Policing, Labor, and Geographies of the State in the Americas

AHA Session 234
Conference on Latin American History 52
Labor and Working Class History Association 2
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Joshua Savala, Rollins College
Micol Seigel, Indiana University

Session Abstract

The police as people, institution, and their culture have recently received long overdue attention in Latin American and US historiography. Today we know much more about the functions of policing, the development of particular ideas of the criminal, and the world of the criminalized. This panel builds on this literature, while also pushing it in a new direction. We propose a dialectical relationship between labor and policing in the formation of the state, a process which relies upon specific notions of space.

When put into explicit conversation with labor history, the history of policing takes on a different life. Instead of thinking from the perspective of policing as the initiator of historical change, we propose a dialectical view in which labor acts as a fundamental element in the construction of policing. Labor—as worksite action, as a population of people to control, and as social movement—is central to understanding the how and why police forces engaged in specific criminological techniques. Further, the relationship between labor and policing informed the ways in which the modern state was formed throughout the Americas.

Policing and labor interact in specific spaces, and this geography affects how this relationship changes over time and moves through space. Police in Arequipa, Peru, for instance, complained that their consistent rotation to different parts of the province meant that they could not adequately learn the social spaces of the areas they were to police; rural police in southern Chile recognized their peripheral status relative to the central state as both cause and result of their difficulties in support for their mission; police officers in southern Argentina often requested more support for maintaining their horses that frequently galloped dozens of miles a day; and immigration officers kept detained Mexican migrants in detention longer to use them as unpaid labor in the United States. Our panel asks how the geographical location of policing, and the particularities of labor in these areas, shifts the conversation from one of an overwhelmingly urban (and capital city) surveillance to one of ‘minor’ policing.

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