Policing Rage in the Urban Age of Crises and Extremes

“Policing Rage in the Urban Age of Crises and Extremes”

Tyler Wall (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and Parastou Saberi (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Policing Rage in the Urban Age of Crises and Extremes
Antipode Foundation International Workshop
May 17-18, 2019
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The aim of our workshop, Policing Rage, was to bring a diversity of scholars from various academic backgrounds to discuss the complex ways through which state police power functions to pacify, exploit, and negotiate the explosion of the urban rage of the excluded. During our two-day workshop, we brought together 12 scholars (including ourselves) from the United States and Europe to debate various perspectives on state police power. The discussions that took place at a lecture room at the John C. Hodges Library on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville were bold, innovative, and inspiring. Few months after the workshop once again ordinary people from Quito and Santiago to Barcelona and Hong Kong and onto Beirut and Baghdad have taken their rage to the streets, which is a hopeful confirmation that tackling the questing of state police power is an important political and intellectual task.

Our presenters approached police power from a diversity of angles, historically, geographically, and theoretically. While some focused on the contemporary issues, others took us back to other decades and centuries to historicize and problematize common sense concepts and assumptions in policing lexicon. Despite the workshop being a wonderful success, we decided against pursuing a special issue, largely because many of the pieces (but not all) presented were already works-in-progress written for various publication venues. This also means that “policing rage” at times came up in quite explicit and specific ways (i.e. as the object to discuss and theorize), but also at times it receded into the background if still vaguely present. If we were to do it over again, we would be more clear on requesting pieces that would be specifically written for the workshop so as to better set up the possibility of a special issue or edited volume. As this example highlights, we learned a great deal as first-time organizers of the workshop, and we are thankful for the opportunity to discuss such important and insightful work by first-rate scholars and thinkers.

In our view the workshop can easily be deemed a major success for the ways it facilitated dialogue amongst a diverse group of scholars who might have otherwise never crossed paths. Some of the participants had crossed paths before in various capacities, but many had not and hence found the opportunity to meet new people worthwhile and helpful. It is exactly for this reason that the Antipode Foundation’s grant program is such an indispensable incubator for interdisciplinary scholarship and for building new collaborations and friendships. Workshop attendees were as follows: Amna Akbar (Ohio State University/Princeton University), Jordan Camp (Barnard College), Christina Heatherton (Barnard College), Nisha Kapoor (University of Warwick), Marisol LeBrón (University of Texas, Austin), Andrea Miller (University of California, Davis), Mark Neocleous (Brunel University), Parastou Saberi (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Stuart Schrader (John Hopkins University), Waqas Tufail (Leeds Beckett University), Diren Valayden (Binghamton University) and Tyler Wall (University of Tennessee, Knoxville).

Below is a synopsis of the papers given in the order they were delivered:

Marisol LeBrón began the workshop by providing a wonderful paper on the politics of disaster in colonial geographies, specifically Puerto Rico. In her critical engagement with rage (coraje), LeBrón showed how activists and ordinary citizens have mobilized coraje in order to navigate the obstructed agency created by the constraints of colonial capitalism and bourgeois respectability in Puerto Rico. Coraje has a political potential to create networks of solidarity grounded in a refusal of the current imposed order that has made coraje the target of state policing. Rather than sidestepping coraje as an episodic explosion of the masses’ irrationality, LeBrón emphasized the need to understand corjae as a weapon of the subaltern that unmasks colonial state violence and ignites strong, but potentially ugly, networks of transformative solidarity.

Following this, Mark Neocleous astutely unpacked the contemporary police tactic of “kettling” to deal with manifestations of rage in protests in liberal democracies, largely by delving into the genealogy and etymology of kettling, and rage, in Western political thought (Hobbes in particular) and also contemporary police texts. For Neocleous, the political logic of the kettle points towards a theory of the containment of rage. Thus, for Necoleous, focusing on the legality of kettling (as is the main argument against police kettling these days) is to sidestep that kettling is about the political containment of a political threat and the security of order.

Waqas Tufail then took us to the United Kingdom and the British state’s strategies of policing British Muslim populations in the era of the “war on terror”. From community policing to social policy initiatives aimed to so-called integrating British Muslims into British society, Tufail highlighted the immediate and long-term effects of such state strategies on quelling dissent within Muslim communities and fracturing anti-racist movements and solidarity-building within the broader non-White populations in Britain. He particularly emphasized the dangers of the extension and intensification of police power into the social policy sphere in this regard.

Tufail’s paper provided a wonderful lead in to the current hot security topic of radicalization prevention, which Parastou Saberi unpacked in her own paper. Saberi rigorously engaged with the recent policy debates on radicalization prevention at the EU, urban and regional levels as well as the role of expert think tanks, such as the European Forum for Urban Security in continental Europe. She argued that a radical critique of radicalization needs to understand radicalization prevention as an extension of counterinsurgency in European cities. This extension of the liberal way of war inside Europe, she underlined, is also accompanied by an increasing focus on the urban geopolitics of danger, one that is the relational outcome of the assumed ungovernability of the Other at the urban and international scales. Current debates in continental Europe, for her, direct us to the gradual incorporation of radicalization prevention into the processes of urban governance.

Taking on the British security state, Nisha Kapoor zeroed in on the significance of “race” and the racialized gaze for the cultivation and reinforcement of surveillance in the UK. From radicalization prevention to security announcements on train and public transit in the UK, Kapoor analyzed how the institution of citizenship has become part of the armour of the security state. Tapping into the commodification of citizenship, she underlined how the British state mobilizes surveillance as a routine mechanism of social control that operates alongside the (re)entrenchment of citizenship as an institution of race-class exclusion. Paying attention to the deeply rooted genealogy of surveillance in the histories of Empire is, for her, imperative for resisting today’s surveillance strategies of the security state.

In what was the first in the final set of papers for the first day, Jordan Camp focused on a different form of rage, that of the fascistic rage of the Ku Klux Klan members and supporters on the eve of Black radical Paul Robeson’s concert in Peekskill, NY in 1949. In his engagement with the alternative history of the Peekskill Riot, Camp convincingly situated the KKK-inspired riot and surveillance over the Socialist Left and the Black radical internationalist tradition in the US in relation to the expansion of the US warfare state. For him, reconsidering the theoretical interventions of the Black radical internationalist tradition today is imperative for dealing with current waves of White-supremacist and Far-Right rage, and the way they intersect with neoliberal authoritarianism.

Similarly, Stuart Schrader engaged with the contemporary concept of police militarization from a historical perspective. Pointing to the undertheorized presuppositions of police militarization that represent the idea of militarization as an exogenous contamination of policing, he took participants to a historical journey through the professional police literature before and during WWII. For Schrader, police and military blended in this period, but the imprint of US empire before the war continued to affect policing during the war both at home and overseas. His intervention aims to generate new periodizations about the porosity and mutability of security and insecurity, peace and war, foreign and domestic, police and military, soldier and civilian.

For the final paper of the first day, Christina Heatherton provided an amazing reading of the interconnectedness of the geographies of rage against colonial imperialism of the United States. She did this by focusing on a significant, if underexplored, artifact of capitalism: rope. From the colonies of the Philippines to the American South of the Jim Crow to Chicago’s Haymarket massacre and Mexico, Heatherton provided a social history of rope, and by doing so weaving together a fascinating critique of racialized violence and exploitation. This history, she argued, demonstrates that when imperialist capitalism links spaces it also links the fates of people forced into its regimes of accumulation. In this sense, ropes, for Heatherton demonstrate how capital, geography, racism, and histories of class war converge.

Kicking off the second day of the workshop was Diren Valayden, who focused his attention on ungoverned spaces and the overlooked geography of the “urban littoral”. For Valayden, the urban littoral is a significant police space where dangers and threats are spatialized while being subjected to a spectrum of governance ranging from military to humanitarian operations. Emphasizing the importance of thinking the urban and the littoral as a singular unit of analysis, he examined the ways the urban littoral has merged as a category of thought and practice for military planners. For Valayden, from its once space of disruptive radicalism of port workers, the urban littoral today has become a space to police the assumed global threats from and by racially “feral” populations of migrants.

Following this, Andrea Miller took participants to another contemporary security space by focusing on the role of cyber security and technology in policing racialized urban spaces. Focusing on the relocation of US Army Cyber Command to Ford Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, United States, Miller challenged the assumption that cyber security projects are associated with the pursuit of containing perceived threats from outside the geographical borders of the United States. Rather, she argued that transnational projects of cyber war power must also be examined within and through local histories of police power, containment of racialized threats, and speculative urban developments.

Tyler Wall followed Miller by providing a critical reading of a common yet undertheorized mythology of police power: the “thin blue line”. For Wall, the mythology of police as a “thin blue line” separating civilization from savagery must be taken seriously for what it says about police fantasy: there is no civilization without police. In other words, the thin blue line is nothing less than a police rendition of the Hobbesian “state of nature”, leading Wall to think of the thin blue line as a discourse on the “police invention of humanity”.

As the concluding paper of what was a fabulous and worthwhile workshop, Amna Akbar placed in conversation liberal frameworks on police reform with police abolition. That is, Akbar provided a critical reading of police reform efforts from the vantage point of police abolition. She did this by unpacking some of the most frequent and normalized reform strategies in relation to the idea of as well as “on the ground” abolitionist campaigns that directly confronts the inherent violence of policing. Akbar’s paper proved to be a poignant conclusion to the workshop, as it directly encouraged alternatives to the reliance on police to manage social problems, including the exploitation and oppression of the racialized poor as “rageful” and “raging” subjects.

Tyler Wall and Parastou Saberi, January 2020