'No One Is Disposable': Insurgent Safety and the Black Radical Imaginary.
"WHO KEEPS US SAFE?" "WE KEEP US SAFE!" This call and response is a familiar battle cry to any of us who have occupied the streets during protests against racially gendered police violence. Expressing a critique of relations of domination and an abolitionist vision, this chant challenges the hegemonic conceptualization of public safety, or what I have named elsewhere carceral safety (McDowell 2019). Following Jackson and Meiners (2011), I define carceral safety as a control-based approach premised on the state's authority to use legitimate violence, restore order, and remove threats to white propertied society. While most commonly understood through its material manifestations--the prison gate, the riot cop's baton, the border drone--the more insidious element of carceral safety is arguably its affective dimension that hails our shared desire to feel safe from the aforementioned always already racialized threats. Carceral safety is hegemonic insofar as it successfully naturalizes the idea that safety is inextricably linked to policing, banishment (via jail, prison, or deportation), and mass criminalization as the trinity of state protection.
When Blackresidents of Ferguson, Missouri, alongside their accomplices, faced down a wall of riot police, chanting "Who do you serve? Who do you protect?" in 2014 following the police execution of Michael Brown, they were openly contesting the logic of carceral safety. Protestors did so by directing our attention to a contradiction that animates our consent to law enforcement institutions: the state, from which the police are inseparable, is a source of violence rather than its resolution (Hong 2006). The rebellion in Ferguson was followed by similar uprisings across the country, most recently following the execution of George Floyd in 2020. Directly challenging the legitimacy of law enforcement and therefore the capitalist state form itself, protestors asked US residents to question not only the state violence that underwrites carceral safety, but also the state's monopoly on violence in a so-called era of colorblindness. For example, in their "Open Letter" to the general public, organizers in Ferguson proclaimed: "We are not concerned if this upsets your order. Your calm is built on our terror. We are not concerned if this disrupts normalcy. We will disrupt life until we can live. This is an American Horror Story. Together, we are writing the final chapter." (1)
Recent scholarship has also contested whether the criminal legal system is integral to public safety. By engaging the dialectic between the violence of policing and popular resistance throughout US history, this body of work opens toward a decidedly abolitionist horizon to question the end of policing (Vitale 2017, Kaba & Richie 2022). Related analyses focus on the rise of collectives that organize explicitly for police abolition (see Camp & Heatherton 2016, Macare et al. 2016, McDowell & Fernandez 2018). Among the most important arguments offered by these texts is the critique of democratic liberalism, regardless of ruling party, as an always already racially gendered form of governance that is carceral at its core (Murakawa 2014, Wang 2018). In other words, the prison is not simply a geographically fixed institution, but also "a dynamic state-mediated practice of domination and control"(Rodriguez 2006, 40). Rethinking the prison regime, as "possessing and constituting the state," to return to Rodriguez's convincing formulation, challenges the idea that conventional politics--elections, reforms, and legislation--can address the crisis of incarceration or police executions of people of color. Indeed, time and again public intellectuals remind us of the futility of social justice agendas that are purely reformist in nature, insofar as these tweaks to the system do not address the constitutive relationship between racial capitalism, white supremacy, and policing in the United States (Brucato 2014, Hadden 2003, Martinot 2014, Seigel 2018, Singh 2014).
However, as the abolitionist and political geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore is fond of reminding audiences, crises are also opportunities. Rebels, organizers, and collectives like Black Lives Matter continue to seize these opportunities by posing alternatives to carceral safety, at times creating or exposing fissures in our commonsense understandings of state protection, safety, and racial order: "who keeps us safe?" "we keep us safe!" Indeed, feminist and abolitionist organizers and scholars, led by women of color, have long-identified safety as a key ideological plane upon which battles over state legitimacy are fought (Combahee River Collective 1977, Davis 2003,INCITE!-Critical Resistance 2001). Critical Resistance (2008, 139), perhaps the foremost abolitionist collective in the United States, claims in their mission statement a dedication to "challenging the notion that caging and controlling people makes us safer, and to building a national movement--guided by those most impacted by the system--to promote and realize genuine forms of safety and security."
In this article, I aim to contribute to these collective activist and scholarly engagements by examining how the dominant discourses and material practices of public safety are productively destabilized by the Black radical imagination. Not surprisingly then, the methodological approach and analysis I discuss herein is positioned within and against reformist-oriented responses to police violence that reaffirm rather than disrupt hegemonic conceptualizations of safety. If carceral safety is a vehicle of premature death, what does a different practice of safety look like? How do people practice noncarceral forms of safety in their everyday lives? What is the role of the imagination in this process? Here, I build on previous work that theorizes what I term insurgent safety, locally determined ethics and practices that refuse the logics of the carceral state and instead reconceptualize safety as a mode of sociality built through things like interdependence, mutual aid, play, joy, and communion (McDowell 2019). My choice of the word insurgency follows a call from Dylan Rodriguez (2007, 16; emphases in original), who argues for a "radical dis-identification with the state" and a reorientation toward "progressive identification with the creative possibilities of insurgency." Insurgency names a radical form of politics that pushes past "the defensive maneuvering of resistance" and instead, emphasizes the abolitionist imperative to imagine and build the world anew (Rodriguez 2007, 17).
I open by engaging with the literature on imagination. I review how scholar-activists have conceptualized the relationship between imagination, power, and social transformation. I then move to consider the conservative, liberatory, and methodological uses and pleasures of the imagination. In the latter half of this article, I examine results from the (Re)imagining Public Safety Project (RPSP). RPSP uses participant-generated photo elicitation interviews with people who are directly impacted by the carceral state to construct a safety praxis that does not involve police, prisons, or mass criminalization. While the project as a whole emits multiple and at times contradictory meanings, here I focus on how imagination and photography work in tandem to produce and amplify ideas, ethics, and practices in response to the question of what community safety looks like in ways that "disrupt the ocular logics" of the prison state (Brown 2014)--that trouble its racialized epistemologies of vengeance and work toward building "another way of living on earth" (Moten 2018).
Critical theorist Anthony Bogues (2012) argues that there are two distinct practices of the imagination. Following Kant, Bogues suggests that the exercise of the imagination can have a reproductive function. In this case, because an individual's vision and fantasies of a not-yet present are always already raced, classed, and gendered, one's imagination can easily reinforce normative modes of existence and shore up hegemonic relations of power (Bogues 2012, Moten 2018, Olson 2004). For example, the reproductive function of the imagination is evident throughout the history of criminology, a traditionally white, male discipline that has played a key role in constructing and maintaining extant power relations (Gould 1996, Rennie 1978).
While much of this history is beyond the scope of this paper, I want to underscore the contributions of criminologists and social scientists more broadly to the production of an assumed ideological link between Blackness and criminality. In his definitive monograph on this subject, The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil Muhammad (2010) demonstrates that an emergent body of social science research about crime was used to manufacture proof of a link between Blackness and criminality, suggesting that Black people in the post-emancipation era were constitutionally unfit for freedom as self-governing, rights-bearing subjects. The racialization of the category criminal became a supposedly objective or colorblind means to discuss Black inferiority, to obfuscate the structural conditions such as racism and poverty that continued to animate Black life post-emancipation and to construe "crime among whites as [an] individual failure" (Muhammad 2010, 3). "From the 1890s through the first four decades of the twentieth century," Muhammad (2010, 21) concludes, "black criminality would become one of the most commonly cited and long-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in the modern world."
Muhammad's (2010) work suggests that the political imagination of mainstream criminology is captured by and indeed (re)produces a white supremacist worldview, a worldview where Blackness is always already pathologized as criminal. Therefore, the objects of study--crime, offenders, victims, disorder, harm, violence, culture, the...
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