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Presented By: Department of Anthropology

The Michigan Anthropology Colloquia Series: "Policing 'Free' Speech: The Language of DUI Arrests in the U.S. South"

Sonia Das, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Over the last two years, escalated outcomes in the use of violence during routine police-suspect encounters have prompted police forces in the South to recruit more ethnically and linguistically diverse officers and require the use of surveillance technologies to monitor interactions. Some legislators have also instituted tougher laws criminalizing non-compliance and, in some cases, making it a hate crime to resist arrest. Drawing on the preliminary analysis of an archive of 900+ dashcam and bodycam recordings and case files of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) stops provided by the Public Defender’s office in Richland County, South Carolina, this talk explores what the escalation and de-escalation of police force looks and sounds like as an interactional achievement. Why do some verbal or gestural practices count as evidence of “intent” to incite harm and not others? How do affective stances and emotional states such as fear, anxiety, and rage intensify and scale up as signs of violence or hate? To what extent do recordings of police arrests impact what legally counts as unprotected speech, given the onus on police officers to recognize suspects’ constitutional right to disagree with or insult public servants? Language, often overlooked in contexts of police work, thus emerges as a central component of law enforcement’s diversity, the substance of its interactions, and the basis for legal evidence. I argue that acts of labeling intersubjective stances during DUI stops as violent and defiant, or alternatively, as composed and compliant are built upon and constitutive of entrenched ethno-racial inequalities that preclude all Americans from enjoying the same liberties of free speech.

The Michigan Anthropology Colloquia Series presents speakers on current topics in the field of anthropology.

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