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At the Edge of Abolition: Violence and Imagination in the History of California Lynch Law

  • Author(s): Park, Linette
  • Advisor(s): Sexton, Jared
  • et al.
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My dissertation, At the Edge of Abolition: Violence and Imagination in the History of California Lynch Law, examines the recent arrests of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the State of California on charges of “self-lynching” or “felony-lynching.” “Lynching” is defined by California Penal Code §405a and 405b as the “taking of a person from the lawful custody of a peace officer.” My work interrogates the historical, political, and psychical formations of violence that bind these present-day arrests to the long history of racial slavery and segregation in the United States. The dissertation maps a critical genealogy of the 1933 anti-lynching legislation that would become the extant state law. In doing so, the dissertation also conceptualizes the penal code as part of the state’s earlier and larger investment in the extension of racial slavery, the enforcement of fugitive slave laws, and its disavowal of lynch law.

By examining a variety of objects and social exchanges, including archival material, legal texts, visual art, and anti-lynching activism, I demonstrate how the historical memory of the state dissimulates the presence of blackness. Consequentially, I argue that the question of “race” becomes continuously displaced, rendering itself as “colorblind” in the juridical archive, legal interpretation, and cultural history of lynching and policing in California. Thus, just as the white lynch mobs regarded their collective violence as a means to achieve the state’s “frontier justice” beyond the rule of law in spite of lynching’s racially targeted motivations, the state similarly utilizes and interprets the penal code throughout the twentieth century to the present in a way that mirrors lynch law’s own exceptional juridical practice and racist imagination. The amalgamation of lynch law, reinforcement of fugitive slave law, and repressing slavery’s role in the state’s political imagination leads not only to the 1933 anti-lynching legislation but also will contribute to the development of the state’s criminal justice system, shaping how the courts will limit the interpretation of lynching to its legal definition as a non-racial criminal offense.

In this project, I excavate an understudied aspect of California’s legal history by linking the state law to an underlying relation of slavery, lynching, policing, and anti-black racism more generally in its reading of blackness. The dissertation contributes broadly to the fields of African American Studies, American Studies, Critical Theory, and Legal Humanities as well as to Political Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Gender and Sexuality Studies, by considering a diverse range of texts and methodological approaches.

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This item is under embargo until August 9, 2025.