The Perils of Justice ‘Colonialism’

Print More
pith helmets

Photo by puikkibeach via Flickr

“Somewhere in the dark streets of the nation’s capital,” Prof. Rosa Brooks tells us near the beginning of her account of service as a reserve officer with the D.C. Metropolitan Police, Tangled Up In Blue, “someone was hurting someone else”.

You mean in Georgetown? Adams Morgan? Cleveland Park?

Well, no. We’re going to talk about the Seventh Police District, across the river in Anacostia, where the population is 96 percent Black.

Prof. Brooks provides the moment for another look at the tradition that she faithfully pursues: the American criminal justice travel/adventure memoir.

It’s a powerful genre, and, as Martin Green wrote of the Kiplingesque tales of Third World adventures from which it derives, it can subvert even “quite passionately radical intentions and carries its own imperialist message, despite the individual artist’s intentions.”

By conforming to the model, Brooks provides a lesson that I don’t think she planned to teach.

Brooks is not a particularly flagrant practitioner in this genre. It is just her bad luck that her classical rendition of it requires us to confront the vision of the American city that emerges—as “wetness” emerges only after individual molecules of H2O are aggregated—from the long parade of contemporary criminal justice memoirs.

The travel/adventure tradition lays a trap for the well-meaning. In the end, Prof. Brooks, like her many predecessors―including cops, prosecutors and defenders―falls into that trap.

The trap ensnares their readers too.

At the same time that it existed as a partial, biased, fictional idea of historical India, “Kipling’s India” existed as a compelling reality. It defined the meaning of the real India for generations of Britons who never went there, founded a literature, supported an ideology, to a large extent determined public response to Britain’s colonial policies, and even shaped the way in which Kipling’s colonial White Men saw themselves.

Leonard Woolf, looking back on his five years of service as a colonial magistrate in Ceylon, once admitted: “I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story.”

Anyone—including India’s people—hoping to grapple with the problems of the genuine India in our post-Kipling period must come to grips with “Kipling’s India” and take account of the role that the White Men whom Kipling eulogized, and a political culture that saw India through Kipling’s eyes, played in deciding, executing and evaluating India policy.

Rosa Brooks’ Anacostia bears the same relationship to Anacostia that “Kipling’s India” bore to India. Ordinarily, white Washingtonians don’t go to Anacostia (nor white Bostonians to Roxbury, nor white Manhattanites to East New York).

They don’t go because they believe that they know exactly what they would find if they did go–a Heart of Darkness, peopled by full-time predators and their full-time prey.

They are frightened away by a socially constructed “reality,” assembled from the travelers’ dispatches.

Searching for Truth in the Seventh District

Finally, Prof. Brooks leaves Us, Here, and sets out on a testing journey downward and inward, to an exotic There–to “7D” in Southeast Washington.

Like Old Etonian George Orwell in the Burma Police, Brooks is in the criminal system, but she is not quite of it. She is a figure from another world: a published writer with a law degree, a teaching job, and a book in mind. She’s free to leave any day she chooses.

For Brooks, police service is an exploration; for the cops whose days she chronicles it is more like a doom. What they always confront, but Brooks never does, is “I have to come back and do this tomorrow.”

Brooks sees this difference, and admits that her knowledge isn’t perfect.

But, then, it doesn’t have to be, because her imperfect knowledge is still categorically superior to your own.

There is a Kipling story, “The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P.,” in which Pagett, a wooly-minded reformer, visits an old schoolmate, Orde, who is one of Kipling’s prototypical world-weary imperial civil servants. Pagett, new to India, observes that the nascent Congress movement must be causing great excitement among the masses of Indian people.

This provides Orde with (as Angus Wilson puts it) “the rather too easy opportunity to produce witnesses from among many types in India’s agriculture, finance and industry utterly to refute the wretched Pagett’s remark.”

To obliterate Pagett, Orde deploys weapons familiar from criminal justice memoirs: on-the-spot expertise, scorn for illusions, a privileged view of the people governed.

In Tangled Up in Blue the role of the unhappy Pagett is filled by Prof. Brooks’ mother, the writer and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, who reappears at intervals to offer paleo-liberal opinions about Anacostia and its relationship to the cops.

These views Professor Brooks, armed with her frontline experience, swats away—at least to her own (considerable) satisfaction—without difficulty.

Of course, at this distance you can’t help but recognize that Orde and Kipling were wrong and the pathetic Pagett was right: the Congress movement formed the foundation for Indian independence.

Maybe Brooks could be wrong (and Ehrenreich right) too.

Besides, if Orde and Brooks are both wrong, they are wrong in the same way.

Orde and Brooks (and our other criminal justice autobiographers) rely on the same basis for their claims to expert authority. The trump card they play is the simple quantity of raw, unmediated local experience—as if bias, expectation, ideology, culture, and judgment play no role.

Who are you to question them? They’ve been there; you haven’t.

Prof. Brooks records hundreds of encounters with Anacostia’s residents.

 Like her fellow memoirists, Brooks’ aims for “just the facts”—she shows us what she sees. She knows that there are things she does not know, and she is careful to tell us that. Unlike, say, T.E. Lawrence in Arabia, she does not pontificate about the nature of the people she encounters.

She realizes that she is seeing Black life in Anacostia only in strobe flashes.

Even so, there is a process of “representation” under way: the people of Anacostia are being portrayed, even if only by implication.

The cops aren’t at the Thanksgiving table or in the churches; the cops respond to trouble. Strange events and bizarre reactions proliferate: kids call cops on drunken mothers; meaningless disputes generate violent assaults; self-defeating behaviors of all kinds play out as the bewildered cops stand by, or cope with the aftermaths.

All of this is reported in clinical tones—“It is what it is.”

But, in the end, this agnosticism communicates to readers a sense that if our experts on Anacostia can’t understand the people who live there, maybe no one could. Maybe those people are just fundamentally enigmatic.

Experts in Unknowability

Our expert travelers serve us as experts in unknowability.

The superficial ethnographic modesty of the travel/adventure tradition creates a devastating effect.

Anacostia’ residents, like colonial subjects, look to readers to be not only distant, but in some way intrinsically, permanently, different.

Understanding them is impossible; maybe controlling things and keeping a lid on is the best we can do.

We’ll have to leave it at that.

Lost In The City

The plain fact is that the people living in Anacostia are not mysterious and different people; they are entirely familiar people who are coping with radically different and destructive circumstances.

By investing in the travel/adventure memoirs both their white protagonists and their audiences manage to hide from themselves their own roles in creating, imposing, sustaining, and continually aggravating those extreme circumstances, just as the colonialists obscured their own impact on subaltern societies.

The relentless campaigns of  compelled migration, housing segregation, de-industrialization, and unequal wealth distribution that created this picture were not directed by Anacostia’s residents against themselves.

Drugs aren’t grown, imported, or even (for the most part) wholesaled in Anacostia. The laws that make the illegal drug trade profitable aren’t made there. The wild proliferation of handguns in America has its sources elsewhere.

The decades of budget decisions that turned Anacostia’s public health, addiction treatment, child welfare, and education systems into empty shells were not made in Anacostia either.

And, of course, the decision to deal with these circumstances—to deal with them exclusively—by deploying the metastasizing carceral regime that includes Prof. Brooks and her colleagues in the Metropolitan Police was not an Anacostia product.

That strategy has brought in its train the profligate distribution of criminal records, a new class of citizens vulnerable to pretext stops and frisks, surveillance and supervision, and the traumatic wholesale family separations required by mass incarceration,

Knowledge Imperialism

T.E. Lawrence filled hundreds of pages with his insights into Arabs (or, at least, The Arab) but what the Arabs thought of Lawrence was left to conjecture.

The imperial travel/adventure writers and their audience, as John McClure has pointed out, enjoyed “the luxury of knowing without the pain of being known.” Contemporary criminal justice memoirists and their audiences do the same.

Read Prof. Brooks if you’d like. She is not lying to you. She says some interesting things. It is useful to know how cops feel about events. Their frustrations and discontents affect their performance.

Still, the vision of the city Brooks provides is radically incomplete: it doesn’t just leave a gap, it presents a mistaken version of reality. It is factual, but without being quite true.

I admit that if it were up to me, you wouldn’t be allowed to read Prof. Brooks without first reading Edward P. Jones’s magnificent short story collections Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. 

Jones’ books are literary masterpieces on the order of James Joyce’s Dubliners. As A.O. Scott writes, the District of Columbia that Jones “invites us to know is a scrupulously documented, carefully quantified world.”

It is the world of the people who live in the District, not of the people sent to patrol it. Read Jones and it becomes clear that Anacostia’s people try to live in a world largely contrived for them by others, and that law enforcement Control is not the same thing as the broad Safety that allows collective efficacy to take root and a community to flourish.

Fascination with law enforcement adventures in a community amounts to a fixation on emergency first aid tactics—some of them disastrous in their impacts—at the expense of preventive medicine and genuine public health.

james doyle

James M. Doyle

There is nothing mysterious going on in Anacostia that requires these travelers’ expert surveys. There is a steady construction of extraordinarily obvious barriers to economic equality, family cohesion, educational support, medical treatment, and personal safety.

The people reading the criminal justice travel/adventure memoirs could turn their attention there, summon a little empathy, and begin the work of taking those barriers down.

James M. Doyle is a Boston defense lawyer and author, and a regular columnist for The Crime Report. TCR welcomes readers’ comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *