From Police Power to Police Practice

This post is part of our online roundtable on Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us

Woman holding bullhorn at Code Pink Caravan, 7/4/2020, San Francisco (Wikimedia Commons)

The United States of America imprisons more ciswomen and girls than any other nation on earth. Prison policy experts have warned that the prevalence of captive mothers and grandmothers, aunties and wives, and daughters and sisters in the twenty-first century has dramatically outpaced the incarcerated population rates of their masculine counterparts. So much so that nearly one-third of all incarcerated women on our planet today live confined within this land of the (un)free.

The mass incarceration of women and girls in America is not a nascent phenomenon. The sheer number of women locked up inside of American prisons exploded by 475% between 1980 and 2020. All the while, Black women, women of color, transwomen, and poor women warehoused in local jails and state prisons have disproportionately borne the brunt of punitive turns toward feminine offenders.

Contemporary carceral trends for hyper-policed women and girls in the United States are one reason, among many, why Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us is remarkably telling. On top of showcasing why women matter in the history of American policing, The Streets Belong to Us spells out why policing matters in the history of political development, capitalist growth, and socioeconomic inequality in American cities. Ultimately, as Fischer’s work affirms, American law enforcement forces have routinely greased the wheels of punitive governance and state violence under the auspices of maintaining control over a contested and shifting social order.

Understanding the everyday manifestations of systemic racism, cisheteropatriarchy, and unequal justice for oppressed women and femmes necessitates meaningful engagement with, what I call, critical law enforcement studies—or the study of why and how policing and punishment takes place in carceral societies. After all, no one navigates any penal system without confronting frontline law enforcement authorities inside of secured facilities and out on the streets.

Starting in the Jim Crow era (1870s – 1950s) and moving through the mass incarceration age (1970s-), The Streets Belong to Us exposes fundamentally racist and sexist objectives endemic to street policing practices executed in major metropolitan hubs—mainly, Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta. Fischer stitches together the survival stories of Black and white women, teenagers, and sex workers targeted by police in order to chronicle a slew of successive street crime wars and vice control crusades predicated on gendered and racialized notions of criminality, dangerousness, and punishment. Taking full advantage of Black feminist analytics, she shows that sexual policing objectives morphed in tandem with sweeping federal legislation. Examples of this includes the infamous Volstead Act and state morals laws and city ordinances vigorously enforced by police during and after World War II. For city police, morals enforcement was part and parcel of supporting the war effort by protecting military servicemen from America’s so-called “V.D. problem” in the name of national security (65).

Sexual policing prerogatives touched all aspects of the criminal legal system from the cops to the courts. The discretionary use of lesser-known “floater” rulings, which legally banished Black women from downtown spaces, aligned municipal court judges with tactical patrol forces and urban capitalist developers alike (120). Despite seismic shifts in sexual liberalization and legal culture across the twentieth century, governing officials and their powerbroking allies habitually relied on discretionary morals law enforcement to redevelop American cities and root out undesirable people. As a result, women suspects suffered at the hands of aggressive law enforcement tactics and techniques, including mass arrests purposefully tailored for cracking down on sex workers.

The Streets Belong to Us also underscores crucial insights gleaned from scrutinizing police power through the lens of politics and political economy. Fischer highlights how sexual policing practices stimulated the growth of adult entertainment districts and commercialized sex zones, while also worsening sexual and physical police violence against Black women accused of public order and morals offenses. Black policemen freshly recruited to supplement special unit forces overwhelmingly dominated by white policemen, performed morals enforcement operations even while bumping heads with cruel coworkers. After witnessing a white officer violate a Black woman in police custody, a Black policeman assigned to Boston’s premier Tactical Patrol Force threatened his colleague in retaliation, “charging that ‘you don’t do that to them white girls” (131).

Nevertheless, the presence and the defiance of Black cops on the streets didn’t disarm systemic racism or dismantle sexism in policing—nor did it undermine the urban renewal schemes responsible for the saturated presence of armed patrol forces in segregated and gentrified neighborhoods. In fact, Fischer suggests the opposite, asserting that “morals enforcement…provided a helpful way to resolve the tension between Black hiring and the deployment of anticrime squads to pursue majority-Black police targets” (130).1 Regardless of their individual practices or personal convictions, urban cops aided and abetted some of the ugliest aspects of street law enforcement and order maintenance work because, to put it plainly, their jobs incentivized them to secure their own economic freedom and social mobility at the price of someone else’s.

Vulnerable women on the streets, however, didn’t wait to be saved by cops with better consciences or better expertise. Instead, police violence against Black women sparked anti-carceral feminist resistance against popular law enforcement logics like broken windows policing—an order maintenance strategy closely associated with zero tolerance and mass misdemeanor enforcement that, when wielded in practice, rendered folks deemed disorderly by public or private authorities socially and physically disposable. Building up grassroots political resistance among the ranks of sexually profiled women, in truth, ensured that people’s power survived in the face of evolving policing strategies and ever-changing political and socioeconomic conditions throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Fischer’s work joins a rich wellspring of recent historical scholarship on sex, race, and carcerality—that is, the police, courts, prisons, and cooperating institutions empowered to contain, confine, and control human beings by force. By pinpointing precisely how American police power operates in action between intersectional identity groups and within public and private institutions, carceral histories collectively expose punitive law enforcement traditions wrought from fear, hatred, and human injustices that still persist for marginalized minorities of all genders.2

National histories of crime control, most notably Governing Through Crime, The First Civil Right, Policing Sexuality, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, and Getting Tough have sharpened post-World War II perspectives on bipartisan investments in federal crime wars, which served as a sinister alternative to advancing robust community-controlled social welfare infrastructures. At the same time, local histories of police power, such as Street Justice (New York City), The Streets of San Francisco (San Francisco), Race, Place, and Suburban Policing (St. Louis), Policing Los Angeles (Los Angeles), Occupied Territory (Chicago), Policing Life and Death (Puerto Rico), Democracy’’s Capital (Washington D.C.), and Murder in New Orleans (New Orleans), have unveiled the undersides of twentieth-century police professionalization and paramilitarization, as well as the pervasiveness of ruthless underworlds rampant with violence, corruption, and premature death. Braided together, the entangled history of carceral state development and law-and-order reformism form the bedrock of emergent dimensions in critical law enforcement studies largely concerned with power-based analyses of politics and the police, economies of punishment, and punitive geographies within and beyond American territories.3

Even though the clutches of carceral power extend far across America and abroad, ensnaring child sex trafficking survivors, like Cyntoia Brown, as well as high-profile celebrities, like women’s basketball all-star Brittney Griner, the criminalization of drugs, sex work, and public space has certainly helped to secure America’s top spot on the global stage as far as human caging goes. This harrowing history is hardly surprising to system-impacted loved ones who’ve been fighting to survive in over-incarcerated and under-resourced communities for the past four decades. Yet even now, currently and formerly incarcerated Black women activists and anti-carceral feminist organizers, from Boston to Atlanta and beyond, remain at the helm of community-led transformative justice campaigns for women and girls, like #NoNewWomen’sPrison and #CommunitiesOverCages.

Amid the ascendance of anti-trans laws, “don’t say gay” bills, along with judicial attacks against women’s reproductive rights, The Streets Belong to Us reminds us that we need new critical police histories to uproot harmful narratives about American police power. We need new critical police histories to rigorously inform substantive public safety solutions without simply repackaging the same old police reforms and predatory law enforcement logics of the past. Most of all, we need new critical police histories to help unearth sustainable pathways for empowering oppressed, demonized, and impoverished people worldwide—and for treating all Black people like beloved human beings to be cherished, cared for, and holistically healed, rather than marked beasts to be shackled in silence or choked to death mercilessly

  1. With this fraught tension at the forefront of historical inquiry, forthcoming scholarship devoted to teasing out the political subjectivities of Black police and the effects of police affirmative action on law enforcement practices will undoubtedly add more complexity and clarity to understudied facets of minority police hiring, minority police experiences, and Black American criminological thought in the post-Civil Rights period. See, Fischer, pg. 130.
  2. Police power histories, like Fischer’s, are a crucial component of American carceral state historiography. Urban police power histories, published in the last twenty five years, have exposed the uneven outcomes of lethal crime wars carried out on the ground from San Francisco to San Juan, and elaborated extensively on the intersections and interminglings of urgent social, political, economic, and legal inequities previously overlooked or under-emphasized by classic institutional and administrative police histories, like Robert Fogelson’s Big-City Police, Sam Walker’s A Critical History of Police Reform, and Eric Monkkonen’s Police in Urban America.
  3. The Streets Belong to Us pairs well with aforementioned monographs because Fischer artfully captures local, state and national dynamics of sexual criminalizaton without forsaking the standpoints and lived experiences of sexually profiled women.
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DeAnza A. Cook

DeAnza Cook is a History Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University. Her doctoral research traces the evolution of urban police science, police reform, and police-community relations in Boston and beyond during the post-Civil Rights period. In addition, she administers seminar courses on race, civil rights, and constitutional policing for law enforcement officers in her home state of Virginia and teaches an African American history course for incarcerated students in Massachusetts.