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Anti-Blackness and the Possibility of Legal Change: An Abolitionist Analysis of the Post-1992-Uprising Reform of the Los Angeles Police Department


Scholars of criminology and sociolegal studies have long been concerned with the occurrence of anti-Black racism in the context of the criminal legal system, and special attention has been paid to developing policies meant to address empirical findings of anti-Black racism in the law. However, the policy development process is largely atheoretical when it comes to understanding the relationship among policy, anti-Blackness, and the criminal legal system. The purpose of this project is to develop a framework of legal change that theorizes the end of anti-Blackness in the law. To do this, I turn to Black studies theories of Black positionality as I develop the concept of structural abolitionism as one starting place for understanding a) anti-Blackness and subsequent anti-Black racism, and b) what it might mean to sever the relationship between anti-Blackness and the law. Upon the conceptual development of structural abolition, I mobilize the term in a historical context by examining the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and the post-uprising policymaking process. Specifically, I use a method of deconstructive content analysis to analyze archival documents of the Webster Commission, an entity formed to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department’s response to the uprising and make recommendations to prevent future uprisings. Though the Commission made a variety of recommendations, their most prominent was that the LAPD transition to a model of community-oriented policing, a set of policing philosophies and practices primarily developed to address crime and disorder in Black communities while building trust between community members and the police. My analysis reveals that the Commissioners perceived Black communities as dysfunctional and were influenced, in part, by benevolent and paternalistic anti-Black logics as they sought to mobilize police officers as one resource to rehabilitate Black communities. As a result, I demonstrate how community-oriented policing not only failed at addressing the problems facing Black Angelenos, but grew the carceral state while perpetuating racial power. More broadly, by reading the Commission’s archive and recommendations alongside theories of Black positionality, I explore the possibilities and limits of policy and other forms of redress for addressing the problem of anti-Blackness in the law.

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