Academic journal article Social Justice

A Spectre Is Haunting Law and Society: Revisiting Radical Criminology at UC Berkeley

Academic journal article Social Justice

A Spectre Is Haunting Law and Society: Revisiting Radical Criminology at UC Berkeley

Article excerpt

The task has been to study the historical relationship between criminal law and economics, the history of class struggle, and to utilize these interrelationships to analyze the present prison system.

--Georg Rusche, Labor Market and Penal Sanction


In Fall 2012 Jonathan Simon, professor at UC Berkeley, and Tony Platt, visiting professor at San Jose State University, initiated a remarkable experiment in pedagogy and scholarly collaboration. Building off discussions and disagreements between them, they designed a course that would revisit the political context and scholarly analysis of the radical wing of UC Berkeley's School of Criminology in the period prior to its closing in 1976 (Platt 2010; Simon 2010). Titled "From Community Control to Mass Incarceration; Legacies of 1970s Criminology," the course investigated the growth of mass incarceration from the vantage point of those who studied and criticized the nascent political architecture of such a system while if was developing into a force with stunning depth and magnitude.

The course attracted students and auditors from other departments, together with scholars and professors from other institutions and long-time activists, political thinkers, and guest lecturers such as professors Ericka Huggins and Angela Y. Davis. A proxy class also developed amongst New York-based anti-imprisonment activists to read through the syllabus and think about the course themes. In sum, the course material spoke to the urgent issues of our contemporary moment and brought forth a corresponding response from excited participants.

The approximately 30 students--many in their twenties, born and raised under neoliberalism--came to the class craving to understand how and why policing and imprisonment had become so enmeshed in their social world. They wanted to make sense of the extraordinary mobilizations of governmental violence during their lifetimes and of the the role of policing and imprisonment in the broader political and economic conjuncture. They wanted to address "crime and punishment neither as disconnected from the whole of the social structure, nor as severed objects of intellectual inquiry," as Dario Melossi (a frequent attendee in class) wrote of Marx (1980, 71). And further, many of them wanted their knowledge to go beyond the classroom and to "serve the mass of humanity" (Platt 1991, 228).

A number of students were part of social movements such as the Occupy movement, Justice for Alan Blueford (a Black high-school student shot in the back and killed by Oakland police), and organizations like Critical Resistance, National Lawyers Guild, and Creative Interventions. Others, however, were more drawn to the liberal tendencies within the study of criminology and law, and believed there was little amiss in the current study of law and society that the radical perspective needed to rectify. In this sense, the composition of the classroom was an ideal space to engage in debate about liberal and radical perspectives and their significance for contemporary analysis.

Platt, as loyal readers of Social Justice will know, played a key role in building a radical vision for criminology during his time on faculty at UC Berkeley from 1968 to 1976, until he was denied tenure as part of the repression that brought down the Criminology School (Geis 1995). During the heyday of the School, the courses taught by the radical criminologists were quite influential and popular: in the Fall of 1972, when Barry Krisberg, Paul Takagi, and Tony Platt taught an introductory course, over 900 students enrolled across the two quarters (Krisberg et al. 1974, 64). Consistent with their commitment to praxis, Platt and colleagues were part of social struggles opposing the enclosure of People's Park, against police access to helicopters and other surveillance equipment, and for community control of the police (Geis 1995, 284-85). In turn, students were quick to realize the political reason behind the closing of the School of Criminology, and vehemently protested against it; student body president Richard Gallegos declared: "The real reason [for the School's closing] is that this school, unlike most criminology schools around the country, is interested not merely in police training but is interested in the sociological aspects of crime, and that is unacceptable to the administration" (Trombley 1974, 29). …

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