Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the planned discussion, Stop Killer Cops: Police Brutality, Mass Incarceration, and the Liberal Establishment, scheduled for tomorrow, September 5, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.
LaShawn Harris is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University and Assistant Editor and Book Review Editor for the Journal of African American History. She received her PhD from Howard University in 2007. She is the author of the prize-winning Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy (University of Illinois Press, 2016). Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners won the Darlene Clark Hine Book Prize (Best Book in African American Women’s and Gender History) from the Organization of American Historians as well as the Philip Taft Book Award (Best Book in American Labor & Working-Class History) from The Labor and Working-Class History Association.
Max Felker-Kantor teaches courses in twentieth-century American and African American history with a focus on race, politics, and social movements. His articles and book chapters have been published in the Journal of Urban History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, Boom California, Black and Brown Los Angeles: A Contemporary Reader, the Pacific Historical Review, and the Casden Annual Review. Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (2018), Felker-Kantor’s first book, is available from the University of North Carolina Press.
CBFS: Given your published work on racism in policing, the criminalization of certain kinds of work, and the resistance in opposition to these policies and practices, can you tell us about what you’ve written and how you came to study this?
LH: My monograph, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy centers African American women’s labor and income-generating activities and pleasure politics, as well as their diverse experiences with urban policing, criminalization, and confinement. The second book project is interested in similar geographic spaces, historical actors, and themes, particularly the policing of Black women in New York during the 1980s — a period widely remembered for urban decay, economic instability, political conservatism, crime, racial violence, and new cultural music and art forms. I became interested in the topic as I began writing an article about urban violence and the highly publicized 1984 police killing of Bronx, New York resident and grandmother Eleanor Bumpurs.
Additionally, my curiosity and interest in 1980s Black life and culture is personal: I came of age in New York City during the 1980s, and I lived across the street from Eleanor Bumpurs. Her killing was my entry point into the less familiar socioeconomic and private lives of late-twentieth-century working, poor, urban Black women and the varying socioeconomic and political structures and institutions — those deeply rooted in race, gender, and class oppression — that worked to deny them citizenship rights, protection, and dignity. Moreover, the Bumpurs case became a way for me to study and document my community’s history and how that community actively contested police violence and systematic oppression against all New Yorkers. Published in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, the article titled “Beyond the Shooting: Eleanor Gray Bumpurs, Identity Erasure, and Family Activism Against Police Violence” recovers the life of Bumpurs from historical obscurity. It attaches a personal narrative to one of New York City’s most recognized yet understudied police brutality cases of the 1980s. Moreover, the article explores New Yorkers’ longstanding political activism and campaigns against the tragic killings of Eleanor Bumpurs and other racially and ethnically diverse urban citizens.
MFK: I came to study policing and anti-police-abuse movements at a historical moment when mass incarceration and police violence were gaining wide public and scholarly interest. I had been exploring multi-racial social movements in Los Angeles when this attention to the carceral state pushed me to ask new questions and see how much effort activists devoted to the problem of police abuse. At the same time, I was influenced by a number of historians writing about the significance of mass incarceration in American history and wondered how policing fit into the story of the carceral state. Finally, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD is a product of the archive. When I began the research, I was lucky to have access to the Coalition against Police Abuse (CAPA) archives at the Southern California Library, a community library and archive in South Los Angeles. These records provided me with a foundation to think through questions of police power and resistance from the 1965 Watts uprising to the 1992 rebellion.
Policing Los Angeles argues that police power was not incidental or supplemental, but constitutive of postwar city politics. It demonstrates how the growth of police departments and the expansion of police prerogatives were the products of a convergence of interests. Conservative and liberal officials were proactive in promoting and asserting solutions to urban social problems that rested on the coercive power of the state. Even as the LAPD’s authority became more expansive, however, Policing Los Angeles centers the experience of Black and Latinx residents and activists who challenged the city’s reliance on policing and crime control. By providing alternatives to punitive policies and demanding accountability and civilian oversight of the LAPD, Policing Los Angeles shows how activists shaped conceptions of justice, power, and politics in this period.
CBFS: Given the rich cast of characters you explore in your research, can you share a story of a struggle or a figure from these struggles that our readers might not be familiar with?
LH: My research on police brutality in 1980s New York City reveals new histories about New Yorkers’ powerful grassroots and legal justice movements and campaigns for decent housing and employment opportunities, sexual and reproductive autonomy, and equal protection. Moreover, studying New York Black women and police violence has uncovered unfamiliar stories of physical, verbal, and sexual assault, dehumanization, and denial of human and civil rights. Lesser known cases of police misconduct and killings, such as the 1984 shooting death of thirty-three-year-old mother Sharon Walker, received little media and local attention, failed to galvanize political mobilization or official statements from city and state lawmakers, and raised questions about the ingredients needed for a case to garner public outrage, media coverage, and direct-action protest. New Yorkers barely noticed Sharon Walker’s killing. The case’s limited media coverage failed to mobilize local political and community leaders. It occurred just one month after the controversial apartment eviction and killing of sixty-six-year-old Bumpurs, a brutal and highly publicized police shooting. The Bumpurs tragedy overshadowed Walker’s murder.
Around 1:40 a.m. on Sunday, December 9, the mother of three got into a minor car accident with fifty-six-year-old African American and off-duty NYPD sergeant Rudolph Hays at the intersection of 106th avenue and 177th street in Jamaica, Queens. A drunk Hays approached Walker’s 1978 Grenada. He violently pulled her out of the car and struck her several times in the face. A friend and witness to the confrontation came to Walker’s aid, allowing her to escape from Hays. An irate Hays pulled a short-barreled .38 handgun from an ankle holster and fired several shots at Walker. A single bullet hit Walker in her back. The woman “who loved everybody” later died at Mary Immaculate Hospital. The thirty-three-year police veteran was suspended without pay from the NYPD and arrested and indicted on murder, attempted murder, and second-degree manslaughter charges. In June 1985, a Queens Supreme Court jury acquitted Hays of murder charges but found him guilty of the second-degree manslaughter charge. The former NYPD officer served a two-year prison sentence at Auburn Correctional Facility.
MFK: One of the most important organizations in my book is the Coalition against Police Abuse (CAPA). A multi-racial group of activists who had been organizing defense and justice committees for victims of police killings came together to form CAPA in the spring of 1976. In order to address police killings and power abuses, CAPA believed community control of the police was necessary. CAPA worked to organize communities of color to protest racist policing and to make the LAPD more accountable to the city’s residents. Activists educated community members about their rights, organized protests and marches in response to police killings, and pushed local politicians to make the LAPD more accountable by campaigning for a civilian review board.
Although they faced many obstacles in the form of law enforcement and local politicians who opposed CAPA’s vision of community control of the police, the organization had many achievements. Through years of organizing and protest, CAPA activists successfully pushed the LAPD to change its use-of-force guidelines, contributed to lawsuits that dismantled the department’s intelligence division, challenged the racist use of the choke hold, and protested the LAPD’s use of military-style weapons during the drug war. In doing so, CAPA ultimately created the context for reforms that came after the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1992 rebellion. Without the work of activists struggling against racist police power, those changes that did come after the 1992 rebellion, including a federal consent decree in 2000, would not have been possible.
CBFS: Considering the continuing fight against police brutality and for Black freedom today, how does this history help us understand or even act in our current moment?
LH: Understanding past political movements against state violence can be instructive for contemporary activists, educators, students, and ordinary citizens. The histories and legacies of earlier anti-police-brutality campaigns teach the public about the nation’s long, pervasive, and often forgotten history of police violence, as well as political and social activists’ longstanding activism against that violence. Twentieth-century activists and organizations including family members of police-shooting victims and survivors, Black United Front activists, and others developed political models and platforms for future organizers to build from, emphasizing the need for community engagement and coalition building. They understood that coalition building was potentially effective in radically transforming socioeconomic and political landscapes and contesting coercive policing practices, legal injustices, and questionable police procedures.
MFK: The story I tell in Policing Los Angeles is important for the continuing fight against police brutality and for Black freedom because it shows that racist policing not only has a long history but, crucially, that activists have been committed to resisting police power for decades. The current movements for police accountability represent the most recent iteration of this long history. Prior anti-police-abuse movements, CAPA in particular, can help us understand the importance of coalition-building and that anti-police-abuse organizing can be successful in the face of serious obstacles and challenges from the police and policymakers.
The people and movements I follow in Policing Los Angeles help us to see the ways that the police have operated to uphold a racist and inequitable social order. Without fundamentally rethinking the police power, this history shows, the police will continue to operate in ways that reinforce racial hierarchies and expand their authority to maintain order. But, as the history in Policing Los Angeles shows, it does not have to be this way. There are alternative models of what policing can look like and that police power has not only been contested for generations but remains contestable in our present.