Rethinking Policing, Penality & Pandemic

March 15, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Each academic year, the Jackman Humanities Institute sponsors up to 12 Working Groups, consisting of graduate students and faculty conducting research or engaging in other scholarly exchange. In conjunction with the 2023-2024 Working Groups Call for Proposals, we're highlighting some current Working Groups.

The Rethinking Policing, Penality and Pandemic Working Group studies scholarship, reports, and current events related to policing and penality. The group members are particularly concerned about and attentive to the lives and concerns of racialized, poor, and street-involved populations in Toronto. The group also organizes and hosts conversations with and between community organizers and activists, in the spirit of study that aims beyond critique and towards cultivating relationships, solidarity, and alternatives to carcerality. This past year, their areas of focus included community-university relations and the role of the university in society; notions of “pandemic” and the contexts and consequences of neoliberal capitalism; notions of “safety” on and around university campuses, particularly for those who are Black, Indigenous, migrant, racialized, queer, trans, disabled, and/ or living in poverty; tensions between and implications of contemporary discourses of public health, public safety, and decolonization; and food sovereignty in and around Toronto.

This is your third year for this Working Group. What does your group do, and what, if anything, has changed from your original concept for the group?

The aims of our working group have not changed since its conception three years ago. Our group brings together a diverse, multilingual group of established, junior and emerging scholars across disciplines to examine and discuss policing and penality in relation to racialized, poor and street-involved populations in Toronto. As social justice researchers and activists, we share a sense of accountability to communities in and around our universities. We feel a responsibility for the well-being of those populations who are marginalized and excluded through inequitable social relations and structures, and who are targeted by state violence.

These obligations became all the more pressing during the COVID pandemic, which further foregrounded how policing in its many forms, and the carceral state overall, disproportionately endanger the lives of Black, Indigenous, migrant, queer, racialized, trans, and other marginalized folks. Our working group studies the social-political landscape in Toronto in relation to debates in academia, with emphasis on (a) community-university relations and the role of the university in today’s society; (b) notions of safety and security on and around university campuses, particularly for those who are racialized, Indigenous, and disabled; and (c) tensions between and implications of contemporary discourses of public health, public safety, and decolonization.

Ultimately, we are interested in a politics of deep inclusivity that rejects what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called the “organized abandonment” of groups and individuals considered deviant, unproductive and/or otherwise disposable in our society.  Thus, we aim to be in good relation with communities and community members who are doing day-to-day work aligned with our commitment to rethinking (towards replacing) the carceral systems and structures that harm us all. We understand the University, and schooling at all levels, as deeply implicated in this harm, and therefore share a responsibility as educators and scholars to interrogate our own work and do all we can to create healthier relations with the people and land we live with.

How has the Working Group experience been so far?

When this working group first met in the fall of 2020, much of the world was in lockdown. While Zoom meetings, conferences, and webinars had become commonplace, this working group provided a unique space that did not seek to inform or to teach. It was not organized around outcomes or metrics. Instead, we collectively grappled with the tough questions regarding penality that preceded, and were exalted by, the pandemic. The freedom from a concern with productivity, has allowed us to center deep thought and discussion as a mode for developing understanding, critique, and relationships. We started out by examining the university’s relationship to policing and carcerality. Very quickly, we realized that we needed to be in conversation with those most affected. Drawing on our own community connections, we have convened several Community Conversations, through which we have participated in valuable, poignant dialogue with community members who are affected by, and organizing against, carcerality and neoliberal rule. These conversations have led us to think more deeply about the ethics of knowledge gathering, and have highlighted that universities are not the sole, or even primary, place where knowledge is made.

Rethinking Policing, Penality & Pandemic especially supports opportunities to engage, learn and collaborate with groups that are addressing issues and concerns of racialized, precariously housed and street-involved populations. The issues and concerns that our group focuses on are already being addressed through work led by grassroots organizers and engaging in conversation with such organizers has been incredibly generative. Grassroots organizers and activists are often members of communities most directly impacted by carceral systems and understand the community needs and challenges that need to be prioritized. They are also able to identify, respond and mobilize to quickly emerging issues. The work they engage in through organizing, providing resources, and direct action transcends work traditionally engaged in higher education and centres the knowledge, perspectives, and experiences of the people they work with day-to-day.

Have you planned any events and if so, how did they turn out? Can you give us a synopsis?

Each year we have hosted Community Conversations with partnering groups we have sought to learn with and from. Our Community Conversations have not been used as or within formal academic research output.  Rather, we value these conversations as they bring us into collaboration and good relation with community members and inform our understandings of the city we live in and the various work we are to do.

In our first two years, from 2020-2022 we hosted conversations with community organizers from: Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project, Maggie’s Toronto, Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, Toronto People’s Pantry, and Toronto Food Not Bombs.

This year we have partnered Voices from the Shelter Hotels, the Policing-Free Schools campaign, and the For Youth Initiative (FYI). We have recently held Community Conversations with members of Voices about houselessness and the conditions in the shelter hotels; as well as with staff and youth from the FYI who have been organizing in response to deplorable school conditions. Together we have collectively reflected on the depth of these issues and strategies for the future, and these conversations have deepened our connections with local grassroots organizers and involvement in working with those who are taking action to make our city a better place. Following Toronto Metropolitan University’s increasing of campus police and security and related events this year, members of our group also wrote an article titled “Education and the carceral state.”  The commentary addresses the harmful impacts of increased policing in schools and in our communities, especially for Black, Indigenous, racialized, disabled, poor and other marginalized groups. We remind readers of the significant and ongoing work that has been led by Black students, educators, and activists over the past several decades to keep cops out of schools.

Any advice or words for others thinking of applying for a JHI Working Group?

Organizing with a working group with the Jackman Humanities Institute is a chance to explore issues, ideas or topics with creativity and flexibility. It is a great opportunity to engage in dialogue with students and colleagues across departments and institutions. The JHI working group model can provide an opening and resources to connect with those engaging in related work outside of academia, and to thus forge connections that transcend the environment of formal education. Our group has had opportunities to learn, collaborate and contribute towards incredibly valuable work led by community members beyond the realm of the university. We encourage people to use the working groups to pursue projects that might not otherwise find support in academy, and to think creatively about what the opportunity might allow them to study and do together.