What defines democratic life as it actually exists for race-class subjugated communities? How do they relate their experiences with legal authorities to ideals of fairness, justice, and equality? How do they contest and reframe how we understand American Democracy?
Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago, and the surge of collective protests to police violence across the country highlighted the stark contrasts between formal legal empowerment and right to be free from state interference and the daily, lived experience of citizens in poor communities.
Despite the transformation of policing and rising prevalence of encounters with the justice system, 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. This important work requires a better way to measure these dynamics across communities. And it requires that we center the voices of the unfree. That we listen. Our Portals Policing Project aims to do just that.
The central purpose of this project is to describe and analyze democracy from the ground up.
How it started
Portals are a global public art initiative created by Shared_Studios and Amar Bakshi, the organization’s founder. By transforming a container meant to ship goods to a space for exchanging ideas, he created an immersive space to connect people across the globe. Upon entering a Portal, you’ll come face-to-face with someone in a distant Portal as though you were in the same room.
After encountering Bakshi’s work, we saw the possibility of the Portals to transform both what we know and how we go about knowing it. Specifically, Portals increased the capacity of geographically distant people and communities to define their narratives and create connected political spaces.
Soon, we embarked on a US-based version of Portals to create a “wormhole” in highly policed communities.In the spring of 2016, we piloted the Portals Policing Project between Milwaukee’s Amani neighborhood and Newark’s Lincoln Park and Military Park. By the spring of 2018, the Project had touched 14 different neighborhoods and 6 different cities—Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Newark, and Mexico City.
I swear I had none of this before Portals, I can speak now, I used to always be ashamed of what I thought, you know, how I spoke, how I walk, what my swag was, like that what I say about the Portal, the Portal kinda took that away from me, it strips you away of all those negative thoughts about yourself, you know, people just view you as yourself, and ain’t have to be nobody else ‘cause people relate to that. Other than that, man, I just love my life right now, I wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m not rich or anything, but I’m rich in connections, in resources, I’m rich in friendships, so that’s better than money, you know?
Lewis Lee, Milwaukee and Chicago Curator
How it works
The process is powerful in its simplicity.
Each Portal is staffed by a Curator: a member of the community who does outreach and describes the study. Portals are first and foremost a community gathering spot, space for art and performance, and interesting place for all kinds of discussions and collaborations in addition to discussions of policing. Curators hold many informal “pop up” initiatives on the days and times that conversations were not being recorded for our study: poetry slams, running a barbershop, chess tournaments, having community discussions with civic leaders, or dialoguing with global Portals. Learn more about our Curators here.
Participants enter the Portal typically after wandering in out of curiosity or word of mouth. They are connected by life-size video and speak for 20-minutes with someone else that they do not know in a paired city. They also fill out a basic iPad survey consisting of 12 brief questions about their background, including experiences with police and crime victimization.
As the individuals speak to one another, their conversation is not guided or moderated by a researcher. Instead, Portal participants are given a single prompt to discuss police. Through open-ended, free-wheeling conversations, participants can say what they think in their own terms in a way that they couldn’t in most surveys. They’re then invited to reflect on their experience in a Gold Book.
We captured a broad swath of Americans, policing regimes, neighborhood and political contexts. Mothers, former gang members, activists, students, retirees, those experiencing homelessness, those who recently exited prison, and young adults.
What we’ve learned
After collecting the Portals dialogues and transcribing them, our research team worked together to code and analyze Portals transcripts and surveys. In addition to coding, we conducted site visits, interviewed Portals Curators, and researched neighborhoods and local policing regimes. By doing so, we learned that:
Policing is central to the ways in which race-class subjugated communities understand and participate in politics. Despite complexity, disagreement, and people spanning various backgrounds, the narratives tell a new story about race-class citizenship in America, sharpening our attention to problems in our democracy. We’ve also gleaned insights about the justice system previously overlooked by traditional methods for mining public opinion.
We can learn by activating political connections. Through this project we’ve observed how Portals in marginalized communities became more than a medium for research, it became a platform for building power; it activated bottom-led projects for justice, new visions, and new political consciousness. We not only hear democracy from the ground up, we facilitate it as well.
For more on what we’ve learned, see The Research.