Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 25: Kevin G. Karpiak on the banality of police violence

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an 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 post, Kevin G. Karpiak discusses the banality of police violence. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I regularly teach a large lecture course entitled “Policing in Society” to a group mostly consisting of criminology majors, many of whom aspire to a career in some aspect of policing. Because students in the class come from a variety of backgrounds and preparation level—and almost never with any background in cultural anthropology—I’ve long reflected on what core lessons I can convey through the course. I’ve learned to boil these down to two or three core insights, explored over many weeks from several different angles.

One lesson, drawing on both historians of police and classic ethnographic work on informal control mechanisms, emphasizes that police—as a group imagined as separate from the citizenry it governs with its professional mandate prerogative to enact legally justified acts of violence—is an historically, geographically and culturally specific phenomenon in ways that runs counter to students’ ingrained sense of “police fetishism” (that is, that the police institution is an unconditionally absolute necessity for all social order).

Another lesson, again drawn over several weeks and multiple course readings, explores the deep ethical and social implications of this political form. What kinds of contradictions arise in the practice of a purportedly democratic social order under this division of political labor? How are, or can, conflicts be handled and disputes addressed? These set of questions lead, I hope, to two more important insights about police: 1) that, despite the classic professional segregation of police duties mentioned above, questions of police extend far beyond uniformed officers and their official institutions, into almost every aspect of our collective lives; and (2) that, in part because of that diffusion, police violence itself takes on multiple forms, including those that are incredibly banal.

These insights should shock neither professional criminologists nor anthropologists. Many criminologists, for example, have long attempted to refocus our attention from the acts of spectacular police brutality to the more mundane forms of structural violence that create racially disparate encounters with Criminal Justice. For example, William Chambliss’ classic essay “Policing the Ghetto Underclass” illustrates how the massive racial disparities in US policing and incarceration are rooted both in a set of empirically observable practices and shaped by institutional imperatives not necessarily tied to racial animus itself. This insight has had profound implications, for example, for how we should envision potential “remedies” to racialized violence, such as racial sensitivity training or even diversity recruitment.

Other criminologists might point to an even deeper legacy in police studies—Peter Manning’s highlighting of police investment in portraying a “professional” demeanor in order to defend their professional mandate and cover up the deeper ethical and social fractures they can not address. Still others could point to Egon Bittner’s work, or even before him Benjamin, showing how the potential of violence saturates the entirety of the social fabric regardless of actual acts. All of this, of course, without even mentioning Arendt, to whom many of these arguments are obligated

However, I believe something important is added to this insight when the question is treated anthropologically. In my previous post in this series, and elsewhere, I’ve written about the inspiration offered in this regard by Ilana Feldman’s reworking of Arendt in the context of Palestinian police archives. The work of Mirco Gopfert on police bureaucratic aesthetics, and the forms of social order to which they are tied, as well as Didier Fassin’s reflections on the role of boredom in police work resonate deeply. Stalcup and Hahn’s post in this series, and its associated journal article, similarly use field-based inquiry to refocus our attention, from the periodic spectacle of mediated police violence towards a more quotidian ethical formation. In his article “To Serve and Protect Whiteness,” Orisanmi Burton uses a set of autoethnographic vingettes to accomplish similar work, linking the banality of “broken windows” style policing to a deeper history of racialized police violence in the US.

I find these pieces useful because they adds something uniquely anthropological to a core criminological critique of police: banality is not just a feature, but an ethos. Not an impartial perpetual political machine, but itself a mode of power. Not a lack of affect, but a type of it. Recognizing these dimensions also points to the paths political remedies should pursue in order to address the underlying racial violence of policing, and ethnographic observation, particularly of the anthropological sort, offers us a groundwork for that path.

Works Mentioned

Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New editio. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Benjamin, Walter. 1986. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings., edited by Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books.

Bittner, Egon. 1970. “The Capacity To Use Force As The Core Of The Police Role.” In The Functions of the Police in Modern Society, 13:36–47. Chevy Chase, Maryland: Institute of Mental Health, Center for Crime and Delinquency.

Burton, Orisanmi. 2015. “To Protect and Serve Whiteness.” North American Dialogue 18 (2): 38–50. doi:10.1111/nad.12032.

Chambliss, William J. 1994. “Policing the Ghetto Underclass: The Politics of Law and Law Enforcement.” Social Problems 41 (2): 177–94. doi:10.1525/sp.1994.41.2.03x0433q.

Fassin, Didier. 2013. Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing. 1sted. Polity.

Feldman, Ilana. 2007. “Observing the Everyday.” Interventions 9 (3): 414–33. doi:10.1080/13698010701618653.

Göpfert, Mirco. 2013. “Bureaucratic Aesthetics: Report Writing in the Nigérien Gendarmerie.” American Ethnologist 40 (2): 324–334. doi:10.1111/amet.12024.

Manning, Peter K. 1978. “The Police: Mandate, Strategies, and Appearances.” In Policing: A View from the Street, edited by Peter K. Manning and John Van Maanen, 7–31. Santa Monica, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co.

Stalcup, Meg, and Charles Hahn. 2016. “Cops, Cameras, and the Policing of Ethics.” Theoretical Criminology 20 (4): 1–20. doi:10.1177/1362480616659814.

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.

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