Protests over police brutality have gripped the nation. But how do racial minorities in highly policed communities think about political action and mobilize to fight unfairness, when they are facing force and indignities that often lead to withdrawal? Vesla Weaver finds complicated but negative attitudes toward police. Overpolicied communities are often motivated for change, though not always traditional politics. Hannah Walker finds that criminal justice experience can mobilize people if they perceive external unfairness, including in the immigration enforcement system and overpolicing.
Guests: Vesla Weaver, Johns Hopkins University; Hannah Walker, University of Texas Studies: The Portals Project; Mobilized by Injustice
Matt Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, how police communities mobilize politically. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Protests over police brutality have stormed the nation informing white Americans about racial injustice. But how the racial minorities and highly policed communities think about political action and mobilize to fight unfairness in the criminal justice system when they’re facing force and indignities that often lead to withdrawal?
Today, I talked to Vesla Weaver of Johns Hopkins University about her work on the Portals project, which has led to several journal articles. She finds that people in overpoliced neighborhoods have complicated, but negative attitudes toward police. They’re often motivated for change, but not always through traditional politics.
I also talked to Hannah Walker of the University of Texas about her new Oxford book, Mobilized by Injustice. She finds that criminal justice experience can mobilize people if they perceive injustice. And she sees some similarities in the ways that Latinos are mobilized by the immigration enforcement system and African Americans by overpolicing. Weaver’s work on the Portals project is an innovative way to listen to people and police communities who don’t always get heard. And I asked her to give some examples of the things she’s learned from them.
Vesla Weaver: In about 2015, my colleague, Tracey Meares, at the law school at Yale and Amar Bakshi, who runs Shared Studios and had designed something called a Portal began to collaborate. And Portals, for just a bit of backdrop, are gold shipping containers that have been repurposed to connect communities that are physically distant oftentimes in different zip codes, sometimes across the country to each other. And when you come inside one of these gold boxes, it connects you with another person, a perfect stranger through audiovisual technology, full body. You can see and interact with the person in real time.
And what’s so crucial about this technology is it allowed us to let communities that had long histories of police violence and uprisings against police brutality and saturation policing to connect with one another, to discuss mothers connected with other mothers who had lost sons to police violence or gang violence. And we asked them nothing else but to just discuss police and what policing was like in their communities. And they spoke with one another for about 20 minutes and we recorded these dialogues, which became part of the long oral history of what black life is. And it wasn’t exclusively a black sample, but we really had mostly highly policed communities with some variation.
And I guess you had asked what’s the biggest thing that we learned. I think what we… At a very broad level is that some of the things that we tend to think of as concerning, as threats to democracy among political scientists, we began to understand that these communities, the experience of subjugated people were not aberrations to the existing frameworks about our democracy, ones in need of correction. But when we really listened to their lived experience, we found that their observations and critiques and ideas of democratic life weren’t mirror aberrations, but that they so challenged the existing frameworks as to strain them.
And so we began to think that this was a rebuttal to traditional decades’ long understandings of American democracy. And we allow them in this work, we allow their perceptions of how government is actually oriented to them and their communities to inform the existing frameworks and show their limits and to challenge and rewrite them. So, for example, most of the work in American politics is sort of, “Well, this is what the laws are,” and not really, “Well, how are these laws lived from the vantage point of what those institutions aren’t just meant to do and are stated to do in their formal embodiments, but from what they actually do do in people’s lives.”
And so we began to reposition our orientation to the Portals dialogues in a way that their voices and theorizing of American democracy were as important as written law in understanding what that democracy actually consists of. And very few people to our knowledge have done that. It’s one of the problems in our discipline is that we’ve done little to engage the perspectives of those whose citizenship is being distorted. And the consequence of doing it this way, the consequence of this deficit is that we know very little about how people in highly policed communities with long histories, multigenerational histories of police violence, characterize the state in their own words and how they respond to it, how do they navigate what they illustrate as the confines of democracy? How do they resist it? How do they attempt to redefine it?
And so that’s the kind of broad view. The more specific view of what we learned is oftentimes they would pose a challenge. They would say things that would lead us to believe that their lived experience bore very little resemblance to the way we typically construct either in the media or in the popular imagination or in academic circles American democracy.
Matt Grossmann: Walker’s new book finds that people with criminal justice and policing contexts can be mobilized to participate more if they develop a sense of injustice.
Hannah Walker: The book is called Mobilized by Injustice. It examines the impact of experiences with the criminal justice system on political attitudes and behaviors and where much of the existing literature finds that all kinds of experiences with the criminal justice system lead to a withdraw from politics. I chart out the path by which individuals may actually become mobilized by those same experiences. And so like other folks, I don’t find much in the way of voting. A lot of the literature that finds who become demobilized focuses on the outcome of voting. And I find that when people become mobilized, we actually see that mobilization express itself in other ways, in particular through doing things like protesting, signing, petitions, attending city council meetings, and that sort of thing.
So the question is under what conditions do people become mobilized? The answer is in the title. They become mobilized when they view their experiences through the lens of injustice and externalize those experiences and hold the belief that they are someone that they love have been targeted on the basis of race, ethnicity, or class. And I think just the other couple of things that I want to say about the big findings from the book is that I find that this is especially true for folks who have what I call proximal contact. So not necessarily those who have personally experienced incarceration, although we do see mobilization among those folks as well, but for those who are the friends and family members of individuals who have experienced some type of involuntary interaction with the criminal justice system. Those folks are especially likely to become mobilized as a consequence of watching their loved one negotiate the system.
And then I think the last thing that I want to say is just about the issue of race. So within the context of the book, I compare and contrast the experiences of whites to blacks and Latinos. And I find that across all three of these racial groups, when individuals arrive at a sense of injustice around the criminal justice system, they have the capacity to be mobilized. But what I find are differences in the frames that people employ to make sense of their experiences as unjust.
Matt Grossmann: She finds that criminal justice can degrade people, but it can also mobilize them.
Hannah Walker: The big departure is that rather than finding that people become alienated and withdraw from politics, they can become mobilized. So that’s the punchline in terms of the major departure and where’s it broadly correct and where is it wrong. And so I think that the thing that some of that recent literature has done for us is it’s really highlighted a necessary way, the tremendous capacity of the carceral state to degrade and to demobilize. But the relationship is also more dynamic than we might at first think from reading the existing literature. And so it’s not so much that the existing work is wrong as it is that it’s an incomplete picture of how a variety of people from a variety of circumstances become mobilized or become politicized by their experiences.
Matt Grossmann: Weaver says these are part of a welcome political science wave to study the role of criminal justice.
Vesla Weaver: Yeah, when I first began working on a few of us scholars back then we’re calling the carceral state, it was pretty rare within political science. Decades had passed since James Q. Wilson had been writing about the police. There was an orientation within our field towards representative institutions. And everyday street level bureaucracies were very much on the margins. And I was told many times, “Are you sure you don’t want to go into criminal justice or sociology or some other field?” But a few of us, myself, Marie Gottschalk, Keesha Middlemass, Khalilah Brown-Dean, Lisa Miller, Traci Burch, Megan Francis, we started thinking about policing and criminal justice as very much important for understanding citizenship, for understanding how government is oriented to citizens, for understanding political behavior. So my book was Amy Lerman is all about how encounters with criminal justice actually reshape political behavior among people who… for whom this is a direct experience.
And so we began pushing on this. And I think over time, the field has begun to take more stock and realize that this is an important aspect, particularly in race-class subjugated communities that Joe Soss and I wrote a piece called the Police Are Our Government, that this is very much a central way that Americans come into contact with government and particularly in certain community. And so we started pressing on this idea and now in our field there are number particularly of young and up and coming scholars who are asking questions about police power and police unions and the history and American political development of the carceral state.
And it’s really refreshing to see. And I think it’s going to receive a major boost by the fact that we are living in a moment that showcases all of these questions, how do people protest injustice? How do people respond to police incursions in their neighborhoods? How do they mobilize together? How do they create alternate forms of safety? All of these questions are very much alive. And I’d say that we had some… I kept using Larry Bartels’s work as a bit of a foil here because I think a lot of the questions in our discipline have been around operating along one dimension, attention or inattention from government.
And so the concern is that many citizens don’t have their policy preferences registered in policy outcomes, or even the Suzanne Mettler story that government does a bunch of good things, but citizens don’t get to see it. And we kept saying, “This storyline is mostly right if you completely neglect race-class subjugated communities.” But preference responsiveness questions about democracies health were housed within a policy that was increasingly turning to and deepening its commitment to and expanding what Joe and I have called the second face of the state, by which we mean coercion and surveillance and regulation and predation and discipline. And so we began to push on this idea of the liberal democratic model being this extremely salutary view of the American state. And that once we take the perspectives coming out of highly policed communities where greater connection to government is not this unalloyed good supposed by liberal framings. We argued in that piece, and I’m quoting our piece here, “If one’s aim is to understand state powers, to govern citizens, to regulate their behaviors, to revoke their freedoms, to redefine their civic standing, and impose violence on them,” we had to get away from this scholarly preoccupation with imagining a government as one that only registers preferences and distributes uplifting material benefits. And we needed to really go deep on understanding the state’s second face, which was the more prominent face in many of these communities.
Matt Grossmann: Hannah Walker says she was inspired by her own work and prior research, finding some signs of hope among the protests.
Hannah Walker: Well, I started working on issues related to the criminal justice system prior to grad school. In particular, I worked for a short time with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and they were focused on issues related to prisoner re-entry. And so in working with them, I worked with them in a variety of different ways. I could help them with their direct services. I helped with legal assistance and that sort of thing. And I also did some data collection and analysis for them. And so from that experience, I always knew that I would work on issues related to criminal justice, and I came into grad school with that focus. And I started working on this project very early on. I was inspired and compelled by Weaver and Lerman’s 2010 APSR article that sort of set the agenda for the study of criminal justice and political science.
And so I was starting to think about communities, and the broader impacts a criminal justice system can have on communities. And I anticipated, based on everything that I’d read in the literature, that once I started doing my own data collection I would also find that family members, people with proximal contact, were also demobilized. That’s what the literature suggests. Had the opportunity to collect data in like my first year of grad school. I graduated from the University of Washington, and we had the Washington poll there, so I was able to collect data at that time. And I had this really unexpected finding, where proximal contact was associated with heightened participation.
And so that’s kind of what launched the whole project. I spent a lot of time trying to validate the finding, trying to break it, trying to see if it held across various different types of samples, different types of people. And in the middle of doing that work, the uprising in Ferguson happened, and there was a wave of protest across the country. And the stories that were shared with me by activists, as I went about doing my dissertation research, were very urgent. And so in the post grad school stage, I was very, very focused on taking the dissertation, which I’d written as a book, and just polishing and polishing and polishing. Finding a larger frame for the stories that I was trying to tell, but also feeling that really strong sense of urgency, that this is a set of stories that needed to be out there, that needed to find their way off my desktop and into the hands of the public.
Matt Grossmann: Weaver’s data enables very different kinds of information than surveys or interviews. And I wanted you to hear the texture of what her participants said.
Vesla Weaver: The portals were staffed by community leaders and activists and portal curators who were deeply involved in the programming, deeply involved in the research, deeply involved in the communities in which we housed the portals. And they would have an iPad survey there right before somebody wanted to have a discussion. And the survey would ask some of the things that you might find on a traditional survey. So, how much do you trust the police? Always, sometimes, most of the time, never. That kind of thing. And so we can see, this is a person who says that he always trusts the police, or never trusts the police, or he has some confidence that the police do their jobs well. And then you can read the transcripts. And what happens in the transcripts is there’s a variety of different ideas that come to bear.
Sometimes you can see somebody who has a conversation with one person, and then they stay in the box, and another person comes in after the other person on the other side leaves, and they have another conversation. And you can see how their conversation picks up on, and sometimes even amends, some of the ideas they had in the past conversation. So one of the ideas that comes out very prominently is something that we’ve called distorted responsiveness. So in a typical survey, you might have people saying, “Well, yeah, I have some confidence in the police to do their job well.” Well, how do you interpret that?
Then you read a transcript, and this is what you might see. This is a man in Milwaukee, and he says, “When it’s like… The police is… Well shit, I’m not fittin’ to call the police. We fittin’ to shoot back at this, at somebody coming to my house, someone trying to rob my house. Fuck calling the police. They’re not going to do nothing. They damn near probably going to show up late anyway, you know?”
And then his conversation partner in Chicago says, “Yeah, yeah. My building got ran into. It took half an hour for the police to get here. Police drove by, I tried to stop them. They said, ‘Oh, someone else will respond to that.’ You know.”
And this is Milwaukee. “And that’s like, you’re not doing your job. That’s not doing your job. It’s crazy because someone could get shot. Someone could get shot right now. I could witness someone getting shot right here, right now. I could call the polices for emergency, whatever the case may be. I could, she’s going to ask me several questions before she even send an officer. She going to ask me, what time is it? Do you know his name? What transpired? Damn.”
“What’s really hard here is when someone does get killed…” And then this is Chicago talking. “… they don’t move the body until the coroner comes. And sometimes the person lays there for three or four hours, and oftentimes it’s right in front of their house. It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.” And then he goes on to say, “We’ve had someone out there for up to six hours. No.”
And a lot of times there’s this perception that police will take a long time to come for emergencies, but they will be Johnny-on-the-spot, they’ll be extremely aggressive, when they show up for very small, quality of life, minor infractions. And that comes up in the same conversation. So on a survey sample, you might have somebody saying, “Well, yes, the police are slow to respond,” but you don’t also ask them, “Well, how do they respond when they respond?” “Well, when they come, they’re coming for something little. They’re coming for weed, they’re coming for selling loose cigarettes, they’re coming for something that doesn’t imperil our lives.” And so we need to begin to theorize policing as both, right? That these complaints, these grievances, are two sides of the same coin. I’m in this free fall of abandonment when I call the police for help, but they’re always hemming me up for small trivialities that don’t actually affect anything in our lives.
Another thing that comes up a lot, and this is hard [inaudible 00:21:19] because there are hundreds of ideas, and we’ve spent a lot of time coding these thousands of pages of transcripts, for both prominent ideas in political science, but then also ideas that we felt were cropping up that aren’t measured in surveys, things that we are now theorizing anew, so that we can get surveys in the discipline to begin to ask some of these prominent framings and frameworks and ideas and responses that people are having.
So another example. I mean, this is a very typical one in political sciences. You might have somebody that we would consider a non-participant in political science, somebody who doesn’t participate in politics, they don’t really call their Governor or Senator, they don’t necessarily vote at election time. And yet, if you read the transcripts, it’s very clear that people are participating in other kinds of ways that we might not be picking up on.
So I’ll just give you another example. This is a conversation from Baltimore, and the person says, “You know, you have to start one person at a time, one house at a time, one kid at a time. And I’m trying to open a nonprofit daycare where I give back to the community once a week for a meal and once a month for a birthday party, and then feed the police, the firemen, the teachers, and any other engaged adult in the neighborhood who’s concerned about young people’s welfare. And that way, when the police come, they can say, ‘Oh, that’s not a criminal, that’s April’s son,’ or, ‘Oh, she’s not a criminal, that’s Maryanne’s niece.'”
And there were other efforts like this, very subtle but very much threaded throughout the narratives, of very specific ways that people were getting involved in small and large ways to confront safety deprivation in the community, to confront over-policing and aggressive policing, or police that didn’t understand them and their struggles, and didn’t understand the community, and came in and would arrest before getting to know the people.
So there’s things like that. And we started to track them. We started to code them up and look for them specifically. But that person might be seen as somebody who doesn’t get involved in city politics, doesn’t get involved in calling their representative when they have a problem. And yet they’re involved in other kinds of ways.
I wanted to give you just one more example. I think that one of the things that when Prowse and I, and Tracey Meares, and Spencer Piston who’s involved in this as well, have been thinking about a lot is youthful political socialization. So a lot of times in our portals data, when we asked people in the survey what was their earliest encounter with police, it was often under the age of 14. So the majority of participants said their first encounter with police, their first time being stopped, asked what they were doing, told to move on, brought down to the station, what have you, was at the tender age of 12, 13, 14. And I think that’s something we don’t know, beyond political science, in the larger policy world, is that these are incredibly early encounters.
And one thing Phil Goff has shown so well is that, once you have an encounter like this, you’re more likely to have another, and that these encounters can themselves be criminogenic. And so his work was finding that people who had not engaged in crime, but had a police stop, were more likely than those who didn’t experience a police stop to then later offend and to later engage in delinquency.
Okay. So this example. A lot of people talked about childhood. A lot of people talked about what it was like to raise kids and help prepare them for police surveillance. And this is somebody in Milwaukee saying, “They just need stuff for our young people to do, besides always categorizing them as being bad. They’re bad, they this, they this, they that. It was some man. He had an abandoned school. He put some basketball courts up, made them out of wood and put them on the playground. Police circle the playground, like something fittin’ to happen, something fittin’ to happen. I can ride down this particular street and I will see a squad car at least six days out of the week out there, waiting for our kids to have a basketball squabble, argument, or something, so they can jump on the playground and arrest somebody. So they sitting there waiting to arrest them for no particular reason. And to me, the young men, okay, they wear black hoodies. Okay, whatever. They wearing hoodies. I don’t mind that. But y’all think every boy or young lady that walk down the street with a solid black hoodie on is doing crime. No, they’re cheaper. Look into the hoodies. Black hoodies are cheaper. So people don’t realize black hoodies are us.”
It’s just to say that there was a lot of conversations between parents worrying about their children. A lot of conversations of people who were in their early adulthood, talking about memories of being stopped by police for walking in small groups, stopped by police because they happened to have the same color of shirt on, and so police assumed they were in a gang. And some of these to me were the most painful to read, because it was very clear in them that that was a defining moment of childhood, that it was a moment where they knew and quickly gleaned what it was to be a black child, and how they needed to move, and what adjustments and precautions they needed to take in order to stay safe from police. So we would hear extraordinary efforts people would take. If I added them all up, it’s probably in the hundreds, of the various different ways that people would change their hair or dress or movements, making their bodies smaller, crouching while they walked, hunching over, not carrying certain things, not going through certain neighborhoods, deciding certain times of day not to be out and about, which of course, again, raises very troubling things for a democracy where most of us assume that you should be out, be able to be out. That being out without your ID on is not against the law, right?
Matt Grossmann: Walker’s data included interviews with activists, and she reflected on the values of each method.
Hannah Walker: The Portals Project gives us a deep, rich look at the way that members of race, class, subjugated communities experience politics. And I think that the samples that are collected by Portals probably do a better job of capturing marginalized people than do surveys, certainly. And even my interviews were, I collected my interviews by starting with connecting with people who were already plugged into activist organizations, and then built snowball samples out from there, so I was looking for activists to try to help me understand the quantitative data. And so what that means is, I don’t have a lot of people who are not mobilized within the context of the interviews. And so the Portals Project gets around that issue.
What my data do is demonstrate that the experience of being motivated for change, and to change the criminal justice system, is, I think, widespread. But what I think that my data don’t do and what my book doesn’t do, and what the Portals Project can help us with is, in other projects like the Portals Project, is they can help us understand and articulate just exactly what kind of change people, and in particular members of race, class subjugated communities, are looking for. And they can help us start to think about and examine, which I don’t do at all in my book, how those demands may vary across subgroups. And I think this is also the place where I would also have some skepticism about the limits of white solidarity around this issue. I think that what the portals, the interviews from the Portals Project do is they illuminate this very much, this desire to have police kind of get out of their communities.
Matt Grossmann: Weaver’s work did find a lot of withdrawal from politics, but also some grounds for organizing.
Vesla Weaver: One of the biggest frameworks that we began to theorize out of the portals was a concept that we wrote about in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. And this is a piece with myself, and Gwen Prouse, and Spencer Piston. Much of my early work was about political withdrawal, was about how custodial citizenship and having encounters with the more punitive side of the state led people to decide not to engage in political life, dropping rates of voting. They were less likely to say that the government cared what they thought. They had low levels of political efficacy, low levels of trust in government.
And so we theorized that this was a bad thing for democratic life, right? When you have people who disengage, particularly people whose grievances should be heard the loudest. And of course, that was not meant to say that highly policed communities don’t protest, engage in collective action, and I’m glad that you’re interviewing Hannah Walker as well, because I think her work is excellent on this point.
But in this new piece, where we talk about collective autonomy, what we were finding is an impetus to withdraw from immediate … An active detachment from police, to increase their level of safety, and autonomy, and dignity. And we were theorizing this detachment as a political response, so it wasn’t a passive process. It wasn’t a, “Well, I’m just going to … I don’t have time or money, or the inclination to get involved in politics.” But in our conversations, they reveal a pattern of staying indoors, avoiding being in groups, changing some of their mundane routines, and calling on their family or neighbors for help instead of enlisting the police.
And so one person says, “I don’t care how many Black cops are on the force. That don’t make no difference. They’re the ones that doing it. But like I said, you know what I mean, I avoid them because I know I ain’t got no chance going up against them. I know I ain’t got no power.” Another middle aged woman in Chicago says, “The police, they got badges. They can do whatever they want, and it don’t make no sense. And they can harass you for no reason. I don’t have my ID on me right now. I’m not doing nothing.” And then she’s paraphrasing police. “‘I don’t want you standing on this spot. You got to move.’ That’s why I don’t even hang out no more. There’s no point in hanging out. I stay in my house every day.”
But at the same time as we see some of this kind of, what we call strategic aversion, we also see that it doesn’t have exclusively alienating consequences. These kinds of “staying to myself,” go hand in hand with an urgent desire to come together as a neighborhood, to come together as a racial group, and sometimes these aspirations, coming together, and getting unified, and knowing our history, and controlling our narratives, were paired with concrete ways that they labored to protect youth or to deny power to the police. So they often emphasized collective community defense and protection, and collective guardianship. Oftentimes they make demands to shift power and authority to communities. Sometimes they point at the limits of descriptive representation, as the quote that I just read you. “We have beliefs, but we don’t have power.” And so there was also this expression of, “We need to stick together. We need to …” Let me just read you this one.
The person says, “We are their enemy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good boy, a bad boy, an old man, a young woman, a baby. It’s a war zone, so they need to leave. How did we use to do it in the old days when something happened in the house, something happened in the hood? We know who to speak to. We know who to go to. Now, we got to have the police, who’s a third party that don’t know us, don’t know the community, and we trusting them?” Sometimes this came out even more explicitly as a, “We need to police ourselves.” Right? “We need to make sure that people in the community are staying safe. We know best how to handle safety and protection in our communities.”
So how is this mapping on to what’s going on right now, with Black Lives Matter and with defund the police campaigns? What you hear in the transcripts, partly because it predates this newest wave of protest, is you don’t hear people saying explicitly the phrase, “Defund the police.” What you do hear is things like, “We pay their salaries, and we’re paying the city settlements, so we can take our money elsewhere. We need to stop paying into this system.” That kind of thing. That’s a defund kind of argument. “We need to invest in the things that are going on in our community that are good, that are helping to protect.”
Matt Grossmann: Walker’s book was also innovative in comparing Latinos’ experience with immigration enforcement with Blacks’ experience with policing.
Hannah Walker: The question that I started with is, “How are with Latinos uniquely targeted by the system, and targeted for contact by law enforcement, in ways that are different from their sort of status as people of color, in ways that are different from Black Americans?” And so what I really keyed in on as the key mechanism by which this group is uniquely targeted, is it has to do with immigration. But more specifically, it has to do with the expansion of interior enforcement, immigration enforcement, whereby local police actually become engaged in the business of implementing immigration enforcement, and that sort of marrying of immigration enforcement with law enforcement, local law enforcement, allows for the widespread and specific targeting of Latinos. And so rather than thinking about analogizing the experiences of Blacks and Latinos, I think it’s, for me, more useful to think about how the sort of machinery, the carceral machinery is constructed, such that it leads to unequal outcomes across racial subgroups.
So in so far as we’re thinking about how our experience is different for Latinos, or similar to, I think that in addition to the cleavages of race and class, Latinos contend with this added cleavage of citizenship. The thing that’s really consistent across Latinos and Black Americans, and this is also true for white folks as well, is the sort of strong, mobilizing capacity of proximal contact. Whether you have a loved one who is targeted because they’re an immigrant or because they lack documentation status, or you have a loved one who’s targeted because they’re phenotypically Black, or you have a loved one who becomes caught up in the system because he’s white, but becomes caught up because of their class status, the power of that relational ply, to compel people to action, is really, really strong and consistent.
And then I think the last thing that I just want to say on this is that, with respect to Latinos and their experiences with the criminal justice system, much more work is needed, and the data is particularly lacking in this area.
Matt Grossmann: She found multiple ways people become politicized by seeing injustice.
Hannah Walker: I don’t come down hard on one avenue versus another. I think it’s highly individualized, and people can come to the place of externalizing their experiences via a variety of different avenues. There are circumstances that make it more likely than others. I think it really helps to have supportive narratives within one’s community, and also supportive narratives around one’s group membership, right? So the Black community, they have a very strong narrative that connects the criminal justice system to previous iterations of racial control, and it’s one that connects the criminal justice system backwards to Jim Crow and to slavery. And so that’s an example of a narrative that comes that’s based around one’s group membership, and that comes from within one’s community, that can help people understand their experiences as not being necessarily about what they’ve done specifically, but about who they are as people.
External events can also help precipitate this process, like the events that we’re experiencing now. There’s a lot to unpack there within the context of this particular moment, but when there are highly politicized and highly publicized instances of police brutality that can help shift the way people think about their own experiences with the criminal justice system. And so I think that the task, usually, is to help people connect their personal commitments, again, if we’re thinking about proximal contact, to broader politics. “How does the thing that I’m doing now to try to help my brother just navigate the criminal justice system,” for example, “How does that fit into a larger sort of political narrative?”
Matt Grossmann: And community can help politicize those that are harmed.
Hannah Walker: The organizations that have the potential to be the most powerful in this context are ones that are expressly political, and ones that are actively engaged in organizing the community. So I think some work that we can think of that is really, really helpful for understanding these processes, and how political organizing or community-based organizations can help recover civic membership for this group, is Hahrie Han’s work. She’s got a couple of books. Move to Action is one of them, and the second one that I’ve found very useful is How Organizations Develop Activists. And so she draws a distinction in her work between mobilizing people and organizing the community. And so mobilization is what we think about when we think about political parties, or campaigns going around and doing door knocking to talk to people about their candidate, and try to get them to either register or turn out to vote. And that’s sort of like a one shot deal, and it’s how campaigns sort of engage the people they think are most likely to turn out and try to get those people to actually turn out, and that’s a different set of activities than organizing the community.
And so there are other community based organizations that are actively involved in the day to day, and usually, I think very often, address a wide cross section of issues that are important to the community. And so those are the kinds of organizations that I think have the opportunity to be the most powerful and help build the kinds of skills and alternative resources in marginalized communities that can help people overcome some of those other more traditional socioeconomic barriers to participation.
Matt Grossmann: Black Lives Matter shows that perceptions of justice are out there and are now building.
Hannah Walker: So in certain ways, and not by accident, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is evidence of what I sort of suspected, which is that there are a very large number of people who are impacted by the system across all racial groups, and that in and of itself, the sheer numbers of people who have a personal or relational connection to the criminal justice system, raises the possibility that we could have a real and new social movement on our hands.
We could have a real and new social movement on our hands. And so I say not by accident because I was writing the book and starting to work on the project in 2014 as Black Lives Matter was starting to gain more traction. I think the reception has changed, the reception by the media and the public has changed, because of a variety of, a confluence of factors. If BLM really started to gain traction in 2014, and that means we’ve experienced six years of ongoing and highly publicized instances of anti-black police brutality. We’ve also experienced, in addition to that, four years of fraught governance, I think it’s probably the most neutral thing I can say, it’s fraught. And now we’re also three months into a pandemic, and we’ve also observed that fraught government do an arguably terrible job at addressing issues related to the pandemic. And also issues related to systemic racism have been raised again and again as a consequence of the pandemic. So I think the media and the public have changed in their reception because we’re living through exceptional times
Matt Grossmann: Weaver also sees the Black Lives Matter movement is evolutionary with salience built over time.
Vesla Weaver: Those earlier protests were in some ways they primed the frameworks that have now taken center, that are now a centerpiece of the political demands being made, which I think is very interesting. So I think there’s a lot of people in the media that say, “Well, gosh, the reaction is just so different today. It’s so not of a piece with the reaction to the Ferguson and Freddie Gray protests.” And yet, I think that the reaction is different because of those earlier protests, because those earlier protests set the stage for and really cemented, or helped to create a foundation for the frameworks that we now see.
And so now, we’re reaching this kind of inflection point, but we’ve had four to five years of a very high salience of race, inequality, oppression, and supremacy. But I would say not just the anti policing movements, but Charlottesville, the Me too movement, the structural violence that has been in our air and discourse since the pandemic. And so I don’t think that we should sort of set up this dichotomy of, “Well, the protests are getting such different coverage now.” Yes, of course they are. But part of why the scope of demands today is what is is because in that earlier moment.
We had a lot of black political organizing that emerged, not just Black Lives Matter, but you had incipient groups popping up all over the country, including one that we was very involved in our portal project, which is the Let Us Breathe collective in Chicago. So you have these groups popping up all over the place that were developing an abolitionist program. And so I think part of why we see that the demands are far more radical today, taking on police power and institutions at large, rather than focusing their aim on specific actors, rather than focusing on specific incidents of misconduct, but rather towards policing as a system that perpetuates subjugation, that perpetuates predation, that gives rise to anti-democratic features.
So I would say that those earlier protests did give us the critical foundation for socializing young protesters, for early black political organizing, for building attention, for creating the context of the grievances and racial injustice frameworks that we now are hearing.
Matt Grossmann: Walker cautions that the protests don’t necessarily mean voting will also be mobilized.
Hannah Walker: I don’t think that because we see a rise in protesting, and we see that process at work, that we won’t also see people go to the polls. But I will confess that this sort of area, the difference between voting and other types of participation, is the least well-developed within the context of the project. There’s a lot more work to do there. I can offer some arguments as to why we would see people protest even if we don’t see the needle move on voting. And I also think it’s important to note that, in my work, I don’t find that voting is negatively affected by experiences with the criminal justice system. I just see that it’s not affected, when that instead when we see people mobilize around these issues, that expresses itself in other ways.
Matt Grossmann: And she finds whites are also affected, but is skeptical about their level of racial understanding.
Hannah Walker: The first thing to note is that I think part of what we’re observing, and what I observed in my research, is that white people are affected by the criminal justice system too. This is not an issue that affects black Americans exclusively. Although the consequences for black Americans are much deeper than they are for white Americans. And as we also know, the criminal justice system and criminal justice policies were sort of built around trying to maintain racial hierarchy. So we have to hold the sort of racialized political causes and consequences of the criminal justice system at our center. But we can do that while also recognizing that white people are affected by the criminal justice system too. They are not particularly adept at understanding the nuances of race, at least that’s what I find in my interviews. It doesn’t mean that they deny that there are racial inequalities, but rather that they explain those racial inequalities through the primary lens of poverty and class.
So then the second part of the question is how skeptical should we be of white protestors and their support? How do we understand their support? And so I think here, I do bring some skepticism to, I guess, white racial solidarity in this area. White people have a bad track record of supporting previous movements for racial equality, but I think what the task is now, we are seeing that there are attitudinal shifts among whites equal in terms of the extent to which they’re supportive of the protesters. They’re declining support for police. Those attitudinal changes are quite new and quite remarkable. And so what we need to continue to do, or what activists and advocates need to continue to do, is they need to keep pushing for real substantive change and for the broader public to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to criminal justice reform.
Matt Grossmann: Weaver sees a flowering of activism and research ahead.
Vesla Weaver: I’m excited to see all the activism and I’m excited to see that attention among scholars. There’s a range of new questions that we’re realizing that we didn’t have answers to. And I think that we’re about to see just a flurry of really great work and theorizing and new questions. And I felt for many years that we were stuck, that there was just this incredible political knowledge that race class subjugated communities had, but that wasn’t really being heard. And now, it does seem like people, the mass public, journalists, academics, policy makers now are hearing what has been said in black communities for a very, very long time, what has been theorized in black discourse for at least a century. And now, it remains to be seen whether this will have policy significance, and I hope so.
Matt Grossmann: But Walker, drawing from Weaver’s research, says we’re still missing a big piece of political power by not fully understanding relationships with policing and criminal justice,
Hannah Walker: Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver’s paper that was published in 2017, it does quite a good job of sort of illuminating what we’re missing. And so some of the things that we’re missing are the political life worlds of a vast majority of population, which looks a bit different than what the political science literature has to say about the conditions under which people mobilize and what kinds of demands they make from their government. I think by that same token, by not focusing on criminal justice and systems of punishment, we fundamentally misunderstand how power works in the United States and in American politics. I think that, for the same reason, that makes us a little bit blind to the limits of American democracy and the sort of fundamental inescapability of the ongoing impact and ongoing role and influence of settler colonialism and slavery on contemporary politics, I don’t think is very well understood in this particular moment.
So in the last few years, especially since probably 2010 with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, I think we are starting to develop a broader understanding of the role the criminal justice system plays in perpetuating inequality across a variety of dimensions. But what I don’t think is very well understood still at this moment is just how intractable and excessively harsh our penal system really is and how mismatched the current system is to the sort of problems that we hope it will solve. So I think those are some of the big things we still are trying to grapple with both as a field and as a public.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. Please review our recent episodes at niskanencenter.org and anywhere you find your podcasts. Thanks to Vesla Weaver and Hannah Walker for joining me. Please check out The Portals Project and Mobilized by Injustice, and then listen in next time.