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The Imperial Origins and Legacies of Policing

A BSA Postcolonial and Decolonial Transformations Study Group Webinar

22 April 2021 (3.30-4.45pm)

About the Event

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020 highlighted the relationship between contemporary state violence and Britain's imperial history. This webinar will delve into the imperial origins and legacies of policing, tracing the emergence of surveillance, mass incarceration, and racialised tropes such as the 'gang'. Further, it will examine the colonial roots of modern civil policing in the metropolis. As Parliament debates drastically expanding police powers, this webinar holds implications for our understanding of the contemporary role of the police and their relationship to the public.

Our Speakers

All-out War: Colonialism, Collective Punishment and the Policing of 'Gangs'
Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper, University of Greenwich
This paper explores how the racist trope of the ‘gang’ reproduces racism in British policing. The chapter begins by analysing counterinsurgency policing in the dying days of Empire, including the use of surveillance, mass incarceration, forced migration and coercive violence against ‘suspect communities’. This colonial policing used the language of ‘gangs’ to depict the targets of colonial violence in contexts including Kenya and Malaya. This racist ‘grammar’, argues Hortense Spillers, finds its way into our present ‘from the semantic and iconic folds buried deep in the collective past’. The trope of the ‘gang’ continues in 21st century Britain, facilitating new technologies, surveillance and injunctions which criminalise black communities and expand the use of prisons and other forms of punishment. Consequently, racial governance in both the colonies and modern Britain enables these forms of collective punishment to be planned, implemented and justified by state institutions, aided by popular racist cultures.

The Coloniality of Policing: Empire, 'Race' & the Birth of the Civil Police in Britain and the US
Prof Julian Go, University of Chicago
This talk reveals the coloniality of modern policing in Britain and the US through an analysis of the birth of the “civil police” model. The modern civil police began in 1829 with the London Metropolitan Police and thereafter spread to other cities in England and then to the United States. The speaker argues that it was born as a response to perceived threats in metropolitan spaces from the racialized subproletariat of cotton colonialism’s sprawling inter-imperial network, and that the idea and operations of the new police were modeled after coercive assemblages of colonial power developed in colonial spaces. The coloniality of the civil police is thereby seen in the perceived threats that compelled the birth of modern policing and in the methods and forms by which those threats were to be managed.

Chaired by Dr Meghan Tinsley, University of Manchester


The event is free of charge but registration is required.