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CSLS Speaker Series – Dirty Capital: Vice Police, Nuisance Property, and the Long War on Drugs in Philadelphia

Monday, April 3, 2023 @ 12:45 pm - 2:00 pm

CSLS Speaker Series

Cosponsor: Center for Race and Gender

Jackson Smith
Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow, UC Los Angeles

Dirty Capital: Vice Police, Nuisance Property, and the Long War on Drugs in Philadelphia
(University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming)

In 1991 Philadelphia prosecutors formed the Public Nuisance Task Force (PNTF) to close bars accused of harboring narcotics activity. Between the early 1990s and the late 2010s the PNTF would go on to seize nearly 1,700 alleged drug nuisance properties, mostly rowhouses located in Black and Latinx neighborhoods devastated by decades of disinvestment. The unit justified this civil forfeiture program by claiming it remedied the harms associated with the criminalized distribution of narcotics. I contend, however, that prosecutors compounded these harms by extending municipal carceral power over domestic space and property relations in racially segregated neighborhoods.

Former PNTF chief Beth Grossman has claimed that the identification of a drug nuisance property is akin to the identification of “pornography: people know it when they see it.” Through a history of the PNTF’s origins and an analysis of the 1,700 properties seized by the unit, I explore how the legal adjudication of drug nuisance cases operated through ostensibly reasonable observers—such as police officers, prosecutors, and concerned neighbors—knowing a drug nuisance property when they saw it. I argue that the PNTF targeted drug nuisance properties to enforce norms concerning the proper stewardship of property within a context of racialized disinvestment. My research ultimately reveals how the program exacerbated longstanding racial inequities. This finding is most evident in how the PNTF disposed of seized properties: they sold them at auction to the highest bidder, often to developers and speculators betting on the shifting boundaries of race and class in gentrifying Philadelphia. 


If you require an accommodation for effective communication (ASL interpreting/CART captioning, alternative media formats, etc.) to fully participate in this event, please contact csls@law.berkeley.edu with as much advance notice as possible and at least 7-10 days in advance of the event.


Monday, April 3, 2023
12:45 pm - 2:00 pm
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Philip Selznick Seminar Room
2240 Piedmont Ave
Berkeley, CA 94720-2150 United States


Center for the Study of Law and Society

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