If it is by now clear that the police are militarized, the history, logics and operations of militarized policing remain elusive. This talk sheds some light through an historical sociology of militarized policing, beginning with the founding of the modern police in Britain in the nineteenth century and through the present in the United States. Modern policing as we know it was born in Britain and the United States as a “civil police,” meant as an alternative to the use of the military on home soil. But as this talk reveals, the so-called civil police from the beginning have not only adopted the forms and tactics of military forces, they have more specifically adopted imperial-military forms and tactics. Militarization must be recognized as a colonial boomerang, an effect of imperial feedback.
This talk shows that this type of militarization has occurred repeatedly over time, occurring in distinct “waves” of moments of militarization. It further shows these waves have been typically triggered by perceived racialized threats to law and order, as state officials construct analogies between threats in the imperial periphery and threats from racialized minorities at home. To manage these threats, police officials militarized their forces by drawing upon the forms, methods and weaponry that were used by colonial police and imperial armies to coerce racialized peoples in the peripheral zones of empire – often the very same peoples whose presence in the metropole prompt police militarization in the first place. The militarization of police is best seen for what it is: the policing of empires at home and abroad. It is what happens when the imperial state brings home its armies and military methods from the periphery to thrash imagined barbarians who dare enter the empire’s metropolitan spaces.
Julian Go is Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, where is also a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows and Faculty Affiliate of the Center for the Study of the Race, Politics & Culture and the Committee on International Relations. Since receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2000, he has been studying the social logics of empire and colonialism; exploring postcolonial/decolonial thought and its relevance for social science; and promoting global historical sociology. His scholarship has won prizes from the American Sociological Association, the Eastern Sociological Society, the American Political Science Association, and the International Studies Association, among other institutions. He is the winner of Lewis A. Coser Award for Theoretical Agenda Setting in Sociology given by the American Sociological Association and current President of the Social Science History Association (2022).