[We’re grateful to Smita Ghosh, JD, Class of 2014, and PhD Candidate, American Legal History, at the University of Pennsylvania, for this thoughtful recap of a panel at the Life & Law in Rural America Conference.]
To continue our coverage of the interdisciplinary conference on law in rural communities, I’m reporting on the first panel, "Violence and Resistance in Rural Communities."
The panel began with Mia Brett (History, Stony Brook University)’s history of vigilantes in postbellum Montana. Vigilantism was an important component of Montana territory, even as formal legal institutions appeared in the area. In the 1860s, small towns were governed by local sheriffs, many of whom had criminal connections themselves. Unsatisfied with the formal criminal justice system, prominent business-owners, lawyers and community leaders joined vigilance committees These committees targeted thieves and gang-members, punishing even the most minor of crimes with death (one Montanan, who had been accused of public drunkenness, was hanged after unsuccessfully begging the committee to cut off his tongue). The vigilantes connected their barbarism to American identity, drawing on a regional history of warfare with Native Americans. Later, their accounts of vigilante activity reverberated in accounts like Mark Twain’s “Roughing It,” further cementing violence as an American tradition.
Jillian Jacklin (History, University of Wisconsin)’s “A Family Affair” is a study of labor activism among Wisconsin’s dairy farmers. Thrust into a particularly volatile market during the depression, the state’s dairy farmers organized in a “milk pool” and refused to sell their products to larger dairy companies. Resistance, like dairy farming itself, was truly a “family affair.” The women whose labor had sustained the industry worked organized working families at barn dances and picnics. As Jillian noted, these examples complicated the historiographical binary between productive and reproductive labor, giving even “turtle races” a radical meaning. (For people who, like me, had never heard of turtle racing, the sport is summarized here--scroll to “Danger” for a particularly interesting illustration of violence and resistance). Opposition to this direct action took the form of defamation--national media called the farmers greedy, blaming them for starving the nation--as well as tear gas from local sheriffs. Despite the defamers, the farmers offered free milk to hospitals, children and the poor, embracing Progressive-era while eschewing the experts and elites long associated with the period.
Tyler Davis (Religion, Baylor University) presented “Life Beyond Lynch Law: Imagining the Human and Utopia in Rural Texas,” his analysis of Sutton Griggs’ Imperium in Imperio in the context of the national non-response to lynching. Like his contemporary Ida B. Wells, Davis argued, Griggs recognized the collusion of the state in extralegal violence. Imperio is not merely an escapist utopia but an independent desire for a new society, animated by decolonial struggles and global networks of resistance. It is significant, too that Griggs located the society in rural Texas, which was far from the American metropole and had been contested since the Spanish-American war. In the rural periphery of empire Griggs could imagine a site of black independence outside of white supremacy.
Heath Pearson (Anthropology, Princeton University) presented his paper “The Carceral Outside: Living & Laboring in a NJ Prison Town,” with a narrative dynamism that, I’ve since learned, is typical of anthropologists. He related his ethnographic study of a New Jersey town (he calls it “Dayton”) that his home to one state and one federal prison facility. Heath’s interview agenda included members of the local police department, whose officers have been sued several times for beating and shooting local residents, in an interrogation room (“what have you learned?,” they grilled). In Heath’s assessment, the town’s elite made Dayton into a prison town, soliciting prison investment when the town’s factories closed. Furthermore, Heath argued, the town is an “incarcerating” place, since federal drug laws, exclusionary employment policies, and general capital abandonment keep the town’s residents “imprisoned” at the fringes of the formal economy and at the whims of an increasingly militarized police force.
As commentator Beth Lew-Williams observed, the four papers illustrated the state’s relationship with even extra-legal violence. Lew-Williams introduced a question that would be reiterated: what is the role of the rural? How do historical phenomena--progressivism, law-and-order, black resistance, the prison industrial complex--change in rural settings? We’d be stumbling on these questions (and the word “rural” itself) throughout the conference.