Professor Chris Cunneen was the receipient of the Distinguished Criminologist Award in 2021 for a lifetime of outstanding, significant and sustained contributions to Australian and New Zealand criminology. Professor Cunneen was also awarded the honorary title Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology and is entitled to append the letters of FANZSOC after his name.
The first two books I read in criminology were Phil Scraton’s edited Law, Order and the Authoritarian State and Stuart Hall et al’s Policing the Crisis. I had never undertaken a course in criminology as an undergraduate or postgraduate student. My master’s degree focused on south and southeast Asian modern history, and in particular the role of communist parties in anticolonial mobilisation. I started reading left critical criminology while I was working in youth refuges in the western suburbs of Sydney and spending time with friends in Bourke, and specifically because of violent and intimidatory police practices. I became involved with the Committee to Defend Black Rights (CDBR) and the movement to establish a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. An academic career followed sometime later and was always tempered by involvement in various social justice issues.
I was genuinely surprised when I was offered the Distinguished Criminologist award. Two days before I received the email from ANZSOC, I had been on social media bemoaning once again the political quietism of criminologists and criminal lawyers compared to many people working in public health. At that time in early November 2021 the American Public Health Association had just passed its national policy supporting penal abolitionism as an important public health concern. The policy was passed by 86% of their members at their Annual General meeting. This came on top of a national public health policy supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and calls to Defund the Police passed at earlier Association meetings – in this case recognising that divestment from police and investment in community was a potentially important public health outcome.
When I was offered the award I was reminded of a comment by Stan Cohen in Against Criminology (1988: 8).
My relationship with criminology is, I suppose, some variety of what used to be called ‘repressive tolerance’. Every attempt I have ever made to distance myself from the subject, to criticize it, even to question its very right to exist, has only got me more involved in its inner life. This is, of course, not just a personal experience, but the shared fate of most of us [who] embarked on a collective project of constructing an alternative to criminology. The more successful our attack on the old regime, the more we received … publishers’ contracts… research funds… appeared on booklists… and received awards from professional associations.Stan Cohen in Against Criminology (1988: 8).
For decades after he wrote this, Cohen continued to engage with critical criminological debates, including crimes of the state and genocide. I mention this because it also points to a rich history and continuity of radical thought that surrounds and is embedded in the intellectual object and practices called ‘criminology’ from the 1960s through to the present, much of which continually questioned whether criminology’s right to exist. Criminology has never been a single set of ideas and practices. It has ranged across different political modes of thinking from conservative, managerialist and technocratic to socialist, abolitionist and decolonial. The idea of a singular criminology is a chimera.
There have been multiple and diverse influences on radical thought and a fair share of vitriolic debates. However what interests me in particular is the joining of political activism with critical criminological thought, as we saw for example in Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s between Marxism and the great Black British intellectuals like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Sivanandran and their burning critiques of policing, police violence and racism. We see this similarly in the US as a continuity in political action and intellectual insights around racism and abolitionism from the Black Panthers to Critical Resistance to the contemporary BLM movement and the work of formidable intellectual activists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and others that have spanned these decades – some of whom have and do work within criminology and criminal justice departments like Beth Ritchie and the critical disability and abolitionist activist Liat Ben-Moshe.
We can see the importance of community activism in the Australian context: from the Prisoner’s Action Group in the 1970s to Sisters Inside today, from the Black Power movement of the late 60s/early 70s leading to the establishment of Aboriginal Legal services, to the Aboriginal-led CDBR leadership of a national campaign in the 1980s which resulted in the establishment of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We see it today with the activism of the families of those who have died at the hands of police and prison authorities. The family members of Wayne Fella Morrison who died in South Australian correctional custody successfully campaigned to ban the use of spit hoods. After the fatal shooting of Kumanjayi Walker, the community at Yuendumu have called for disarming the police. It is an import demand to have on the political agenda.
Nationally, 2020 saw a record number of fatal police shootings in Australia. Indeed, even in ‘normal’ years, Australia has significantly more fatal police shootings than England and Wales, despite having less than half the population. The police killing of Aboriginal woman JC in Geraldton in September 2019 highlighted everything that is so drastically wrong with the criminal legal system in this country. She was criminalized and imprisoned for mental illness, then released without the necessary support in the community. When her family called for assistance, it was dealt with as a police matter. The full violence of the state ensured – eight police responded to a mental health crisis and JC was gunned down by a police officer (who subsequently had his identity supressed).
That is the contemporary nature of state violence and it is to me what a critical and politically engaged criminology should be concerned with. Finally, the joining of political activism with critical criminological thought demands building solidarity across groups. First Nations scholars, Glen Coulthard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2016:255), expressed it this way:
When we disappear Indigenous presence from our intellectual endeavours, our movement building, and our scholarship, we not only align ourselves with the wrong side of history, we necessarily negate any form of solidarity and become actors in the maintenance of settler colonialism.
Chris Cunneen, Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology, Sydney.