Dr. Tony Platt opened the seminar by sharing a short and rather personal tale about his experience as a student at the University of Oxford many years ago. Describing his time here as less than favourable, he said he felt as though he had always been treated as somewhat of an outsider, or as though he did not belong at the University. The invitation to speak to his most recent work in All Souls College for the Centre for Criminology, to him, was not just a chance to return to the institute, but signified the opportunity for him to enter the University of Oxford “through the front door”.

A recording of this talk can be found here

Dr. Platt began the discussion with an outline of the context of the book that was to be the focus of the seminar. Titled “Beyond These Walls - Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States”, the book builds on the works of academics from as early as the 1960’s. The book explores a number of themes, but the major focus of the seminar was on the use of a historical lens to examine the gloomy state of Trump’s law and order politics of today. Arguing that whilst some aspects of the current state of affairs are unfamiliar, Dr. Platt asserted that we are sometimes too quick to describe what is happening as ‘unseen before’ or ‘the worst things have ever been’, as much of Trump’s vision is simply recycled. The seminar followed a clear and well-thought out structure; first, a critical analysis of the current political climate in Trump’s America; second, a thought-provoking discussion that highlighted how his governance is not a historical anomaly; next, an exploration of both the genuinely novel issues that Trump has brought, as well as those existing problems that he has exacerbated; and finally, a brief but encompassing discussion of what is to be done.

Trump’s Vision of Law and Order:

Trump’s rhetoric around law and order in the United States (US) is characterised by coded language of extreme right-wing ideology and white-nationalism. Actively disregarding ideas of reform or progression that have emerged among the left, he speaks of locking up more criminals, encourages police to ‘rough up’ arrestees and has pinned his presidential campaign on punitive immigration tactics such as the building of a wall along the US-Mexico border. But this kind of punitive and intolerant language has a long-standing history in American politics, both among the Democrats and the Republicans. The encouragement of harsh policing interventions in impoverished and marginalised communities has long been legitimised by James Q. Wilson’s ideas in the article titled “Broken Windows”, and allegations of Mexican dangerousness echo the words of many previous administrations.

When we discuss the current political circumstances that prevail in the US, it is commonplace to speak hyperbolically about how these times are the worst we have seen, or to look back nostalgically to an era that Dr. Platt argued never existed. He argued that when people make these kinds of remarks, they either have a short memory, or are ill-informed about America’s political history. The seminar discussion then proceeded to reflect on the question of what is, and what is not, novel about Trump’s America.

The Continuities:

Beginning with the continuities of Trump’s vision and the practices that are occurring under his presidency, Dr. Platt argued that the militant-style, oppressive nature of policing that the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted as disproportionately affecting Black Americans, is nothing new. Ideas about criminogenic populations coming from the White House have long filtered into local police force tactics, therefore racist practices used by police cannot be blamed on a few “bad apples” at the local level. In other words, police violence is endemic, systemic as well as localised, and always has been.

The kinds of injustice that occurs within the Criminal Justice System (CJS) – which Dr. Platt prefers to term the “Criminal Injustice Chaos” – are also long established, and the system remains a political priority to those in the White House. From those who have narrowly escaped the death penalty in California but must still face the injustice of life in prison without parole, to those white-collar criminals who escape any jail time for money laundering for drug cartels or causing an epidemic of opioid addiction, the CJS certainly fails to deliver justice. What it serves to do instead is a key focus of Dr. Platt’s book; he claimed that it serves to criminalise a number of minority groups. From African-Americans, to Mexicans, and more recently, Muslims, the CJS is part of a network of institutions, groups and systems that serve to maintain inequalities and preserve the carceral state. As opposed to being a state that prioritises democracy, Dr. Platt argued that throughout its history, the US has operated as though it has a fixed number of those it must exclude in order to establish and sustain an American identity.

The Differences:

Turning to the factors that perhaps do represent a shift in American politics of crime and control brought about by Trump’s administration, Dr. Platt suggested that both the speed and boldness with which Trump is pushing his agenda represents something that is of new-found concern. He argued that America is experiencing a level of ruthlessness, directness and toughness in its law and order policies that is unlike anything that has been witnessed in some time. Affording political space to anti-women, anti-gay agendas and to neo-fascist groups has contributed to a rise in acceptability of hate speech. Whilst it is perhaps premature to call this fascism, Dr. Platt asserted that these changes characterise a period of what he calls “authoritarian disorder”.

Issues surrounding immigration constitute a further wave of punitiveness directed at immigrants that gained momentum under Obama’s presidency. Obama’s administration essentially prioritised a (failed) attempt to gain citizenship for the children of migrants (DREAMers), to the detriment of all other immigrants who had entered the US through non-legal routes. Trump’s obsession with building the wall is a manifestation of his desire to be symbolically even more punitive than the immigration acts introduced by Obama. This incredibly tough regime, particularly for Hispanic migrants, represents an expansion of the carceral state that affects the lives of all migrants of colour, forcing them to regulate their behaviour in an ever-increasing number of ways that has not been seen on this scale before.

What is to be done?

Whilst the picture painted of the current state of affairs is a rather bleak one, Dr. Platt suggested that all hope is not lost yet.

The cover of Beyond These Walls depicts a strip of blue sky in front of a set of prison bars, representing the belief that through academic and activist work, reformation of the carceral state is possible. He argues that documenting and exposing injustice and working to prevent things getting worse is a priority for academics and activists. Further to this important work, as a discipline, criminology must be clear in its plan for the future. Coalition building among activists and academics alike is an integral first step in this process of creating a unified vision. This vision must be a comparable, progressive alternative that effectively rivals the future proposed by the political right. In this way, Dr. Platt argued that we might be on the right path to deconstructing the carceral state and bringing about meaningful social change.

During the time dedicated to questions, Dr. Platt further elaborated on what the academy, intellectuals and activists can do to combat the suffering that prevails. He warned that we should be careful not to “settle” for justice for some, and in the process abandon others facing oppression and harm. He argued for more historical analysis within criminology, and an avoidance of being complicit in state injustices; to put it differently, we should not be afraid to take on the challenge of raising moral and political issues.

Blog post by Sarah Boylan.

Current MSc Student in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Centre for Criminology, The University of Oxford.