How to study anti-police protest in a digital age

Working paper
Paul Mutsaers

"Ordered you?" he said. "He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it's a habit with them. Why didn't you make an excuse? Couldn't you say they had sickness—smallpox—or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My God, boy! You're black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?" (Dr. Bledsoe in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952) 


Introduction: Police punishment

Inequality typically constitutes the relationship between police and policed. Without undue distortion we can apply Becker’s (1967) notion of the “hierarchy of credibility” to understand this relationship. Police and the public are part of a system of ranked groups and this system allocates to members of the highest groups the right to define a situation—to tell relevant others what “really” happened. It is also a relationship that is nonreciprocal. Tongue in cheek, Becker writes that ‘no one proposes that addicts should make and enforce laws for policemen’ (1967, 241). Those subjected to police intervention are usually also denied the luxury of what Scott (1990) calls “negative reciprocity,” that is, trading a slap for a slap, an insult for an insult. What’s more, police work is invested with certain responsibilities that are incumbent on an officer’s station, and no matter how many rules and regulations confine police officers in their work, a certain degree of discretionary authority always remains inviolable.

Just like custodial institutions, police forces can cause social and physical deprivation of liberty, autonomy, property and security.

Having in mind these qualifications of police work—hierarchy, nonreciprocity and discretion—it is no wonder that criminologists recently called for a theory of police punishment, which we can understand with Goldstein as ‘the imposition by the police, acting under the color of law, of sanctions prior to conviction as a means of ultimate punishment, rather than as a device for the invocation of criminal proceedings’ (1960, 580; see also Zedner 2004, 134). In an article that was awarded the British Society of Criminology’s Brian Williams Prize, Harkin (2015) argues that we should complicate the strictly legal definition of punishment as a business of courts and prisons only, by expanding what counts as punishment. To better understand “state pain-delivery,” he claims that police scholars should draw on the sociology of punishment. Just like custodial institutions, police forces can cause social and physical deprivation of liberty, autonomy, property and security. He provides convincing examples of police punishment that can also be found in recent anthropological and sociological work, which shows that the ideal type of police as the gate of the criminal justice system is confounded by the social reality of police punishment.  

Stop-and-frisks, for example, can be experienced as a loss of “face” or “social value” by those subjected to them. This was confirmed in Fassin’s ethnography of a Parisian anticrime brigade (2013), which offers numerous accounts of the “embodied memory” of ethnic minority youngsters who run away from the police in a desperate attempt to avoid another round of humiliating treatment. Such humiliating police practices were also observed in the Netherlands, where we recorded “micro-deportations”; the banishment of undesired and often homeless migrants to the ghostly quarters at the outskirts of a police district (e.g. Mutsaers 2014). 

Additionally, Harkin refers to the financial deprivation by police through ticketing, something that reminds us of the recent scrutiny of the Ferguson Police Department, occurring in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown and the riotous protests that followed. It was concluded that ‘Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs’ (USDOJCRD 2015, 2). By using cops as “tax collectors” to plug a hole in the city’s finances, and by particularly targeting African Americans in the community, unnecessary harm was inflicted. Also, such practices of racial profiling may be the “origin of harmful criminality” (Harkin 2015). The criminalization of particular communities may amplify criminal behaviour in these communities, an argument that Harcourt (2007) proposed more than ten years ago. Such effects clearly come to the fore in Goffman’s On the Run (2014). Spending six years on 6th Street, pseudonymous for a mixed-income neighbourhood in Philadelphia, Goffman learned that African Americans residents saw the police as an occupying force and reacted accordingly (with violent law breaking). 

There is a “nervous tension” between police and human rights law

Finally, Harkin posits that police punishment is expressed in the deprivation of liberty and life, respectively exemplified in two anthropological works. Verdery (1996), in her holistic study of Romania, provides her reader with vivid descriptions of every last residue of privacy that is taken away by the Romanian secret police, the Securitate [1]. In the first pages of his book The Killing Consensus, Denyer Willis (2015) writes about one of his first experiences with the Military Police in São Paulo, recounting how the police killed a man in cold blood.

Others have argued before that there is a “nervous tension” between police and human rights law (e.g. Garriot 2013; Hornberger 2010), yet Harkin correctly argues that too little heed is given to the public reception of police punishments. He focuses particularly on the relative quiescence of the public in the face of police punishment and argues that 'the origins of the “acceptability” of “police pain-delivery” can be usefully understood as a function of punitive passions in a Durkheimian sense. That is, police-use-of-force and violence—justifiable or not—stokes activity in the “collective consciousness,” constructing social bonds and solidarity, rather than destroying them as police studies typically suggest' (2015, 48).

Adopting a Durkheimian perspective, Harkin states that the damage caused by public constabularies in their effort to fight crime is widely accepted because it is connected to popular sentiment and entrenched in a collective consciousness. In other words, police punishment is a function of popular emotion. Although we acknowledge and respect its merits, we are nonetheless going to criticize this logic on empirical, epistemological and methodological grounds in, respectively, sections two, three and four/five. 

We do so, first, by centralizing anti-police protest instead of acceptance of police punishment (section two). We agree with Harkin that popular approval of police comes from those outside the targeted, marginalized groups of society, but contend that he omits to mention actually existing forms of resistance—an omission that may lead to a questionable consensus model of law (enforcement). 

Second, we will raise the epistemological question “how do we know protest?” (section three), making the claim that a focus on visible forms of support/protest makes it very hard to distinguish resistance, accommodation, defeat and fear in the face of police punishment. The notion of in/visibility is further complicated by another question, “how do we know the public?” (sections four and five). With this last question we wish not to confine ourselves to abstract terms, but to also consider some methodological particulars that may help us understand the multiple publics and counter-publics in society—especially when they are situated in digital contexts. Guided by Scott’s (1990) notion of “hidden transcripts” we emphasize the need to study more imperceptible types of resistance and the complex, interlinked nature of plugged-in publics and their online, non-embodied, and thus less visible protests against police [2].

Actually existing protests

Harkin argues—in lieu of Durkheim—that protest against police is conspicuously absent because the police generally receive much popular support, that is, because police punishment is ‘conditioned by popular sentiment and sensibilities’ (2015, 44). In other words, society influences what is and is not accepted as “acceptable police behaviour.” The groundwork of this statement was laid in Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society (1997[1893], 28), where he had written that ‘law reproduces the main forms of social solidarity’ in a given society. In principle this idea is sound and resonates in the first studies in the field of legal anthropology, that distinct intellectual specialty that emerged in the 1920s with Malinowski’s Crime and Custom in Savage Society, which had anthropologists realize that law and society co-evolve and that the idea of a lawless society is in fact oxymoronic (Donovan 2008; Malinowski 1926). If we accept that law and society co-evolve, that they are mutually constitutive, we also ought to accept Durkheim’s insistence that ‘we should not say that an act offends the common consciousness because it is criminal, but that it is criminal because it offends that consciousness. We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it’ (in Donovan 2008, 49). As such, crime must be understood not as a natural but as a social fact, insofar as it needs to be explained by the sociality through which it is given meaning and the legal structure in which such meaning is inscribed and encoded. Thus, when police act (violently) to fight crime, they feel backed up by the dialectics of law and society.

Policed legality expresses and represents national unity

We accept that law is inherent to the social structure and organization of society, any society as Malinowski and his intellectual progeny have argued, and that policed legality expresses and represents national unity (Gilroy 1987). We agree, in that respect, with Harkin when he declares that ‘the police are iconic symbols of national and community identity… and as such can play a role in generating feelings of exclusion and inclusion’ (2015, 47). Such “policing the nation” (Gowricharn and Çankaya 2015) is widely reported and problematized, and Harkin too voices his critique by asking rhetorically: ‘how many minority youth need to be stopped-and-searched per day for it to be considered unacceptable?’ (2015, 48).


Yet, for all our sympathy we must utter critique on his stance on police punishment as something that receives popular support and is—in any general, holistic term—accepted. Harkin does note the partiality of Durkheim’s theory, yet the point he distills from it is majoritarian nonetheless (i.e. mainstream society accepts police violence). We read that ‘[t]he police, in these accounts, reflect social attitudes’ (2015, 51) and ‘approval of the police largely prevails’ (ibid). This argument may or may not be epistemologically accurate, which is something that we will take up in the next section, but in any case it comes at the cost of overlooking the anti-police protests of those who take the brunt of police punishment. Harkin’s argument that there is a prevailing approval of the police is made in a century in which one can point a finger at the atlas and anywhere find public outcry and protest against police within close proximity. Scanning the major events of the twenty-first century, we can only conclude that police violence is one of the main problem portfolios for contemporary statesmen, as it looms large in public debates and stands front and center in protests and uprisings. These protests are a global phenomenon.

Immediately springing to mind are the widely mediatized deaths of African American citizens, with the police shooting of Michael Brown presumably best stored in public memory. His body was left to public display for hours after Officer Wilson had pulled the trigger in Ferguson, Missouri, triggering a nationwide uproar that lasted for months. The U.S. is not the only country where public protests against police violence have occurred recently: In The Hague, the streets were engulfed with protesters grieving the death of the Aruban Mitch Henriquez, who died of asphyxiation after he was held in a chokehold by five police officers. Numerous other cases of public outcry have led to protest movements in France, the UK, Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil, Uganda, Kiev, Hong Kong, not to forget the Arab Spring and #Occupy movement—all of which either began with or were centrally related to police violence (Mutsaers, Simpson and Karpiak 2015).

Looking more closely at these manifest and multifarious acts of resistance, we soon realize that they articulate the big divides in society. In Uganda, for instance, we have seen clashes with police that center on the issue of sexuality. After years of political contest, president Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law (which was later struck down by Uganda’s constitutional court), a political act that was both damned and celebrated and stirred protests across the country. Similarly, we have seen masses of angry women in India who took to the streets their discontent with police’s underenforcement of rape crimes, exemplifying a form of resistance against police that has a clear gender basis (with Jauregui [2013] we think of underenforcement as a form of police violence as well). In Denyer Willis’s (2015) disturbing description of the “shared sovereignty” involving both police and organized crime groups in Brazil, we see the emergence of class-based fault lines; poor neighbourhoods that are destitute of any form of police protection, triggering organized crime groups to fill the security void and develop parallel judiciary systems—with the accompanying accoutrement of law (tribunals, security guards, executors, etc.). Sadly, this shared sovereignty, this shared system of routinized killing, is often turning favelas into wholesale battlefields. Finally, in France, the U.S. the Netherlands and elsewhere we see that protesters respond to police racism (Bonilla and Rosa 2015; Bornstein in this volume; Fassin 2013, this volume).

Again, while Harkin rightfully argues that popular support for the police can be expected to come from those outside the targeted, marginalized groups discussed above, he omits to mention actually existing forms of resistance outside mainstream society. As such, he overemphasizes the consensus model of law (enforcement) and does so at the expense of a conflict model which takes it as ‘one of the focal points of conflict and struggle in modern societies, a major means by which power is legitimized, and the form in which coercion is most routinely exercised’ (Lukes and Scull in Donovan 2008, 50). This citation reminds us of Quinney’s The Social Reality of Crime, in which he argued along the same line that the law, rather than being a reflection of society in general, is actually a representation of the interests of certain classes or parts of society; segments that have the power to translate their own interests into public policy and the way it is policed (Quinney 1970).

Through his vision of society we come to understand law enforcement as a site of conflict.

In contradistinction to a consensus-based model of society that implies and relies on shared mentalities, Quinney adopts a model centered on conflicts among different groups over the social meaning and function of law. Through his vision of society we come to understand law enforcement as a site of conflict. While none of this is denied by Harkin, his usage of general notions such as “collective consciousness,” “popular sentiment,” and “the public” and his silence with respect to existing protests, provides a view on police legitimacy that, at its core, can only be maintained if we accept and deem legible the social congruency on which it is based.

Finally, Harkins develops a prudence argument to explain the popular support of police violence: ‘views on the police are anchored in an understanding that they are necessary, indispensable and it is only prudent to maintain support in the police as they deliver an essential, and often virtuous, public service.’ (2015, 52). He mentions the “Dirty Harry problem” (cf. Jauregui 2013; Klockars 1980) that police face in their attempts to maintain law and order; attempts that are sometimes “grubby,” “messy” and “unpleasant” but necessary nonetheless. Again, however, a selection bias may be diagnosed. The prudence argument surely helps us understand some sections of the public in their dealings with the police. But again, what idea of any coherent public can we derive from it, if it falls short in many other contexts?

In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (edited by Comaroff and Comaroff 2006) various anthropologists have shared empirics of policing that demonstrate police complicity in the creation of disorder—not order. This interconnection of law and disorder is of various kinds. Geschiere, writing about Cameroon and South Africa, argues for instance that tough policing and a fetishizing of the law may in fact ‘radically heighten people’s feelings of intense insecurity’ and as such give fear of disorder metaphysical proportions (2006, 221). But more direct relations can be found as well, such as in the work of Denyer Willis (2015), mentioned earlier, which uncovers a police/state-created security void, turning Brazil’s favelas into frontlines. In a similar vein, Comaroff and Comaroff argue that certain postcolonial contexts are best described as a ‘palimpsest of contested sovereignties, codes, and jurisdictions—a complex choreography of police and paramilitaries, private and community enforcement, gangs and vigilantes, highwaymen and outlaw armies’ (2006, 9). While such a condition can of course not be solely ascribed to police (in)action, we should also not overlook the complicity of police in creating disorder—and, thus, the conditionality of the prudence argument, which seems fit only to describe those people lucky enough to have never been subjected to these forms of disorder (see for other examples Goldstein

The epistemology of anti-police protest

Now that we have looked at some alternative empirics of policing, we arrive at a more fundamental epistemological question: how do we know protest? How can we calibrate approval versus resistance with respect to police punishment? Harkin refrains from giving us a clear definition of public approval, but it appears to us as if the presence/absence of visible protest serves as his calibration. Such a “face value epistemology” is problematic. Take, for instance, the following notes of Scheper-Hughes (2006, 152-53) on death squads and police violence in Brazil:


Why would ordinary people accept violent attacks on street children and marginal youth as the legitimate business of the police? How does one explain this extraordinary consensus? As described in Death without Weeping (Scheper-Hughes 1992), the everyday experience of violence leads poor people to accept their own deaths and those of their children as predictable, natural, cruel but usual events. The history of authoritarian rule —whether by local landowners, political bosses, or military police—extinguished any incipient culture of protest. A deep lack of trust in the legal and judicial systems, which were largely untouched by the democratic transition, contributes to a cynical attitude towards the possibilities of real political change.

The public transcript, where it is not positively misleading, is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations.

An epistemology that leverages marked and evident protest alone is not well equipped to distinguish resistance, accommodation, defeat and fear. Harkin asks “what is punishment?” but not “what is resistance?” Not seeing visible signs of resistance does not mean that resistance is absent: this would leave undiscussed all theories of power that are worthy of mention. Obvious references can be made to the work of Foucault on the micro-physics of power or to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, but let us this time concentrate on an equally relevant but slightly less-known author—the political anthropologist Scott. Scott, quite relevant to our case, distinguishes what he calls “public transcripts” from “hidden transcripts.” He defines the public transcript as follows:

With rare, but significant, exceptions the public performance of the subordinate will, out of prudence, fear, and the desire to curry favor, be shaped to appeal to the expectations of the powerful. I shall use the term public transcript as a shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate. The public transcript, where it is not positively misleading, is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations (1990, 2).

To grasp what this may mean in practice, we can turn to one of the earliest accounts of police written by an anthropologist. We are referring to Geertz’s description of the police raid that he observed (and ran away from) and that took place in response to a Balinese cockfight (Geertz 1973, in his chapter Deep Play). Keen to produce the sort of ethnography that is suffused with precise and protracted descriptions of small facts and the circumstances in which they take place—a “thick” description—Geertz gives the raid the sort of sensible and evocative actuality that allows us to think both concretely and imaginatively about broader issues such as power and resistance. He begins with a description of how in the midst of that particular match in 1958 a ‘truck full of policemen armed with machine guns roared up’ (1973, 414). They swing their guns around like ‘gangsters in a motion picture’, scattering the audience and actors in the unauthorized cockfight into all directions: ‘People raced down the road, disappeared headfirst over walls, scrambled under platforms, folded themselves behind wicker screens, scuttled up coconut trees’ (ibid). 

Their public performance seems to be in keeping with their subordinate position vis-à-vis police. Subordination, deterrence and fear seem to rule the game. The public transcript, the grammar of the social intercourse, is closely followed. On closer inspection, though—an inspection that is enabled by Geertz’s focus on the deeper structure—we discover behind the scenes Scott’s hidden transcripts through which dissent to the official transcript of power relations is voiced. The velocity of people’s escape from the raid and the speed with which people turned life back to normal, they all read like a collective theater or a joke ridiculing the vigilant policemen. One villager whipped out a table, some chairs and a cup of tea and started to sip it, while the village chief ran to the river, undressed and plunged in so that he could say, when the policemen arrived, that he had been bathing the whole time. All villagers knew exactly what was happening and all kept complete silence.

What we have here is an incident—a cockfight and a police raid in Indonesia—that is multilayered. On one level we find a public performance that is perfectly in tune with the power relations and role expectations that have people express their subordination and mortal fear of police and the state power that backs it up. On another level, though, we find the hidden transcript that lies beneath the surface and that allows people to collectively “play innocent” and secretly utter a critique of power behind the back of more powerful agents. This hidden critique of power is best described by what Scott (1990) calls the infrapolitics of subordinate groups; an ‘unobtrusive realm of political struggle’ (1990, 183) characterized by ‘low-profile forms of resistance’ (1990, 19) that includes playing fool, ridicule, gossip, disguised aggression, and folktales. To be able to trace and identify a hidden transcript—and to distinguish it from the public transcript—one needs to go offstage, descend into detail and speak to people when they feel at liberty to utter their subversive discourses. This requires going beyond an epistemology of face value (such as Harkin’s) to one that appreciates the stratification and hierarchy of meaningful structures (such as Geertz’s and Scott’s).

The act against the law, a “crime,” may very well be seen as a political act of resistance.

There is yet another level of meaningful resistance against police in the cockfight case, though, which has to do with the stubbornness of the villagers involved, who continued to organize these fights despite the fact that they faced the “law’s revenge.” At the time Geertz gathered his field notes, cockfights were in principle declared illegal by the Republic (as they were under Dutch rule) and villagers knew that every now and then some of them would, as punishment and correction, be exposed by the police in the tropical sun for a day or so, and possibly end up six feet under. To value the fights as a means of expressing the “Balinese way of life” and continue with them despite their penalization is a way of resisting the socio-political order that is policed. This comes down to what one of the founding fathers of critical criminology, Quinney (1970), dubbed the “politicality of crime.” The act against the law, a “crime,” may very well be seen as a political act of resistance (see also Hobsbawn’s 1969 notion of social banditry).

In sum, Harkin poses a refreshing question about why many social groups seem to deny, be indifferent or give outright support to police violence—but what “seems” may not constitute the most accurate seismography of the range of public attitudes. Restricting ourselves to moments of explosion and turmoil when people breach the public transcript and storm the stage means to ‘focus on the visible coastline of politics and miss the continent that lies beyond’ (Scott 1990, 199). The land of hidden transcripts, undercover speech and silent acts of resistance against police is yet to be properly charted, but we trust that many traces of earlier explorations can be found in extant work. This is not the time nor place for such an exploration, but see for example Orwell (2009) for a good starting point [3].

Of course, none of this is to argue that silence and the absence of visible resistance ought to be automatically interpreted as a form of hidden protest against police. Geertz’s and Scott’s encouragements to appreciate the stratification and hierarchy of meaningful structures, to go offstage, descend into detail and speak to people are exactly stimulating us to investigate diligently, on a case-by-case basis and without presuppositions, how people relate to police. Such investigations may yield a variety of outcomes, which are all very much context-dependent. In some cases, people murmur their consent with police violence, being too afraid to thwart police (e.g. Scheper-Hughes 2006); in others they keep themselves from publically approving police, fearing reprisals from organized crime groups (e.g. Denyer Willis 2015).

Even more complex are Hornberger’s (2011) descriptions of the informal privatization of policing in South Africa, leading to “your-police-my-police” situations in which those who are (violently) overpoliced by some officers turn to different officers to demand punitive police action against others in the community. Such an infatuation with extralegal enforcement fuels approval of, as well as resistance against police at the same time. Finally, we should also not underestimate the occurrence of protest against police punishment within police organizations. We are thinking of Fassin’s discussion (in this volume) on the moral dissidence of officers who protest against their colleagues’ misconduct. Referring to Hirschman’s seminal work on how people respond to dissatisfying situations (exit, voice or loyalty), Fassin states that some of the officers in his study did indeed express their discontent (voice)—albeit at the cost of marginalization and harassment. Exit—that is, change of schedule, unit, or district—was much more common and may be interpreted as an unnoticed and uncontested act of resistance.

To distinguish silent or hidden protest from accommodation, fear, defeat, or apolitical unsubmissiveness (if there is such a thing), we need to go beyond the bounds of information directly and superficially available and venture up and down the hierarchy of meaningful structures. Only then can we begin to distinguish public performances from hidden transcripts. In what comes next, we underline the importance of including online material for such a venture.

Hashtag activism

Enquiring into the hidden transcripts of protest leads us into the digital domain. The notion of the public—a multifarious, stochastic and superdiverse composite of social backgrounds, voices and interactions—is critically compounded by the fact that many public expressions nowadays come to rise in an online environment; a myriad of responses against police violence that we have discussed above can be found there as well (e.g. #Ferguson, #StateOfEmergency, #BlackLivesMatter, #JusticeForMitchHenriquez, or #IfTheyGunnedMeDown). Often times, these expressions of grief or frustration are extensions of offline protests. They differ, however, in that the kind of “groupness” emerging in these spaces requires neither strong, lasting bonds grounded in shared bodies of knowledge, nor any temporal or spatial co-presence—something that is traditionally conceived of as a prerequisite to “community.” (Blommaert and Varis 2015). With translocality being the norm in online interaction, it becomes exceedingly difficult to apply traditional understandings of community—and police-community relations, for that matter.

#Ferguson, #StateOfEmergency, #BlackLivesMatter, #JusticeForMitchHenriquez, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown

If we do not take the transformations of the channels and modes of communication into account, we may conclude that protest against police is either absent or limited to previously studied offline dimensions such as graffiti, sit-ins, die-ins or marches (e.g. Taylor 2015). This would be regrettable considering the potential power and distinctiveness of online activism, alternatively dubbed “hashtag activism” (Bonilla and Rosa 2015). Fact is that we simply do not know how much of such protest transpires online: especially the more politically or legally sensitive transgressions are funneled through what is sometimes called the “dark web,” through anonymous web browsers, proxy servers and encrypted messages.


Taking a step towards “regular” online interactions, we tend to find a different kind of invisibility when it comes to gauging public opinion, which has to do with the political economy of the interaction between humans and machines. These interactions constitute a novel computational regime of knowledge and work that has been captured by Ekbia and Nardi (2014) under the moniker of “heteromation”. Through several examples, they point out the necessary human involvement in the addition to the commodity value of online platforms (by creating content, by leaving likes, by writing comments and so on), often involving affective rather than material rewards for those performing the labor. These forms of work are then filtered and leveraged by proprietary computational systems—one can think of Twitter’s trending topics, processes that tend to give certain prevalent topics a further “bump” in popularity. While these forms of labor may in many ways lack to be properly acknowledged or rewarded, and users may often not be aware of the implications of their work (who it is sold to, or who benefits from it), users become deeply implicated in the computationally leveraged value that derives from their behavior. Again, while the effects may be invisible to most, they are existing vectors of power that require our attention. We cannot permit to confuse these stochastic, invisible and “narrow” phenomena, which co-constitute Harkin’s “wider public,” with their absence.

While the results of people’s interactions and user behavior may be unpredictable or obfuscated, we should not forget that in online environments, we are dealing with representations of people, not with those physical people themselves. In the space of the Internet, ‘self and society must be represented, made to exist in a process by which they are translated into the conventions of the medium ...: They are not “there” otherwise’ (Waskul 2005, 57). This also means that the Internet is charged with possibilities for re-imaginings, counter-stories and dissident voices. Waskul in this context talks about ekstasis: circumstances where people get to stand outside the totality of structural positions they normally occupy—implying that, where bodies on the street may seem harmonious, docile, or indeed invisible, these same bodies may prove to be part of systems of defiance and conflict. While some consider online forms of activism a poor and transient alternative (“slacktivism”) to “real” activism, some caution about the geriatric distinction between “real” and “virtual” should be exercised here. For one, we should recognize that expressions of empathy with the oppressed, exploited or wrongfully harmed are genuine civic concerns. Whether they are effective or not might not even be the point: we cannot simply categorize them as insignificant by arguing that “the public” seems to condone established power relations.

Additionally, we might point out that online expressions of protest often are effective. A salient example can be found in the online re-appropriation of surveillance systems; to live in a “hyper-mediatized” and “high-surveillance” context means also that camera surveillance is no longer only used by state apparatuses to keep tabs on citizens, but also increasingly by citizens as a form of counter-surveillance (Greer and McLaughlin 2010; see also Koskela 2004). The ubiquity of “cameraphones” and online file-sharing has greatly augmented the visibility of executive police (Brown 2016). This augmentation has led to the micro-emancipatory possibility to come up with counter-narratives and thus to destabilize Becker’s hierarchy of credibility, which we mentioned in our introduction. In the words of Brassard and Partis, new platforms of narrative formation such as social media ‘activate imaginative ways of relating lightly packaged information (rather than tightly narrated facts) to and with diffuse individuals and collectivities; social media connectedness and exchange are part of a narrative-building apparatus that rebuffs static tropes and hegemonic imagery’ (2015, 8). As a more substantial example, we can turn to the earlier mentioned death-by-cop case that caused civil unrest in the Netherlands in the summer of 2015.

“No justice, no peace!”

His mouth agape and his breathing barely detectable, the Aruban Mitch Henriquez was surrounded by police officers while lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back and his eyes shut. Like many of the encounters of African Americans with police in the United States this “arrest gone wrong” was captured on video with a smartphone, directly uploaded on the web and thrown into the public spotlights. In contrast to a recording like the one capturing the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, 1991, this recording can easily be retrieved with a few keystrokes. When played, one can hear the familiar background voices expressing indignation and outrage coming from people who were present at this uncomfortable site of police violence. We say “familiar” because the upsurge of hashtag activism against police has given such voices a firm place on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.


Henriquez, father of three, had travelled to the Netherlands for a family visit, coming from Aruba—one of the four constituent countries that form the Kingdom of the Netherlands. On June 27, 2015, he was at a UB40 summer concert in The Hague. There he made the mistake to underestimate the power of denied negative reciprocity, which, as stated in our introduction, characterizes hierarchical relations of the kind that exist between police and policed: do not trade a slap for a slap, an insult for an insult, or a bad joke for a bad joke. In the company of several police officers, Henriquez had touched his crotch while shouting that he had a gun in his pocket. According to some bystanders this was a joke: in a Caribbean context “gun” can refer to impressive male genitals. During fieldwork with the Dutch police (2008-13) the first author of the present text had discovered that Dutch police officers are very good at maintaining joking relationships with the public. In anthropology, the joking relationship is known as a ‘relation between two persons in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offence’ (Radcliffe-Brown 1940, 195). The relationship is one of “permitted disrespect,” characterized by friendliness and antagonism at the same time, that can be symmetrical (two persons make fun of each other) or asymmetrical (A teases B but B refrains from joking back). 

Henriquez was immediately confronted with the asymmetry of the relationship he had forced himself into.

While Henriquez’s joking act could be interpreted as a hidden form of protest, reminding of Scott’s descriptions of the mocking and vengeful scripts used by subordinates to ridicule their superiors, he was immediately confronted with the asymmetry of the relationship he had forced himself into. After he had shouted that he had a “gun,” the officers present responded and attempted to bring him into custody. They later declared that Henriquez had resisted his arrest—the proverbial trading of a slap for a slap. Henriquez had traded twice and paid for it with his life. Results from the autopsy indicate that he died of asphyxiation after being held in a chokehold and being crushed by five officers who sat on his body. The National Department of Criminal Investigation has ruled out that he was carrying a gun, nor, as the toxicology report pointed out, had he used a lethal dose of drugs or alcohol. His death was a chokehold death and therefore a thorn in the side of the authorities, considering the controversy of the technique that was used. Chokeholds are not part of the rules of engagement, yet they are routine in discretionary policing.

The killing of Henriquez wrought havoc in the streets of The Hague as protestors occupied a particular neighbourhood, known for its history of police racism, to voice their dissent. It was especially the devil-may-care way in which the case was perceived to be handled that made people fly into rage and pour torrents of scorn onto the Dutch criminal justice system—the police in particular. At first, the Public Prosecution Service had stated in a press release that Henriquez had collapsed on his way to the police station, but the video proved otherwise, showing that Henriquez was already unconscious when surrounded by the five officers in question. Instead of following emergency protocol prescribing reanimation, they heedlessly dragged him into a police vehicle.

Being plugged into globalized circuits of communication, people immediately started to invoke images online of Eric Garner, who died of a chokehold performed by NYPD officers, and Freddie Gray, who was forced into a police van by the Baltimore police while having a spinal cord injury. A broad range of hyperlinking and cross-relating corrected the Dutch Prosecutors, who had to admit that Henriquez was already dying immediately after the chokehold was performed. A mobile device had reversed the hierarchy of credibility, which usually allocates the right to police members to define a situation, to tell others what “really” happened. Interestingly, immediately after Henriquez’s death was mediatized after a simple act of citizen journalism, a petition was started on by a certain Mohammed Sha A., allegedly from the U.K.; a petition that was to be delivered to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and that was signed by people from all over the world. However, within a day, a Facebook user remarked: ‘Please fix the petition for it to display the truth. He did not get ill en route as it states!! It was while the police suffocated and murdered him in the park!!’ (posted on June 29, 2015). The petition, which had initially copied the official police press release, was “fixed” and the entire frame shifted, giving a new meaning to the online narratives with respect to causation, circumstance and culpability.

#mitchhenriquez quickly became the #1 trending topic on the Dutch version of Twitter.

The series of protests in The Hague that followed were to a large extent organized and prepared ad hoc and online. Time and location were announced on Facebook and Twitter and locals as well as non-locals could tick a box indicating if they intended to come. The topic #mitchhenriquez quickly became the #1 trending topic on the Dutch version of Twitter, incentivizing those who had not heard of the phenomenon to give the case pause or jump onto the proverbial bandwagon. While we have no specific data on the composition of this “community of resistance” in any authorized, certified sense of the word, (social) media coverage of the protests make it clear that this was a highly diverse collective. Their coming together can best be called, after Erving Goffman, a “focused gathering”—‘a set of persons engrossed in a common flow of activity and relating to one another in terms of that flow’ (in Geertz 1973, 424). 

It was their online participation, their engagement with hashtag activism, which forged a sort of shared “political temporality” (Bonilla and Rosa 2015). At these focused gatherings people met for a particular purpose and then dispersed again. Indeed, the low threshold of participation in online platforms fosters a great range of participation modes for protesters and may constitute a society of “networked individualism,” in which people are increasingly operating in online networks as individuals, rather than as part of a stable group. In such a world, people connect, communicate and share information as persons, as autonomous centers—and not primarily as part of a family, work unit, neighborhood or other social group (Rainie and Wellman 2012).

Compared to other anti-police street protests, for example in the U.S. (e.g. Black Lives Matter) or France (e.g. the protests against the State of Emergency), the street action in The Hague was relatively short-lived. Behind the scenes, however, the decrial of this particular instance of police punishment continued—and still continues, as we write in the spring of 2017. For an important part, this has to do with the vitality and sustainability of hashtags or other forms of metadata, a quality that stems from their function as an index system. Bonilla and Rosa argue that hashtags function not only as index systems in a clerical sense (ordering information) but also in a semiotic sense by 'marking the intended significance of an utterance. Similar to the coding systems employed by anthropologists, hashtags allow users to not simply “file” their comments but to performatively frame what these comments are “really about,” thereby enabling users to indicate a meaning that might not be otherwise apparent' (2015, 5).

The figure above is illustrative in this respect. It translates from the Dutch as “Those barbarians wanted to cover it up” and then reads “uncle @ArdvanderSteur” (a former Dutch Minister of Security and Justice), “#MitchHenrqiuez,” “@jeadvocaat” (a Twitter account) and “#geweldsinstructies” (instructions for police-use-of-force). The tweet, posted by the pseudonymous Jacky K who self-identifies as a freelance journalist and non-racist, and who is “keen of girl power,” refers to a radio program in which a journalist discusses with an attorney and the chair of the ACP police union a bill that was introduced by a former Dutch Minister of Security and Justice (“uncle” Ard van der Steur) [4]. This bill is intended to lower the sentence for police officers who deploy unauthorized use-of-force from fifteen to three years in prison maximally, and it proposes to refrain from prosecution in case of authorized use-of-force. The intertextual and indexical power of a tweet like this is not to be underestimated. As part of a clerical index system, it adds to the “file” MitchHenriquez —an addition that is not without weight, as it was retweeted by a rather well-known Amsterdam lawyer Richard Korver, who maintains a following of over 6000 users.  More: as part of a semiotic index system, it directly connects the case Henriquez and the attempts by the police to cover up what “really happened” to a larger political discussion on police punishment, now understood in two ways: illegal police violence and the punishment of police. To speak with Verdery (1999), such a hashtag can give political life to a dead body and allows the dead body to keep on living in cyberspace, where it is assigned all kinds of virtues, vices and intentions.

Public opinion is a stratified, heterogeneous and heteromated business that unfolds in widely differing online and offline environments.

If we accept that public opinion is a stratified, heterogeneous and heteromated business that unfolds in widely differing online and offline environments, we should also ask the question how we might access and understand these interactions. Again: if the police “reflects” social attitudes (Harkin 2015), we would want to know what attitudes these are, where they find their outing, and why they are effectively hegemonic. In a largely online context, this should ultimately lead us to consider what constitutes a field site, as a place where we can learn about social attitudes, to begin with. Can a hashtag—or other online labels or metadata—be considered a field site? 

It is precisely this question that is raised by Bonilla and Rosa (2015) in their thought-provoking article on police, racial politics and social media in the U.S. Discussing the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and its riotous aftermath in Ferguson (Missouri), they wonder if social media such as Twitter are the ultimate “non-place” of supermodernity (Augé), a ‘transient site of fleeting engagement,’ or an instance of a “virtual world” (Boellstroff) with ‘its own set of socialities and forms of engagement’ (2015, 5). “No”, we should say to the distinction that is being made: this again means to mystify the “virtual,” and separate it from the “real.” It is a pessimistic reiteration of the first batch of Internet studies which considered its object of study a separate sphere of freedom that subverted offline normativities and allowed for new forms of community and identity. Online spaces were often conceptualized as distinct from their offline counterparts—see for instance the early work of Turkle (1995), or the widely distributed rebuttal to government of the Internet by Barlow (1996). Explaining digital interactions in this isolated way—whether considering them as politically liberating or toothless—may help to explain why analyses like those of Harkin do not address “the public” in its stochastic yet distinguishable online formations, and as an integral part of society.  


We opened this text with an epigraph on in/visibility, a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The main character of this book is a black American in the 1930s, whose invisibility is no physical affair (as it was for the protagonists of HG Wells, Tolkien or Douglas Adams) but rather a social one. It is constituted by the narrator’s need to construct several identities as a response to the humiliation, interpellation and deceit he has to suffer throughout his life—especially when interacting with police. The narrator ends the novel in a metaphorical state of incubation, hibernating beneath the New York City surface, in a manhole. There, he comes to a realization: he has to remain true to his own identity without sacrificing the responsibility to his community, and declares himself ready to emerge from the urban bowels. Ellison’s work reminds us of the online reactions to police violence: individuals within communities who, often pseudonymously, subvert their invisibility by voicing their thoughts. The invisible man notes that he had to be literally clubbed into a cellar, a hole, before he saw the real condition of his life as a hole. Similarly, it is precisely because of the state of invisibility and anonymity that the Internet fosters that people may learn how to productively approach, establish or enact their political identities. Any theory on the social reality of police punishment, and the public responses to such practices, needs to take into account this potential.



We need to consider what constitutes in/visibility in a hybrid online space, and remind ourselves that the accuracy of our indexation is commensurate to the degree to which we can understand the phenomenon of online resistance at all. In this chapter, we have shown that the epistemology of Harkin is one of visibility: it focuses on overt public sentiments while it de-emphasizes concealed types of resistance as well as the complex, interlinked nature of plugged-in publics. Through examples we have suggested the connections and intersections between off- and online resistance.. By doing so, we hope we have inspired criminologists, sociologists, anthropologists and others with an interest in police punishment and its production of various forms and spheres of protest. Publics may engulf the streets or sit tight behind their computer, their actions criminally violent or remarkably peaceful, their ideas exceptional or in keeping with the main drift of public attitude. But these unanticipated, divergent forms of behavior and discourse may still encompass a dimension or vector of protest. And regardless of their soul and substance, such protests are ways of engaging with those in power, and as such, too important to be underestimated or ignored.

[This text is a draft of a chapter that will appear in: The Anthropology of Police. Kevin Karpiak and Will Garriott (eds.) London: Routledge]



Barlow, John P. 1996. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 8.

Becker, Howard S. 1967. “Whose Side Are We On?” Social Problems 14: 239-247.

Blommaert, Jan and Piia Varis. 2015. “Conviviality and Collectives on Social Media: Virality, Memes, and New Social Structures.” Multilingual Margins 2(1): 31-45.

Bonilla, Yarimar, and Jonathan Rosa. 2015. “#Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States.” American Ethnologist 42(1): 4-17.

Brassard, Lydia, and Michael Partis. 2015. “Standing Their Ground in #Ferguson.” Anthropology News 56: 8-9.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff, eds. 2006. Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Denyer Willis, Graham. 2015. The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil. Oakland: University of California Press.

Donovan, James M. 2008. Legal Anthropology. An Introduction. Lanham: Altamira Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1997[1893]) The Divisions of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.

Ekbia, Hamid and Bonnie Nardi. 2014. “Heteromation and Its (Dis)Contents: The Invisible Division of Labor Between Humans and Machines”. First Monday 19(6): np.

Fassin, Didier. 2013. Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.

Garriot, William. 2013. “Introduction. Police in Practice: Policing and the Project of Contemporary Governance”. In: Policing and Contemporary Governance. The Anthropology of Police in Practice edited by William Garriott, 1-30. New York: Palgrave and MacMillan.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Geschiere, Peter. 2006. “Witchcraft and the Limits of the Law: Cameroon and South Africa.” In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, edited by Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, 219-246. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 1987. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.  

Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Goldstein, Daniel (2003) ““In Our Own Hands”: Lynching, Justice and the Law in Bolivia.” American Ethnologist 30(1): 22-43.

— (2010). “Toward a Critical Anthropology of Security.” Current Anthropology 51(4): 487-517.

Goldstein, Joseph. 1960. “Police Discretion Not to Invoke the Criminal Process: Low-Visibility Decisions in the Administration of Justice.” The Yale Law Journal 69(4): 543-594.

Gore, Charles and Pratten, David (2003). “The Politics of Plunder: The Rhetorics of Order and Disorder in Southern Nigeria.” African Affairs:  102(407): 211-240.

Gowricharn, Ruben and Sinan Çankaya. 2015. “Policing the Nation: Acculturation and Street-Level Bureaucrats in Professional Life.” Sociology, Online First.

Greer, Chris and Eugene McLaughlin. 2010. “We Predict a Riot? Public Order Policing, New Media Environments and the Rise of the Citizen Journalist.” British Journal of Criminology 50(6): 1041-1059.

Harcourt, Bernard E.  2007. Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Harkin, Diarmaid M. 2015. “The Police and Punishment: Understanding the Pains of Policing.” Theoretical Criminology 19(1): 43-58.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1969. Bandits. London: Abacus.

Hornberger, Julia. 2010. “Human Rights and Policing: Exigency or Incongruence?” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 6: 259-283.

— 2011. Policing and Human Rights: The Meaning of Violence and Justice in the Everyday Policing of Johannesburg. Abingdon: Routledge.

Jaffe, Rivke (2013). “The Hybrid State: Crime and Citizenship in Urban Jamaica.” American Ethnologist 40(4): 734-748.

Jauregui, Beatrice. 2013. “Dirty Anthropology: Epistemologies of Violence and Ethical Entanglements in Police Ethnography.” In Policing and Contemporary Governance: The Anthropology of Police in Practice, edited by William Garriott, 125-153. New York: Palgrave and MacMillan.

Johnson, Jennifer L. (2007). “When the Poor Police Themselves: Public Insecurity and Extralegal Criminal-Justice Administration in     Mexico.” In Legitimacy and Criminal Justice. International Perspectives, edited by Tom R. Tyler, 167-186. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Klockars, Carl B. 1980. “The Dirty Harry Problem.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 452: 33-47.

Koskela, Hille. 2004. “Webcams, TV Shows and Mobile Phones : Empowering Exhibitionism.” Surveillance & Society 2(2/3): 199-215.

Malinowski Bronislaw. 1926. Crime and Custom in Savage Society. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Mutsaers, Paul. 2014. “An Ethnographic Study of the Policing of Internal Borders in the Netherlands: Synergies Between Criminology and Anthropology.” The British Journal of Criminology 54(5): 831-848.

Mutsaers, Paul, Jennie Simpson, and Kevin Karpiak. 2015. “The Anthropology of Police as Public Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 117(4): 786-789.

Orwell, George. 2009 [1936]. Shooting an Elephant. London: Penguin Books.

Quinney, Richard. 1970. The Social Reality of Crime. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1940. “On Joking Relationships.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 13(3): 195-210.

Rainie, Lee, and Barry Wellman. 2012. Networked: The New Social Operation System. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2006. “Death Squads and Democracy in Northeastern Brazil.” In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, edited by Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, 150-187. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Taylor, Jack. 2013. “We Are All Oscar Grant”: Police Brutality, Death and the Work of Mourning.” Transforming Anthropology 21(2): 187-197.

Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

United States Dept. of Justice. Civil Rights Division. “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Hate Crime Reported by Victims of Police.” March 4, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2016  

Verderey, Katherine. 1996. What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

— 1999. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. New York: Columbia University Press.

Waskul, Dennis D. 2005. “Ekstasis and the Internet: Liminality and Computer-Mediated Communication.” New Media & Society 7(1): 47-63.

Zedner, Lucia. 2004. Criminal Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



[1]Her study is so holistic that it even includes her own police file (see Verdery in this volume).

[2]As a final note to the introduction: Since Harkin’s article was awarded by the British Society of Criminology, we are going to treat it as an important current in the field of criminology, without discussing this field at large. Whether or not its arguments and propositions are widely shared by criminologists is a question which need not detain us here. We consider the authority assigned to it reason enough to treat it as an influential piece. What’s more, the set of ideas proposed by Harkin is also shared, in a way, by public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015), enabling distribution beyond academic circles. Writing a letter to his son about the destruction of the black body in America (and the role of police), Coates says close to nothing about anti-police activism in a time in which the Black Lives Matter campaign has become a mainstream political question. Instead, Coates’s son is told that he is surrounded by the “majoritarian bandits” of America and is urged to develop full awareness of the permanence of racial injustice. Believing that change is forthcoming is folly, according to Coates.

[3] Orwell: ‘In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once’ (2009, 31).

[4] Note that the Twitter account (and thus, the tweets) of this user is no longer available as it has been suspended by Twitter—a choice the platform does not further explain or qualify. This underscores the ephemerality of the ‘field sites’ of politically sensitive material, which we discussed earlier in this section.