Violence, Empathy, and Solidarity, in the New History of Policing

*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.

George Jackson, Courtesy of Democracy Now!

At the outset of what became a book on the significance of prisoners to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, I was initially drawn to the 1970s — the period in which George Jackson and the Attica Brothers, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur first made their mark. In trying to understand the conditions that led so many powerful figures to come to the fore in the context of a rising wave of rebellion, I kept looking further back. The more I extended the historical scope, the more enduring I found prison rebellion to be. The uprisings of the 1970s, which began in the 1960s, seemed connected to what did and did not change in response to the uncoordinated strike wave of the 1950s. Those strikes responded to the campaigns against repression and the modernization of American prisons in the early 20th century — both of which flowed out of protest that stretched back to the 19th century, and, as Kelly Lytle Hernandez traces in her study of incarceration as a form of settler colonialism, likely even earlier.

Ultimately, I confronted the self-doubt that so often accompanies historical inquiry: the concept is too big and unending to be able to capture. What got me through the impasse was realizing that the innate violence of prison always generates opposition, and that the contours of prison organizing in the civil rights era differed in its context if not totally in its content. In other words, what made prisons in the 1960s and 1970s remarkable was not that they generated such opposition but that the rebellions expressed a shared worldview and, harnessed to the era’s widespread social movements, reached a broader audience.

In chronicling the sordid history of the Chicago Police Department, Simon Balto limns a similarly difficult history with admirable grace. As an agency, the police department has always been characterized by violent suppression of racialized working-class communities in protection of capital. As quoted in Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, former CPD superintendent Leroy Martin defined the terms with refreshing honesty: “What police work, does all over the country, is to try to protect the city’s economic interests” (10). This understanding makes clear the disparities of policing, why it is that police departments concentrate their efforts in working-class communities of color: the neighborhoods most left out of, and the neighbors most likely to be antagonistic toward, the economic interests of the capitalist city. Balto expertly identifies what such skewed priorities meant for Black Chicago from Great Migration to the Black Power era, with a keen eye for how the injustices entrenched in those generations resonate in our own.

The periodization of Occupied Territory is one of many things to appreciate about this stellar history. While much of the existing histories of the carceral state have, like me, focused on prisons in the second half of the 20th century, Balto’s book is one of several strong recent studies that shift our focus to both an earlier time period (the 1920s-1950s) and a different institution (the police). This reorientation is clarifying. Much historical scholarship on mass incarceration has documented how federally driven policies like the wars on crime and drugs have filtered down to the state and, eventually, local level. But most policing is primarily local, and metropolitan police departments are not waiting idly for federal handouts. They are aggressively shaping policy — dramatically on city streets but no less impactfully in the chambers of city hall, the statehouse, and Congress. Occupied Territory joins other local police histories (e.g., Max Felker-Kantor’s Policing Los Angeles; Christopher Agee’s The Streets of San Francisco, Carl Suddler’s Presumed Criminal) in documenting how aggressive policing became the norm in the decades before the federal government launched its consequential domestic wars. “Completely independently of these wars, the local-level policing apparatus became thoroughly racialized, profoundly discriminatory, and deeply punitive.” Balto writes. “No larger policies were required to make this happen” (4-5).

Subsequent efforts, themselves byproducts of police action, may have given police more weaponry or newer technology. But the phenomenon Balto dubs as the “overpolicing and underprotection” of Black communities was already entrenched. To “protect the city’s economic interests,” CPD has served as the frontline enforcer of inequality: maintaining order by preserving segregation, particularly in housing and employment. Egregious police tactics like stop-and-seize, which became stop-and-frisk, as well as the surveillance and harassment of antiracist activists, were born out of police attempts to uphold the Jim Crow status quo. Rather than reign them in, the professionalization of police routinized these tactics — into the current day. Indeed, he shows that CPD experienced a “sharp increase in the CPD’s personnel and budget coincided with the launch of the War on Crime” rather than “because of it” (165).

Seen from city streets, Occupied Territory and other works in the new history of policing provide a bottom-up approach to a top-down institution. As with incarceration, arrests bear no necessary connection to crime. The problem is one of repression. Chicago experienced declining crime as Chicago police enacted “tougher policies and … expanded power” in the 1950s and 1960s, much as the country’s incarceration rates climbed in the 1980s and 1990s despite dropping crime (166). Yet even with crime down, the city became less safe as new mechanisms of policing terrorized already marginalized communities. Balto convincingly shows Chicago’s significance as a laboratory of policing techniques from the anticommunist Red Squads of the early 20th century to the brutal “Gang Investigation Unit” that replaced it. These elite and opaque units conducted widespread illegal surveillance; even worse, they “often intentionally exacerbated conflict between the gangs” and “destabilized young people’s lives through frequent stop-and-frisks and arrests,” which exacerbated the very hostility to police that CPD exploited to argue for greater authority over its hostile subjects (179).

As I have argued about prisons, Balto writes that opposition to police violence united Civil Rights and Black Power activists who did not often collaborate. While leftists of the 1930s focused on political and economic elites in ways that narrowed their opposition to police brutality, activists a generation later targeted the carceral state itself. “Black Power and civil rights were certainly different movements with different goals,” he writes, “but one of the most important political landscapes on which they found and forged common ground was in challenging and reimagining police power and what it would look like in black Chicago” (227).

Indeed, the problem of police violence yielded more than coalitions of Black activists across ideology; it also sparked multiracial alliances. I wish Balto drew our attention here too. As the subtitle attests, Occupied Territory is a history of Black Chicago’s encounters with the police. Balto describes the object of Chicago police evolving from ethnicity to race. The evidence is overwhelming that CPD sought to manage the city’s growing Black population throughout the twentieth century. Yet Black migrants were not the only racialized people coming to the Windy City — or facing chronic police abuse. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans began to make the city their home in record numbers, largely around the same time and experiencing similar violence from the police, eager to segregate these new denizens. CPD brutality set off two rebellions in the summer of 1966 — while the one in the predominantly Black West Side began when police tried to stop Black youth from playing in a fire hydrant to escape the summer heat, the one in Humboldt Park began after police shot a Puerto Rican teenager in a heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood, days after the city superficially celebrated its first “Puerto Rican week.” The Division Street Riots, as they became known, proved foundational in the politicization of Chicago’s Puerto Rican communities. In the coming years, groups like the Young Lords and the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional would follow, often modeling themselves after Black militants. Greater attention to Latinx Chicago would not only confirm Balto’s key findings, but extend its impact through a focus on comparative and relational forms of racialization.

Through quick turns of phrase — e.g., “Whether black communists in the 1930s or the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s or Black Lives Matter activists in the 2010s …” (79) — Occupied Territory consciously speaks to and through the present. Never distracting, these references deftly ground readers in both the historical foundations of contemporary struggles and the current resonance of past events. What’s more, 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. Both of these should be standard for scholars writing about the carceral state and other life-and-death matters. These histories have consequences that still structure how we live, work, and think. We must attend to them fully and clearly if we hope to see something else.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

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