Using George Zimmerman as an object lesson in the anthropology of policing

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been exploring the tragedy involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in a course I teach entitled “Policing in Society.”  My goal is to use the event as a concrete opportunity that can give students practical experience in using the tools we learn in class for conceptualizing “police,” “society,” and their relationship.  An added benefit is that it allows students to form and articulate their own positions in regards to such issues.

One semester included a specially charged, but not altogether surprising exchange.  One of the students, an African-American woman, voiced a particularly well-considered and passionate position.  “Why was Zimmerman carrying a gun in the first place?” she asked, “I don’t think he had the right; no one asked him to do that.”  Even more, she had personal experience with the tragedy and biases of Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground Laws”.  She recounted how her own cousin had been shot and killed under the same law, the perpetrator unconvicted.  “It’s not right, to have any old person walking around like that with guns.  It’s too dangerous,” she concluded.

Many of the students voiced their approval of her position—either by making similar comments of their own or merely by nodding and offering verbal evidence of their consent.  Others in the room were more quiet.  One of them was a white male student who usually took a much more central role in group discussions.  Finally, with an almost shocking burst of emotion, he did.  “I think it’s perfectly fine for people to carry guns, provided they’re properly trained and screened.  I don’t know anything about this George Zimmerman, but there’s nothing wrong with guns,” he let out, slightly quieting the class discussion around him.  Then pausing just a moment to look around him, he continued, “In fact, I’m carrying right now!”

Although some in the class audibly gasped at this revelation, including myself, this set of reactions should not have been overly surprising.  My university is what is known as a “commuter campus” with a long tradition of serving underrepresented populations and nontraditional students from throughout Southeast Michigan—from urban Detroit to the more suburban and even rural areas hugging the I-94 corridor.  As a result, classes often contain a sensitive but productive assortment of ages, races, classes and political positions, much more so than at the elite institutions in which I received my own education.

Another reason this exchange should not have been surprising is that, as a required course within the “law enforcement” track of a Criminal Justice and Criminology degree, the class regularly includes a fair mix of people interested in critiquing policing—often because of personal experience with the pathologies of the U.S. legal system—on the one hand and, on the other hand, those interested in becoming police—who often times come into the class with previous professional experience in the military or security industry.  This was in fact the case with the gun carrier who, outside of class, worked as a private security guard for a gated community.  He had every right—legal and otherwise—to carry the gun, he felt, especially since he had registered it with the Campus PD as required by the University for off-duty security personnel such as himself.

The challenge, as I saw it, was how to bring the discussion back to the pedagogical imperative of a classroom; to ask how we can use this mixture of events, concepts and participants to think about our shared lives and concerns?  Surely one set of observations involves noting the widespread and despicable racial disparities the incident brings to the fore—illustrating what kinds of bodies are imaginable as victims and what bodies as perpetrators of violence while contrasting that imaginary with lived realities—and tying those disparities to the larger social inequities of which the U.S. criminal justice system has been a significant engine.  For example, helping students notice the strikingly different ways Martin & Zimmerman are discussed in the public forum, linking that observation to the massive incarceration of African-Americans over the last thirty years and understanding the larger social effects of that injustice.  To make these connections clear, and in doing so to illustrate the contemptible nature of our justice system, is surely the primary task, as is the duty to foster a desire to develop more ethical responses to the situation.

This is in fact a large part of the ground we cover in my “Policing in Society” class (and, for that matter, in our Criminal Justice program as a whole, which is known as a center of “critical criminology”). And, as a result, my students do not voice contention with that analysis.  However I’ve found that it does not capture the entirety of the issue as it was raised; it reflects neither the tenor nor exhausts the terms of the debate as it occurred in my classroom.  Alongside the issue of racial injustice, which to most of my students seems obvious, lies another question: the problem of resolving the contrast between George Zimmerman in all his fallibility and the enormous existential power of his capacity for violence.  At their core I’ve found that my students’ positions—across racial, gender and class lines—are not as disparate as one might think, but rather various imperfect attempts to address an underlying, perhaps paradoxical question: what should be the distribution of violent force throughout the social body in a political system, such as ours, that likes to consider itself a liberal democracy?

One of the truisms of police studies is the claim, often emerging from ethnographic research, that police are the practical arm of the state as conceived by Max Weber; that the police are the most empirically identifiable human community which claim the monopoly of legitimate violence over a given territory and that their claim to being such rests on their status as a group of trained experts in the use of that violence.  Much of the politics of policing in the U.S., and indeed throughout the world, over the last 50 years can be read as a series of ambivalences vis-à-vis this formulation.  Probably the most well-known counter-formulation is the group of efforts loosely collected under the aegis of “community policing,” of which the “Neighborhood Watch” program Zimmerman imagined himself as participating in is one variant.  Although the kind of truly global and comparative history of community policing that would satisfy anthropologists has yet to be written, its origin is usually traced to efforts by several U.S. urban police departments to address growing racial tensions between largely white police forces and minority communities in the 1960s.  As such, community policing in its “purest” form is meant to counteract the concentration of political power in a small group of bureaucratic experts; to “democratize” police, in the sense of distributing its power more broadly throughout the demos, to incorporate more people into the ability to shape police, and therefore, its violence.

From its very inception community policing has been at the nexus of various social scientific positions: applause, scrutiny, critique, denunciation, collaboration.  Some of the more critical of these positions within anthropology have ranged from the suggestion that is has not lived up to its democratic ideals, for example by seeing its early promise co-opted by more “neoliberal friendly” approaches such as “zero tolerance” (cf. Cattelino, 2004; Chesluk, 2004; Garriott, 2011), to arguments that assert its formulation to be dependent on specific cultural understandings that resist translation into other contexts (Jauregui, 2013; Martin, 2012), to criticisms that, even in its “pure” form, community policing entails an insidious use of private, even intimate, locations and actors for the purposes of government (Stenson, 1993).  My own work tends to pose questions about how “community-oriented” policing can serve as an open vector for thinking through social life itself (Karpiak, 2010, 2013).

From this perspective, the line between understanding George Zimmerman as a racially paranoid vigilante or as a (still racially paranoid) partisan of community policing is troublingly blurry.  Did he have the right to be policing his neighborhood, or to carry and use a gun?  Why or why not?  The answer can not be as simple as some may imagine.  For as anthropologists we know that a “right” is more than a formal legal definition, extending outward to other forms of legitimacy both practical and moral.  If he didn’t have the right, what, exactly, makes his police illegitimate?  If it’s only the apparent racial paranoia, how does that separate him from more formal police organizations, who also seem fairly capable of expressing this paranoia violently, but on a wide scale (cf. Stalcup & Craze 2011)?  It seems more likely that part of the fascination with the case, and why it can serve as a flashpoint in contexts such as my class has to do with the problem of thinking though “police” as an individual phenomenon, fallible and human.  What can, or should one person do to regulate a perceived problem?  In this sense, the Zimmerman/Martin case awakens issues as closely aligned with those raised by Christopher Dorner as by Oscar Grant.

At their base, these questions ask what the relationship between “police” and “society” should be once we understand both as an expression of the use of violence.  Should they be fully integral bodies, so that there is no distinct institution of policing?  Should there be an absolute distinction, so that only a small community of qualified individuals can claim the right to police power?  If it’s the former, is George Zimmerman what a broadly distributed and unregulated police would look like? If I am troubled by that thought, do I find myself in favor of the latter—a rule by experts?  If the answer is somewhere in the middle, how would that work?  Should the goal, the ends, of policing—and therefore collective life—be the maintenance of community norms at the expense of individual liberty, or is a technocratic focus on law enforcement and civil rights the necessary priority of a democratic police force regardless of the violence inherent in legal-bureaucratic regimes?  Such questions circulate around the troubled terrain of freedom and security, norms and rights, for which I also find myself disarmingly unprepared to offer final positions.

But are these our only options and, if not, what viable alternatives exist?  Some anthropologists have tried to move beyond the stalemate of this frame—the work of Avram Bornstein (2005) in particular is an attempt to move beyond such a conceptual stagnation as, in another way, is the work of Miriam Ticktin (2005) as I read it—but, I admit, I am not so sure as they that social science alone has the tools to do so, for it requires not just a description but a practical reworking of our collective life.  In the meantime I suppose one thing we can do is the not unworthy act of denouncing such dangerous fools as Zimmerman, and aspire that out of such action a new logic of collectivity (Juris 2012) will guide us out of our dark corner.  Important, as well, is to recognize the nature of that corner, which strikes to the very heart of what we understand as “police.”


Works Cited

Bornstein, A. 2005. Antiterrorist Policing in New York City after 9/11: Comparing Perspectives on a Complex Process. Human Organization 64: 52–61.

Cattelino, J. R. (2004). The Difference that Citizenship Makes: Civilian Crime Prevention on the Lower East Side. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 27, 114–137.

Chesluk, B. (2004). “Visible Signs of a City Out of Control”: Community Policing in New York City. Cultural Anthropology, 19(2), 250–275. doi:10.1525/can.2004.19.2.250

Garriott, W. (2011). Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America (p. 201). New York: NYU Press.

Jauregui, B. (2013). Cultures of Legitimacy and Postcolonial Policing: Guest Editor Introduction. Law & Social Inquiry, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/lsi.12026

Juris, J. S. 2012. Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist 39: 259–279.

Karpiak, K. G. (2010). Of Heroes and Polemics : “The Policeman” in Urban Ethnography. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 33(May), 7–31. doi:10.1111/j.1555-2934.2010.01063.x.Page

Karpiak, K. G. (2013). Adjusting La Police: state, society and the distance of Just Violence in contemporary France. In W. Garriott (Ed.), Policing and Contemporary Governance: the anthropology of police in practice (pp. 79–96). New York: Palgrave.

Martin, J. T. (2012). How Law Matters to the Taiwanese Police. Anthropology News.

Stalcup, M., & Craze, J. 2011. How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam. Washington Monthly.

Stenson, K. (1993). Community policing as a governmental technology. Economy and Society, 22(3), 373–389. doi:10.1080/03085149300000025

Ticktin, M. 2005. Policing and Humanitarianism in France: Immigration and the Turn To Law As State of Exception. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 7: 346–368.

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