Centering Women in Occupied Territory

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with the Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Simon Balto’s Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power

National Youth Administration girls and their instructor at the Good Shepherd community center, Chicago (Russell Lee, Photographer via Library of Congress)

Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power is a model history, both precise and poetic. Simon Balto’s account of twentieth-century police formation dramatizes the political dilemmas and strategies that delivered Chicago to a punishing regime of Black repression before the implementation of federal mass incarceration policies. Close attention to local context allows Balto to track a stunning transformation in the policing of Black Chicago: in the wake of Red Summer, “there was little intentionality that guided public policy toward” the burgeoning Black community (29). However, by the dawn of the 1970s — the conventional starting point for the War on Crime — the Chicago Police Department was fully assembled to wage a lethal assault on Black lives.

Balto has invited me to sketch in what he calls the margins of his book, namely gender analysis. But in the spirit of Balto, I must acknowledge that when I center some margins, I create more erasures. I focus on the policing of cisgender women who are presumed to be straight.1 Scholars like Treva Ellison, Christina Hanhardt, Emily Hobson, and Timothy Stewart-Winter do the necessary work of centering queer and trans lives in the expansion of — and resistance to — police power.

By starting in 1919, Balto offers an important corrective to the scholarship on modern policing which generally begins after World War II. This new chronology provides an urgent insight: modern urban policing, as a systematic machine of Black punishment — and blackness, as a criminalized category — had to be built. Occupied Territory is not only important because of its findings. Balto’s methods, especially his emphasis on the building blocks of modern policing, open up space for historians to chart more turning points in the making of mass incarceration as we work to unmake the crisis.

Balto and I both rewind to the 1920s because this period reveals the preconditions for mass incarceration, which were rooted in nascent policies to contain and corrode Black neighborhoods. Chapter One highlights the complicity of police and politicians in producing a racist Prohibition-era geography of vice that transformed Black neighborhoods into zones of “‘immunity’” for Chicago’s underworld (39). This Prohibition-era policy, Balto notes in his moving Prologue, was modeled on an earlier twentieth-century program: the relocation of red-light districts to racially mixed and, later, rigidly segregated Black neighborhoods. When our perspective shifts from men in traditionally male forms of vice (e.g., liquor or gambling) and centers sexually profiled women, this moment — the relocation of red-light districts and their afterlife in Black neighborhoods — becomes a key turning point. The sexual policing of women emerges as a crucial driver of the intertwined developments of racial segregation, gender construction, and modern police practices.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the downtown fixture of red-light districts served an important political function: the graft they generated funded election campaigns and sealed political loyalties. Against this backdrop, a tidal wave of moral reformism crested in cities to abolish “white slavery,” which reformers saw as a grave threat to civic and domestic purity. This campaign wore its racial priorities on its face. It was a project to reclaim white women who, as the standard narrative went, had been sexually exploited by predatory men of color. The moral reclamation of white womanhood (and, by extension, the white city) required the shutdown of red-light districts. Police and politicians could not quell this massive reform drive, but they were loath to relinquish their lucrative source of shared pay-offs from red-light districts. As a result, the celebrated “closures” of red-light districts during the Progressive era merely amounted to a relocation of so-called vice districts to communities with the least amount of urban political power: neighborhoods with growing populations of Black refugees from the Jim Crow South. Police deployed their discretionary power to control an urban faucet, allowing the inundation of white men into predominantly Black neighborhoods while selectively targeting white and Black women for morals arrests (or withholding arrest for a price) in vice districts that police helped to erect. By “purifying” white downtown space at the expense of Black neighborhoods, authorities inaugurated the enduring zero-sum police logic of white protection and Black degradation that Balto discusses in Chapter Four on postwar battles for open housing.

This spatial reordering of vice and race was explicitly connected with the establishment of racial segregation in cities outside the Jim Crow South. (In Southern cities, red-light districts historically had been sited in Black neighborhoods; the relocation of red-light districts in cities outside of the South, then, marked a Southernization of policing practices nationwide.) Kevin Mumford and Mara Keire have both noted that the meaning of segregation changed during this period: early twentieth-century “segregated districts” had been synonymous with red-light districts. After the Progressive-era relocation, segregation assumed its racially specific connotation. In this way, race and vice were fused together, a powerful core in what Balto calls the “bedrock of fictions” that justified and produced Black criminalization (45).

The relocation of red-light districts ignited a defining characteristic of law enforcement in the urban U.S., what Joe William Trotter has called the overpolicing and underprotection of Black lives. Police practiced violent neglect by permitting and profiting from vice in Black neighborhoods. This neglect broadcast to the city that Black neighborhoods were sites of sexual deviance and lawlessness, which in turn provoked violent action — aggressive, disproportionate morals policing that was as erratic in these early years as it was brutal. The enduring preoccupation with white female purity heightened Black men and women’s exposure to arrest, while leaving Black women profoundly unprotected from the depredations of white men free to exploit the city’s vice playground.

Overpolicing and underprotection is a major theme in Occupied Territory, and rightly so: police degrade Black neighborhoods through both the brutality of force and the brutality of abandonment. For Balto, these features “rarely occupied the same intellectual and experiential spheres” of Black protest prior to World War II (151). But the sexual policing of women in Black neighborhoods exposed these twinned police practices simultaneously, the specific racist and sexist mechanisms by which they grew in tandem, and their centrality to interwar machine governance. Throughout the 1920s, the Black press made these developments visible by calling out the white hypocrisy and state force that rendered their neighborhoods vulnerable to a toxic combination of police neglect and violence. For example, in 1924, a Chicago Defender editorial denounced a police raid on a South Side “resort” allegedly hosting Black men and white women: “Jail Colored men who may be loved of or who may love fair ladies of the white tribe,” the author sarcastically wrote, “but white men enjoying the heavier charms of ladies kissed by shadows, send them to the legislature[.]”2 In this critique, laden with the patriarchal priorities common to early Black protest of sexual policing, we can see the doubled anger at the overpolicing of Black men and underprotection of Black women. As Black residents well knew, the installation of vice districts in Black neighborhoods — and the corollary commitment to overpolicing Black men with white women while underprotecting Black women from white men — sustained a larger project of urban race- and gender-making.

Vice districts in Black neighborhoods uniquely raised the specter of interracial sex. As police practices recalibrated in the shifting urban landscape of race and sex during the Prohibition era, the sexual policing of women became the terrain on which law enforcement authorities made the boundaries of race in modern cities. The Chicago Defender followed these developments closely in the mid-1920s, drawing connections between discretionary police power, morals laws, and the enforcement of racial segregation. “[H]omes [are] invaded, young men insulted, young women made to suffer the lewd epithets of police hirelings instructed to weigh blood, mark color, to say who is who and what, by the gods, is what!”3 The following year, another editorial fumed that “Police are still raiding our homes … They are still stopping couples on the streets and questioning them because they are not certain of the woman’s race. If she is white, they are both arrested.”4 Through the sexual policing of Black neighborhoods — which typically meant racially distinct forms of surveillance and harassment of Black and white women — police officers became the on-the-ground arbiters of race and the frontline enforcers of racial segregation. In this way, police enforced not only the boundaries of race, but also of womanhood, as officers determined that white women were deserving of protection (even if that “protection” came in the form of policing) and Black women were not.

The postwar chapters in Occupied Territory focus on fights over the consolidation of discriminatory police power. These chapters offer rich opportunities to center race, gender, and sexual policing, which materially shaped the decriminalization of whiteness, the establishment of arrest quotas, the creation of police squads, and the legalization of broken windows policing. However, I have chosen to dwell on this prewar moment because Occupied Territory taught me how to make sense of the chaos of early twentieth-century urban policing. More than that, the periodization builds bridges across the artificial divide of World War II, while the methods guide the inquiries of historians with a diverse range of analytical commitments toward a common goal of interrogating how modern policing was made. Balto has significantly expanded the field, helping us to uncover new origins and sources of police power, distinct forms of vulnerability and violence, and overlooked strategies of Black resistance. This work will bring us closer to a full reckoning with the many varieties of lived experience under occupation and a powerful reimagining of a less violent, and as Balto writes, “less ugly” future (262).

  1. As Cathy Cohen has taught us, Black women engaging in straight sexual practices have been denied the privileges of straightness and were — and are — policed as sexually deviant. See Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” GLQ 3, no. 4 (1997): 437-465.
  2. “Girls Are Girls: Miss Binford Don’t Be Shocked,” Chicago Defender, February 9, 1924, 5.
  3. “A Just Judge,” Chicago Defender, January 31, 1925, 8.
  4. “Our Ultimatum,” Chicago Defender, September 18, 1926, 14.
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Anne Gray Fischer

Anne Gray Fischer is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research and teaching unite Black feminist analysis and critical race studies to explore histories of gender, sexuality, and race; law enforcement and the state; and feminist activisms in the modern United States. She is writing a history of race and sexual policing between the fall of Prohibition in the 1930s and the rise of broken windows policing, or mass misdemeanor policing, in the 1980s. Dr. Fischer received a PhD in History from Brown University with a Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. One essay adapted from her book manuscript appeared in the Journal of American History and another in “Social Histories of Neoliberalism,” a special issue of the Journal of Social History. Follow her on Twitter @AnneGrayFischer.