Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 12: Kevin G. Karpiak on the critical potential of an anthropology of police

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to present the latest entry in on ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice.  You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed.   In this entry, Kevin G. Karpiak discusses the critical, pedagogical and political potential of the anthropology of police. 
On Tuesday Sept. 20, around 9 a.m. graffiti was found on the outer wall of EMU's King Hall depicting hate speech. Picture taken after some writing was removed. (photo credit: Shayler Barnes Jr. / The Eastern Echo)

On Tuesday Sept. 20, around 9 a.m. graffiti was found on the outer wall of EMU’s King Hall depicting hate speech. Picture taken after some writing was removed. (photo credit: Shayler Barnes Jr. / The Eastern Echo)

This summer, when Sameena and I began conceiving of this syllabus project, we started with a set of aspirations and a desire to find ways to achieve them: to join the chorus of links, articles and syllabi on #blacklivesmatter circulating in the quasi-public sphere of social media, but also to do something more in a way that would reflect the kind of academics we are; to find ways to do anthropology in a way that affirms that black lives matter; and to give something to our students, especially those who must negotiate a world hostile to their very being.  I was also motivated by a personal sense that “when anthropologist’s feet are held to that fire, they oftentimes have important things to say about race, policing, violence and so many of the other elements involved here; insights that don’t necessarily come from other disciplines.”

During the course of the semester a series of events–beyond those on a national scale–conspired to bring the necessity of such a project home.  On the morning of September 20th a racially hostile message was found spray-painted onto one of the buildings on the central campus of the university where I teach.  The attack was aimed at the very core of the university, which draws on communities throughout Michigan, from metropolitan Detroit and Flint to the more rural areas of south and southeastern Michigan.  Hearteningly, the initial response from students, faculty and administration (including University police) was unified, firm, immediate and concrete.  Police documented the graffiti before quickly removing it; an investigation and search was launched, including a substantial reward; administrators seemed to understand the need to responds to student concerns as well as to issue a public statement condemning the actions in strong language and backed by institutional resources.  Students came together, backed by an appropriately backgrounded but vocally supportive faculty, and an administration and police force cognizant of the need for action and protest, in an effort to heal potential wounds and imagine collective paths forward.  The culprit was not found, but the collective energy seemed to be directed towards rebuilding with a renewed commitment to anti-racism and progressive justice.

In such a context, what does it mean to develop a curriculum that affirms and moves to protect the value of black lives; that offers critical purchase in a way that is politically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially enabling?

Then, on the morning of October 31st, the same racially hostile message was found painted on another campus building.  Although the University offered to double the reward in its search, the culprit, or culprits, seemed to closer to justice.  There was an increased urgency in faculty response, including several committees to address the issue and a faculty-led rally of support.  Students also initiated a renewed round of protest.  This included, beginning on the night of November 1st through the morning of the 2nd, a peaceful sit-in at the student center.  The response from the campus police department and its backing administration was markedly different.  The chief of campus police was recorded on video threatening student protesters with both university discipline and criminal charges, a tact the administration has continued to pursue for select students despite the pleas from Faculty Senate, Faculty Union, various academic departments (including my own) and even the ACLU.  As of this writing the fate of these students remains in question.

In such a context, what does it mean to develop a curriculum that affirms and moves to protect the value of black lives; that offers critical purchase in a way that is politically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially enabling?  I could see and hear that my students were concerned, worried, scared, disheartened.  Some were angry; some were depressed; many were distracted and de-motivated; many others were actively searching for ways to articulate their feelings and translate them into collective actions; some, I suspected as well, were silent for reasons tied to their own inability to voice articulate dissent.  All of them seemed to be suffering from a heightened sense of political helplessness–it remained unclear to many of them what could be done, if anything.

Speaking to colleagues from other universities at the recent AAA meetings, I realized, unfortunately, that the situation at my school is not unique; many of us our dealing with variations on this theme.  Given that shared situation, we inhabit a set of shared problems, namely how to react, how to teach, how to mentor, how to be, especially be anthropologists in the current climate?

On a personal level, and on a local scale, it meant joining collective faculty action in support of our students, including ad hoc response committees.  It also meant voicing to the administration that, as a professor of criminology, housed with a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, that I viewed the students’ actions as an excellent example of the critical thinking and civic action I try to teach: asking questions such as “why do the current technical capacities and expertise of campus police seem more attuned to assuring the political incapacity of students of color than an environment free of racial hostility?” and “what forms of political action can be mobilized in order to highlight the need for a realignment of police priorities?”

ethnographic attention to police… can bring to light potential modes and sites of political action

This latter question, in particular, is something that anthropologists have long been committed to exploring.  In addition to the many people involved in this syllabus project, Jeff Juris’ work on the #Occupy movement and the “logics of aggregation”, Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa’s work on the racial politics of social media protest  and the recent issue of North American Dialog edited by David Simmons on anthropological mobilization contra police violence stand out as shining recent examples of this commitment.  However it has been my long-standing argument that, in addition to such work, ethnographic attention to police, in the way that anthropologists are especially well-placed to provide, can bring to light potential modes and sites of political action as well; political potentialities that might not otherwise be apparent.

Andre Lepecki’s work on “choreopolice” can stand in as a case in point by way of productive contrast. Drawing on Ranciere’s distinction between “police”, as an apparatus of normative conformity, and true “politics” as the domain of experimentation in freedom, Lepecki has recently added the terms “Choreopolice” and “choreopolitics,” terms which he suggests bring twofold benefits: first, to call attention to the fact that a large amount of policing concerns the choreography of bodies–that police often guide and move bodies into configurations deemed appropriate. Second, to diagnose our contemporary political pathos and offer potential remedies (or at least call attention to promising laboratories for experimentation). Lepecki argues that, in the face of an ever strict police dance master, we have quite profoundly lost a sense of how to move otherwise–not only in terms of our individual bodies but in terms of political movement.  In contrast, he finds promising political/movement experiments in unexpected places: street corners in the Fruitville neighborhood of Oakland, occupy encampments, performance art exhibitions.

On the one hand, I think two of Lepecki’s insights are invaluable: 1) that, especially in this moment we need a renewed attention to how we can possibly move, politically; and 2) the concrete contours and lines of flight available for that movement are deeply tied to police, as a conceptual, practical and political entity.  On the other hand, I want to resist Lepecki, for the same reason I want to resist Ranciere’s original distinction: I think it causes one to lose sight of too much–to the forms of politics, and potentially useful political fault lines, within what he would call “police” and to the forms of orthos that operate even within what he would have us see as an ebullient “politics” of liberation.  I have spent the last several years arguing that a critical anthropology of police is perfectly placed to attend to precisely these issues in a way that is grounded in empirical investigation of the contemporary world even as it offered tool for critical insight and political action.  For example, I have tried to show through my own work how attending to moments of political fission within police, as well as “paradeliberations” across communities of publicity can highlight the potential for unpredictable allegiances and novel forms of political action.

Feldman takes pains to make sure we understand that it is indeed a form of political action; one made possible through police. This is a subtle lesson…

One excellent example, among many 1 , is the work of Ilana Feldman on policing in Gaza between 1945-1967.  I’ve assigned Feldman’s work in several of my classes over the years, always with the sense that it offers important lessons about the concrete possibilities of political action vis-a-vis police.  By examining archival police reports Feldman develops an important sensitivity to the varied and subtle modes of politics, even under a totalitarian police state.  While Arendt–and those inspired by her such as Agamben–find in Gaza’s statelessness an incapacity for political action–and thus of full humanity–Feldman is carefully attuned to the uneven variety of actual political life, often in surprising places; an insight made possible precisely by attending to police.  She notes, for example, a handful of rare incidents in which relatively protected individuals were able to stand in (relatively modest) opposition to the police apparatus, in the classic Arendtian vision of political agency.  She also find political action in more unexpected incidents, modes of action that are surprisingly not formed in opposition to police but made possible through it.  One such example is what she calls the fakka incident.  “Fakka” is a word denoting small change or currency.  Using reports and observations from police archives, Feldman recounts an incident in which there was a serious lack of fakka in circulation; a situation which caused considerable problems for the basic functions of economy: without change for larger bills it was impossible to pay for a taxi, to buy groceries, or other such everyday products.  While the possibility of popular protest or formal petition for government response was foreclosed, the problem was, as the police describe “on the tips of people’s tongues” and precisely because the policing apparatus was both broad and vague–because police felt it necessary to attend and record seemingly everything–they were made aware of the issue and set in motion the mechanisms of redress.

This is not earth shattering revolution.  It could easily be overlooked or dismissed.  But Feldman takes pains to make sure we understand that it is indeed a form of political action; one made possible through police.  This is a subtle lesson, but one that I also try to take pains to make sure my students learn: that even in a seeming police state, even when police surveillance is omnipresent and potential punishments seemingly limitless and inchoate, even then the everyday practice of policing requires the participation and consent–in myriad ways–of those being policed, and even then police find in necessary to develop responses to problems voiced by the populations they administer.  Without apologizing, or idealizing, Feldman points out that there is always space for freedom, in the sense that Lepecki (or, probably better, Foucault) would have.  The task is how to recognize these interstices within the concrete constraints and to imagine ways we can move differently within them.  This is a surprisingly optimistic (if not exactly triumphant) lesson, given the material, and one that is worth keeping in mind as we all move forward.

Works Cited

Bonilla, Yarimar, and Jonathan Rosa. “# Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States.” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 4-17.

Feldman, Ilana. “Observing the Everyday: Policing and the Conditions of Possibility in Gaza (1948–1967).” interventions 9, no. 3 (2007): 414-433.

Feldman, Ilana. Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza Under Egyptian Rule. Stanford University Press, 2015.

Garriott, William, ed. Policing and Contemporary Governance: The Anthropology of Police in Practice. Springer, 2013.

Juris, Jeffrey S. “Reflections on# Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation.” American Ethnologist 39, no. 2 (2012): 259-279.

Karpiak, Kevin G. “The anthropology of police.” The SAGE Handbook of Global Policing. London: SAGE (2016): 103-121.

Karpiak, Kevin G. “No longer merely “good to think”: The new anthropology of police as a mode of critical thought.” Theoretical Criminology 20, no. 4 (2016): 419-429.

Lepecki, André. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or, the task of the dancer.” TDR/The Drama Review 57, no. 4 (2013): 13-27.

Simmons, David. “The Fire This Time: Anthropologists Mobilize around Police Brutality and Violence.” North American Dialogue 18, no. 2 (2015): 35-37.

Kevin G. Karpiak is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. His work focuses on policing as a useful nexus for exploring questions in anthropology, politics and ethics. He has published widely on anthropological approaches to police and, since 2009, he has served as the General Editor of the group academic blog Anthropoliteia. His manuscript, The Police Against Itself: assembling a “post­social” police provides an ethnographic account of the ethical work undertaken by police officers, administrators, educators and citizens as they experiment with new forms of sociality “after the social moment” in France.

1. For further examples, see my review article “The Anthropology of Police,” the recent special issue of the journal Theoretical Criminology on “The anthropology of police as a mode of critical thought,” and the William Garriott edited volume Policing and Contemporary Governance: The Anthropology of Police in Practice


2 thoughts on “The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 12: Kevin G. Karpiak on the critical potential of an anthropology of police

  1. Pingback: The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 12: Kevin G. Karpiak on the critical potential of an anthropology of police — Anthropoliteia | Kevin Karpiak's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Looking Back and Looking Ahead | Anthropoliteia

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