Organizers: Victor Kumar (Johns Hopkins U) and Amrita Ibrahim (Georgetown U)
At a time when many aspects of law enforcement are coming under increased scrutiny, anthropologists have a renewed opportunity to investigate questions around police and policing. What can anthropology bring to an area of research whose terms, methods, and theories have traditionally been set by the disciplines of sociology and criminal justice? What approaches allow us to navigate this contested domain and understand its forms and effects inside and out, from those “on the beat,” to the recipients of police terror, from activists calling for justice to those whose radical alterity renders them “no-bodies” (Silva 2009)? How does an anthropologist’s loyalty to the state (our law-abidingness) affect the ways they take up our positions with respect to policing? One answer suggested by some anthropologists of police (Garriott 2013, Karpiak 2016) is that investigations are directed at the boundaries of police as a field of inquiry. Rather than assuming the police to be a bounded field site, it can be understood instead as a refractive lens that extends beyond policing as an official institution and reverberates in response to broader social phenomena. Others have argued that we should seek to develop new lexicons to describe, denounce, and theorize racialized policing practices and put them in the context of a broader security-knowledge system that informs subjugation at large (James 2006, Alves and Vargas 2015). In this panel, we seek new critical perspectives on longstanding issues involving police: violence, the body, community, citizenship, and rights. We are interested in exploring how issues such as racial and sexualized violence are positioned across the permeable boundaries between the police and subjects of enforcement without discarding critiques coming out of both the popular and scholarly spheres that have identified forms of structural violence in police work. Whether dropping the notion of a clear and fixed boundary (a “thin blue line”) or reanalyzing the police as operating within regimes of domination, ethnography has the potential to show how policing is both continuous and distinct from the broader social contexts in which it is embedded and attend to the diverse forms of life that fall under the heading of police. We argue that such modes of anthropological understanding can ultimately contribute greatly to projects of police reform or abolition.