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Vigilance and the American Policing Project: Megan Raschig in Dialogue with Thijs Jeursen

By: Megan Raschig (megan.raschig@csus.edu)

Thijs Jeursen’s The Vigilant Citizen: Everyday Policing and Insecurity in Miami is an engaging and at times staggering ethnographic account of the way ideas about ‘good (American) citizenship’ are bound up with insecurity and vigilance. Within the logic of vigilant citizenship, ideal citizens are those who take on the responsibility of self-defense, who are capable of navigating legal, technological, and material assets and liabilities of their own accord, and who are individually accountable for insecurity, misconduct, and illegal violence. The book seeks to understand the racism and inequalities associated with policing as enacted by everyday citizens in their interactions with others, their perceptions of risk, and their sense of responsibility for maintaining order. This conversation digs into Jeursen’s realization of the scope of US vigilance; being a European ethnographer of North America; raising kids to be critical of policing; and what can be done with scholarly critique.

Megan Raschig:

Through many ethnographic examples and a wide range of literature, you write convincingly about how vigilance is bound up with notions and performances of ‘good citizenship’ in the US, where the work of policing taken up by everyday citizens as they experience insecurity, own guns, and feel compelled to keep order around them. It all felt extremely on point to me, as someone who is not from the US but has lived here for a few years now, and has seen close-up how the logics of gun ownership and vigilance to disorder and potential ‘crime’ are so different than in Canada (where I’m from) or The Netherlands (where we both completed our PhDs). How and when did you realize you were dealing with a deeper imperative of vigilance than, say, a study of policing itself?

Thijs Jeursen:

Many thanks for these kind words and it’s great to hear how the book resonates with your own experiences as a long-time resident. I think it occurred to me quite early on during my fieldwork, one reason being that I have traveled to a few places in the US before and became superficially acquainted with feelings of distrust and insecurity more generally. That said, the vigilance I write about I really came to understand through my relationship with my housemate Olaf and my interactions and relations with police officers. Just being at home with Olaf gave me so much in terms of how and when he or his girlfriend felt safe, what his friends and relatives thought of the neighborhood we lived in, and what he considered to be his responsibility and that of his neighbors versus that of the police. In the book I really try to talk about the everyday, the mundane actions and experience of this vigilance. For example, his girlfriend’s car gets stolen and he’s extremely frustrated with a lot of things, ranging from police inaction to his poor relationship with his direct neighbors. But mostly with himself – believing that it was his fault and he should’ve been more on point that night. I found that even though he did not particularly like owning a weapon or installing cameras at his house, it seemed so difficult to escape the feeling of having to be aware, to be vigilant, almost constantly. Many of his friends were much more anxious, for different reasons for sure as well, but they openly carried firearms or knives with them to bars. While I’m of course not familiar with carrying weapons as a Dutch citizen myself, it was the uneasy feeling of vigilance – not only the presence of the weapon itself – that I felt least comfortable with, that something can happen, you know? At the same time, police officers emphasized how they are citizens too, how the public, in their experience, seemed to forget that underneath that uniform there’s a person who values the same things they do: safety, comfort, etc. It was a mixture of these experiences and interactions that really showed me how this vigilance is rooted in what it means to be a good citizen in the US.


My own behavior changed as well over the course of my fieldwork. Initially I felt very free and comfortable walking and biking around at night, but became less comfortable doing so. Police officers and white and Latinx residents often warned me that it wasn’t safe to do so, often relying on personal experiences or other examples of crime to support their point.


I have noticed that same shift, that encroaching imperative of vigilance, the longer I’ve lived in the US. You refer to being Dutch and European throughout the text, noting how you stand out, or imagining how your nationality and the way you embody it shapes how others see and interact with you. How do you think being a white Dutch man in this context shaped the kind of connections you were able to make and maintain with your interlocutors? More broadly, what kind of interventions do you think European ethnographers might offer to thoroughly American social phenomena like policing and carcerality?


Yes, my appearance and background as a Dutch man was an important part of my research for several reasons. First, I felt, and sometimes others quite literally told me this, as an outsider. While this made me uncomfortable at times (but that’s part of any ethnographic project I believe) this was also helpful in a certain way; people appeared open to explaining things in more detail of how they felt, or how things seemed to work in their view. It facilitated connecting with a very broad range of people, from Latinx police officers to Haitian Americans and white residents such as Olaf. Connections were easy, so to speak, but developing these relationships over the course of my fieldwork was less so. Part of it has to do with the nature of the work, asking questions, being present in the everyday lives of people, hanging out as we ethnographers like to call it. But it wasn’t easy being seen as an outsider by many, and I think I only succeeded in being comfortable around a few. Many of them were men and, in the end, also police officers and white Miamians. Once superior officers approved my role as a researcher, police officers appeared comfortable speaking out about their feelings and thoughts – often assuming I had similar prejudices and preferences. So while my project was initially also about taking into account the experience of groups that suffer from punitive and violent policing practices, I was perhaps naive in thinking I could, and should, really account for these in my work. 


When it comes to a more European perspective on these issues, I feel that the general tendency for both respondents and researchers, including myself, is to compare Europe versus the United States and to conclude that “things are much better” over in larger parts of Europe: less police brutality, less people in prisons, more public services and social security etc.. I got that question a lot: why do you go to Miami to learn about things that are not as bad in your country? I initially believed that a European perspective could offer an approach less focused on repression, use of force, and detention. But isn’t that an expression of moral superiority? Thinking that the US really needs a European perspective? The initial comparison also tends to mask the similarity in the structural and systemic nature of these issues. Sure, while the scale of distrust and police violence and white vigilantism is not the same, we’re basically talking about race and racism when we’re discussing policing and carcerality, and exactly that discussion is seriously underdeveloped in the Netherlands.


So I’m not so sure about what European ethnographers can offer concretely, but I think that more dialogue between researchers from these backgrounds can be meaningful. In that sense, I’m impressed with the work of US based scholars and abolitionists and would like to see this scholarship expanding to former colonial powers like the Netherlands. I’d be very interested to hear from US based researchers who study vigilance and policing in Europe as well, and I think that these scholars have much to contribute in terms of understanding these issues as not typically American phenomena.


Totally agree that there is a sense of moral superiority when discussing anything related to US policing from an outsiders’ perspective, and often concomitant with that is a lack of critical reflection around the conditions of policing, carcerality, racism, colonialism, etc, in other contexts. This attitude also amplifies an unhelpful sense of American exceptionalism.


Exactly. It also seems there’s more recognition and solidarity for these issues beyond the US. In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder there were also protests taking place in the Netherlands, despite strict lockdown policies and regulations due to Covid-19. To me, it signaled the growing realization that racism and police brutality is not just happening “over there”, but a very real and lived experience in the Netherlands – a nation that tends to promote its social welfare system and level of equality.

I think it helps to pull things apart, unpacking the premise that police work, justice, public safety and ‘doing the right thing’ are nicely aligned concepts, and are in fact completely juxtaposed in practice. We can’t let the meaning of justice or doing the right thing be dictated by policing protocols and practice.


In your book, you note the ways the Miami Police Department courted and conscripted children into their policing project. “Do the right thing” programs, or National Night Out events where police proffer stickers and let kids crawl around their decommissioned military equipment, can be so insidious, but even beyond these specific events, our children grow up in a social and media landscape with “friendly” police throughout. How do we raise our kids (or encourage any/all of our relations!) to question the forms of power and inequality the police embody and enforce, and show them other ways of imagining and building justice?


As a father to two I’m very open to suggestions! I find this very difficult, the audiovisual presence of the police is so pervasive and made attractive – both in culture and media as in public life – which makes it hard to ignore. What I’m trying to do in my personal life, but also in a way in lectures and teaching, is to start with the idea that the role of an emergency responder (which is the very central concept in shows like Paw Patrol) is to offer help to people in distress. That’s how many privileged students and people in my direct social environment know the police. And on paper, sure, I don’t think there’s much to dislike about that notion per se. At the same time, I’m trying to decouple the police as a first responder from concepts such as justice and safety, and basically any other aspect of societal life. When I bring my daughter to school we cycle past a prison closed in 2014 and thus no longer in use. She’s four years old and perhaps a bit too young to paint ACAB on the building, but I ask her questions in terms of what she thinks of how it looks (barb wire and bars visible, high walls, etc.) and the idea behind putting people behind bars and the work of judges in that sense. It’s all very basic for sure, but I think it helps to pull things apart, unpacking the premise that police work, justice, public safety and “doing the right thing” are nicely aligned concepts, and are in fact completely juxtaposed in practice. We can’t let the meaning of justice or doing the right thing be dictated by policing protocols and practice. It’s what I show in the book as well, how policing and its principles has become so ingrained and essential in the mundane experience of what it means to be a good citizen. While obviously the discretionary use of violence by the police is particularly horrifying, I’m also quite scared of policing as an ordering principle for societal life beyond the mere presence of the police itself.


Your ethnography details how you sat alongside police in ride-alongs, accompanying them to calls, walking with recruits in Overtown, etc., and that you sometimes sought to minimize your visibility in these situations. What were some of the ethical dimensions to this proximity for you? A related question, did you share your findings with your police interlocutors? What was that process like? I noticed in the conclusion, while giving brief updates on some of the ‘main characters’ in the text, we only hear about Luz and none of the other officers. I guess this is actually a question about how you related to your police interlocutors, which some would consider ‘repugnant cultural others.’


I did share drafts of my chapters with Luz and changed parts that she felt became too personal. I didn’t really develop a stronger relationship with some of the other officers I rode with, and I felt there was often a misunderstanding when it came to the work I did. They often oscillated between considering me one of them and being a naive outsider and student. Although I explicitly explained to every officer what my research involved, and my affiliation to the University of Amsterdam, they were mostly interested in police work in the Netherlands; not many appeared interested or concerned with the writing that I did on the basis of my experience with them.


Relating to the police I found was often difficult in the sense that I had to navigate research integrity (being open about myself and my intentions) versus developing and maintaining access and relationships with them. More generally, people had little reservations when it comes to expressing racist as well as sexist beliefs to me, I imagine because of the assumption that me, as a white man, is likely to have a similar view. At the same time, police officers were also accommodating, and during quieter shifts talked about their personal lives. One officer even wanted to show me his home, for no reason other than just showing a bit of his life. In the book I write that a part of me wants to also humanize these actors, and to recognize some of the internal tensions in the police departments, that some police officers also feel uncomfortable with the actions of their superiors and peers. It’s not meant to remind everyone that, hey, these are people too who have personal feelings and lives and we should sympathize with them, but to highlight contradictions and how a vigilant mindset also impacts the everyday lives of police officers. I think and hope that such a view is actually complementary to the development of more inclusive models of public safety, pointing out that serious issues that need to be abolished and replaced also lie outside the police department as a state institution. 

A vigilant citizen is not necessarily someone who belongs to a certain group (as in, a police officer, security guard, or armed citizen) but who values a particular mindset that often draws on militarized ideals of training, of being prepared.


US policing has become militarized in recent years, not only with decommissioned heavy military equipment making its way into local police departments, but with police employing military tactics, intelligence strategies, and an ethos of enemy combat. How do you see militarization influencing notions of vigilant citizenship, or filtering into social perceptions of threat and the civic responsibility to address it?


Throughout embodied experiences and actions of vigilant citizenship, the military as a doctrine, a combat ethos indeed, and as a way of life was noticeable. Some references to the military in policing were very explicit in terms of symbolism (e.g. police recruits carrying a flag with symbols such as eagles), and others were less obvious, in terms of a level of preparedness and mindset, but there seemed to be an important recognition of military values that influenced vigilant citizenship. If you look at the symbol of the “do the right thing” campaign it shows a child, with a parent or adult portrayed directly above it with the hands on the child’s shoulders and a police officer doing the same thing with the adult. In a way, we can imagine the soldier as a representative of the military above the police officer.


A vigilant citizen is not necessarily someone who belongs to a certain group (as in, a police officer, security guard, or armed citizen) but who values a particular mindset that often draws on militarized ideals of training, of being prepared. When it came to the question of public safety, and what matters most, both police officers and residents who explicitly upheld the value of vigilance differentiated on the basis of someone’s individual training and mentality, and less so in terms of groups or affiliation. A police officer could be poorly trained, doesn’t visit the gun range often, or simply doesn’t care as much. A security guard with the proper training, then, though they have less rights and discretion, could be seen as a more important contributor to public safety in the ideals of vigilant citizenship. While soldiers aren’t involved in the policing of everyday life like police officers, militarization is also about the normalization of military doctrine and culture in a civil domain. The ideal of vigilant citizenship is not so much about someone’s professional affiliation, so whether they’re a police officer, security guard, or citizen, but much more about their training and their overall level of vigilance. Police officers can be poorly trained, but the military, so goes the narrative, often upholds a much higher standard.


This also clearly resonates with the symbolic status veterans and military personnel enjoy in larger US society. It’s not only their service many are thankful for, but their experience and (former) affiliation to the military is still valued as they’ve “returned” to civilian life: they automatically become exemplary of what it means to be a good citizen.


Ethnography does surveillance work too, and sous-veillance, observing those in power ‘from below’. Anthropologists of policing have had this ‘epistemic solidarity’ ethos with interlocutors, interested in documenting police praxis to support liberatory projects. Is this a stance you’ve taken up as well? What do you want readers to do with what they learn in this book?


Yes: support for and solidarity with abolitionist projects, collectives, and communities affected by the policing actors spotlighted in the book. That could come in many ways, obviously, from attending protests, from using the book to educate students about the experiences and practices I write about, to any small and local initiatives that further increase the visibility of not just police brutality, but the very racist nature of policing beyond the police as well. But it’s up to readers how they want to translate what they read about into practice, of course, and this can mean very different things. I don’t consider myself the most influential author on this topic by any means. But when I look at my own influence and position I have, I can make these issues more widely known, because still, and I continue to be disappointed by this, in academia a lot of critique on the police and policing is still either ignored, downplayed, or otherwise misinterpreted. I have access to these (mostly) white spaces, and maybe I can problematize or challenge their normative assumptions on a local scale, in my own everyday interactions with students and researchers? That’s how I think about my own role, and I would like to encourage people to explore these opportunities themselves.


What glimmers of possibility do you see for dismantling the racialized structures of policing? Where reformist reforms are doomed to continue reproducing this institution, could you envision any non-reformist reforms that might reshape not only policing itself, but also how Americans think about guns or practice vigilance? (Or are we residing in a US doomed to an ever-intensifying insecurity, suspicion of each other, and never-ending arguments with in-laws over firearms as creating safety, detente, or mutually assured destruction??? Asking for a friend lol.)


I’m also looking for additional perspectives and hope when it comes to alternatives to current models of policing. I read an interview with a social psychologist who studied protest movements and argued that anger and frustration that mobilizes people sparks protests and citizen disobedience. Of course, it’s not only emotions that make large scale protests and political change possible, but I found this an interesting idea. Looking at recent terrifying changes in the US, related here to Miami for example, is the censoring of books and material in the state of Florida. I can’t see a way out. As a researcher, I’m wondering, are we only uncovering more of the monsters and machinery that perpetuate hate and insecurity? Or is it actually intensifying, or worse, both? How does hope help here?


I think it also depends on what we mean by hope – not a naive idealism, but something pragmatic and material. Anger and frustration, like disappointment, are critical catalysts to fight for change. But Abolitionist Mariame Kaba reminds us that hope is a discipline, something we practice and hone each day in the work of building another world.

Author Bios

Thijs Jeursen (he/him) is an Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and editor of Conflict and Society. He works and publishes on policing, citizenship, and urban inequalities based on ethnographic research in the United States and the Netherlands. His most recent research project focuses on environmental harm in military conflicts.
Megan Raschig (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Cultural and Medical Anthropology at California State University, Sacramento, and the Editor-in-Chief of Journal for the Anthropology of North America. Her forthcoming book, Healing Movements: Chicanx-Indigenous Activism and Criminal Justice in California (NYU Press, 2024) examines cultural healing as grassroots anti-carceral action in a Chicanx community in Salinas, California.

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