Post by Mary Bosworth, Director of Border Criminologies. Mary is on Twitter @MFBosworth. In this post Mary introduces a series of posts written in response to the inauguration of the 45th US President.

Nearly 10 years ago, Ian Loader and I organised an event in Oxford on ‘Reinventing Penal Parsimony’. That workshop engendered a special issue of Theoretical Criminology, and included papers from around the world on various aspects of punishment. The brief we gave our participants was to ‘look and think beyond current practice, with a view to imagining a different world order with a new, more moderate, set of penal practices and aspirations.’ In so doing, I wrote in the introduction to the journal, ‘we hope to open new pathways of theoretical inquiry and empirical exploration…’

Specifically, we asked everyone to revisit ideas of penal populism, either to explain why it had spawned such punitive practices, or to come up with some explanation of how it didn’t always do so. Despite considerable effort at the workshop and in their research, most of the papers painted dispiriting picture of policies that target the poor, the vulnerable, and racial and ethnic minorities. Populism, they suggested maps easily onto intolerance and control.

In the era of Brexit and now Trump, I have found myself remembering that event, wondering once again why it seems so hard to galvanise public will and passion for good. And then, the women’s marches happened on January 21. Suddenly, a popular movement based on inclusion seemed to spring fully formed around the world. Most inspiring of all, the women’s marches incorporated issues of migration and refugees into their call for justice.  Even in the rather small rally I attended in Oxford, the signs and call outs against Trump were punctuated almost as a matter of course by chants that ‘refugees are welcome here’, that ‘nobody is illegal’, that ‘migrant rights are human rights.’ In so doing, they enacted an inclusive ideal, working together for change.

Photo: Corinne Carey

Of course there are critics and reasons to be suspicious. Where were all these people in earlier marches on related issues of pressing social injustice?  In 2016, for instance, the ‘Welcome Refugees’ march in London attracted 10, 000 people – a tenth of those who marched on Saturday on the same streets. Are white women paying attention to ‘Black Lives Matter?’ Did they all vote?

I understand these concerns and believe they have some merit. Yet I don't want to be always pessimistic and cynical. I don't think the Right is. In our uncertain and unpleasant times, we should be celebrating the moments and types of resistance whenever we have a chance. It is clear that marches alone cannot change policies.  But they can draw people together. Trump is elected, and May seems set on ignoring all the economic and social warnings coming her way. We will be needing a broad coalition to undo their acts.

While it is right that much of our academic work documents injustice and suffering, as that is generally how coercive state power is experienced, we need to remember also to spend time imagining what Leanne Weber refers to as ‘Peace at border’, or our ‘preferred future.’ On January 21, I think we got a glimpse of that.

As I have done before, I would like to invite people to contribute to Border Criminologies about the challenges of writing in the current political climate. Over the next few days, in response to the inauguration and Women’s March on Washington, we will run two posts, written from quite different perspectives and sites, in which both authors reflect on these recent events. For Gabriella Sanchez, writing on the US Mexican border, support and optimism are to be found within the migrant community.  For Vanessa Barker, marching in Stockholm, far from her US home, coming together in public with others was inspiring.

Both accounts invite further reflection. Please send us posts if you would like to contribute to an ongoing conversation.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bosworth, M. (2017) Organising in an Era of Populism: On the Importance of Optimism. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/01/organising-era (Accessed [date]).