Forrest Stuart. Copwise, The Emerging Cultural Context of Criminalized Urban Communities

Monday, September 22, 2014 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall


Copwise: The Emerging Cultural Context of Criminalized Urban Communities

Over the last four decades, the United States has witnessed a dramatic expansion of all facets of its criminal justice system. This project considers the sociological impacts of hyper-criminalization on the daily experiences, social interactions, and cultural contexts of impoverished urban communities. Drawing on five years of ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles’ Skid Row – the site of one of the most aggressive “zero-tolerance” policing campaigns to date – I examine how Skid Row residents develop and deploy a particular cultural frame – what I term “cop wisdom” – by which they render seemingly-random police activity more legible, predictable, and manipulable. Armed with this interpretive schema, “copwise” residents develop creative and circumspect strategies for evading, deflecting, and subverting punitive criminal justice interventions. For better or worse, cop wisdom and its resulting behaviors have become intimately woven into the social fabric of everyday life, restructuring how those relegated to the bottom of the social order come to understand their peers, their communities, and themselves. On the one hand, cop wisdom encourages mutual avoidance and lateral distancing, which can further exacerbate the conditions of poverty. On the other hand, however, it may potentially provide new avenues for collective action and resistance to ongoing criminalization.

Forrest Stuart is an assistant professor of Sociology and the College at the University of Chicago. His research investigates the role of policing, social welfare, and community organizations in the lives of marginalized urban communities.

Stuart's current book project (under contract with the University of Chicago Press) is an in-depth ethnography of Los Angeles’ Skid Row district. Beginning in the early 2000s, Skid Row became distinguished as the site of one of the most aggressive “zero-tolerance” policing campaigns to date, characterized by arguably the largest concentration of standing police forces found anywhere in the United States. Drawing on five years of fieldwork, interviews, and archival research, the project analyzes the interactions unfolding between police officers and the neighborhood's impoverished residents. The book documents how an emerging model of “therapeutic policing” is re-constituting the meanings and contours of poverty, crime, and urban space.

Stuart received a Ph.D. in Sociology from UCLA in 2012.