Punishment and Policing in the Trump Era

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Michelle Brown*

In the days to come under the Trump presidency, the United States will move toward the end goal of any carceral regime: dehumanizing repression. This end is what Judith Butler names in Trump’s appeal as a “murderous desire” that thrills in its arrogated power to command, for instance, the building of walls and the deportation of millions. While many commentators have emphasized the ways in which Trump’s presidential campaign modeled the Nixon-era law-and-order playbook, it also deviated significantly from it. Its unabashedly white misogynistic nationalist platform left much of 1960s racial coding behind in order to overtly emphasize neo-fascist “correctives,” zealously promising intensified conjunctures of policing and punishment. What must we anticipate at such a nexus?

In the convergence of police, punishment, and authoritarian power, we should, of course, expect the worst. More police. More punishment. More state violence. Fewer constitutional protections and civil and human rights handholds (although these were only limited to begin with). More continuous erasure of the structural conditions necessary for life. But, if we truly seek to alter the future, we should 1) think carefully about how these kinds of convergences repetitively take shape and under what historical and structural conditions, in order to 2) engage in new modes of analysis that set the stage for meaningful challenges and transformative alternatives to carceral regimes.

In the beginning, much of the Trump administration’s efforts are likely to take the form of politically symbolic rollbacks against the Obama administration in statewide and national efforts toward criminal justice reform. For instance, it is likely that we will see the political weakening of legislative efforts directed toward reduced imprisonment and policing, a move of support away from “reform” efforts within prisons and police practice, as well as new strategic efforts from the Right to counter decarceration and growing abolition efforts. The most impactful of these actions will borrow from the visually symbolic elements of Trump’s campaign: for instance, efforts to build up the Southern border are less likely to take the shape of a wall but are likely to ignite new regulatory forms of mass detention and deportation across everyday life. Alongside of this, we must expect a less visible, more ordinary, systematic set of developments: a revalorization of prisons, police, drug wars, and the man- and fire-power of criminal justice systems; the unbridled development of various shadow markets of growing injustice technologies, registries and tracking systems; and a deep criminalization of everyday life through an enlarged predatory justice system made up of fines, fees, debt, arrests, and detention. Furthermore, the collusive growth of progressive and conservative criminal justice think tanks that lay claim to expertise, policy, and change in a post-truth era expose our institutional lexicon for social transformation as defunct and obsolete.

Imprisonment in the Trump era is clearly marked for growth and capital investment. I stood on corrections trade floors ten years ago and listened to vendors eagerly explain how, anticipating the evisceration of black communities, immigrant women and children, youth, and the rural poor would represent the next boom industries. Private prisons are more likely to expand under Trump, particularly given their control over federal immigrant detention. And while private prisons experienced an immediate shock wave of growth in the aftermath of the election, it is the larger project of neoliberal investment in the prison system (and criminal justice more broadly) that is most pressing. In fact, the intersection of reform efforts with new net-widening possibilities remains one of the most pernicious sites of venture capital and security rebranding in surveillance, “community corrections,” E-carceration, rapidly developing police technologies, and “mass incarceration lite.” As James Kilgore has argued, carceral humanism defines the progressive reform agenda and promises to recast cages as social service sites and jailors as civil servants and reform-minded advocates. Given that most major corporations and the nation’s banks have deep financial roots in the carceral state, it is Trump as business man, not just as an authoritarian leader, that looms large in his administration’s penal impacts.

There are a wave of correlative capital punishment shifts as well. California was poised to abolish the death penalty, but instead Proposition 66 sped its practice along. Nebraska brought back the death penalty after a historical ban, and Oklahoma added an incredible amendment that forecloses constitutional challenge, simply stating that the death penalty itself “shall not be deemed to be or constitute the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment.” We must also expect an uptick in executions at the federal level. While capital punishment remains a definitively local practice in the United States (50% of all executions occur in 2% of US counties), and one that faces serious impediments in its ongoing practice, these election outcomes reveal punishment as riven with contradiction, its proclivities always toward authoritarian displays of power.

Furthermore, the Trump administration brings an enlarged public and cultural space for the performance of punishment. Punishment circulates frequently in Trump’s everyday discourse, from tweets to speeches. He has advocated for “some form of punishment” for women who obtain abortions, framing reproductive justice through carceral logics. He and his supporters have brought back the public spectacle of punishment with misogynistic “lock her up” chants and racist, circling mob attacks of protestors. Trump is seemingly at his most successful when heightening the affective, subjective life of punishment: humiliation, degradation, hitting, pushing, grabbing, cruelty. It is this punitiveness and resentment against various forms of vulnerability that culminates in the discriminatory and dehumanizing practices at the affective core of carceral regimes and police states. These tactics cleave to the criminalization of existence and resistance among the most vulnerable: people of color; Muslims; immigrants; queer and trans communities; the mentally ill; the poor and homeless; drug users and addicts; political prisoners, organizers, and protesters; and any one of the million people who have an unpaid fine, a parking ticket, a trash can lid that has fallen to the sidewalk.

The engine that drives criminalization in a carceral regime is the police. Trump promises the return of the most authoritarian and criminologically disproven forms of policing in modern history—policing with no connection to crime. Against scientific evidence and moral and ethical appeal, his obsession with stop-and-frisk/broken windows policing demonstrates his larger principle: racial control. As my colleague Victor Ray writes, “The singular accomplishment of stop-and-frisk was the worsening of racial inequality: 85 percent of those stopped were innocent black and Latino men.” Policing in the Trump era is, as it has always been, about the lowering of thresholds for the violent interruption of specific groups of people’s lives. It is likely to be revalidated as rightfully predatory, explicitly biased, and highly discretionary, thereby allowing for the elimination of police oversight mechanisms and federal investigations. Trump-era policing is emblematic of a militarized culture of war that is foundational to the prison-industrial complex, situating itself in an intoxicating form of deadly self-pity. From watch lists to registries, the Trump administration promises a shifting of political focus away from state violence and its attendant structural inequalities and toward the criminalization and destabilization of social movements that are naming alternative ways forward to social goods. In particular, we must anticipate and plan for an open attack on the most transformative justice policy platform of our era, the Movement for Black Lives.

Finally, the Trump era heralds the end of labor through the arrival of the “fastest growing government job sector”: homeland security and criminal justice. This is an amazing neoliberal feat, one where labor is transformed into the daily machinery for the disposability of surplus life. But against lethal forms of capitalist economies, carceral regimes, and truncated emancipatory claims, neoliberal hegemony can only unravel. We should anticipate new social movements and solidarities. The project now is abolition. Starting strategies?

  • Lay claim to the local. Criminal justice is profoundly local, with variability across states and regions. Local plans of action and advocacy for community control of police, courts and prisons are essential. And they are happening. Find them. Watch the cops. Pack the courts and the legislature. Show up at the jail. Organize.
  • The power of assembly. Strategic alliances and coalitions at the level of the local and their gatherings are crucial: Spaces of assembly driven by the directly impacted; spaces to educate, to dismantle white privilege and supremacy, to share ideas and testimonies, to brainstorm first responses, interventions, divestments, and interruptions.
  • Sanctuary. Universities, churches, community centers, cities have a rare moment in which to ensure safety, protection, hospitality and dignity to targets of the carceral state. Sanctuary allows for study, strategic response, keeping one’s family and loved ones intact, and survival. It is a political strategy against criminalization and criminal justice.
  • Rebel cities. Municipal power, anti-fascist coalitions, people’s movements… right where we are. Start at home. Network out. We are hardly alone.

A commitment to multi-perspectival vision and new modes of analysis is urgent to survival. Alongside of a focused, deadly serious pragmatism, we must engage relentlessly in generative efforts to imagine how we will resist the carceral present and its futures we abhor.

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*Michelle Brown is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, The University of Tennessee. Her research interests include carceral studies; law & society; feminist perspectives; media, theory, and culture; and transformative justice. She is the author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, & Spectacle (NYUP 2009) and coauthor of Criminology Goes to the Movies (NYUP 2011), among other publications. She is working on a series of articles and a book manuscript examining the production of death in American criminal justice and life-extending alternative forms of justice.

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