From slavery to police torture

Laurence Ralph's ethnography explores the different systems of punishment that harm the bodies of Black and Brown Americans and that help maintain the vestiges of slavery. These wounds call for restorative justice.

This publication is part of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The entire list can be viewed here.
Laurence Ralph is professor of anthropology at Princeton University and director of the Center on Transnational Policing. He was a scholarship holder CASBS 2021-2022 Stanford University. He was also a member of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and received Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellowships. Laurence Ralph is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Current Anthropology.

His first book, Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago, was published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press. This book addresses the consequences of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, the ramifications of heroin trafficking for adolescents infected with HIV, the dangers of gun violence and the resulting disabilities for gang members. Studying this global context allows him to detail the social forces that make black urban residents vulnerable to illness and disability. Renegade Dreams received the C. Wright Mills Prize from the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) in 2015.

Laurence Ralph's latest book, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, was also published by The University of Chicago Press. It explores a decades-old scandal: 125 people were tortured while in police custody.

The Life of Ideas: In your research, you have explored subjects as varied as gun violence, police violence, police torture, the drug trade, mass incarceration and disability. You have explored these themes through different formats, and without sticking to traditional academic writing, you have also explored other forms of expression such as documentaries or innovative writing (The Torture Letters chooses the form of pistol narratives). The question of injured and debilitated black bodies, suffering spirits and death seems to be at the center of all your reflections. What do you think is the common thread that connects the different facets of your work?? What does your work tell us about the current state of race relations in the United States??

Laurence Ralph: In my work, I have explored the drug trade, gang violence, police violence, disability-related violence. I think what unifies my work is considering injury and violence together. And I say that because often when we talk about black urban youth in particular, we think about it in terms of incarceration and death.

What I am trying to do in raising the issue of injuries is to examine how people live with injuries, and try to overcome their condition. What matters to me is that the injury involves not only violence, but also the idea that we can recover from this violence, and that there is a way to consider repair. I therefore consider wounds not only in the body, but also in the aspect of social wounds, as a condition for thinking about restorative justice.

The Life of Ideas: In Renegade Dreams, you show how former gang members, injured during acts of armed violence, found themselves paraplegic or quadriplegic, condemned to spend the rest of their lives in wheelchairs, constantly micro-manipulating their bodies in order to avoid health complications. However, your book refuses to succumb to misrabilism and instead shows how these people continue to dream and engage in politics, writing, community building, etc. Who are the dreamers that you depict? How do they force us to complicate the traditional narrative of the violent and isolated ghetto, marked by the symbiosis of hyper-segregation and hyper-incarceration??

Laurence Ralph: My first book, Renegade Dreams, is centered on the figure of the disabled former gang member. Disability has therefore become an essential means of exploring themes related to violence and gang membership. The reason disability became so important to me is that disabled gang members were placed in paradoxical positions.

On the one hand, there is this idea that they sacrificed themselves for the gang and therefore should be honored. On the other hand, their lives were at odds with this. And because they were not dead, they were not used as many gang members are after their death. They were therefore a kind of living testimony to violence, but also to abandonment, in many ways.

So I became interested in their lives and how they were before and after their injury, as well as their relationships with the community and with their family. And that led me to explore their dreams, because I learned that they had no shortage of aspirations for the future, for the life they wanted to lead and the kind of family they wanted to have. But these aspirations were different from those I was accustomed to as a middle-class person who aspired to be a professor at the time. They aspired to have a safe, drug-free community, a safe, shooting-free community, where people could walk around without being harassed by the police.; and these people organized and mobilized and dedicated their lives to solving these community problems.

How to get children to and from school safely? How to make it a drug-free zone? How to reduce gun violence? These dreams and aspirations were of vital importance to the community. So it was important for me to focus on these everyday dreams that people were fighting for. This allows me to emphasize what most of the readers of my book take for granted, namely the security of their own lives, the social mobility towards which a clear path leads them.

But on the other hand, I think it highlights social inequality more generally: the difference in our dreams is also the difference in our social situations. And so I think focusing on the dream is vitally important, because there has been a history of seeing urban communities as pathological, devoid of any hope, driven by alternative values ​​that don't align with the so-called dominant values. .

But that's not what I found. I discovered that people had dreams that they strived to achieve. But these dreams represented something that most Americans can take for granted. And I thought it was very important to shed light on this subject.

The Life of Ideas: In Torture Letters, you show how Chicago police officers working under former police commander Jon Burge tortured black suspects for years, beating them, shocking them, subjecting them to water torture, or raping them. What does your book teach us about the conditions that allow the perpetuation and maintenance of state-sponsored torture and other forms of dehumanizing systems??

Laurence Ralph: In Torture letters, I tackled the very difficult subject of police torture. And I looked into a case in which nearly 200 black men were tortured in police custody. These torture incidents were linked to a broader social movement in Chicago that lasted nearly 50 years to try to gain recognition of torture. This happened gradually. At first people did not believe these tortures. Over the years, more and more evidence emerged in civil cases and litigation, making it indisputable that they had been tortured.

But then the question is: what to do? In my book, I try to examine everything from the torture devices used to shock and beat these men to the careers of the police officers who tortured them. And I discovered that these police officers had had other careers as soldiers.

Sometimes they came from the army and then implemented these torture techniques. Sometimes, it was afterward that the army used them, because of their expertise in obtaining confessions. And they were found to be torturers in other places, in other black sites during the war on terror. So I found it important to trace these networks and these trajectories, as well as the torture devices, to show how easy it is to transform people into enemies and what happens then.

So the problem of torture begs the question: how can we prevent this from happening again?? The book's main revelation is that the conditions in which these men were tortured still exist. The same pressure to obtain confessions, the same hierarchy in which police officers rise in rank based on their ability to solve cases, the same blindness to community complaints about what is happening in certain neighborhoods, all of this exists always. This is why I wanted to describe this project in as much detail as possible. To me, this project was important because it was linked to a larger movement in Chicago that was trying to get reparations for torture survivors.

In 2015, the City of Chicago awarded reparations in a landmark case. And that provided a wealth of collective resources for the city, based on what these men experienced, and therefore, looking at torture as restorative justice. How can we repair violence that has been perpetrated in the past, whether it is interpersonal violence or state-sanctioned violence??

The Life of Ideas: How does your work address the lines of continuity between the era of slavery and the current plight of African Americans?

Laurence Ralph: My work is part of a long tradition of black scholars examining life after slavery, what Cristina Sharpe calls the wake of slavery, and examining the residual effects of slavery for African descendants. I study the types of systems of containment, policing, and confinement that have evolved over time and still have effects in the present.

Whether it's slave patrols, which are policed ​​by free blacks and slaves alike, or the Jim Crow era, which created places where African descendants could go or not, or the system of mass incarceration that has a disproportionate impact on African descendants, I want to examine how these systems maintain particular social and racial hierarchies that persist over time.

This is one of the ways in which I explore wounds, and social wounds in particular. So, even if you are not particularly affected, if you were not enslaved as a Black person living in the United States, it is very likely that someone in your family was.; and for Latin Americans as well, it is very likely that a member of their family has been incarcerated.

This disproportionately affects Black and Latino Americans. How to examine systems of punishment that reify certain forms of social exclusion? And how can we think about new ways to maintain security without relying on the vestiges of social inequality??

Interview: Jules Naudet. Shooting: Stanford University.