I have been obsessing over a road—a road on which I have never travelled in a state to which I have never been.
In Jefferson City, Missouri, a strange road called “No More Victims Road” traces a rough “L” shape along the Missouri River, running only for about two miles. There are two prisons located on No More Victims Road: the Jefferson City Correction Center, a maximum-security prison, and the Algoa Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison.
The name “No More Victims Road” is, I think, creating victims. In this way, the name is a “declarative speech act,” which the law professor Stanley Fish helpfully defined in his 2016 book “Winning Arguments” as “a speech act that brings into being the entity to which it refers.” But the declarative speech act being performed by the name “No More Victims Road” is actually doing something a bit different. Upon inspection, it becomes clear that the name brings into existence the very thing that it claims to be doing away with: the name itself makes victims. In this way, the name is a counter-declarative speech act of sorts, and this victim-making is done in at least three ways.
In a very famous 1989 law review article, the critical race theorist Richard Delgado described how viewers co-create what they view when they interpret and translate the object of their viewing into words. Delgado reminded us that “[w]e participate in creating what we see in the very act of describing it.”
In this way, those who named No Victims Road and saw to it that prisons were built on the same road co-create those unnamed victims, of which it is declared there shall be no more, and in whose defense the road has been so named and the prisons have been so built. This is the first way in which the name creates victims.
The issue here is that the co-creators (those who named the road) see people (unnamed victims) that, for example, a person driving on No More Victims Road would be unable to see themselves. The seeing, and therefore the co-creation of the unnamed victims, stops with these initial seers.
This takes us to the second way in which the road’s name creates victims. It is clearly designed to further punish and humiliate those who are held captive on No More Victims Road, along with their loved ones who visit them and the communities from which they are taken. Through this punishment and humiliation, yet more victims are called forth into existence. The name suggests that the road and the prisons that have been built thereon prevent further victimization by caging people who would, the argument goes, undoubtedly victimize people in the future as they have victimized people in the past.
This argument articulates an almost impressively cruel condemnation that suggests the people behind the prison walls are pathological and fixed in their pathology. All this from only four short, tempestuous words.
Our co-creators also co-create the identities of those who are implicitly positioned opposite the unnamed victims: those held in captivity behind the prisons’ walls. These people are the victimizers, who at once are positioned as the antitheses of the so-called victims and create the victims by differentiation. The identities of the people held captive by Missouri are created by reference to the victims.
Of course, this is all designed to indicate that those held in captivity are not themselves victims; in fact, they are so far outside the realm of victimhood that their very existence is used to carve out the existence of the unnamed victims. These unnamed victimizers are stigmatized and emptied of their individuality by the four-word noun phrase “No More Victims Road.” This is the third way in which this name creates victims—by victimizing those who have been identified as victimizers.
The name “No More Victims Road” creates itself the very thing it purports to end. One is left to wonder how many fewer victims there would be if No More Victims Road was itself no more.
Michael Arjun Banerjee is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at the University of California—Berkeley. Email: email@example.com.