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Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross See the Car as a Machine for Unfreedom

I’ve been incarcerated (briefly) twice in my life, and both times my incarceration was linked to a car. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never made the connection until I read Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality by Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross. The many threads that run between cars, surveillance, and policing that this book calls our attention to feel even more urgent in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ fatal beating at the hands of six Memphis police. Like so many incidents of state terror, this tragedy began as a traffic stop.

Regardless of our political orientation, everyone thinks that we already know what we need to know about cars and jails, and we are mostly wrong. I say “mostly” because, by choosing the car as their site of inquiry, Livingston and Ross reveal profound insights about technologies that are deeply familiar but also omnipresent symbols of freedom in the story the United States tells about itself.


Because the car has been so wrapped up in the mythical promise of American freedom this book has a lot to say about the world in which our choices occur and that is where I wanted to start my discussion with Andrew and Julie.

Chenjerai Kumanyika (CK): This book comes at a time when many confront rapidly changing and alienating working conditions, omnipresent surveillance, debt, policing and incarceration, a crisis of housing and displacement under capitalism and, of course, the crisis of climate change which intensifies all of the above. And yet these challenges are presented to us as the result of our individual choices. For example, we’re told that we chose our jobs, or to commit crimes that police and jails then justifiably punish us for. We choose to use smartphones and computers. And, according to this narrative, if you have debt it is because you have chosen to access luxuries via credit.

However, we also have growing social movements that tell a different story that recognizes that individuals make “choices” inside unfair, predatory structures. Could you talk about how cars fit into this?

Andrew Ross (AR): A car is definitely a compulsory, inescapable daily asset for the vast majority of people in this country because of the auto-centric build out of US infrastructure after the Second World War. You don’t really have alternative choices unless you live somewhere with fairly decent public transit, like New York City. It’s something you just have to have, not unlike healthcare, housing, or, increasingly, higher education. We have social movements in each of these other arenas; we have Housing for All, we have College for all, we have Medicare for All, but we don’t have Transportation for All yet. And it deserves a movement. One-fifth of household income goes to transportation, it is such an inescapable necessity. We found during the pandemic, for example, people were prioritizing their car payments over all other payments. And unlike the eviction moratorium or suspension of student loan payments, car payments were not suspended.

Moreover, if you are a car owner you are red meat for whoever wants to prey upon you, whether it is police, auto lenders, or state agencies interested in extracting data about your conduct. You are the object of predation and you have no choice.

Julie Livingston (JL): Moreover, unfair structures can be hidden inside of the fact that a car is also very intimate, very personal. It is a real choice which car am I going to get. What color is it going to be? It’s the place where I can have that conversation with my teenager that’s easier side by side rather than facing one another over the kitchen table. It’s where I listen to my own music. It’s an expression of my taste. But that hides how compulsory it is. That hides the dread or anxiety I have if I’m a person of color driving by the police. Those personal choices are the gloss on the surface of a dense system.

Read entire article at Public Books