How Policing Black Women’s Bodies Built the Modern City

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

Group of African-Americans, marching near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia, circa 1940s (LOC)

In a statement both unfair and true, I wish Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us had come out a decade ago. The field of police history has exploded – importantly and fruitfully – over the past ten or so years. Thanks to a new generation of historians working in this area, most of whom are relatively young in the profession, we know so much more today about the histories of policing than we did when I first started working in the field in 2008. We know more about its origins in assorted regimes of social, economic, and racial control; about its terrible costs; about its globality and the ensuing boomerangs. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this cohort of scholars and the work they’ve produced have already made deep imprints on the fields of Black history and U.S. urban history, among others. It’s also no overstatement to say that this work, especially since May of 2020, has helped Americans (those willing to engage it, at least) better understand the depths and development of our own age’s ongoing policing crises.

And yet, I can’t help but think how much more nuanced this brilliant literature would be had its authors, myself more than anyone, had Fischer’s book at the ready to converse and grapple with. By way of example, when I wrote the introduction to my own book, sometime in early 2018, I did something of a (pun intended) cop-out, acknowledging to readers the book’s margins— or, in other words, what not to expect from it. Among other things, I wrote, “this book contains little in the way of gender analysis, and has little to say about how identities as cisgender men, cisgender women, and nonbinary people shaped their encounters with police.” This analytic limitation on my part wasn’t because I thought gender identities—and, critically, the way police read those identities—to be unimportant. Rather, after nearly eight years of working on that specific project and fully ten embedded in the history of policing, I didn’t know how to get at those stories: what archives and what methodologies would make them legible?

And this is why I wish The Streets Belong to Us had been around back then. These questions about gender, and the ways gender intersects with race and class, are Fischer’s central concerns as she interrogates the history of policing. Primarily though not exclusively focused on the cities of Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta, The Streets Belong to Us is about the ways police power was not just mapped upon, but built upon the bodies of Black women. As Fischer reminds us, “it is not enough to say that women are also policed or differently policed. Women’s bodies are an important and overlooked site on which police power—and the modern city—have been built” (4).

The policing of women’s sexuality – sexual policing – is the primary lens through which Fischer proves the argument. She traces the history of sexual policing from the racist “white slavery” panic of the Progressive Era up through the “Take Back the Night” movement and broken windows policing in the late twentieth century. In so doing, Fischer shows how the state established nonmartial sex as a criminal offense under the guise of  “protecting” white women variously from the depredations of nonwhite men and from their own sexual impulses. These laws, in the long run, would be weaponized against Black women—including but not limited to those who labored as sex workers. The history she reveals here shows, critically, how sexual policing produced police power and legitimated policing as an institution during periods in which its legitimacy was deeply in question. It also shows how the racial geographies of urban America were constructed and maintained through sexual policing. Fischer does this by highlighting how the racist, expulsionist targeting of Black women as deviants and moral menaces by police, politicians, and unelected elites was essential to the gentrification and redevelopment of urban downtowns by the 1970s and 1980s.

To come back to why I wish the book was older: The Streets Belong to Us doesn’t speak at length about Chicago, the city I write the most about. But following a second read of the book in preparation for writing this piece, I went back to some of the primary sources I used in my book, to examine what I could’ve seen in them had I been looking while armed with Fischer’s interpretive lens. And sure enough, it’s there: a story, here there only in gross statistics, but illustrative and awaiting explication nonetheless. Between 1965 and 1975, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) radically escalated its repressive campaign on Black Chicago (which I knew) but did so in certain ways that uniquely singled out Black women (which I did not). In 1965, CPD arrested 4,245  women on charges of “prostitution and commercialized vice,” of whom 2,655, or roughly 62%, were Black. Ten years later, however, the numbers had jumped: 6,923 women were arrested that year on such charges, and fully 80% were Black. Perhaps most tellingly, during a decade in which the number of arrests for sex-work-related “crimes” increased by more than 60%, the number of white women arrested for such crimes decreased by nearly 20%.

Why did this happen? I suppose answering the question definitively falls to the next person who writes about racist policing in Chicago during this time period since my book’s teeth seem long at this point. But I will point out that this startling statistical story—of a dramatically escalating police war on Black women accused of sex crimes—unfolded during one of the most transformative and volatile periods in the city’s history: an era of rights revolutions; severe (and murderous) repressions thereof by the CPD and other state actors; and, in keeping with Fischer’s thesis, the aggressive redevelopment of areas adjacent to the downtown Loop, including the construction of the famous Sears (now Willis) Tower and the University of Illinois-Chicago campus, and in other nominally “desirable” parts of the city such as those in the shadow of the University of Chicago on the Black South Side. It’s impossible for me to look at the statistics in the above paragraph on the one hand, and to know about the history of Chicago during that period on the other, and not feel confident that they abide Fischer’s argument that the policing of Black women facilitated redevelopment, facilitated gentrification, facilitated the expansion of police power.

The work that Fischer is doing here completely transforms not only what we know about how police have historically targeted and built their power upon “sexually profiled women.” Through her explorations of precisely how police targeted Black women, she also gets us to some other elemental truths about police in the United States. One of the more striking is the insidious role of white people with accumulated capital in governing what police operations look like. The Streets Belong to Us shows us how unelected rich people—those with money and therefore influence, but who are accountable to no one—influence how policing works, including helping to determine who police violate and harm the most.

In broad strokes, this truism isn’t entirely new; crime commissions like those in Chicago and elsewhere have functionally existed as private clubs trying to address “crime” and police policy for more than a century now. But I’ve never seen this dynamic revealed with such startling clarity, in all its awfulness, as Fischer does here. It’s on display most clearly in Fischer’s second to last chapter, which focuses on redevelopment battles in Atlanta, where Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), “a consortium of downtown business elites,” initiated a “‘board room’ takeover of Atlanta police” beginning in the middle of the 1970s (138). Seeking to court (white) convention and (white) tourist business to the city’s downtown, elites in CAP and the Chamber of Commerce perceived downtown as a space in need of clearing out and cleaning up before such investments would come. This belief and the sway they held over the urban economy and political landscape led them to successfully extract commitments from the Atlanta Police Department to take a heavy-handed approach to morals enforcement in the downtown area in pursuit of a “‘sanitized’ urban whiteness” that would expel nominally “deviant” populations (primarily Black women thought to be sex workers, though that would later expand to myriad other people, mostly Black) – an approach that directly presaged the infamous broken windows policing that defined the next decade. While not all of CAP’s efforts in this vein succeeded, many did. And in any event, as Fischer notes, those efforts shaped Atlanta’s political environment deeply, and “established the parameters of the politically possible” there (169).

The entire chapter, as well as the one on Boston that precedes it, speak to two of the central questions animating police history right now: who (if anyone) controls the police, and to whom are they accountable? The answer to both questions remains not entirely clear, but this much is: as everyday citizens, it’s surely not me, and it’s surely not you. The implications of this should shake you.

The Streets Belong to Us is a gift. It has already taught me so much, including offering completely new lenses for me to think about my own work and about the entire field in which I’ve worked for nearly fifteen years. From here on out, no one who writes about the history of policing will be able to successfully do so without reckoning with all that Anne Gray Fischer has given us.

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Simon Balto

Simon Balto is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the award-winning Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power and is currently at work on a new book on the long history of white mob violence in the United States from Reconstruction to the civil rights era.

Comments on “How Policing Black Women’s Bodies Built the Modern City

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    good and informative article.

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