The clashes between police and protesters in response to the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade have thrust police brutality back into the national conversation. Social media has been inundated with hundreds of videos chronicling police use of military technology and tactics. Protestors in cities, including in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., have faced down the National Guard. All of this violence is quite spectacular.
But what about what isn't spectacular? On the other side of arrests, whether they're violent or not, lies the U.S.' vast, $297 billion dollar incarceration industry. Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag is a deep investigation of just one state's network of mass incarceration. But what's going on in California - and, importantly, the way that she finds out - has lessons for anybody who is part of the newly surging interest in both police and prison abolition, and for anyone studying any set of political institutions.
That investigation started out in a study group. Gilmore and a group of mostly African-American mothers were asking simple questions about two particular pieces of legislation: the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention or STEP Act (which criminalized "gang membership" itself, which it classified as terrorism - an important aspect of the pre-history of 9/11 and subsequent Islamophobia) and Proposition 184, the “three strikes and you’re out” law (1994). The details of these laws led the group to more abstract questions: Why prisons? Why now? Why were they located so far from prisoners’ homes? The research projects Gilmore and the group began to understand these laws and the deeper questions they provoked took them to the beating institutional heart of mass incarceration, and the carceral capitalism it creates and defends.
As it turns out, these laws were the tip of a very large iceberg. A few feet below the surface: "The California state prisoner population grew nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000, even though the crime rate peaked in 1980 and declined, unevenly but decisively, thereafter (see figs. 1 and 2). African Americans and Latinos comprise two-thirds of the state’s 160,000 prisoners; almost 7 percent are women of all races; 25 percent are noncitizens. Most prisoners come from the state’s urban cores—particularly Los Angeles and the surrounding southern counties. More than half the prisoners had steady employment before arrest, while upwards of 80 percent were, at some time in their case, represented by state-appointed lawyers for the indigent. In short, as a class, convicts are deindustrialized cities’ working or workless poor." That's the what. By the time we finish reading Golden Gulag, we will have a detailed perspective on the why.
But Golden Gulag is more than just a good explanation of prisons and policing in California. Beyond that local question is a more broadly applicable question of what study can, in general, do for the cause of justice. Again, it's best to just quote Gilmore: "It is not only a good theory in theory but also a good theory in practice for people engaged in the spectrum of social justice struggles to figure out unexpected sites where their agendas align with those of others. We can do this by seeing how general changes connect with concrete experiences—as the mothers did in our study groups."
By the time we are finished, Gilmore will have done more than simply described how some institutions in California work. She will have described why people who conceive of their politics as feminist, or class-focused, or as anti-racist, or as centered on immigration justice ought to share a set of definite practical objectives. This will not be because of abstract rhetorical appeals to the concept of intersectionality (though that's relevant!) but by the specific, material analysis that answers the question referenced a couple paragraphs ago: not just how incarceration works as it does in California, but why.
The Plan from Here
I'm gonna do my best to make these shorter from now on: likely at most 5 parts, hopefully as few as three. I also intend them to be much fewer words than the entries for Capital and Capitalism and Slavery - hopefully not much longer than this post was. The pro of this approach is that long summaries risk being worst of both worlds - too long for the advantage of brevity to matter, and too short to cover the kind of detail and nuance that inspires book-length writing in the first place.
The con: this means a lot of detail is going to be left out - details that, both as someone concerned with justice and as a huge nerd, will undoubtedly keep me up at night. Both parts of me think the detail really matters, so that means I gotta double down and suggest you don't read these by themselves, and instead take them as companions to the original texts rather than replacements thereof. But as always I'll try to put enough of the context in each part that we can see what's going on without having the book in front of us.