Jyoti Puri on Anti-Police Rhetorics

February 12, 2016

Jyoti Puri

Professor Jyoti Puri talks about her research on anti-police rhetorics and her new book, "Sexual States: Governance and the Struggle over the Antisodomy Law in India."

What are anti-police rhetorics and what communities are you looking at in your research?

The piece that I’m talking about is when police say that certain communities are anti-police and they accuse certain communities of being antagonistic or hostile to police. Police use this as an implied or explicit form of criticism against these communities... 

I take up two cases as an entry point into this. One of them specifically comes up after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. There was a grand jury trial in which the jury was to determine whether Officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for killing Michael Brown. As Darren Wilson was giving his testimony, he described the community...where Michael Brown was killed - which is also predominately African American - as being anti-police. 

The other case that I look at comes from when I was doing fieldwork in India. I was talking to constables in the city of Delhi… about how they police, especially because there’s an anti-sodomy law on the books. Same-sex sexual contact is actually a forbidden, criminal activity. In that context, we were talking about Hijras, who are people who are assigned male at birth but are typically female presenting. They are sometimes translated as transgender people. The Delhi constables were vehement in saying that Hijras are anti-police. What was interesting in that moment was that even though we were talking in two languages, in Hindi and English, they said “anti-police” very clearly in English.

So you’ve got these two very different contexts. You’ve got Delhi constables on the one hand, talking about Hijras and, on the other hand, you’ve got the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, that is talking about a predominantly African American community, but yet in both cases these representatives of the police are accusing these communities of being hostile to police. 

The paradox that is worthy of attention is that these are specific, economically marginalized communities who bear the brunt of police violence. For police to turn around and accuse these communities for being anti-police - there is a profound irony there. What is it that’s underlying that fact? What is the work that the anti-police accusation is doing? It becomes a way of understanding institutional framings and to be able to understand them critically. 

How do anti-police rhetorics emerge or gain political traction? 

If you look at this idea of police accusing communities of being anti-police, this has been around a long time - but in particular moments it gains more traction. In a sense, Darren Wilson’s use of it in a moment when he was under scrutiny for having killed an unarmed African American man who, to the best of our knowledge, was actually fleeing away from him, was to displace the blame. It becomes a way to push back and try to quell the criticism that is being directed at the police.

How do anti-police rhetorics relate to your interest in gender and sexuality? Why or why isn’t this a feminist issue? 

The focus of my fieldwork in Delhi, for my new book, was on the anti-sodomy law and issues of gender and sexuality. Wanting to study the state was part of that feminist project. While doing this work, I became aware of the way in which that law and the notion of criminal sexual activity was being associated with Muslims. Muslims are a minority within the Indian context. What the police were eluding was that there’s something about being Muslim that predisposes people to being sexually deviant in their framework. In that context, I have to think about questions of religion and, in a sense, racialization. Even though Indian Muslims do not look any different than Indian Hindus, or other groups, there is a language of racialization that underlies those accusations that people are more likely to commit some of these crimes under the anti-sodomy law.

In the meanwhile, there are these instances involving the killing of African Americans, first with Trayvon Martin and then Michael Brown and others, were occurring. The question that was driving me, as a feminist scholar, was to what extent should we be looking at questions of race? As a feminist scholar, what constitutes the proper objective of study? Is it not our obligation to draw attention to other forms of inequality? Wanting to step out of the framework that one can only study gender and sexuality was where some of this came from - and broadening my scope of study as a feminist sociologist. 

Policing connects issues of gender and sexuality with race and social class.

What would you say is the driving force of your research?

Policing is one of the most everyday, routine ways in which we - collectively - feel the power of governance.

The project is really about reducing the power of the state and finding ways of intervening against the understanding [or belief] that, when the police do their enforcement of law using violence and brutality, it’s on behalf of society – for the good of everyone. It's not about individual policemen, because there are officers who are more or less violent than others. I am concerned about the entire institution and the way it produces these forms of governance and these forms of practice.

Professor Jyoti Puri's new book, Sexual States: Governance and the Struggle over the Antisodomy Law in India will be published by Duke University Press in March, 2016. Puri is a Professor of Sociology at Simmons College.