poorest urban blocks for wanting to curtail police powers (even abolish the police).

Lucky for them, Moskos says, they won’t have to live with the consequences if they succeed. Meanwhile, cops on the beat have actual decisions to make, like how to respond to the elderly black woman who calls to complain about the drug dealers standing on her corner, blocking foot traffic, and the gang that has taken up residence in the abandoned property next door. Moskos comes at this issue as a critic of the drug war. That’s putting it lightly. He thinks the drug war is a massively destructive, futile, and racist policy. And yet, as a professor and former cop, he is comfortable with using state force to maintain order in under-resourced communities. Like Fortner, he wants to focus on short-term solutions since reparations or socioeconomic equality are unlikely in the near-term. What should police do now? This is Moskos’s question. When is it okay (legitimate) for police (the state) to use force? This is Fortner’s question.

The scholarship on mass incarceration is in its early stages. We are still developing the empirical base for understanding the origins, the causes, the consequences, and the trajectory of mass imprisonment and aggressive, intrusive policing. In our writing historians rightly focus on the excesses and the routine (yes, banal) barbarity of state violence in the United States, especially in poor, urban communities of color. I think we are less good at understanding these issues from the perspective of crime victims.

It is not exactly taboo but it is close to it to focus on crime—on actual “criminals” (even the word is loaded). (See Donna Murch in Boston Review refer to drug dealers as victims [penultimate graf]. See also the response to Alice Goffman’s politically terrible framing in her book On the Run.) Focusing on crime and crime victims, rather than the circumstances that produce criminal activity, can appear reactionary (see Khalil Muhammad’s response to Fortner’s book); the fear is also that discussing crime within black communities, involving black perpetrators and black victims, may fuel reactionary politics, or be taken up by get-tough policymakers or race-baiters who use “black-on-black crime” to reinforce a narrative that links black criminality to intergenerational poverty to pathology to argue for the pointlessness or destructiveness of state-administered welfare.**

As scholars we don’t totally ignore crime but we downplay it as a motivating factor for police action. For instance, when discussing the War on Drugs, we play up police abuses (which are legion) but never mention or explore deeply the terrorizing and paralyzing consequences of record-high homicides on the majority of neighborhood residents. I fear that we tend to treat “crime” as more perception than reality, an inherently reactionary ideological construct instead of a major, legitimate concern for poor people. We are rightly skeptical of the so-called crime rate (police reporting is notoriously sketchy and self-interested). We rightly refute racist fear-mongering by the media which often consists of copying-and-pasting police talking points (see the “Ferguson Effect”). But I think we can do better. We can and should take crime head on, address it positively and not negatively, strategically and not only defensively (see, e.g., exchange between David Thacher and Bernard Harcourt).

Violent crime is a destructive force within communities. Its roots may lie in unjust socioeconomic conditions but there are people who commit crimes and constitute a nuisance for others and they, at some point, must be dealt with and the state will likely play some role in meting out punishment. It is no coincidence that the communities most affected by violent crime are often the same communities most negatively affected by state violence, i.e., the War on Drugs and zero-tolerance, and state abandonment, i.e., deindustrialization, mortgage fraud, disinvestment, etc.

Scholars on the left have developed a highly potent and specific language for addressing certain inequities of state violence and abandonment. We have done less well, I’d argue, in addressing the question posed by Fortner and Moskos, which deals with crime victims, in the here and now. Knowing what we know about the police power—the state’s historical tendency to ask for an inch and take a mile—what *should* we have the state, i.e., the police, do. Perhaps this question should not be our priority. But to me the two concerns—critiquing state force and redirecting it—go hand-in-hand. You can’t answer one adequately without also taking on the other.


*I may review Fortner’s book on the blog, but for now let me say that I think we still need to contextualize the “get-tough” policy proposals that some black leaders and residents have espoused since World War II. In this respect I appreciate Lisa Miller’s work on racialized state failure, democratic politics, and criminal violence. Following Miller, we can understand crime within black neighborhoods as evidence of and as a response to systemic neglect and state violence and abandonment. Black urban residents developed their own views of “criminals” on their blocks and it’s important to recover those perspectives (as Fortner has tried to do). We also need to consider the range of possible solutions that black people had before them, which often amounted to choosing the lesser of two evils.

**Allow me to note that the label “criminals” sits uneasily with me. Flip through Khalil Muhammad’s book for evidence of the wholesale criminalization of black people by whites. Given this history, the tag “criminal” is never merely descriptive when assigned to black people. There’s always the chance that it will take on some permanent classification for people who already think of black people as a “race” of criminals. Beyond the racial issue, I’m not sure I’m comfortable referring to anyone as a criminal.  The “criminal” is a permanent outsider, cast out from society.

One thought on “Reflections on the State in the Field of Urban Policing and Mass Incarceration

  1. Pingback: James Baldwin on Police | Get-tough

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