*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. This post is a longer read.
Policing is not an abstraction. It is an active and dynamic system. It is violence — emotional, spiritual, and physical. It confines and hinders. It arrests, in multiple senses of the word. It dehumanizes, damages, destroys. It inflicts pain. And it does all of this to people and to communities, directly and tangibly.
Much of the response to my book has focused on my writing, and that’s as true in this forum as it has been in other spaces and conversations. I want, then, to begin by explaining why it felt important to me to write about policing in a way that conveyed its corporeal and visceral impacts — to show, as Melanie Newport and Anne Gray Fischer respectively write in their responses, “what it means to be politically and physically vulnerable in a climate of state terror” and “the many varieties of lived experience under occupation.”
I’m lucky to have never been the victim of police violence. I’ve had a number of encounters with the police. Some of them struck me as being shaped by bias. Some did not. Regardless, I’ve been stopped. I’ve been searched. I’ve been ordered to present identification in situations in which such demands were entirely unwarranted. I have felt fear. I have never, however, been manhandled or beaten or injured, for which I feel fortunate.
I offer that as an access point for explaining my own positionality as a scholar of police, power, and race in America. I am not a neutral party on these matters (as if anyone really is), but I also don’t consider myself much of a victim. Pain I feel when it comes to policing in America is emphatic and social, not experiential.
What, then, does it mean to write about pain that is not my own? Put differently, what responsibilities do we as scholars and writers have, borrowing the title of a Susan Sontag book, regarding the pain of others?1
There is a very brief account in my book of a man named Stanley Reed. In 1966, Reed saw Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers shoot his handcuffed son in the back and watched as his son looked at him and gasped the word “Dad” as he died. By the time I found Stanley Reed’s story in the Defender, I had read countless stories of people who’d been brutalized or killed by the police — a volume of violence in the archives that poses the dual threats of either numbing or overwhelming someone. Even after all of the stories I’d read, Stanley Reed’s stopped me in my tracks. To linger on this father’s unimaginable pain in that moment struck me as an important ethical act.
In turn, I wanted to try to convey human stories like his, even if briefly, to readers. I wanted to remind them, as relentlessly but gently as possible, of the need to remember the humanity of the people whose pain shapes Occupied Territory’s pages. I wanted to try to conjure and convey the viscerality of being policed; the trauma of being rent by violation and violence; the pain — both immediate and lasting; individual, familial, orbital, and collective — of being shown the hardest forms of evidence that a system nominally designed to protect you does not actually care about you. While knowing that policing can be theorized, I wanted, in short, to remove it from the realms of abstraction or theory and offer depictions of how it actually played out in people’s lives. Taking that approach was not just a scholarly choice for me; it was a moral one, too.
I am grateful to what seems to be a majority of readers — like those in this forum — who see what I was trying to do. When Dan Berger writes the following, he captures precisely what I was attempting: “a deeply felt humanism courses throughout the book as Balto routinely, but never gratuitously, attends to the violence visited upon human beings — not just names on a crime blotter, but children and parents and friends and coworkers whose lives were cut short or otherwise curtailed as a result of police action.” The same for Newport’s comment that Occupied Territory is a book about “what it meant to experience and live in a climate shaped by police violence.”
At the same time, with this book I also wanted to document how that “climate shaped by police violence” developed over time. When I first started research for this project ten years ago, the literature on what people now call “the carceral state” was still in a relative (though certainly not full) infancy. (In hindsight, that year, 2010, marked an incredible sea change in carceral studies, with a publication roster headlined by seminal texts like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Heather Ann Thompson’s Journal of American History article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness, Cheryl Hicks’s Talk with You Like a Woman, and Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough.) What literature did exist had been written primarily by sociologists, criminologists, journalists, and legal scholars, with a comparatively smaller handful of historians represented, and the general focuses were on the consequences of mass incarceration in America and the War on Drugs that were presumed to have produced it. Hardly any of it had much analysis of policing.
This was half a decade before the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, as plenty of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, queer, and other marginalized people already knew through experience, and as other Americans knew from paying attention, the United States was in the midst of a crisis of hyper-punishment, police were central to that punishment regime, and racism was a constitutive element of policing. The guiding directive for me became trying to figure out how that regime had become centrally structured around a profound anti-Blackness, with a focus on Chicago, where I’d been living before leaving to start graduate school.
The experiences with chronologically bracketing a research question that Berger describes in his essay really do echo what happened with me. Having long been interested in the life and labor of Fred Hampton, the state-murdered leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, I knew enough to know that by the end of the 1960s, the relationship between the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and huge swaths of Black Chicago was thoroughly broken. That was also the period in which Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime was rapidly escalating federal investment in state and local punishment regimes, most notably through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) (as documented in Elizabeth Hinton’s excellent From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime). By that point, reflecting police behavior as well as that of prosecutors, juries, judges, and other actors within the criminal legal system, more than one-third of people admitted to state and federal prisons each year were Black.2
That moment in time then, encompassing the late 1960s and early 1970s, became my end point. Turning backward rather than forward from the drug and crime wars, I wanted to understand precisely how the relationship between the CPD and Black Chicago had become so broken by the end of the 1960s. By extension and more broadly, I wanted to understand how the system of mass incarceration that was by that point on the horizon was going to be, from the beginning, oriented so disproportionately against Black communities. (The answer to the latter, it turns out, pivots in large measure on the answer to the former — the racist logics, policies, and behaviors that animated CPD operations in Black neighborhoods by the 1960s were visible in other cities by the same point, and mass incarceration is necessarily built most foundationally upon police work. Almost no one gets tangled in the prison maw without first encountering the police. In other words, mass incarceration is a racist project because it builds upon policing, which is also a racist project.)
I started by working backward from the end of the Sixties: through the multiple urban rebellions and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s; the Second Great Migration and the negligent police response to white terrorism against aspiring Black neighborhood integrators and the rise of the Daley machine in the 1940s and 1950s; the Great Depression and the criminalization of poverty and Black radical organizing against austerity and police violence in the 1930s; the first Great Migration and Prohibition and the city-sanctioned concentration of vice markets in Black neighborhoods in the 1920s. Like Berger, I likely could have kept going, and I began to get overwhelmed by that reality. The CPD was unresponsive to white racist violence against Black people earlier in the 1910s; should that be part of the focus? Police and civic leaders shifted the city’s infamous Levee vice district into Black neighborhood in the 1890s; did I need to go back that far? And on and on.
I ultimately landed on 1919. The choice was not arbitrary. Chicago was in the midst of the Great Migration at that point, and white citizens and policymakers were becoming well aware of (and to varying degrees worried about) the city’s increasing Blackness. The culminating point of those dynamics was a cataclysmic race riot that summer — a watershed event for the city, and one in which the CPD, through abuse of Black people and negligence in controlling white violence, offered Black Chicagoans, new and old, evidence of its general disinterest in Black well-being. There and unfolding over the coming years were what Anne Gray Fischer wisely calls “the preconditions for mass incarceration, which were rooted in nascent policies to contain and corrode Black neighborhoods.”
The book covers more than fifty years of terrain, and I think it offers a compelling analysis of the ways that a disastrously repressive and negligent police system vis-à-vis Black Chicago congealed over time. It shows how Black Chicagoans became the target of racial repression in the form of policies like stop-and-frisk, arrest quotas, neighborhood saturation, and violence. It also shows how the CPD divested itself of its responsibility to keep Black Chicago safe, whether from white, structural, or intracommunal violence.
I won’t rehash the book as a whole, but I want to say a bit about what it has meant for me personally, because writing Occupied Territory — as well, of course, as reading colleagues’ scholarship and talking with organizers and activists fighting police abuse and harassment — has indelibly shaped my own politics. I did not come to this project from the perspective of an abolitionist. I came to it as a mid-twenties graduate student wanting to better understand what I knew to be a critical social problem, but I did not at the time tend to think that, as Max Felker-Kantor writes in his piece, “the problem of policing is the police power itself.” Researching and writing Occupied Territory forced an almost total recalibration of my politics on the issue, and my conclusions align with Felker-Kantor’s statement.
Put simply, ten years ago, I would have told you that there are problems with policing. Today I’d tell you that policing is a problem.
Let me give an example of how I came to this conclusion. During the 1940s and 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of Black southerners were arriving in Chicago as part of the Second Great Migration, white Chicagoans routinely engaged in violent racist terrorism to try to prevent Black people from moving into all-white neighborhoods. They bombed homes, busted windows, beat people, set fires, overturned cars, and all manner of things to keep aspiring Black homeowners and renters out of “their” neighborhoods. When Black people turned to the police for help in the midst of this recurring crisis, they almost never got it. Indeed, police administrators suggested that Black people should stop trying to move into white neighborhoods because protecting them from white violence was sapping police resources — the implication being that protecting Black life and property in such circumstances was a peripheral (at best) police concern. Simultaneously, the police department was in the midst of implementing “stop and seizure” policies (stop and frisk, by a different name) disproportionately in Black communities, saturating Black neighborhoods with tactical squads, waging a “war on drugs” in Black Chicago, and so on. Arrests of white Chicagoans were, meanwhile, beginning a slow disappearing act that has continued to this day. (It’s almost statistically impossible to be arrested while white in present-day Chicago.) In other words, what was happening during this time was the simultaneous systematization of police repression and the geographic and racial narrowing of its locus.
One of the animating questions that comes out of this assessment, then, is on whose behalf the police actually work. The pitch for police is that they’re there for the common good and the protection of public safety, but studying the police critically makes that claim hard to sustain. The preceding paragraph is a de facto summarization of Occupied Territory’s third chapter, which not coincidentally is titled “Whose Police?” and which proceeds from the question, “Whose police department is this?” Let me offer a brief concluding excerpt from that chapter:
The answer to the question Whose police department is this?, in other words, became more fully realized over the course of the postwar era. It was, first and very much foremost, for white Chicago, and for its middle and upper classes especially. Increasingly, police policies and attitudes benefited white Chicagoans as both individuals and communities but did not benefit black Chicagoans as either. [White] women and men … who wanted the police to help maintain Chicago’s segregated housing didn’t get exactly what they wanted, but neither did Chicago experience meaningful widespread shifts toward open housing. White residents in racially transitioning neighborhoods would be able to bend the ears of city and police officials when they requested more, and more aggressive, police as their neighborhoods got blacker. When their neighborhoods reached a racial tipping point, however, they left anyway. Black Chicagoans ultimately would have the most to lose or gain by transforming the ways that the police operated in their neighborhoods and across the city, and yet it was their claims that police officials and individual officers alike were least receptive to hearing.
So degraded were black rights vis-à-vis the CPD that, by the spring of 1958, one of the city’s black newspapers would conjure the ghosts of Dred Scott and Roger Taney and the language of anticitizenship to describe them: “In the eyes of the police,” its editors wrote, “no Negro has any rights that a policeman is bound to respect.” That invocation, as much as anything else in this book, warrants a reckoning.
Without question, the police to this day still serve as protectors of white privilege and white property, and if they were to listen to anyone, it would likely be white constituencies (or racist white presidents). But I also think that, as is often the case with social crises, Black communities were the coal miner’s canary in terms of the police being willfully deaf to criticism. I liken Newport’s comparison of the CPD to “a sort of wall that a car might crash into,” but we might also think of it and other departments as runaway trains. Who controls and constrains them in this day and age? Certainly not you or I or any sort of democratic process. Certainly not officials that we do elect. (Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been in what the Chicago Sun-Times recently called a “cold war” with the city’s Fraternal Order of Police since essentially day one of her mayoral term, and the FOP has been fighting for the defeat of reformist Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for years. While the police unions are instinctively hostile to essentially all Democratic politicians, it should be lost on no one that both Lightfoot and Foxx are Black women.) Even federal consent decrees with departments do little to change the fundamental ungovernability (to borrow Newport’s language) of the police. Indeed, as Felker-Kantor has argued in his own super book Policing Los Angeles, the police have essentially established themselves as their own independent political unit that mobilizes (usually successfully) for its own benefits, regardless of what that means for the public. That an institution with such power over our lives — including lethal power — is, at the end of the day, accountable largely to no one but itself, should trouble all of us.
I hope that reading my book provokes people to do some radical and foundational rethinking about the police, akin to the way that writing it provoked me to. It’s not a happy story (although there are inspiring moments and movements of resistance throughout), but I think it’s an important one.
I also hope that it can serve as a building block for other researchers. In their responses, both Fischer and Berger point to important absences in my work that would benefit from further elaboration. I am explicit in my book’s introduction that this is a book that lacks gender analysis and that focuses almost entirely on Black experiences, at the expense of other communities who are racially othered or marginalized by other systems of oppression such as homophobia, transphobia, or disability. I am especially glad to have Fischer weigh in with her gender analysis, and I encourage readers to seek out her 2019 Journal of American History article for more, and for others researching policing to more robustly center gender alongside race. Berger’s nod to the crucial interracial organizing that went on in Chicago as elsewhere to combat police violence is also an important point, and is another avenue that researchers might pursue. The politics of solidarity were central elements of the crusade against police violence in the 1960s, and while they merit study in and of themselves, they also offer us lessons for our own time and struggles.
I want to thank Berger, Fischer, Newport, and Felker-Kantor for their close and generous readings of my book. I’m grateful to have them in my intellectual orbit, now and always. I also want to thank them and everyone at AAIHS and the Journal of Civil and Human Rights for the labor they devoted to this forum.
- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003). ↩
- Patrick A. Langan, “Race of Prisoners Admitted to State and Federal Institutions, 1926-86,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 1991, NCJ-125618. ↩