The Ungovernable Carceral State

*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

Chicago mounted police, (John Vachon, Library of Congress)


Simon Balto’s Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power is a book about what it felt like for Black Chicagoans to encounter an evolving policing apparatus. I’ll start with the beginning of chapter 1: “Horace Jennings lay in the street as Chicago convulsed … blood leaked from Jennings’ body, and pooled under his skin … pain settled into his muscles and bones … he was alive, although with his nerves doubtlessly racked as his body, a tide wave of racist violence had just cascaded over him, leveled by the hands and feet of a mob of racist white men. An officer with the CPD looked over him” (26).

This image recurs in different ways throughout Balto’s book, both in accounts of police violence as individuals were beaten and murdered by Chicago policemen, and is reinforced through the images, which for the most part, depict individual Black men either at rest or under watch by groups of primarily white policemen. As the passage suggests, this is a vivid book. Balto has packed this book with imagery that links Chicago’s rich cultural heritage, its breathtaking beauty, and vast possibility to the ongoing betrayal of racist policing. Balto brings us back, across seven rich chapters, to what it meant to experience and live in a climate shaped by police violence.

The image of the man in the street informs Balto’s framing, which takes us from the rise of white policemen among immigrants in late-19th-century Chicago, to the Great Migration, to criminalization that followed the 1919 riot wrought through policing campaigns against vice, alcohol, and the poor, and eventually dope, protest, and criticism. Balto reminds us again and again that this is not a history of individual policemen nor is it an institutional history of the Chicago police department. Instead, Balto’s primary concern is how the politics and tactics of policing, and the city writ large, became oriented and organized toward concerted oppression of Black people and Black spaces. This is a history of what it means to be politically and physically vulnerable in a climate of state terror.

In drawing readers to the feeling of laying on the cold street, Balto reminds us that Black agency was both constrained and structurally and politically limited. Resistance in its many forms was often futile or bounded. We meet a 1930s conservative NAACP that wanted reform but also protection from neighborhood vice, an organization mobilized through feelings that communists might beat them in support for Racial Justice. We meet well-meaning white racial moderates and reformers like 1950s and ’60s police chief Orlando Wilson, who could not escape his own racial logics nor a police force committed to being ungovernable and violent. And we meet countless Black Chicagoans — in print, in politics, and in action in the street — living their lives and pushing back in everyday encounters with the police.

This image of the body in the street tells us something of Balto’s intervention in the scholarship on the carceral state. First, he shows us that young people like Laquan McDonald, killed by sixteen shots at the hands of the CPD just a few years ago, have much in common with Black men a hundred years before. That there is a deeper origin story to the system of racial violence oft described as “the new Jim Crow” is a key contribution; Balto draws a continuous line of Jim Crow Policing that extends unbroken to our own moment and still-living institutions like the CPD.

In bringing us to street-level interactions shaped by local politics and political economies, Balto challenges us to reconsider the notion of the carceral state. Recent scholarship on the carceral state, and particularly its postwar manifestation, portrays a coordinated institutional behemoth operating across agencies, legal jurisdictions, and national boundaries. As Elizabeth Hinton has shown, the merging of the welfare and carceral states was both deeply deliberate and highly calculated in its racist intent — a policy feat that made mass incarceration possible on an unimaginable scale. Similarly, Stuart Schrader’s new book shows that global police militarization was achieved through the incorporation of the national security state and the carceral state. In its broad scale, this exciting literature has reconfigured our narratives of American political history, but it can also leave us with a sense of how supremely unknowable the scale and workings of such an apparatus can be to people on the ground.

Other histories of policing have addressed the ways that state power has been made legible both through the labor history of police, as in Sam Mitriani’s work, and in the rise of police as political actors, as depicted by Max Felker-Kantor. Balto offers a novel approach to policing history in characterizing police less as individual agents than as a “racially repressive policing system in an American city” in which “the component parts … are less discreetly important” (10-11). The effect is not necessarily a history of policing policy, or the Chicago Police Department as an institution, but the collateral effects of policing practices and how they changed over time. It’s a fascinating approach. For example, in chapter 2, about “civic disorder” during the Great Depression, Balto conveys how policing as a system was implicated as “Chicago criminalized human misery” amid the consolidation of urban power through machine politics (69). What Balto finds in this chapter is reinforced throughout the book: the politicization of the police, the activities of the police, and ultimately, resistance to the police, did serve to undermine police legitimacy. But in this theorization of state power, legitimacy doesn’t really matter. The police continued to exist and to act with impunity in new ways. Balto’s portrayal of the Chicago police is less as an institution and more as a sort of wall that a car might crash into.

What options do people have in such an encounter? The notion that the carceral state is governable falls apart in Balto’s depiction — as does the notion that the intent of policymakers is necessarily worthy of our scholarly energies in the face of such staggering consequences. Indeed, partisanship is less central here than in so many studies. In the one-party system of Chicago, Balto highlights that aspirations to accountability were dramatically constrained. Occupied Territory shows us that the phenomenon that is sometimes described as a carceral state is impossible to disentangle from legacies of racial hatred and the failures of democracy at the local level.

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Melanie Newport

Melanie Newport is an Assistant Professor of US History at the University of Connecticut-Hartford and is affiliated faculty in American Studies and Urban and Community Studies. Melanie’s research focuses on the policies and institutions of urban criminal justice systems in the United States since the 1950s. She is currently working on a book that is tentatively titled Community of the Condemned: Chicago and the Transformation of American Jails, under contract with University of Pennsylvania Press. Looking to America’s largest jail, she explores how contests over reform, human rights, and race shaped everyday experiences of state violence among marginalized people in American cities. Follow her on Twitter @MelanieNewport.