The Portals Policing Project
Using Portals, a new civic infrastructure, researchers developed the most extensive collection of first-hand accounts of policing in the United States.
The result is a new type of research — an attempt to describe and analyze democracy from the ground up. Introducing: The Portals Policing Project.
In 2015, Americans learned that public authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, had used the police force to impose a ‘predatory system of government’ on poor black citizens. The moment made unmistakeable something already well-known to these communities: that our experiences of the police are central to how we understand ourselves and our democracy.
How Americans relate to the police is, therefore, a subject of growing academic interest. But understanding the perspectives of a community can be notoriously difficult. Participants are understandably reluctant to share their views with strangers, and even the most adept researcher may influence survey data through his or her presence.
“Despite the transformation of policing and rising prevalence of encounters with the justice system,” the Portals Policing Project argues, “current research is ill-suited to help us understand how the Michael Browns of America come to experience the police and state authority more broadly.”
To combat these challenges, Vesla Weaver of Johns Hopkins University and Tracey Meares and Gwen Prowse of Yale University used Portals to initiate conversations about the police in the United States’ most heavily-policed communities.
These Portals — a network of immersive audiovisual environments that allow distant people to talk as if in the same room — create a new, unexplored medium of research.
By introducing geographically-separated communities to each other and prompting dialogues about the police, the researchers “removed themselves from the conversation,” creating a space where citizens could express their opinions unimpeded. Instead, local community members called Curators facilitate the dialogues — at times guiding the conversation, at times taking part.
With the participants’ consent, the conversations were recorded, anonymized, and then analyzed. The result is a substantial, unprecedented data set. The three-year project amassed over 850 conversations across 14 neighborhoods in six cities.
In a series of articles and an upcoming book, the team behind the Portals Policing Project identify four characteristics of political life among subjugated communities in the United States. As this research develops, the core findings will be shared through the Portals Policing Project website.
Crucially, these observations challenge existing accounts of American citizenship and the role and function of the state in people’s lives. By centering the ideas, understandings, and wisdom of American communities, Meares, Weaver, and Prowse are arriving at uncommon insights into American democracy. The narratives emerging from these communities pose a rebuttal to dominant academic frameworks.
The first characteristic to emerge is that the relationship between policed communities and the State is one of distorted responsiveness. The participants described their police as being both everywhere and nowhere — present for minor transgressions and absent when needed.
The second, Weaver, Meares, and Prowse argue, is that the primary desire of policed communities is political recognition — to be known and acknowledged by the State — rather than greater responsiveness from the police.
Next, they argue that in contrast to the prevailing wisdom about uninformed electorates, citizens of these communities have too much knowledge of and too little power regarding their representation. These citizens know both how the State should operate, based on written law, and how it actually doesoperate, based on their lived experience. Rather than pushing individuals to direct their preferences to elected officials, this knowledge encourages individuals to distance themselves from the State.
Finally, the context of policing produced what Michael Hanchard has termed an “ethics of aversion” — a belief that power “is best achieved by receding from state institutions in the short term and forging their own collective, community autonomy in the long term.”
A New Kind of Civic Infrastructure
Midway through data collection, something happened that was not part of the original plan. The Portal became a spark for community change, activating bottom-led projects for justice, new visions, new discourses, and new political consciousness.
More than a data collection technique, however, the Portals are a medium for listening, site of democratic deliberation, and soon became a public good and civic infrastructure in their host communities.
— the Portals Policing Project
In Milwaukee, for example, the Portal ignited bottom-led projects to reshape the community. A new neighborhood council was formed to protect the community. The district attorney, the local sheriff, and the alderman all began visiting the Portal in an area they rarely ventured to, or even noticed, before.
Through Portal connections with Kigali, Rwanda, Milwaukee organizers learned of the Gacaca courts, informal venues for transitional justice adapted after the Rwandan genocide. They began to imagine and implement new means of community healing that transcend coercive and adversarial practices in the U.S.
According to Dennis Walton, a community organizer in Milwaukee and curator of the Milwaukee Portal, “there was a relationship established on the ground with people who are coming from that environment and leading people from that environment.”
The community used the Portal ‘to connect people so we could share our stories and learn all across the country and the world…By being innovative, we were able to use the technology to go deep into the hearts and souls of the community and experience the research in the most personal way by the individuals most affected by it.”
“More than a data collection technique, however, the Portals are a medium for listening, site of democratic deliberation, and soon became a public good and civic infrastructure in their host communities,” notes the Portals Policing Project.
By being innovative, we were able to use the technology to go deep into the hearts and souls of the community and experience the research in the most personal way by the individuals most affected by it.
— Dennis Walton, Milwaukee Portal Curator
The Project now seeks to link subjugated communities around the U.S. and the world through Portals, creating a “global undercommons democracy.” By networking these communities with a democratic civic infrastructure, Shared_Studios and the Portals Policing Project can create a global public square run by and for the most marginalized, impoverished, and unfree. This 21st-century agora will provide a space where people can tell their stories and bear witness, collaborate, and organize.
The Portals Policing Project was led by Tracey Meares, Walton Hale Hamilton Professor at Yale Law School (@mearest), Vesla Weaver, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University (@VeslaWeaver), and Gwen Prowse, a doctoral student in political science and African American studies at Yale University (@msprowse). Their work will be published in a forthcoming book and shared through the Portals Policing Project website.