American Policing: History, Politics, and Society
For many Americans the existence of the police may seem as inevitable as a law of nature. From popular culture to political stump speeches to the oft-invoked impulse to “Call 911,” the idea of public order is widely presented as unimaginable without the existence of police to enforce it. Without the police, this reasoning runs, society itself would cease to exist. But the institution that is American policing has not always existed, let alone in its present form. It is a composite entity with a story that stretches from America’s origins in settler colonialism and chattel slavery, to Gilded Age industrialization, to more than a century of trans-oceanic imperial and “peace-keeping” ventures, and more. And yet while American policing has increased in power and scope, it has also been resisted; today, the idea of “abolishing” the police is gaining striking public traction. What explains the contemporary form and practice of American policing? How are the police shaped by, and how have they helped to shape, prevailing cultural, economic, and political conditions? And what might it mean to “abolish” the police?
This course offers an interdisciplinary overview of the history, social function, and contemporary politics of police in the United States. We will track the history of the modern policing apparatus from its colonial roots through the Civil War and subsequent movements of “professionalism” and regular attempts at “reform.” We will juxtapose primary source texts like police memoirs, textbooks, and institutional charters with police ethnographies, social histories, and theoretical accounts of policing from a variety of political and disciplinary perspectives. Topics to be explored include: the idea of the state’s “monopoly on violence”; public versus private policing; the history of police unions; the idea of “militarization”; “copaganda”; “coptalk”; the relationship between beat policing and the carceral system; developments in riot control and surveillance; and more. We will pay particular attention to the emergence of the US as the “world’s policeman” and primary global exporter of counterinsurgency policing, and explore traditions of resistance and movements for police abolition. We will read a range of thinkers, including Robert Forman, Jennifer Carlson, Mike Davis, Jennifer Wang, Julian Go, Mariame Kaaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Alex Vitale, Radley Balko, Sidney Harring, Angela Davis, Stuart Schrader, Bernard Harcourt, Michelle Alexander, Naomi Murakawa, Mark Neocleous, and more.
Course ScheduleSunday, 3:00-6:00pm ET
June 13 — July 11, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Sunday, July 4th.