Philosophy of Police Violence and Mass Incarceration


Lisa Guenther, associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, has developed a new philosophy course, “Police Violence and Mass Incarceration,” which she will be teaching this coming term. I think it is a great way of showing students a way in which philosophy can interact with current events. I asked her about the course, and in an email she writes:

I think it’s important for philosophers to respond to our concrete situation as educators, as citizens, and as people.  I have been writing and teaching about issues of mass incarceration for the past four or five years, and I facilitate a weekly philosophy discussion group with men on Tennessee’s death row, called R.E.A.C.H. Coalition.  When Mike Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, I wanted to understand the connections between police violence, the structural violence of racism and white supremacy, and other forms of state violence such as capital punishment and mass incarceration.  And as the Black Lives Matter movement got underway, I also wanted to understand the way social movements for collective liberation resist and transform violent structures that have been naturalized and normalized as inevitable or even desirable.  This course is a way of both teaching and learning about these issues, as they continue to unfold in our daily lives.

Professor Guenther has put the course syllabus online. Here is the course description:

The killing of unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, by police in Missouri and New York, and the grand jury process that judged both homicides to be justifiable, has provoked a powerful social movement affirming that Black Lives Matter. The history of police violence against black people is as long as the history of policing itself; arguably, the first organized police forces in the US were slave patrols in South Carolina. As Beth Richie, Dean Spade, and other scholars have shown, women of color, people with disabilities, and queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people are also exposed in various ways to disproportionate police surveillance, arrest, and incarceration. Not only does the US have high rates of police violence and misconduct, we also have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Contemporary scholars have called this situation of mass incarceration in the US neo-slavery, the New Jim Crow, the Prison Industrial Complex, and the Golden Gulag. 

In this course, we will engage philosophically with issues raised by police violence and mass incarceration in the US, asking both what philosophers can bring to the conversation and also what we can learn from the critical analysis and collective action of thinkers and activists beyond the academic discipline of philosophy. Our challenge is not only to read the work of contemporary philosophers, and not only to respond to current events, but to re-think what the practice of philosophy could become if philosophers sought not only to interpret the world, but also to change it.

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