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Disciplining The City: Scholarship And The Carceral State Year In Review 2020

Historians in the News
tags: urban history, Mass Incarceration, policing, bibliographies



The year 2020 saw one of the largest, if not the largest, protest movement in the history of the United States. Prompted by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade–on top of too many others over the past decades–a Black-led movement against racial state and state-sanctioned violence blanketed the entire nation, and a large portion of the world, with demonstrations, marches, and uprisings against police terror, organized state abandonment during a deadly global pandemic, economic exploitation, and voter disenfranchisement. More than ever before, these movements made distinctly abolitionist demands to defund and abolish police, which thrust a long tradition of prison and policing abolition into the mainstream. 

This year of abolitionist world building necessarily drew upon both historical analyses of policing in the United States and upon a long history of Black-led organizing against the racist brutality inherent to the US criminal punishment system. As thousands hit the streets, scholars, organizers, and activists sought to contextualize how the movement and the criminalizing systems it rebuked were not an aberration or fluke within an otherwise objective or reformable system; rather, this movement is part of an ongoing story of racial capitalism and racialized state violence in the United States going back centuries. Historians and members of affected communities–and those who are both–know, for instance, that attempts to make police less lethal echo previous conversations over Tasers during the 1990s. They know that equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding up on the streets of US cities during protests continued a practice of repurposing weaponry for domestic use that dates back to the imperialist occupation of the Philippines and the anti-Indigenous, genocidal push across the American West. And when politicians and administrators fail to protect incarcerated people from getting sick during a public health emergency, that too is yet another chapter in a long history of willful neglect as a punitive tool for hastening the premature death of criminalized Black, brown, and poor communities.  

Indeed, the ability of historians of US policing, prisons, and criminalization to permanently disrupt the ingrained carceral “common sense” that prisons and police must exist to keep us safe is one of the vital roles scholars play in a world where abolitionist visions are expanding within the broader movement for racial justice. As historian Simon Balto expressed at one of The Metropole’s roundtables earlier this summer, the history of US policing, in making legible the violent, repressive, and racist function of an unreformable police system, offers an inherent argument for its abolition.

There were so many fantastic new books, articles, and webinars on the history of the US carceral state and the social movements that seek its abolition that we cannot begin to cover them all in depth. As the blog of an academic association, we offer a brief overview of some of the major academic titles and articles that came out this year. But we have also attempted to cull many historically-inclined, public-facing works and conversations on policing, criminalization, and imprisonment. For many years, the Washington Post’s Made by History column, the blogs of academic associations and peer review journals, and a number of other academically-inclined outlets have given an increasing amount of room to scholars in carceral studies to share and to argue. While we have no doubt missed some of the dozens–or even hundreds–of op-eds written by historians and scholars this year, we have assembled as many as possible here. 

Read entire article at The Metropole

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