Introducing “Disciplining the Nation”

By Matt Guariglia and Charlotte Rosen

 A Teaching Aid and Documentary History of Policing, Incarceration, Criminalization, and Activism in the United States

For many years now, the Urban History Association and its conference has served as a type of home base for historians looking to explore and excavate the troubling histories of criminalization, policing, and incarceration in the United States. Since 2017, The Metropole has served as a home for “Disciplining the City,”  a series that has given scholars from all fields and stages of career a space to articulate and discuss the complexities of racial state violence in its many forms.

As the series statement notes, the history of policing and incarceration in urban spaces is filled with both a continuity of violence and trauma, and also change over time. The U.S. carceral regime is not a naturally occurring phenomena. It is not an infallible institution that emerged and succeeded because of its common-sense framework or its success in providing safety. Rooted in racial slavery, settler colonialism, and U.S. empire, policing and incarceration in the United States were slowly and meticulously built over time for the purpose of subordinating, punishing, and exploiting populations –and historians have the documents to prove it.

Justice Magazine, June/July 1972, L. Patrick Gray III Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

As accessible as the growing field has become, with scholars writing for the public, running Zoom seminars, doing media appearances, and continuing on the traditions of great activist-scholars of the past, there is still more work to be done. That’s why we are introducing “Disciplining the Nation,” a series that we hope will be a teaching aid and documentary history illuminating some of the most influential trends, turning points, and ideas in the history of racial state violence, criminalization, policing, and incarceration, one primary source document at a time.

Inspired by the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project, this project also endeavors to pair the words and documents of the people who built the criminal justice system with scholarly reflection and the analysis of activists, stakeholders, and affected individuals We want to make it accessible and easy for educators, community organizers, and learners of all kinds to expose students to the complicated, fallible, and long-obscured history of the U.S. carceral regime.

“We’ve all grown up on television shows in which the police are superheroes,”  sociologist Alex Vitale said in a recent interview. “They solve every problem; they catch the bad guys; they chase the bank robbers; they find the serial killers. But this is all a big myth.” “Disciplining the Nation” hopes to give students, teachers, the incarcerated, and curious readers the resources to analyze and teach about the development of the criminal justice system well beyond the limits of the “big myth.”

Each installment will contain one primary source vital to retelling the history of racial state violence and criminalization in the United States, and will be accompanied by both a short scholarly statement articulating its significance as well as an analysis and reaction by compensated stakeholders outside of the academy.

Note: Disciplining the Nation is in its very early stages. We are in an experimental phase and welcome feedback from readers about what might make the project most useful to you. Please email themetropole@urbanhistory.org to provide feedback and/or offer ideas for future documents to include.


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 Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liverlight Books, 2021). Matthew has bylines in The Washington Post, NBC News, Slate, VICE, and The Abusable Past.

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 United States. 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.

Featured image (at top): Life at Joliet [Illinois] Prison (1891), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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