Course Puts Modern Movements to Defund Police, Abolish Prisons into Historical Context
Through a humanities-based initiative, law students and grad students collaborate and learn together
In the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, talk of defunding or even abolishing police departments went mainstream. But it was by no means a new topic, and a course at Minnesota Law entering its second year contextualizes the current debate through a historical exploration.
“Abolition and the Carceral State” is taught by Professor Susanna Blumenthal. The course examines the past, present, and possible future of the carceral state–not just the formal institutions of policing and punishment, but also policies, practices, and structures that criminalize and control populations within and beyond the physical space of jails, prisons, and detention centers.
“In a time when many are looking for alternatives to the criminal justice system, this course is intended to explore the uses of history in the pursuit of social transformation,” says Blumenthal, the William L. Prosser professor of law and professor of history.
Blumenthal’s aim is to start from the present and encourage students to “think about these latest calls for abolition in a broader historical context,” she says. “Those movements can be traced back to the 19th century and earlier.”
For purposes of the course, thinking historically about abolition means critically examining the parallels drawn between historical struggles to abolish slavery, Jim Crow, and other systems of oppression and those in our own times.
“The aim is to engage with history to make sense of our own times,” says Blumenthal. “It is for us a means of taking apart what’s taken for granted and identifying proverbial paths not taken that might yet be pursued to reduce harm and promote justice.”
Delving into the Archives
The work of the course includes archival research, and students have the opportunity to engage with scholars, advocates, and community organizations as they formulate and carry out their projects.
Once exposed to strands of abolitionist thought and its relevance to the history of criminal justice in the United States, students are trained to think critically about history—including about how it operates as a source of knowledge, frame of reference, and form of authority in legal argument, legislative debate, and public discourse.
Students not only read about advocates past and present, but also participate in the making of history as they undertake archival projects of their own—finding out what is in the archives, as well as what isn’t and why.
“We encourage them to read along and against the grain,” says Blumenthal. “Most of the research will be conducted in University archives and at the Minnesota Historical Society, where they will have the opportunity to interrogate the historical record, attending to the silences and gaps which limit what we can know about the lived experiences of those most deeply impacted by the carceral state.”
Minnesota Transform Connection
“Abolition and the Carceral State” is partly an effort of Minnesota Transform, a racial justice and humanities-focused higher-education initiative funded via a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Minnesota Transform works with partners on and off campus to create new knowledge about people and events that have historically been marginalized at the university.
Associate professor of history Tracey Deutsch, a faculty coordinator for Minnesota Transform, explains that the initiative puts humanities on the front lines of struggles for justice. “We were thrilled to support this class,” she says. “It exemplifies the relevance of archival and humanities work to solving urgent problems of racial justice.”
Planned outcomes for students taking the course include developing a strategy for approaching a complex socio-legal problem; explaining the relevance of historical knowledge and methods in legal argument and policymaking; and engaging in critical analyses of competing arguments and policy prescriptions.
The seminar-style course is designed to put law students in dialogue with graduate students in other departments, including sociology, American Studies, English literature, geography, and anthropology as well as history.
History Ph.D. candidate Treasure Tinsley serves as teaching assistant (TA) during the course’s first year last fall. She was a research assistant this summer, and is back serving as a TA this fall.
“My research examines urban renewal in Minneapolis in the 20th century, with a focus on the ways that these dramatic geographic changes worked to reinforce the socio-legal structures of the carceral state,” says Tinsley. “Taking the course last year sparked an interest in legal history for me, as well as a deeper understanding of the connection of law to my work.”
For Tinsley, sharing the learning experience with law students has been a valuable component of her participation in the course. “As a historian, legalese often feels like a foreign language.” she says. “Working closely with Law students allowed me to see my work and the texts of the class from an entirely different perspective. My peers often picked up on nuances and implications that would never have occurred to me. In return, I feel like the graduate students in the class were all able to bring the organizing frameworks of their fields into the class discussion, providing background and context to things like social movements, the history of slavery, or abolitionist methodologies.”
3L Akeeem Anderson, a dual degree student in the J.D./Ph.D. program who took the course last year, agrees that the course’s interdisciplinary approach is one of greatest strengths.
The course offered an illuminating mix of the historical and the contemporary through unique readings and interesting guest speakers, Anderson says. He also valued the space the course provided for thinking about community building to advance racial justice.
“This class was particularly interesting as we live in the aftermath of various killings of black bodies and had to find ways to intellectually and physically grapple with living in a state heavily focused on policing and carceral logics,” he says.
Dan Heilman is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer