Disciplining the City: Scholarship and the Carceral State Year in Review 2020

By Charlotte Rosen and Matthew Guariglia

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. 

One of the mainstays of the new carceral studies for the last few years has been the University of North Carolina Press’s Justice, Power, and Politics series, and this year was no exception.  

Garrett Felber’s Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State examines the Nation of Islam’s extensive organizing against racist police brutality and a growing carceral state. Felber not only situates the NOI as central to the Black freedom and civil rights struggle, rather than fringe or hostile to these movements, but also shows how the development of our contemporary crisis of racialized mass criminalization developed in large part through the state’s interaction with Muslims, and especially Muslim prisoners. Coining a framework called the “dialectics of discipline,” Felber deftly describes how the carceral state developed in tandem with and in response to the Black freedom struggle, a process that Felber contends is more “bottom up” than is commonly understood. He describes, for example, how wardens, police, and correctional officers gathered surveillance and information on imprisoned Muslims to create a shared “common sense” that justified toughening the carceral systems of racialized state coercion and control. At the same time, Felber notes that “discipline” has a “dual meaning.” It refers also to imprisoned Muslims’ well-organized and collective efforts to contest the conditions of their imprisonment and the racist law-and-order logics underlying their criminalization, recovering a “forgotten site and form of Black struggle” against policing and prisons often excluded from mainstream civil rights narratives. 

Douglas Flowe’s essential new book Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York builds on the previous work of scholars like Cheryl Hicks and Kali Gross by considering how the relationship between crime, criminalization, and gender played out in complicated and unexpected ways on the streets of early twentieth-century New York. As historian of policing and state power Jennifer Fronc recently wrote, Flowe, “produced a rich exploration of crimes of survival, attempts to claim space in the city, and the unequal role and rights of ‘manhood’ for black and white men.” In the context of the new carceral studies, it’s a much needed reminder that the racecraft at the heart of criminalization and the subversive tools it unwittingly forges often have much deeper roots than the contemporary War on Drugs or the twentieth century War on Crime. 

UNC press also gave us Robert Chase’s harrowing exploration of the economic exploitation and rampant violence that occurred both on the prison plantation and later, hidden behind the walls of modern prisons. The painstakingly researched We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America uncovers decades of violence, failed reform, and resistance inside the Texas prison system. Building on his last edited volume, Caging Borders and Carceral States, Chase rightfully challenges the hegemonic focus of incarceration and policing in the urban North and West, to include stories of racial state violence in the South and Southwest. 

Both Johanna Fernández’s The Young Lords: A Radical History and Kellie Carter Jackson’s Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence reveal largely untold stories of radical, militant movements against racialized state violence, albeit from different angles and time periods. Drawing on a heap of archival records–and notably, on NYPD police surveillance records obtained only after Fernández sued for their release in a years-long court battle–Fernández offers a comprehensive history of the Young Lords, an organization modeled off the Black Panthers by working-class Puerto Rican youth. The scope and creativity of the Young Lords’ revolutionary and socialist organizing explored by Fernández is too vast to cover fully here, but her discussion of their rebellions against racist police terror, which included the storming of police precincts to demand the release of targeted community members, and their principled, “ahead of their time” fight against the imprisonment and repression of Young Lord political prisoners, will be of particular interest to carceral studies scholars. Carter Jackson’s Force and Freedom details the history of Black abolitionist resistance in the movement to abolish slavery in the United States, focusing on Black abolitionists’ embrace of violence as a key tool for bringing about the destruction of legal slavery in the United States. In stark contrast to most white abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison who believed nonviolent “moral suasion” was the proper channel for abolishing chattel slavery, Black abolitionists quickly came to understand that militant, violent resistance was the most effective way to defeat anti-Black violence. As liberal and conservative commentators alike continue to elevate “nonviolent” forms of resistance as the only valid form of protest–while pointedly ignoring the ever-present and far more harmful violence of US racial capitalism–Jackson’s work offers an urgent retelling of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement that situates Black abolitionists’ promotion of and engagement in violent resistance as central to emancipation.    

“Liberate Puerto Rico now!” Young Lords Party poster, between 1965 and 1980, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Moving away from the caging and policing side of the larger carceral state, Sara Mayeux’s book Free Justice: A History of the Public Defender in Twentieth-Century America reminds readers that the politics of criminal defense, and the shortcomings born of postwar liberal reform, is central to the history of mass criminalization and incarceration. Mayeux details how the right to free legal representation, born out of the Progressive era and an optimistic attempt at legal reform, quickly fell victim to the profit motive among corporate lawyers and the more general trend of austerity in the later half of the twentieth century. 

Integral to our understanding of municipal police and their street-level patrol is the massive apparatus for tracking, surveilling, harassing, apprehending, caging, and deporting immigrants in the United States. Responding to Kelly Lytle Hernández’s call, much has been done over the last few years to “suture the split” separating histories of policing Black Americans from histories of policing other racialized and working class people. The result has been a much-needed proliferation of work on the history of the policing done along the border and perpetrated against immigrants in the United States. 

Adam Goodman’s The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants  and Julia Rose Kraut’s Threat of Dissent: A History of Ideological Exclusion and Deportation in the United States have become two of the most important books on the topic of immigration enforcement and policing since Hernández’s own 2010 book Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, S. Deborah Kang’s recent legal history, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954, and Beth Lew-Williams’s 2018 book The Chinese Must Go. In addition to providing a longue durée history of forcible expulsion, Goodman’s book contributes to an important trend in the recent literature: bringing the state back into state power. “This book is an attempt to see the deportation machine as a whole,” he writes, “looking at all of the forms of expulsion together with the bureaucratic, capitalist, and racist imperatives that have driven them over nearly a century and a half…The machine’s contribution to the growth of state power is remarkable, as is its legacy of creating an exploitable immigrant labor force.” The work of racial state building and policing are done as much in the station house and records room as on the street. Goodman’s book, like earlier work by scholars such as Elizabeth Hinton, forces us to reckon with the entwined growth of the administrative state and the carceral state. 

Billy Graham, Warren K. Leffler, April 11, 1966, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

A shockingly undertheorized element in the history of the US criminal punishment regime is its relationship to Christianity and Christian institutions in the United States. Aaron Griffith’s God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America begins to remedy this gap by examining the relationship between the postwar rise of white evangelical Christianity and tough-on-crime politics. In addition to figures like Billy Graham using fear of crime to promote conversion to evangelicalism, Griffith also explores how evangelicals saw the explosion of mass incarceration as a ripe (and lucrative) opportunity for proselytization, leading to the development of a cottage industry of prison missionary work. Evangelical Chrisitians’ particular presence in criminal punishment systems led them to become leaders in criminal justice reform movements. But these movements refused to interrogate the structurally white supremacist and capitalist logics underlying criminalization and punishment and ultimately fueled the growth of mass imprisonment while further obscuring the carceral state’s role in upholding racialized state violence. 

Last, but certainly not least, is Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, a magisterial work of urban history that contends the political history of the US can only be understood through the “juncture of empire and anti-Blackness in the city of St. Louis.” Written through the theoretical lens of the great Cedric Robinson’s racial capitalism, or what Johnson describes as “the intertwined history of white supremacist ideology and the practice of empire, extraction, and exploitation,” Broken Heart of America self-consciously seeks to lend material and historical specificity to calls to address “structural racism” after the police murder of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. From William Clark’s (of Lewis and Clark) management of white settler colonialism from his office as superintendent of Indian affairs in downtown St. Louis to white planners’ and real estate boosters’ use of zoning and “massive redevelopment” to enshrine a white supremacist metropolis, Johnson details how the city has repeatedly led the way in a series of Native and Black “removals,” imprinting the very geography and structure of the city (and the entire nation) with anti-Blackness and anti-Indidgenous violence. While a model for urban historians of all stripes, of particular use to carceral studies scholars is Johnson’s cogent discussion of how urban planning in St. Louis, and especially the city’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project, should be understood as in many ways a carceral form of racial social control and organized abandonment meant to contain and criminalize the Black poor. These spatial constructions of anti-Black violence, built through decades of racist housing and employment policies that alchemized white supremacy into mere free market preference, in turn fueled the rise of militarized counterinsurgency policing and modern mass incarceration. With the aid of willing and often liberal social scientists, the state obscured its active role in manufacturing Black disadvantage and racialized violence and interpreted the attitudes and choices of Black public housing residents as permanently damaged pathologies that further justified their criminalization by law enforcement. With every leap through St. Louis’s history, Johnson not only makes legible the racialized and imperial violence inherent to US urban development and governance but emphasizes its centrality to the sustenance of US capitalism, lending power to abolitionist geographer, and theorist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s common refrain that police and prison abolition “must be red” (or anticapitalist). 

2020 also produced a number of incisive, field-altering journal articles on the US carceral apparatus. In the Annual Review of Criminology, Elizabeth Hinton and DeAnza Cook published “The Mass Criminalization of Black Americans: A Historical Overview,” a synthesis of the historical literature on the criminalization and imprisonment of Black Americans. In addition to offering a comprehensive review of works any historian of the US carceral state should be familiar with, the piece contends that the history of policing, imprisonment, and criminal punishment in the US demonstrates the presence of an enduring “antiblack punitive tradition,” which they define as an “historical phenomenon that exemplifies the perpetual criminalization of a constellation of marginalized, minority-identified populations.” While attendant to the contingency and geographical specificity present in the historiography of the US criminal punishment system, Hinton and Cook’s conceptualization of the “antiblack punitive tradition” draws on the teachings of this vast interdisciplinary literature to firmly situate carceral institutions within the history of US racialized state violence. 

Elizabeth Evens also gave us the essential “Plainclothes Policewomen on the Trail: NYPD Undercover Investigations of Abortionists and Queer Women, 1913-1926,” published by the journal Modern American History in December. In a field dominated by stories of male police policing and harassing male subjects, Evens excavates a moral panic in New York City’s past that could only be addressed by the police department’s harnessing and deploying of female knowledge of sexuality, reproductive health, and insular homosocial worlds. Like early immigrant police, Evens explores how female detectives won renown and social mobility in their positions at the expense of policing the bodies, desires, and choices, of marginalized women. 

Even prior to the protests against police violence this summer, activists had begun to question the role of the private sector, and especially nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, in fueling racialized police terror and mass imprisonment. In September 2019, two hundred Ford Fellows rebuked Ford Foundation president Darren Walker for his support for the building of four new jails in New York City to replace Rikers Island jail, which is set to shutter its doors by 2027. Sam Collings-Well’s “From Black Power to Broken Windows: Liberal Philanthropy and the Carceral State” outlines the origins of the Ford Foundation’s role in expanding and legitimizing the then-nascent mass imprisonment regime through its ample support for liberal police reform and police research in the 1970s, namely through the creation of the still-existent Police Foundation. Bench Ansfield’s “The Broken Windows of the Bronx: Putting the Theory in Its Place,” digs deeper into some of the most monumental figures to come out of the Police Foundation: James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who came up with the infamous “Broken Windows Theory.” A methodologically rich piece, Ansfield shows how Wilson and Kelling actually based the theory on “manipulated and distorted” interpretations of prior research that intentionally stoked racialized fears of urban decline and disorder. Further, they trace how Kelling and Wilson’s publications drew upon longstanding and widely circulating tropes that infused the imagery of broken windows (and their presence in the South Bronx landscape, in particular) with “infrastructural, urban, and racial decline.” This “historicizing [of] matter alongside metaphor,” as Ansfield puts it, reveals both the “symbolic burden” underlying the broken windows theory’s postwar ubiquity and recovers the “brutalities of racial capitalism” that the theory conveniently obscures. 

Now, onto the daunting task of pulling together the raft of public scholarship produced on the history of punishment, criminalization, and resistance to racialized state violence in the US.  One particularly notable and exciting production was the Colin Kaepernick-produced essay series, “Abolition for the People,” featuring essays by scholars like Angela Davis, Simone Browne, Mark Anothony Neal, Stuart Schrader, kihana ross, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ameer Hasan Loggins, Naomi Muakawa, Ruha Benjamin, Robin D.G. Kelley, Dan Berger, David Stein, and Mariame Kaba. The African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives–another incredible online public resource–also hosted an invaluable forum on the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition, edited by Stephen Wilson, an abolitionist organizer currently imprisoned in Pennsylvania and Editor in Chief of the In the Belly zine, and Garrett Felber. The forum featured vital conversations on the legacy, debates, and future of the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition, with contributions from Russell Maroon Shoatz, Joy Powell, Joy James, Toussaint Losier, Orisanmi Burton, Dylan Rodriguez, Casey Goonan, and Dan Berger. But these powerhouse packages were only a few series in a tidal wave of public scholarship like op-eds, podcasts, and webinars hosted by a dozen popular outlets:

Because of the sudden demand for the expertise and opinions of scholars and activists studying the long history of policing and racial state violencethere were dozens and dozens of op-eds published this year on the topic. As an attempt to be inclusive of as many as possible, every word in this paragraph is a link to an individual article regarding racism, policing, criminalization, protest and resistance, immigration enforcement, abolition, the historic futility of reform, and the technology and epistemology of policing

(We have likely missed many publications – we sincerely apologize! – and would suggest these resources for more recent or frequently updated reading lists that include a raft of public scholarship from historians of criminalization, punishment, and radical movements against racialized state violence and empire.) 

Angela Davis poster, between 1965 and 1980, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

And then, there are the webinars. So, so many webinars (and please don’t make us do podcasts). We’d be remiss if we did not shout out The Metropole’s roundtable series on racist police violence, the Summer 2020 uprisings, and police abolition, which featured conversations with Toussaint Losier, Simon Balto, Anne Gray Fischer, Ashley Howard, Heather Ann Thompson, Austin McCoy, Carl Suddler, Max Felker-Kantor, Johanna Fernández, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Marisol LeBrón, Alex Vitale, Stuart Schrader, and Dan Berger. Haymarket Books also became a vital source of abolitionist and political education on policing and imprisonment, and featured the work of numerous historians of the carceral state. The Study and Struggle Conversations (also hosted in partnership with Haymarket), which were put on as part of the Study and Struggle inside-outside political education project on criminalization and imprisonment in Mississippi, were another crucial source of analysis and visioning for police and prison abolition, including words from Dr. Angela Y. Davis, Nick Estes, Harsha Walia, Lorgia García Peña, Andrea Ritchie, Dean Spade, and many more brilliant theorists and organizers.

This incredible field continues to grow. More people, inside and outside academia, are refusing to look at the seemingly immovable and unreformable institutions of the racialized, imperialist, and settler colonial carceral state as historically fixed. Rather, they are seen as what they are: technologies that the powerful created and are constantly reproducing and re-legitimizing by way of the culture we consume; the consensus forged by reporting and crime statistics; and the legal systems that directs attorneys, prosecutors, and juries. The scholars working in the history and present of policing, state violence, and incarceration–and, importantly, on the movements who resist these criminalizing institutions–do the important work of showing just how much effort and public resources have gone into maintaining such a harmful system and dare to ask who, in the past and in the present, has imagined a better way to organize society. 

Even with the ongoing  expansion of the field and its influence, there is still more room for growth–both in content and in community. Carceral state scholars have increasingly made connections between their research and the dire need for mass political education around the real history and function of policing and prisons in the US. The Study and Struggle program is a visionary example of just such a project that directly links the resources and access of the academy to organizers on the ground, imprisoned people, and the broader community at large. More scholars are also building partnerships with and working to get resources to imprisoned organizers, a trend that must continue and deepen. As Stephen Wilson recently wrote in Jewish Currents, “information overload is a free world problem.” It’s on scholars of the US criminal punishment regime to continue to support imprisoned and criminalized people however we can, especially by transferring resources to imprisoned people, engaging in organizing and fundraising work to get people free, producing more accessible and reprintable zines of our work for distribution in prisons, and by finding and supporting imprisoned pen pals. 

Lastly, as in previous years, we note that a good number of the people represented in this year-in-review have been producing the innovative work that keeps this field moving forward from precarious positions of employment. The public health crisis took a small academic job market and made it microscopic. Scholars trying to untangle the complicated historical dynamics of race, gender, the law, power, violence, and the nature of governance are having to do so from positions of professional, financial, and even geographical contingency. Even tenured and tenure-track colleagues in carceral studies are having to deal with shrinking departmental resources, adjunctification, and the erosion of tenure. And, as evidenced by the University of Mississippi’s reprehensible firing of Garrett Felber just week ago (see the UHA’ statement of solidarity here), historians of the carceral state are increasingly facing outright repression of their academic freedom by universities who deem research and outspokenness about institutional complicity in white supremacy and capitalism as threats to their brands and bottom lines. In the coming year, as a field and as a community we need to rededicate ourselves to inclusivity by showing solidarity, building power, and figuring out ways to aid the important work of people struggling inside the academy, people on the outside hoping to get in, and people working on the outside–especially incarcerated people most impacted by histories of racialized criminalization our field seeks to unpack–who require support and resources to continue their work. 


Charlotte Rosen is a PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. Her dissertation, “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” uses Pennsylvania as a case study to examine the untold history – and challenge – of prison overcrowding and prisoner resistance against mass imprisonment in the late-twentieth century US. Charlotte has bylines in The Washington Post, The Nation, Belt Magazine, Truthout, and The Cleveland Review of Books and is an Associate Editor for The Metropole.

Photographed by Tiziana Matarazzo

Dr. Matthew Guariglia is a visiting research scholar in the Department of History at the University of California-Berkeley and a policy analyst researching government and police surveillance at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is currently writing a book about how race, immigration, and U.S. colonial governance abroad created the modern police department in New York City, 1845-1930, and is a co-editor of the forthcoming The Essential Kerner Commission Report out from Liverlight Books in June 2021.  Matthew has bylines in The Washington Post, NBC News, Slate, VICE, and The Abusable Past.

Featured image: “Police near the White House at the 2020 Juneteenth Celebration,” Carol M. Highsmith, June 19, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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